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 vein – cuisle na héigse is the fount of poetry, while cuisleoireacht means bloodletting; the implications of this connection hardly need emphasising.
Irish 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!
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.