English as we speak it in Ireland/IX

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I have included both in this Chapter, for they are nearly related; and it is often hard to draw a precise line of distinction.

We in Ireland are rather prone to exaggeration, perhaps more so than the average run of peoples. Very often the expressions are jocose, or the person is fully conscious of the exaggeration; but in numerous cases there is no joke at all: but downright seriousness: all which will be seen in the following examples.

A common saying about a person of persuasive tongue or with a beautiful voice in singing:—'He would coax the birds off the bushes.' This is borrowed from the Irish. In the 'Lament of Richard Cantillon' (in Irish) he says that at the musical voice of the lady 'the seals would come up from the deep, the stag down from the mist-crag, and the thrush from the tree.' (Petrie: 'Anc. Mus. of Ireland.')

Of a noted liar and perjurer it was said 'He would swear that a coal porter was a canary.'

A man who is unlucky, with whom everything goes wrong:—'If that man got a hen to hatch duck eggs, the young ducks would be drowned.' Or again, 'If that man sowed oats in a field, a crop of turnips would come up.' Or: 'He is always in the field when luck is on the road.'

The following expression is often heard:—'Ah, old James Buckley is a fine piper: I'd give my eyes to be listening to him.'

That fellow is so dirty that if you flung him against a wall he'd stick. (Patterson: Ulster.)

Two young men are about to set off to seek their fortunes, leaving their young brother Rory to stay with their mother. But Rory, a hard active merry cute little fellow, proposes to go with them:—'I'll follow ye to the world's end.' On which the eldest says to him—a half playful threat:—'You presumptious little atomy of a barebones, if I only see the size of a thrush's ankle of you follyin' us on the road, I'll turn back and bate that wiry and freckled little carcase of yours into frog's-jelly!' (Robert Dwyer Joyce: 'The Building of Mourne.')

'Did Johnny give you any of his sugar-stick?' 'Oh not very much indeed: hardly the size of a thrush's ankle.' This term is often used.

Of a very morose sour person you will hear it said:—'If that man looked at a pail of new milk he'd turn it into curds and whey.'

A very thin man, or one attenuated by sickness:—'You could blow him off your hand.'

A poor fellow complains of the little bit of meat he got for his dinner:—'It was no more than a daisy in a bull's mouth!' Another says of his dinner when it was in his stomach:—'It was no more than a midge in the Glen of the Downs.'

Exhorting a messenger to be quick:—'Don't be there till you're back again.' Another way:—'Now run as quick as you can, and if you fall don't wait to get up.' Warning a person to be expeditious in any work you put him to:—'Now don't let grass grow under your feet.' Barney urging on the ass to go quickly:—'Come Bobby, don't let grass grow under your feet.' ('Knocknagow.')

If a person is secretly very willing to go to a place—as a lover to the house of the girl's parents:—‘You could lead him there with a halter of snow.’

‘Is this razor sharp?’ ‘Sharp!—why ’twould shave a mouse asleep.’

A lazy fellow, fond of sitting at the fire, has the A B C on his shins, i.e. they are blotched with the heat.

Of an inveterate talker:—That man would talk the teeth out of a saw.

A young fellow gets a great fright:—'It frightened him out of a year's growth.'

When Nancy saw the master so angry she was frightened out of her wits: or frightened out of her seven senses. When I saw the horse ride over him I was frightened out of my life.

A great liar, being suddenly pressed for an answer, told the truth for once. He told the truth because he was shook for a lie; i.e. no lie was ready at hand. Shook, to be bad, in a bad way: shook for a thing, to be badly in want of it and not able to get it.

Of a very lazy fellow:—He would not knock a coal off his foot: i.e. when a live coal happens to fall on his foot while sitting by the fire, he wouldn't take the trouble to knock it off.

Says the dragon to Manus:—'If ever I see you here again I'll hang a quarter of you on every tree in the wood.' (Crofton Croker.)

If a person is pretty badly hurt, or suffers hardship, he's kilt (killed): a fellow gets a fall and his friend comes up to inquire:—'Oh let me alone I'm kilt and speechless.' I heard a Dublin nurse say, 'Oh I'm kilt minding these four children.' 'The bloody throopers are coming to kill and quarther an' murther every mother's sowl o' ye.' (R. D. Joyce.) The parlour bell rings impatiently for the third time, and Lowry Looby the servant says, 'Oh murther there goes the bell again, I'll be kilt entirely.' (Gerald Griffin.) If a person is really badly hurt he's murthered entirely. A girl telling about a fight in a fair:—'One poor boy was kilt dead for three hours on a car, breathing for all the world like a corpse!'

If you don't stop your abuse I'll give you a shirt full of sore bones.

Yes, poor Jack was once well off, but now he hasn't as much money as would jingle on a tombstone.

That cloth is very coarse: why you could shoot straws through it.

Strong dislike:—I don't like a bone in his body.

'Do you know Bill Finnerty well?' 'Oh indeed I know every bone in his body,' i.e. I know him and all his ways intimately.

A man is low stout and very fat: if you met him in the street you'd rather jump over him than walk round him.

He knew as much Latin as if he swallowed a dictionary. (Gerald Griffin.)

The word destroy is very often used to characterize any trifling damage easily remedied:—That car splashed me, and my coat is all destroyed.

'They kept me dancin' for 'em in the kitchen,' says Barney Broderick, 'till I hadn't a leg to put under me.' ('Knocknagow.')

This farm of mine is as bad land as ever a crow flew over.

He's as great a rogue as ever stood in shoe-leather.

When Jack heard the news of the money that was coming to him he was jumping out of his skin with delight.

I bought these books at an auction, and I got them for a song: in fact I got them for half nothing.

Very bad slow music is described as the tune the old cow died of.

A child is afraid of a dog: 'Yerra he won't touch you': meaning 'he won't bite you.'

A man having a very bad aim in shooting:—'He wouldn't hit a hole in a ladder.'

Carleton's blind fiddler says to a young girl: 'You could dance the Colleen dhas dhown [a jig] upon a spider's cobweb without breaking it.'

An ill-conducted man:—'That fellow would shame a field of tinkers.' The tinkers of sixty years ago, who were not remarkable for their honesty or good conduct, commonly travelled the country in companies, and camped out in fields or wild places.

I was dying to hear the news; i.e. excessively anxious.

Where an Englishman will say 'I shall be pleased to accept your invitation,' an Irishman will say 'I will be delighted to accept,' &c.

Mick Fraher is always eating garlick and his breath has a terrible smell—a smell of garlick strong enough to hang your hat on.

A mean thief:—He'd steal a halfpenny out of a blind beggarman's hat. (P. Reilly: Kild.)

A dexterous thief:—He'd steal the sugar out of your punch.

An inveterate horse thief:—Throw a halter in his grave and he'll start up and steal a horse.

Of an impious and dexterous thief:—'He'd steal the cross off an ass's back,' combining skill and profanation. According to the religious legend the back of the ass is marked with a cross ever since the day of our Lord's public entry into Jerusalem upon an ass.

A man who makes unreasonably long visits—who outstays his welcome:—'If that man went to a wedding he'd wait for the christening.'

I once asked a young Dublin lady friend was she angry at not getting an invitation to the party: 'Oh I was fit to be tied.' A common expression among us to express great indignation.

A person is expressing confidence that a certain good thing will happen which will bring advantage to everyone, but which after all is very unlikely, and someone replies:—'Oh yes: when the sky falls we'll all catch larks.'

A useless unavailing proceeding, most unlikely to be attended with any result, such as trying to persuade a person who is obstinately bent on having his own way:—'You might as well be whistling jigs to a milestone' [expecting it to dance].

'Would you know him if you saw him?' 'Would I know him!—why I'd know his skin in a tan-yard'—'I'd know his shadow on a furze-bush!'

A person considered very rich:—That man is rotten with money. He doesn't know what to do with his money.

You gave me a great start: you put the heart across in me: my heart jumped into my mouth. The people said that Miss Mary Kearney put the heart across in Mr. Lowe, the young Englishman visitor. ('Knocknagow.')

I heard Mat Halahan the tailor say to a man who had just fitted on a new coat:—That coat fits you just as if you were melted into it.

He is as lazy as the dog that always puts his head against the wall to bark. (Moran: Carlow.)

