When the Irish author Molly Keane (1904–1996) suggested to her daughter Sally Phipps that she write Keane’s biography, she told her: ‘I trust you completely; the only thing I’m afraid of is that you won’t be nasty enough.’
The result of that proposal, Molly Keane: A Life (Virago, 2017), is an excellent account I can recommend to anyone who enjoys Keane’s work. It contains several passages and items of linguistic note, which – this being a blog about language – may be of passing interest also to those who have not read her.
Keane wrote her first dozen or so novels as ‘M. J. Farrell’. The name came to her fortuitously:
When returning from hunting one evening she saw the name M. J. Farrell over a pub doorway and she took it as a pseudonym. Secrecy was important to her as she thought no one would dance with her in the horsey society in which she moved if it was known she was a writer.
The seriousness of ‘horsey society’ extended to the horses themselves:
Every April the Cúirt literary festival kicks off the festival season in Galway, Ireland, where I live. This year, its 35th, events in their original format were cancelled because of the pandemic, but festival director Sasha de Buyl and team put together a terrific mini-festival entirely online.
I just caught up on the talks I didn’t see or hear live last weekend – live online, I mean – and you can do the same if you haven’t already. Nine are freely available to view on Cúirt’s YouTube channel, and two audio-only events can be listened to on Soundcloud.
It’s a feast of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. Each talk is about an hour long and has one, two, or three authors speaking about literature, language, writing, and life, including short readings from their new work. If you’re not sure where to start, try Kevin Barry and Jan Carson talking with Peggy Hughes:
Brian Moore, last seen on this blog Irishly having tea, uses a couple of interesting dialect words in his 1958 novel The Feast of Lupercal. One of them, codding, is in my idiolect in various forms, including codology; the other, stravaging, I’ve seldom seen and had to look up.
An old sexton, dusting the church in the evening, is obliged to let in two people preparing for a play:
… some people had no consideration, stopping a man in the middle of his work. Every afternoon for the past week they had come stravaging up for their rehearsals, the pair of them. Once, they even came back at night.
Brooding on the interruption, the sexton is annoyed that the church hall is regularly opened for plays, lectures, card games, and ‘all kinds of codology’. Later he wonders, ‘Are they codding me, or what?’ Then two other characters have this exchange:
‘So help me God it was the first time I ever tried.’
‘That’s the best yet. Who do you think you’re codding, Devine?’
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’.
Mayo countryside: briars, stone walls, mossy verges, sheep, cattle, and muck are fond and familiar sights to any culchie worth their salt
In ‘The Last Campaign’, from her story collection Orange Horses (Tramp Press, 2016), Maeve Kelly portrays a marriage whose members have deeply contrasting – and sometimes clashing – communication styles. Martha and Joe are a middle-aged couple devoted to each other and to their farm, on which much of their conversation turns:
Herself and Joe met at the tap on the wall outside. He hosed down his boots, thinking about something.
‘Isn’t it a beautiful day, Joe,’ she said. ‘You might get the last of the hay drawn in today.’
‘I might,’ he said, looking up at a small, dark cloud away on the horizon and checking the direction of the wind. ‘If it holds. I think there’s a change.’
‘It’ll hardly break before this evening,’ she said.
She wondered to herself why his sentences were always so short. Words spilled over in her own mind so much. She had to hold them back, conscious always of his brief replies and afraid she might become garrulous in her effort to fill the void. ‘Communication,’ she reminded herself sometimes, ‘is not only made with speech.’
From this brief exchange we understand not only each character’s expressive preferences but also the effect of the difference on Martha, who would likely be more talkative were Joe not so taciturn. For this lack she must console herself with truisms. And yet their mutual fondness is unmistakable and is underscored implicitly as the tale unfolds.
He was back among the city’s voices, and it was the rhythm of them that slowed the rush of his thoughts. —Kevin Barry, City of Bohane
Kevin Barry’s award-winning first novel City of Bohane (Jonathan Cape, 2011) is an extravagant experiment in language, rich in Irish English slang and vernacular. It may take non-Irish readers a little while to tune in to its sounds and rhythms, but the rewards are considerable.
This post annotates a few items of linguistic interest in the book.
Divil a bit stirred in the Trace that he didn’t know about, nor across the Smoketown footbridge.
Divil (rhymes with civil) is a common pronunciation of devil in colloquial Irish English. The idiom divil a bit has various emphatic negative meanings: ‘not at all’, ‘none at all’, and in Barry’s line, ‘nothing at all’.
Growing up in rural Ireland, I regularly heard – and still occasionally hear – some version of the phrase the cut of someone. It’s an informal idiom that means the state or appearance of someone and usually incorporates criticism or amusement or both. Here’s an example I just read in Deirdre Madden’s novel Nothing Is Black:
‘Look at the cut of me!’ Claire’s mother had said the last time she’d visited her. She’d been sitting by a mirror, combing out her faded hair. ‘I’m as grey as a badger. How come I look so old, yet I feel no different to what I was forty years ago? Where’s the sense in that?’ She’d started to laugh …
In Irish literature the expression is generally found in dialogue or in vernacular narrative. Madden’s example is typical in a few ways: it’s light-hearted, colloquial, and deprecatory – in this case self-deprecatory. In a similar vein, the next two examples involve mirrors. Marian Keyes, Anybody Out There: