Acushla machree, pulse of my heart

Browsing Daniel O’Keeffe’s First Book of Irish Ballads yesterday (Mercier Press, 1955), I came upon this verse in ‘Song from the Backwoods’ by T. D. Sullivan:

And well we know in the cool grey eyes,
When the hard day’s work is o’er,
How soft and sweet are the words that greet
The friends who meet once more;
With ‘Mary machree!’ and ‘My Pat! ’tis he!’
And ‘My own heart night and day!’
Ah, fond old Ireland! dear old Ireland!
Ireland, boys, hurra!

One word might give general/non-Irish readers pause. Machree /mə’kriː/, /mə’xriː/ is an anglicisation of mo chroí, Irish for “my heart”, also spelt mochree and other ways (Scottish Gaelic has mo chridhe). Sometimes vocative a replaces mo: achree or a-chree, from Irish a chroí.

These phrases are used similarly to Hiberno-English asthore and m’asthore (Irish a stór and mo stór “my treasure”, i.e., my dear/darling), and occasionally they appear together, as in Gerald Griffin’s 1829 novel The Collegians:

Oh, ma chree, m’asthora… What ails you? [“Oh, my heart, my treasure”]

Or they collocate with a related term of endearment, cushla, shown here in Miles Franklin’s Up Country (1928) and Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters (1866), respectively:

And sure, Cushla-ma-chree, if you can’t stand me I’ll up and go away.

Thanks to you, little Molly – cuishla ma chree, pulse of my heart.

This cushla/cuishla/acushla is from Irish cuisle /’kʊʃlə/ “pulse”, again sometimes with the vocative particle. So cushla ma chree = cuisle mo chroí “pulse/beat of my heart”. Cuisle can also mean veincuisle na héigse is the fount of poetry, while cuisleoireacht means bloodletting; the implications of this connection hardly need emphasising.

Mother Machree silent film poster - john ford 1928Irish authors writing in English have long exploited these words. The OED cites a Frank O’Connor collection I haven’t read, Bones of Contention: “Cross me, acushla, and I’ll shift my tent”, and an early Yeats poem, ‘A Dawn-Song‘: “Wake, ma cushla, sleepy-headed”. Joyce, in Ulysses, has Simon Dedalus address Ben Dollard as “Ben machree”, while Monk Mulligan elsewhere “keened a wailing rune”:

Pogue mahone! Acushla machree! It’s destroyed we are from this day! It’s destroyed we are surely!

Finnegans Wake, meanwhile, confers on the word a customary twist that (for me) connotes the legendary Irish warrior Finn Mac Cool:

I wisht I had better glances to peer to you through this bay-light’s growing. But you’re changing, acoolsha, you’re changing from me, I can feel. Or is it me is? I’m getting mixed.

Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds, meanwhile, has “hats off and a gra-ma-cree to the Jumping Irishman”, that phrase in the middle an anglicisation of grá mo chroí “love of my heart”.

All of these words are especially popular in old poems and traditional songs of Ireland, as a search on Google Books shows, while machree also recalls John Ford’s silent film of 1928, Mother Machree, named after a song. I’d love to know if you use them or hear them yourself.


Here’s a nice passage from Éamon Kelly‘s autobiography The Apprentice:

My mother was in bed. I lit the butt of a candle, put it in the sconce, and went into the bedroom. I put the candle on the chimney-piece and, seeing me, she sat up in bed and looked at me for a while. I expected to get a telling off. But no. Suddenly her face softened and she smiled. ‘A chuisle mo chroí!‘ (my heart’s pulse) she said. ‘A leanbh bán!‘ (my dear child). Irish often came to her lips like now when she wanted to express her love.

[archive of posts on Hiberno-English]

19 Responses to Acushla machree, pulse of my heart

  1. Síle Nic Chonaonaigh says:

    I lived in New Zealand for a couple of years and met at least three women there called ‘Cushla’. None of them knew the meaning or origin of the word. I wonder if it derives from the Scots Gaelic rather than Gaeilge in this instance?
    I love it as a term of endearment, though you very rarely hear it now.

  2. This post makes me think of the song “Celtic Aggression” by Tonic. It has some (presumably) Irish lyrics that have always bothered me, because I’ve never been to get a definitive translation. The CD booklet has this:

    Bhi machree
    Ohin trasna na farraige

    I can figure now that the first line is “my heart was”, but I still don’t know what “ohin” means. Any thoughts, Stan?

