Bulling “ar buile” in Irish English

In Ireland, to be bulling means to be angry – typically in a visible and maybe voluble way, and sometimes with comical connotations.1 I used to hear it now and then in my childhood and teens, but haven’t come across it much in recent years. Maybe raging has eaten into its niche.

So I enjoyed this reminder in Declan Hughes’s crime novel All the Dead Voices (which featured in this old book spine poem):

‘And he was like, we need a new way to operate, we can’t keep taking our rivals out, we can’t keep doing things the old way. The Lamp Comerford way. Charlie said Lamp was bulling when he heard this, he felt he was being sidelined.’

You might assume the word comes from the noun bull and the animal’s reputation for bad-tempered stampedes. This may have reinforced the usage, but I think its origin is the Irish word buile ‘madness, frenzy’. To be ar buile /ər ’bwɪlʲə/ (roughly ‘er bwill-ih’) is to be in a rage or fury, a deargbuile /’dʒærəg,bwɪlʲə/ is literally a red rage (cf. red mist), and a fear buile /’fʲær ’bwɪlʲə/ is a madman.2

In Hiberno-English the expression bulling to do something is similar to the English mad to do something, i.e., very eager. If someone is bulling to go to the match, it implies an overwhelming desire to go to the match, without necessarily any anger or desperation.

My Irish-English dictionary has ar buile chun rud a dhéanamh, translated as ‘crazy to do something’, but I didn’t know this idiom and found the gloss ambiguous: does it mean extremely eager (= ‘mad keen’) or something more unhinged? Enquiries on Twitter were inconclusive, though @ExposieRosie said it suggests frantic rather than keen.

Another open question is how old bullingangry is. Jonathon Green’s Chambers Slang Dictionary dates the sense to the 2000s, but I know it was used in the 1980s and 1990s, and my father says he remembers it from his (1950s) childhood. It may well be much older than that.


John Cowan, in a comment, has reminded me of the traditional Irish song An Poc ar Buile (‘The Mad Puck Goat’). Some background here, and a performance from the Chieftains and friends below:

[archive of Hiberno-English posts]


1 I know bulling has other meanings, but I’m ignoring most of them here.

2 Phonetic renderings are approximate, and suggestions are welcome.

22 Responses to Bulling “ar buile” in Irish English

  1. languagehat says:

    roughly “er bwill-[y]uh”

    I don’t like that rendering because it seems to me bound to produce something that sounds like buille rather than buile. When I was studying Modern Irish (Connemara version), I had to make myself learn to render the palatalization of single/short consonants with the placement of the tongue and the quality of the following vowel, and reserve the -y- glide for palatalized double/long consonants.

  2. Stan says:

    Hat: That’s fair enough. Would you drop the “[y]” and leave the rest, or have you something else in mind? I’m not a fan of these approximations generally, but many readers are at sea with IPA.

  3. Claire Stokes says:

    Fascinating, thanks much!

  4. I would still say (and often hear people saying) “bulling for…” – e.g. Bulling for a pint; bulling for a fight; bulling for a smoke; bulling for [a thing]. I wonder if it’s a Kildare thing?

  5. languagehat says:

    Would you drop the “[y]” and leave the rest, or have you something else in mind?

    What, you want me to be constructive and not just captious? I guess I’d go with “bwill-ih,” which is what it sounds like to me, but as I say that’s my secondhand Connemara. Of course, sometimes there is no ideal solution, and your version is pretty good — I was just pointing out a way in which it might be a tad misleading.

  6. Stan says:

    Claire: You’re very welcome.

    Brendan: Oh yes, I hear that sometimes too, and forgot to include it. It’s related to the “bulling to do something” construction, but takes a noun phrase as opposed to a verb.

    Hat: I know, I’m very demanding today. “Bwill-ih” seems to me a better representation, and I’ll edit accordingly (pending further improvements).

  7. John Cowan says:

    There’s a Clancy Brothers song, one of their few in Irish, called An poc ar buile, generally translated “Goat on a Rampage”.

  8. John Cowan says:


    Ar mo ghabháil dom siar chum Droichead Ui Mhórdha
    Pice im dhóid is mé dui i meitheal
    Cé chasfai orm i gcumar ceoidh
    Ach pocán crón is é ar buile!


    Ail-li-liú, puil-li-liú
    Ail-li-liú, tá an poc ar buile.
    Ail-li-liú, puil-li-liú
    Ail-li-liú, puil-li-liú, tá an poc ar buile!

    Do ritheamar trasna tri ruilleogach
    Is du ghluais an comhrac ar fud na muinge.
    Is treascairt da bhfuai sé sna turtóga
    Chuas ina ainneoin ar a dhroim le tuinneamh


    Nior fhag se carriag go raibh scót ann,
    Ná gur rith le fórsa chun mé a mhilleadh
    Is ea ansin do chaith se an leim ba mho
    Le fána mhór na Faille Brice


    The Gardai came from the town of Ballyroche
    For to catch that goat with sticks and switches
    The goat gave the Captain a kick up his arse,
    And his horn made rags of his band-new britches!