In running across the field where the young people were congregated Nelly Donovan trips and falls: and Billy Heffernan, running up, says:—'Oh Nelly did you fall: come here till I take you up.' ('Knocknagow.')

'The road flew under him,' to express the swiftness of a man galloping or running afoot.

Bessie Morris was such a flirt that Barney Broderick said she'd coort a haggard of sparrows. ('Knoc nagow.')

I wish I were on yonder hill,
'Tis there I'd sit and cry my fill,
Till ev'ry tear would turn a mill.
(Shool Aroon: 'Old Irish Folk Song.')

But after all this is not half so great an exaggeration as what the cultivated English poet wrote:—

I found her on the floor
In all the storm of grief, yet beautiful,
Pouring forth tears at such a lavish rate,
That were the world on fire it might have drowned
The wrath of Heaven and quenched the mighty ruin.

A great dandy wears his hat on three hairs of his head.

He said such funny things that the company were splitting their sides laughing.

Matt Donovan (in 'Knocknagow') says of his potatoes that had fine stalks but little produce—desavers as he called them—Every stalk of 'em would make a rafter for a house. But put the best man in the parish to dig 'em and a duck would swallow all he'd be able to turn out from morning till night.

Sometimes distinct numbers come in where they hardly apply. Not long ago I read in an article in the 'Daily Mail' by Mr. Stead, of British 'ships all over the seven seas.' So also here at home we read 'round the four seas of Ireland' (which is right enough): and 'You care for nothing in the world but your own four bones' (i.e. nothing but yourself). 'Come on then, old beer-swiller, and try yourself against the four bones of an Irishman' (R. D. Joyce: 'The House of Lisbloom.') Four bones in this sense is very common.

A person meeting a friend for the first time after a long interval says 'Well, it's a cure for sore eyes to see you.' 'I haven't seen you now for a month of Sundays,' meaning a long time. A month of Sundays is thirty-one Sundays—seven or eight months.

Said jokingly of a person with very big feet:—He wasn't behind the door anyway when the feet were giving out.

When a man has to use the utmost exertion to accomplish anything or to escape a danger he says: 'That business put me to the pin of my collar.' The allusion is to a fellow whose clothes are falling off him for want of buttons and pins. At last to prevent the final catastrophe he has to pull out the brass pin that fastens his collar and pin waistcoat and trousers-band together.

A poor woman who is about to be robbed shrieks out for help; when the villain says to her:—'Not another word or I'll stick you like a pig and give you your guts for garters.' ('Ir. Penny Magazine.')

A man very badly off—all in rags:—'He has forty-five ways of getting into his coat now.' (MacCall: Wexford.)

A great miser—very greedy for money:—He heard the money jingling in his mother's pockets before he was born. (MacCall: Wexford.)

A drunken man is a terrible curse,
But a drunken woman is twice as worse;
For she'd drink Lough Erne dry.


To a person who habitually uses unfortunate blundering expressions:—'You never open your mouth but you put your foot in it.'

A girl to express that it is unlikely she will ever be married says: 'I think, miss, my husband's intended mother died an old maid.' ('Penelope in Ireland.')

A young man speaking of his sweetheart says, in the words of the old song:—

‘I love the ground she walks upon, mavourneen gal mochree
(thou fair love of my heart).

A conceited pompous fellow approaches:—'Here comes half the town!' A translation from the Irish leath an bhaile.

Billy Heffernan played on his fife a succession of jigs and reels that might 'cure a paralytic' [and set him dancing]. ('Knocknagow.')

In 'Knocknagow' Billy Heffernan being requested to play on his fife longer than he considered reasonable, asked did they think that he had the bellows of Jack Delany the blacksmith in his stomach?

Said of a great swearer:—'He'd swear a hole in an iron pot.'

Of another:—'He'd curse the bladder out of a goat.'

Of still another:—'He could quench a candle at the other side of the kitchen with a curse.'

A person is much puzzled, or is very much elated, or his mind is disturbed for any reason:—'He doesn't know whether it is on his head or his heels he's standing.

A penurious miserable creature who starves himself to hoard up:—He could live on the smell of an oil-rag. (Moran: Carlow.)

A man complaining that he has been left too long fasting says:—'My stomach will think that my throat is cut.' (MacCall: Wexford.)