  3. Stan says:

    Síle: Oh, I didn’t know it was a name, but it doesn’t surprise me. It could have derived from either Gaelic tongue, I guess. I bet those women were glad to meet you and find out what their name really meant!

    Jonathon: I just listened to the song and read the lyrics, not having heard it before. Those lines are Irish, or Americanised Irish, but I’m unsure about “Ohin”. Bhí mo chroí is “My heart was”, as you’ve deduced, and trasna na farraige is “across the sea”. But ohin is obscure. It could be ó shin, pronounced “o hin” but meaning “ago” or “since”, which doesn’t quite fit there. Another possibility is uaim /wem/, which means “from me”; this might fit a little better, but the sound isn’t as close.

    (For a moment I wondered if it could be a variant of ochón /əx’oːn/, an exclamatory lament, but that wouldn’t normally appear there and it would likely be delivered very differently; also, the second vowel sound doesn’t remotely match.)

    If there are fluent Irish speakers reading this, I’d welcome your ideas.

    • silelooksup says:

      The only possible translation I can think of for “ohin” is, as you say, ó shin. If this is so it’s a grammatically incorrect phrase, but could be translated to English as “My heart has, since then, been across the sea”. It’s highly unlikely that any fluent speaker/write would even say “Bhí mo chroí trasna na farraige”. It feels like a bad translation from English.

    • Someone on a lyrics site suggested it was “Owen Machree came across the sea”, but that doesn’t seem right to me. Thanks, Stan. I wouldn’t be surprised if, as silelooksup suggests, it’s a bad translation from English.

  4. Came across a girl called Macushla once. From S.Africa.

  5. wisewebwoman says:

    Oh Stan:
    Did you know about this one – Macushla – my father would sing it back in the day. Beautiful recording by John McCormack – 1911 (!!)

  6. Originally posted by me on usenet many moons ago:

    For those who are interested, the full Dinneen definition is as follows: “A vein; a pulse; an artery; an organ pipe; a flute; the blood; arm; wrist; part of a horse’s (or other quadruped’s) foreleg above the knee; diarrhoea; a term of endearment; an ear (i.e. of corn); a stalk.”

    While Patrick Dinneen’s dictionary is a treasure, it must be said that being a respectable priest, he omitted to mention one other blood-filled tube known as A Chuisle

  7. mollymooly says:

    “mo cuishle” is on Hilary Swank’s boxing robe in “Million Dollar Baby”, in which Clint Eastwood reads “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” in the original Gaelic, with a perfect accent. /irony

  8. Stan says:

    WWW: What a beautiful recording. Thank you.

    Gerard: That’s a great list – I should have thought to check Dinneen. The word is even more impressively polysemous than I thought.

    mollymooly: Thanks for letting me know. I haven’t seen the film, but I might.

  9. […] and 10. Acushla machree, another poetic term of endearment, is anglicised from the Irish a cuisle mo chroí “pulse […]

  10. […] she wouldn’t stand for to be chuffed up by any oul shleeveen. ‘Go way with yer plamas and yer grah-mo-crees,’ she tell them […]

  11. So cool. I am presently learning Irish on my own because my family is American Irish on both sides about a couple of generations back. Interesting history.

  12. “‘Acushla,’ he said, drawing her close, ‘this is regal splendour – this is imperial magnificence. The Physician of the Fleet has nothing finer. I am so grateful, my dear.’ And grateful, infinitely touched he was: while Diana put the gleaming object through its paces, explaining how it worked and telling him how she had stood over the workmen, bullying them into finishing it in time – oaths, sweet persuasion, promises until she was hoarse, as hoarse as a God-damned crow, Stephen chéri – he reflected on her generosity, her improvidence (rich though she was, she never had any money to spend, and this was far more than even she could afford), and on her ignorance of naval life, of the damp, cramped cupboard that a surgeon lived in at sea, even the surgeon of a seventy-four, a ship of the line: this precious piece of misguided craftmanship might do very well for a field-officer, a soldier with a baggage-wagon and a dozen orderlies, but for a sailor it would have to be wrapped in waxed canvas and struck down into the driest part of the hold. Or perhaps it might be allowed in the breadroom . . . ”

    – The Ionian Mission
    By Patrick O’Brian

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