English as we speak it in Ireland/VI

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CHAPTER VI.[edit]

SWEARING.[edit]

The general run of our people do not swear much; and those that do commonly limit themselves to the name of the devil either straight out or in some of its various disguised forms, or to some harmless imitation of a curse. You do indeed come across persons who go higher, but they are rare. Yet while keeping themselves generally within safe bounds, it must be confessed that many of the people have a sort of sneaking admiration—lurking secretly and seldom expressed in words—for a good well-balanced curse, so long as it does not shock by its profanity. I once knew a doctor—not in Dublin—who, it might be said, was a genius in this line. He could, on the spur of the moment, roll out a magnificent curse that might vie with a passage of the Iliad in the mouth of Homer. 'Oh sir'—as I heard a fellow say—tis grand to listen to him when he's in a rage.' He was known as a skilled physician, and a good fellow in every way, and his splendid swearing crowned his popularity. He had discretion however, and knew when to swear and when not; but ultimately he swore his way into an extensive and lucrative practice, which lasted during his whole life—a long and honourable one.

Parallel to this is Maxwell's account of the cursing of Major Denis O'Farrell—'the Mad Major,' who appears to have been a dangerous rival to my acquaintance, the doctor. He was once directing the evolutions at a review in presence of Sir Charles, the General, when one important movement was spoiled by the blundering of an incompetent little adjutant. In a towering passion the Mad Major addressed the General:—'Stop, Sir Charles, do stop; just allow me two minutes to curse that rascally adjutant.' To so reasonable a request (Maxwell goes on to say), Sir Charles readily assented. He heard the whole malediction out, and speaking of it afterwards, he said that 'he never heard a man cursed to his perfect satisfaction until he heard (that adjutant) anathematised in the Phoenix Park.'

The Mad Major was a great favourite; and when he died, there was not a dry eye in the regiment on the day of the funeral. Two months afterwards when an Irish soldier was questioned on the merits of his successor:—'The man is well enough,' said Pat, with a heavy sigh, 'but where will we find the equal of the Major? By japers, it was a comfort to be cursed by him!' ('Wild Sports of the West.')

In my part of the country there is—or was—a legend—a very circumstantial one too—which however I am not able to verify personally, as the thing occurred a little before my time—that Father Buckley, of Glenroe, cured Charley Coscoran, the greatest swearer in the barony—cured him in a most original way. He simply directed him to cut out a button from some part of his dress, no matter where—to whip it out on the instant—every time he uttered a serious curse, i.e, one involving the Sacred Name. Charley made the promise with a light heart, thinking that by only using a little caution he could easily avoid snipping off his buttons. But inveterate habit is strong. Only very shortly after he had left the priest he saw a cow in one of his cornfields playing havoc: out came a round curse, and off came a button on the spot. For Charley was a manly fellow, with a real sense of religion at bottom: and he had no notion of shirking his penance. Another curse after some time and another button. Others again followed:—coat, waistcoat, trousers, shirt-collar, were brought under contribution till his clothes began to fall off him. For a needle and thread were not always at hand, and at any rate Charley was no great shakes at the needle. At last things came to that pass with poor Charley, that life was hardly worth living; till he had to put his mind seriously to work, and by careful watching he gradually cured himself. But many score buttons passed through his hands during the process.

Most persons have a sort of craving or instinct to utter a curse of some kind—as a sort of comforting interjection—where there is sufficient provocation; and in order to satisfy this without incurring the guilt, people have invented ejaculations in the form of curses, but still harmless. Most of them have some resemblance in sound to the forbidden word—they are near enough to satisfy the craving, but still far enough off to avoid the guilt: the process may in fact be designated dodging a curse. Hence we have such blank cartridges as begob, begor, by my sowkins, by Jove, by the laws [Lord], by herrings [heavens], by this and by that, dang it, &c.; all of them ghosts of curses, which are very general among our people. The following additional examples will sufficiently illustrate this part of our subject.

The expression the dear knows (or correctly the deer knows), which is very common, is a translation from Irish of one of those substitutions. The original expression is thauss ag Dhee [given here phonetically], meaning God knows; but as this is too solemn and profane for most people, they changed it to Thauss ag fee, i.e. the deer knows; and this may be uttered by anyone. Dia [Dhee] God: fiadh [fee], a deer.

Says Barney Broderick, who is going through his penance after confession at the station, and is interrupted by a woman asking him a question:—'Salvation seize your soul—God forgive me for cursing—be off out of that and don't set me astray!' ('Knocknagow.') Here the substitution has turned a wicked imprecation into a benison: for the first word in the original is not salvation but damnation.

'By the hole in my coat,' which is often heard, is regarded as a harmless oath: for if there is no hole you are swearing by nothing: and if there is a hole—still the hole is nothing.

'Bad manners to you,' a mild imprecation, to avoid 'bad luck to you,' which would be considered wicked: reflecting the people's horror of rude or offensive manners.

'By all the goats in Kerry,' which I have often heard, is always said in joke, which takes the venom out of it. In Leinster they say, 'by all the goats in Gorey'—which is a big oath. Whether it is a big oath now or not, I do not know; but it was so formerly, for the name Gorey (Wexford), like the Scotch Gowrie, means 'swarming with goats.'

'Man,' says the pretty mermaid to Dick Fitzgerald, when he had captured her from the sea, 'man will you eat me?' 'By all the red petticoats and check aprons between Dingle and Tralee,' cried Dick, jumping up in amazement, 'I'd as soon eat myself, my jewel! Is it I to eat you, my pet!' (Crofton Croker.)