‘Do you like the new American bacon?’ ‘Oh not at all: I tried it once and that's enough for me: I wouldn't touch it with a tongs.’ Very common and always used in depreciation as here.

We in Ireland are much inclined to redundancy in our speech. It is quite observable—especially to an outsider—that even in our ordinary conversation and in answering simple questions we use more words than we need. We hardly ever confine ourselves to the simple English yes or no; we always answer by a statement. 'Is it raining, Kitty?' 'Oh no sir, it isn't raining at all.' 'Are you going to the fair to-day?' 'No indeed I am not.' 'Does your father keep on the old business still?' 'Oh yes certainly he does: how could he get on without it?' 'Did last night's storm injure your house?' 'Ah you may well say it did.' A very distinguished Dublin scholar and writer, having no conscious leanings whatever towards the Irish language, mentioned to me once that when he went on a visit to some friends in England they always observed this peculiarity in his conversation, and often laughed at his roundabout expressions. He remarked to me—and an acute remark it was—that he supposed there must be some peculiarity of this kind in the Irish language; in which conjecture he was quite correct. For this peculiarity of ours—like many others—is borrowed from the Irish language, as anyone may see for himself by looking through an Irish book of question and answer, such as a Catechism. 'Is the Son God?' 'Yes certainly He is.' 'Will God reward the good and punish the wicked?' 'Certainly: there is no doubt He will.' 'Did God always exist?' 'He did; because He has neither beginning nor end.' And questions and answers like these—from Donlevy's Irish Catechism for instance—might be given to any length.

But in many other ways we show our tendency to this wordy overflow—still deriving our mannerism from the Irish language—that is to say, from modern and middle Irish. For in very old Irish—of the tenth, eleventh, and earlier centuries for instance, the tendency is the very reverse. In the specimens of this very old language that have come down to us, the words and phrases are so closely packed, that it is impossible to translate them either into English or Latin by an equal number of words.[1] But this old language is too far off from us to have any influence in our present every-day English speech; and, as already remarked, we derive this peculiarity from modern Irish, or from middle Irish through modern. Here is a specimen in translation of over-worded modern Irish (Battle of Gavra, p. 141), a type of what was very common:—'Diarmuid himself [fighting] continued in the enjoyment of activity, strength, and vigour, without intermission of action, of weapons, or of power; until at length he dealt a full stroke of his keen hard-tempered sword on the king's head, by which he clove the skull, and by a second stroke swept his head off his huge body.' Examples like this, from Irish texts, both modern and middle, might be multiplied to any extent.

But let us now have a look at some of our Anglo-Irish redundancies, mixed up as they often are with exaggeration. A man was going to dig by night for a treasure, which of course had a supernatural guardian, like all hidden treasures, and what should he see running towards him but 'a great big red mad bull, with fire flaming out of his eyes, mouth, and nose.' (Ir. Pen. Mag.) Another man sees a leprechaun walking up to him—'a weeny deeny dawny little atomy of an idea of a small taste of a gentleman.' (Ibid.) Of a person making noise and uproar you will be told that he was roaring and screeching and bawling and making a terrible hullabulloo all through the house.

Of an emaciated poor creature—'The breath is only just in and out of him, and the grass doesn't know of him walking over it.'

'The gentlemen are not so pleasant in themselves' [now as they used to be]. (Gerald Griffin.) Expressions like this are very often heard: 'I was dead in myself,' i.e., I felt dull and lifeless.

[Dermot struck the giant and] 'left him dead without life.' ('Dermot and Grainne.') Further on we find the same expression—marbh gan anam, dead without life. This Irish expression is constantly heard in our English dialect: 'he fell from the roof and was killed dead.'

Oh brave King Brian, he knew the way
To keep the peace and to make the hay:
For those who were bad he cut off their head;
And those who were worse he killed them dead.

Similarly the words 'dead and buried' are used all through Munster:—Oh indeed poor Jack Lacy is dead and buried for the last two years: or 'the whole family are dead and gone these many years.'

A very common Irish expression is 'I invited every single one of them.' This is merely a translation from Irish, as we find in 'Gabhra':—Do bhéarmaois gach aon bhuadh: we were wont to win every single victory.

