The meaning and origin of ‘culchie’ in Ireland

Culchie is a word used in Irish English to mean someone from the Irish countryside (or a small town or village), especially from the point of view of a Dubliner. Though originally pejorative, culchie has been partly reclaimed and is now often used neutrally, warmly, or as a tribal badge by those who live or come from beyond the Pale (i.e., Dublin and its urban environs).

While the word’s meaning is clear enough, its origin is uncertain and much speculated upon, as we’ll see. First, I’ll look at its use in Irish culture and literature. Its phonetic similarity to culture, incidentally, informed the aptly named (and now defunct) pop culture website Culch.ie, where I used to write about cult films – the URL trades nicely on Ireland’s internet top-level domain .ie.

The equivalent of a culchie elsewhere might be a bumpkin, a peasant, or a yokel. In Ireland the synonyms are likewise derogatory: bogger (bogman, bogwoman), mucker, the gloriously suggestive muck savage. So too is the antonym jackeen, referring to a certain type of Dubliner.

Brewer’s Dictionary of Irish Phrase and Fable notes that while culchie was initially an insult indicating rusticity, it now tends to be used in jest or affection, a change owing to Ireland’s modernisation, specifically ‘the rise in the standard of living and in educational standards in Ireland from the 1960s onwards’.

View of a field, in which grass gives way to very mucky ground. In the bottom left, the sun shines on briars growing against a low stone wall. Behind it, a few yards into the field, three black-headed sheep face the camera. Beyond them, a half dozen cattle stand near a feeding pen. Behind them is a wall with trees and a pale blue sky above.

Mayo countryside: briars, stone walls, mossy verges, sheep, cattle, and muck are fond and familiar sights to any culchie worth their salt

The culchie stereotype still shows up in culchie jokes that exploit the rural/urban divide. It appeared more favourably in the celebrated Culchie Festival, whose (mainly farming-inspired) events included welly throwing, wool rolling, and a charity Honda 50 run. You can get a flavour – or a whiff – in archive clips from state broadcaster RTÉ.

Many Irish people grow up in rural parts and settle, at least for a time, in the city. And so, as Rob McNamara writes, ‘Some of us are a curious blend of the two, never knowing quite which we belong to and face mockery on both sides.’ Slagging (like BrE slagging off, but more playful) is a social lubricant in Ireland, and the culchie/townie divide offers a readymade basis for it.

You can test your culchie status with these quizzes from Valerie Loftus, a writer from Mayo: the significance of that place will soon become apparent. Ultimately, writes Mary Feely, ‘It’s not carried in the blood – a Dub can have culchie parents and vice-versa – but it is fixed at birth.’ As the saying goes, you can take a person out of the bog …

Irish Times headline: "Once a culchie, always a culchie...". Subheading: "No breaking in to the 'Dub' club". Article dated 17 September 2014, by Mary Feely. The accompanying (cropped) image is of Sarah Jessica Parker in Sex and the City.

Search for culchie on the Irish Times, Irish Examiner, TheJournal.ie, Twitter, or YouTube and you’ll get a further sense of its salience as a cultural marker in Ireland. Yet for all its reappropriation, culchie can still serve as a putdown. Tara Flynn’s book You’re Grand: The Irishwoman’s Secret Guide to Life zeroes in on the connotations:

A “culchie” is someone from the countryside, or small town. Or just plain outside Dublin. In fact, Dubliners are really the only people in the land who will never be called culchies at some point. …

We’re supposed to be un-chic, good with animals, able to predict the weather, have few electrical outlets and be very friendly, but a biteen thick. City dwellers tend to see themselves as having attributes exactly the opposite of these. In other words, they think they’re great.

There was an attempt to give Dubs the nickname “Jackeen” but it doesn’t seem to sting as much as “culchie” does. In fact, they like it because it makes them feel even more Dubliny. We’ve even tried to take back “culchie” for ourselves, but the lingering bovine associations just can’t quite be shaken off.

Culchie is put to good use in Irish literature. Characters in Normal People by Sally Rooney (another author native to Mayo) move to Dublin from Sligo in the west of Ireland, and the social and sociolinguistic differences between those worlds sometimes arise in conversation:

Is that your type, you like uncool guys? he said.
You tell me.
Why, am I uncool?
I think so, she said. I mean that in a nice way, I don’t like cool people.
He sat up slightly to look down at her.
Am I really? he said. I’m not offended but honestly, I thought I was kind of cool.
You’re such a culchie, though.
Am I? In what way am I?
You have the thickest Sligo accent, she said.

(See my post on southern Irish accents for related discussion.) Elsewhere in Normal People, the young man with the thick Sligo accent is described as a ‘milk-drinking culchie’ who drinks it ‘directly from the carton’. Eoin Colfer’s Benny and Babe conveys the same perceived lack of sophistication by using culchie as a modifier:

They still kept in touch Sort of. A letter once in a while. Maybe an accidental meeting on the main street if she was in town buying jeans, or whatever else you couldn’t get in those culchie shops in the back of beyonds.

As does Maeve Binchy, in Light a Penny Candle: ‘Oh, nothing as bad as a culchie wedding I always say.’

People from towns and counties adjacent to Dublin, such as Kildare, may or may not be culchies, depending on who’s deciding. In Nuala Ní Chonchúir’s novel You, the eponymous ten-year-old narrator says:

Noel doesn’t like The Irish Times. He says it’s a Proddy newspaper and then he says ‘Up the Republic!’ and Cora says ‘Will you stop that codology.’ Cora says things like that because she’s a culchie. But she hates being called that. ‘I’m from inside the Pale,’ she says, as if that matters. You say that Kildare is not the centre of the universe and she says it is for some people.