    InDangean Ui Chúis le haghaidh an tráthóna
    Bhi an sagart paróiste amach nár gcoinnibh
    Is é duirt gurbh é and diabhal ba dhóigh leis.
    An ghaibh an treo ar phocán buile!

  9. Stan says:

    John: Ah, I should have thought of that. As a child I loved the song, and still have a fondness for it. I think the title is more usually translated as “The Mad Puck Goat”. I’ve updated the post with a video.

  10. Eimear says:

    The gremlins just ate a long reply, but briefly, since responding on Twitter I have identified a couple of examples of the usage from Irish writers. It may be a more Munster idiom.

  11. Eimear says:

    That long comment;
    I had remarked in Twitter that the phrase is in Ó Dónaill’s dictionary (FGB) but now I see you found it in a dictionary in the first place! Anyway FGB is considered the most authoritative (at least until the current English-Irish project is fully completed) and is particularly good on examples and idioms. (A pity that the electronic version with its useful reverse-lookup has fewer of these.)
    The usage of the phrase by Liam Ó Rinn in “Mo Chara Stiofán” is quoted by Philip Ó Leary in “Gaelic Prose in the Irish Free State, 1922-1939” and O’Leary translates “ar buile chun dul i ngleic le” as “eager to come to grips with”. (To digress, “i ngleic” reminds me of my old Cavan friend, the indefinite quantity “a lock of X”, where the lock is of course “glac”, a fist(ful), seen above in different guise.)
    Ó Rinn, whose erudition is described in almost fulsome terms by O’Leary, is also the translator of the Soldier’s Song into its now more familiar form Amhrán na bhFiann.
    I see a few other uses from people with a good command of the language.

    • Thomas Millett says:

      I remember this phrase from my childhood in Dublin.
      I have always felt that this was derived from the English expression “like a bull at a gate” hence Bulling => acting like said bull.
      Caratom in SYdney.

      • Stan says:

        Thomas: Nice to see this post pop up again – someone I was talking to just a few days ago used bulling to convey rage. The association with an angry bull might have underlined the usage, but I think it came from the Irish phrase.

  12. Stan says:

    Eimear: Thanks for your thoughtful (and twice-typed – damn those gremlins) comment. It was in Ó Dónaill that I came across the phrase I asked about on Twitter (ar buile chun rud a dhéanamh), because I couldn’t say for sure whether the gloss “crazy to do sth” meant mad keen or just mad in one sense or another.

    The parallel with bulling was attractive but I didn’t want to assume it before running it by a few people more fluent in Irish. Foclóir.ie has several phrases with buile, as you say, but not the construction I was wondering about. So I’m glad, and grateful, to get confirmation from authoritative sources. It doesn’t seem to be a very popular idiom, but it’s there nonetheless.

  13. Older Irish: buile/boile/bhuile; ‘frenzy, madness, vision’ is well attested in manuscripts. Used in 13th century annals & a tenth century text.

    See also: ‘Buile Shuibhne’ (The Madness of Suibhne or Suibhne’s Frenzy) – http://www.ucc.ie/celt/published/T302018/index.html – a 17th cent copy of 14th-15th cent tale, with componants probably going back to 10th century. It formed the basis of an obscure Irish novel called ‘At Swim-Two-Birds’… ;)

  14. I could also mean, “pulling some ones legs.” Like you say, “Come on, you are bulling me.”

  15. Stan says:

    vox hiberionacum: Thanks very much for the notes, and the link; buile evidently has a rich literary history. I could be wrong, but I’d guess the “vision” sense of the word in older Irish has to do with mystical perception as opposed to the ordinary faculty of sight.

    Talkalittledo: Yes, that’s an old sense of the word that probably came from French. As I said in the footnote, the word has several meanings.

  16. wisewebwoman says:

    A long time ago in a land far away I knew the man who made a hit of the song “An poc ar buile”.

    But this link shows him at his very best.

    Thanks for the memories Stan.


  17. SeanS says:

    Re languagehat above and the double l (y sound)… buile = mad, furious, as in “ar buile”; “Buille” (noun) (y sound) = a beat, blow, impact. Two different words with two distinct meanings.

  18. languagehat says:

    Re languagehat above and the double l (y sound)… buile = mad, furious, as in “ar buile”; “Buille” (noun) (y sound) = a beat, blow, impact. Two different words with two distinct meanings.

    Yes, that was exactly my point. I wanted Stan to avoid the confusion.

  19. […] Bulling – to be bulling is to be visibly mad or raging, while to be bulling to do something is to be very […]

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