'We do not want any single one of them,' says Mr. Hamilton Fyfe ('Daily Mail'). He puts the saying into the mouth of another; but the phraseology is probably his own: and at any rate I suppose we may take it as a phrase from Scotch Gaelic, which is all but the same as Irish Gaelic.

Emphatic particles and words, especially the pronouns with self, are often used to excess. I heard a highly educated fellow-countryman say, 'I must say myself that I don't believe it': and I am afraid I often use such expressions myself. 'His companions remained standing, but he found it more convenient to sit down himself.' A writer or speaker has however to be on his guard or he may be led into a trap. A writer having stated that some young ladies attended a cookery-class, first merely looking on, goes on to say that after a time they took part in the work, and soon learned to cook themselves.

I once heard a man say:—'I disown the whole family, seed, breed and generation.' Very common in Ireland. Goldsmith took the expression from his own country, and has immortalised it in his essay, 'The Distresses of a Common Soldier.'

He was on the tip-top of the steeple—i.e., the very top. This expression is extended in application: that meadow is tip-top, i.e., very excellent: he is a tip-top hurler. 'By no means' is sometimes expanded:—'I asked him to lend me a pound, but he answered that by no manner of means would he do any such thing.'

'If you do that you'll be crying down salt tears,' i.e., 'you'll deeply regret it.' Salt tears is however in Shakespeare in the same sense. ('Hen. VI.')

'Down with you now on your two bended knees and give thanks to God.'

If you don't stop, I'll wring the head off o' your neck. (Rev. Maxwell Close.)

The roof of the house fell down on the top of him. (Father Higgins.)

The Irish air sé ('says he') is very often repeated in the course of a narrative. It is correct in Irish, but it is often heard echoed in our English where it is incorrect:—And says he to James 'where are you going now?' says he.

In a trial in Dublin a short time ago, the counsel asked of witness:—'Now I ask you in the most solemn manner, had you hand, act, or part in the death of Peter Heffernan?'

A young man died after injuries received in a row, and his friend says:—'It is dreadful about the poor boy: they made at him in the house and killed him there; then they dragged him out on the road and killed him entirely, so that he lived for only three days after. I wouldn't mind if they shot him at once and put an end to him: but to be murdering him like that—it is terrible.'

The fairy says to Billy:—'I am a thousand years old to-day, and I think it is time for me to get married.' To which Billy replies:—'I think it is quite time without any kind of doubt at all.' (Crofton Croker.)

The squire walks in to Patrick's cabin: and Patrick says:—'Your honour's honour is quite welcome entirely.' (Crofton Croker.)

An expression you will often hear even in Dublin:—'Lend me the loan of your umbrella.'

'She doats down on him' is often used to express 'She is very fond of him.'

'So, my Kathleen, you're going to leave me
All alone by myself in this place.'

(Lady Dufferin.)

He went to America seven years ago, and from that day to this we have never heard any tale or tidings of him.

'Did he treat you hospitably?' 'Oh indeed he pretended to forget it entirely, and I never took bit, bite, or sup in his house.' This form of expression is heard everywhere in Ireland.

We have in Ireland an inveterate habit—from the highest to the lowest—educated and uneducated—of constantly interjecting the words 'you know' into our conversation as a mere expletive, without any particular meaning:—'I had it all the time, you know, in my pocket: he had a seat, you know, that he could arrange like a chair: I was walking, you know, into town yesterday, when I met your father.' 'Why in the world did you lend him such a large sum of money?' 'Well, you know, the fact is I couldn't avoid it.' This expression is often varied to 'don't you know.'

In Munster a question is often introduced by the words 'I don't know,' always shortened to I'd'no (three syllables with the I long and the o very short—barely sounded) 'I'd'no is John come home yet?' This phrase you will often hear in Dublin from Munster people, both educated and uneducated.

'The t'other' is often heard in Armagh: it is, of course, English:—

'Sirs,' cried the umpire, cease your pother,
The creature's neither one nor t'other.

  1. See the interesting remarks of O'Donovan in Preface to 'Battle of Magh Rath,' pp. ix-xv. Sir Samuel Ferguson also has some valuable observations on the close packing of the very old Irish language, but I cannot lay my hands on them. From him I quote (from memory) the remark about translating old Irish into English or Latin.