Proddy is short for Protestant, and codology is codding, i.e., fooling, messing around, another Irish English dialect word, which appends the technical suffix –ology ironically to the vernacular verb cod ‘to joke, hoax, or fool’.1

Ní Chonchúr’s book hints at how culchie could be used as a tease among children. Adults might do the same thing, and call it slagging, but with no real offence intended or taken. At least, not usually.

Headline from TheJournal.ie: "Man jailed for assaulting brothers after calling one of them a 'culchie'". Subheading: "He asked one of the brothers 'What are you looking at?' before punching him in the face"

Etymologically, the most popular idea is that culchie comes from Kiltimagh, the name of a small town in County Mayo (seen as provincial or remote), from Irish Coillte Mach ‘woods of the plain’. English and Irish pronunciations can be heard at Logainm.2 Kiltimagh is the etymon suggested by the OED, Oxford, and Collins.

Culchie could come simply from coillte ‘woods’ or coillteach ‘wooded’. It may be a clipping of agricultural, arising as university slang for students of agriculture. T.P. Dolan’s Dictionary of Hiberno-English briefly notes this possibility. Other sources suggest the Irish phrase cúl an tí /ˈkuːlɑ(n)ˈtʃiː/ ‘back of the house’, the idea being that that’s how country folk visit neighbours. But this has the ring of folk etymology for me.

Another possibility is advanced in a 1997 letter to the Irish Times:

In the 1930s and 1940s, we told Dubliners that we were from the Cúl Siar Amach [/ˈkuːlˌʃɪərəˈmɑx/ ‘back out west’, i.e., back of beyond] to baffle them when they asked where we were from. We became the feared Culchies, invading Dublin to take all the good Civil Service jobs. Where in heaven did this nonsense about Kiltimagh come from?

But the Kiltimagh connection is strengthened in Brendan Behan’s Confessions of an Irish Rebel, quoted in Slanguage, Bernard Share’s dictionary of Irish slang and colloquialisms: Behan refers to ‘the Culchiemachs, as we called the Irish-speaking people’. One final idea that I came across draws a connection with culch, a bed of shells and stones used in oyster farming.

Other etymologies have been proposed, but those are the main ones. The earliest use of the word that I’ve seen, cited in Green’s Dictionary of Slang, is from ‘The Munster-Man’s Bothabue’ in Luke Caffrey’s Gost, c.1790:

But I’ll away to Culchy fair my Bothabue to find,
I’ll range the flow’ry meadows gay in hopes that they prove kind.

After that there’s nothing for over a century in the usual sources. So it’s an open question, unless someone digs up a persuasive origin story. Don’t forget your wellies.

Photo of the entrance to a field in the Irish countryside. A wide grey gate, with blue twine tied to it, hangs over very mucky ground, with tractors wheel tracks leading into the field. A low row of trees can be seen at the far end of the field.

If you go digging, be ready for a mess. Field entrance in County Mayo.

1 Joyce uses all these words in Ulysses, e.g.: ‘you can cod him up to the two eyes’; ‘Arrah, give over your bloody codding, Joe, says I’; ‘Bloom comes out with the why and the wherefore and all the codology of the business’.

2 That coill ‘wood’ was often anglicized as ‘kil(l)’ has caused no little confusion, because ‘kil(l)’ was also used for cill ‘church’. Plural coillte ‘woods’ was anglicized less problematically as ‘kilty’ or ‘quilty’: Kiltyclogher in County Leitrim comes from Coillte Cloghair ‘woods of the stony place’.

12 Responses to The meaning and origin of ‘culchie’ in Ireland

  1. petey says:

    dunno, but i scored 11/11 on that culchie quiz and i’m from manhattan. (that my parents were from clare and mayo is completely co-incidental i’m sure.)

  2. astraya says:

    In the sense that I live outside Dublins and its environs, I am a culchie, but I don’t think the definition is meant to extend as far as Australia. Just to prove it, I scored 5/9 on the test, mainly by guessing.
    Within Ireland, how far does ‘outside’ extend? Two of my great-great-grandparents came from Ireland, one probably from Ulster and the other from I don’t know where without looking it up.

    • Stan Carey says:

      I haven’t seen data on its relative use or distribution in different parts of Ireland. It would be interesting to compare its currency in Northern Ireland and the Republic, for example. But it is used and is widely familiar throughout the island.
      I specified ‘the Irish countryside’ to avoid giving the impression that culchiedom applies to rural life in other countries, most of which, I imagine, have their own taxonomy.

    • Chips Mackinolty says:

      @astraya What would the Australian urban/rural divide be. “Townie” versus “Bushie”? There are others but can’t think of them

  3. Chips Mackinolty says:

    “I specified ‘the Irish countryside’ to avoid giving the impression that culchiedom applies to rural life in other countries, most of which, I imagine, have their own taxonomy.”

    Indeed.

    In Italy the term “terrone” is often used by those from the north to refer to southern Italians. As you might imagine “terrone” has overtones of “peasant”. But, perhaps in the same fashion as “culchie” in recent years has been adopted as a term of pride. I once witnessed a demonstration of rural workers in Palermo, the capital of Sicily, where old friends would cheerfully greet each other as “terrone”.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Thanks for this example, Chips. I didn’t know the word and assumed it had to do with the earth or the land, but if so it’s only etymologically – the usual translation appears to be ‘southerner’ or ‘southern Italian’. I’m glad they’ve reclaimed it.

  4. […] Here’s what I got with the first eight paragraphs of my post on the word culchie: […]

  5. There is a separate group of Irish-speaking culchies referred to as munchies in English, and that definitely derives from the Irish phrase ‘muintir na háite’, ‘the people of the place’.

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