'Where did he get the whiskey?' 'Sorrow a know I know,' said Leary. 'Sorrow fly away with him.' (Crofton Croker.) In these and such like—which you often hear—sorrow is a substitute for devil.

Perhaps the most general exclamations of this kind among Irish people are begor, begob, bedad, begad (often contracted to egad), faith and troth. Faith, contracted from in faith or i' faith, is looked upon by many people as not quite harmless: it is a little too serious to be used indiscriminately—'Faith I feel this day very cold': 'Is that tea good?' 'Faith it is no such thing: it is very weak.' 'Did Mick sell his cows to-day at the fair?' 'Faith I don't know.' People who shrink from the plain word often soften it to faix or haith (or heth in Ulster). An intelligent contributor makes the remark that the use of this word faith (as above) is a sure mark of an Irishman all over the world.

Even some of the best men will occasionally, in an unguarded moment or in a hasty flash of anger, give way to the swearing instinct. Father John Burke of Kilfinane—I remember him well—a tall stern-looking man with heavy brows, but really gentle and tender-hearted—held a station at the house of our neighbour Tom Coffey, a truly upright and pious man. All had gone to confession and Holy Communion, and the station was over. Tom went out to bring the priest's horse from the paddock, but in leading him through a gap in the hedge the horse stood stock still and refused obstinately to go an inch farther. Tom pulled and tugged to no purpose, till at last his patience went to pieces, and he flung this, in no gentle voice, at the animal's head:—'Blast your sowl will you come on!' Just then unluckily Father Burke walked up behind: he had witnessed and heard all, and you may well say that Tom's heart dropped down into his shoes; for he felt thoroughly ashamed. The crime was not great; but it looked bad and unbecoming under the circumstances; and what could the priest do but perform his duty: so the black brows contracted, and on the spot he gave poor Tom down-the-banks and no mistake. I was at that station, though I did not witness the horse scene.

If a person pledges himself to anything, clinching the promise with an adjuration however mild or harmless, he will not by any means break the promise, considering it in a manner as a vow. The old couple are at tea and have just one egg, which causes a mild dispute. At last the father says decisively—'The divel a bit of it I'll eat, so there's an end of it': when the mother instantly and with great solemnity—'Faith I won't eat it—there now!' The result was that neither would touch it; and they gave it to their little boy who demolished it without the least scruple.

I was one time a witness of a serio-comic scene on the head of one of these blank oaths when I was a small boy attending a very small school. The master was a truly good and religious man, but very severe (a wicked master, as we used to say), and almost insane in his aversion to swearing in any shape or form. To say begob or begor or by Jove was unpardonably wicked; it was nothing better than blindfolding the devil in the dark.

One day Jack Aimy, then about twelve years of age—the saint as we used to call him—for he was always in mischief and always in trouble—said exultingly to the boy sitting next him:—'Oh by the hokey, Tom, I have my sum finished all right at last.' In evil hour for him the master happened to be standing just behind his back; and then came the deluge. In an instant the school work was stopped, and poor Jack was called up to stand before the judgment seat. There he got a long lecture—with the usual quotations—as severe and solemn as if he were a man and had perjured himself half a dozen times. As for the rest of us, we sat in the deadly silence shivering in our skins; for we all, to a man, had a guilty consciousness that we were quite as bad as Jack, if the truth were known. Then poor Jack was sent to his seat so wretched and crestfallen after his lecture that a crow wouldn't pick his bones.

'By the hokey' is to this day common all over Ireland.

When we, Irish, go abroad, we of course bring with us our peculiarities and mannerisms—with now and then a little meteoric flash of eccentricity—which on the whole prove rather attractive to foreigners, including Englishmen. One Sunday during the South African war, Mass was celebrated as usual in the temporary chapel, which, after the rough and ready way of the camp, served for both Catholics and Protestants: Mass first; Protestant Service after. On this occasion an Irish officer, a splendid specimen of a man, tall, straight, and athletic—a man born to command, and well known as a strict and devoted Catholic—was serving Mass—aiding and giving the responses to the priest. The congregation was of course of mixed nationalities—English, Irish, and Scotch, and the chapel was filled. Just outside the chapel door a nigger had charge of the big bell to call the congregations. On this day, in blissful ignorance and indifference, he began to ring for the Protestant congregation too soon—while Mass was still going on—so as greatly to disturb the people at their devotions. The officer was observed to show signs of impatience, growing more and more restless as the ringing went on persistently, till at last one concentrated series of bangs burst up his patience utterly. Starting up from his knees during a short interval when his presence was not required—it happened to be after the most solemn part of the Mass—he strode down the middle passage in a mighty rage—to the astonishment of everybody—till he got to the door, and letting fly—in the midst of the perfect silence,—a tremendous volley of damns, blasts, scoundrels, blackguards, &c., &c., at the head of the terrified nigger, he shut him up, himself and his bell, while a cat would be licking her ear. He then walked back and resumed his duties, calm and collected, and evidently quite unconscious that there was anything unusual in the proceeding.

The whole thing was so sudden and odd that the congregation were convulsed with suppressed silent laughter; and I am afraid that some people observed even the priest's sides shaking in spite of all he could do.

This story was obtained from a person who was present at that very Mass; and it is given here almost in his own words.