An A to Z of Irish Culture

As most of you have noted by now, I’ve greened up the Whatever to help celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. But as most of you didn’t know, technically, this year St. Patrick’s Day was last Saturday — the Vatican moved it up a couple of days to avoid conflicting with Holy Week. However, today is still the day people will go out carousing, so, congrats, St. Pat; you got yourself two days this year.

Be that as it may, I will not be out carousing; I have too much work to do. But I wanted to make sure I left you all something holiday-themed, so I dug through my secret archives and found the following piece I wrote for a St. Pat’s Day-themed area on AOL a dozen years ago. Oh, don’t look like that; it’s still a fun read. It is, in fact:

An A to Z of Irish Culture

Before you head on out into the big world on Saint Patrick’s Day, shouting “Erin Go Braugh” to strangers and pinching anyone who is not wearing green, ask yourself this question: How much do I really know about the Irish? Can I improve on this situation without much effort? And what does “Erin Go Braugh” mean, anyway?We want you to be able to immerse yourself in a hop- filled vat of Hibernian information, without taking too much time to get up to speed. So we’ve compiled this alphabetic list of tantalizing trivia, one subject for each letter of the alphabet. Take a swing through this, and you’ll be able to impress any Irish folk you meet, and, more importantly, stump your friends during bar bets.

By the way: “Erin Go Braugh” means “Ireland Forever.” Now you know.

A is for Abbey Theatre — It must annoy the English that the first English-speaking repertory theater, the Abbey, was established by the Irish. But that’s what you get when you’re not paying attention. The theater was founded in Dublin in 1904 by W.B. Yeats and Lady Gregory, and was designed to highlight Irish playwrights and Irish themes; among the plays that had their first appearance in the limelight at the Abbey were “Playboy of the Western World,” by John Millington Synge and “Juno and the Paycock,” by Sean O’Casey. The Abbey burned down in 1951, but was rebuilt on the same spot in 1966.

B is for Blight — Blight is a fungal disease that attacks vegetables, particularly in wet weather. Ask the Irish about blight, and they’ll tell you about the Great Famine of the 1840’s, in which Ireland’s main staple of potatoes was struck by the fungus, causing a third of the island’s population (about 1.6 million) to emigrate, primarily to America, and thousands upon thousands to die. It’s a depressing subject, and you may have to pay for a round of beer to cheer everyone up afterwards.

C is for Celts — “Celtic” these days is marketing shorthand for “Something Irish that we want to sell to a higher income bracket.” In fact, though Ireland’s history is greatly influenced by the Celts, the Celts were in the heart of Europe (in what is now France and western Germany) at about 1200 BC and spread out from there, charging up into the British isles and into Greece and Roman territories, even sacking Rome in 390 BC. The Romans, being the Romans, later squashed the Celts in Italy, France and the British Isles. Today, besides Ireland, Celtic influences are still strong in Wales, Brittany (in Western France) and the Scottish Highlands.

D is for Druids – The major religious group in the British isles, until supplanted by Christianity between the second and fifth centuries AD. Alas, most common knowledge of Druids is taken from Led Zeppelin albums and reading Tolkien books while (ahem) in less linear frames of mind. But the Druids were always misunderstood: in Roman times, Pliny believed they were cannibals. One common belief about the Druids that is true is their reverence for botanical objects, particularly oak trees and mistletoe. Their devotion has remnants to this day: when you kiss someone under the mistletoe, thank a Druid.

E is for Earls, the Flight of – A great percentage of Irish history is about trying to have done with those pesky British, and The Flight of the Earls, in1607, is one of the low points in this battle: The earls O’Neill and O’Donnell, along with about 100 of their chieftain compatriots, hightailed it for Rome after English king James I declared English law the law of Ireland as well. Some books trace the root of this flight to a battle in Kindale in 1601, in which the Irish lost some 2000 men and the other guys lost, well, one. That’s gotta hurt.

F is for Fairies – The wee folks, the little people, brownies, elves, goblins, trolls, pixies, banshees, sylphs, sprites, and, of course, leprechauns. Every culture has them, but the Irish seem to have more fun with them than most. Folks who discount these stories will be interested to know that there’s a runway at Shannon International airport that’s in a difference place than it was intended, because the original path ran through a “fairy fort” (a mound ringed by trees), and the workers refused to deal with it. Superstition or Byzantine labor tactic? Either way, it worked.

G is for The Giant’s Causeway — A stunning rock formation of pillars, on the northern tip of the Irish Island, which look like a series of steps designed for very, very large people. This is what the locals thought, at least: legend has it that it’s part of a road for giants that led to Scotland. Scientists, on the other hand, explain that is most likely the work of a cooling and contracting phase of a basaltic lava flow. This is why scientists are so rarely asked to tell fairy tales.

H is for Harp – The Harp is the official national symbol of Ireland, not the shamrock or a little red-headed guy in breeches and buckled shoes, although the latter two certainly lend themselves better to advertising and clip art. For the record, an Irish harp is a frame harp (as opposed to an arched or angled harp), that features a curved bow and seven finger levers, or ditals, that allow the player to change the pitch of the strings. Just the sort of thing to impress that cute harpist (or whatever it is they call themselves these days) that you met at the symphony social.

I is for Ireland – Of course. “Ireland” is the Irish island, which is currently divided into two separate political entities: The Republic of Ireland, which takes up the bulk of the island, in the south, and Northern Ireland, a part of the United Kingdom, situated (as luck would have it) in the north. The island itself is about 300 miles long, running north to south, and about 175 miles wide, running east to west, which makes it, more or less, the size of the great state of Indiana. The population is Indiana-sized, too, at about 5 million for both Ireland and Northern Ireland. To continue the weird Ireland- Indiana symbiosis, Roman Catholics are the largest religious denomination in both areas (about 20% of the population of Indiana and 95% of the Republic of Ireland) and the sports teams at Notre Dame University, located in South Bend, Indiana, refer to themselves is the Fightin’ Irish! This incredible string of coincidences is taking its toll. You’d better sit down.

J is for James Joyce — Some argue that the Dublin-born Joyce is the greatest writer in English in the 20th Century. Others argue that the fellow simply liked stringing random words together. They’re both right. It doesn’t make things any clearer, though, does it.

K is for Kells, the Book of — Gorgeous book of illuminated script, created by Irish monks in the 8th century AD and now residing at Trinity College in Dublin. It’s the sort of book they don’t make any more, mostly because it’s difficult these days to find a group of monks willing to spend years painstakingly etching and painting Latin onto handcrafted vellum. They’re all off making CDs of Gregorian chants or something. Slackers.

L is for Leprechauns – You know ‘em, you love ‘em. Today they’re best known for hawking alarmingly sugary children’s cereals and starring in schlocky horror films, but leprechauns are traditionally shoemakers. So don’t be surprised if one day your children are asking for “Air Luckys”. Leprechauns traditionally own a pot of gold, which you can get from them by capturing them and threatening them with physical injury. Normally, by the way, this is called “mugging.” Just so you know.

M is for Saint Malachy – The other Irish saint, the one whose feast day is not widely celebrated by drunken hordes spilling into the streets and demanding to be kissed due to a tenuous connection to the Irish nation. Malachy, who is often regarded as the greatest successor to St. Patrick, lived in the 12th century AD and held a number of bishoprics and was even at one time the papal prelate of Ireland. Malachy had a tendency, however, to be self-downwardly mobile (he gave up an Archbishop’s position in Armagh to occupy a less exalted position in Down). Malachy is credited with restoring ecclesiastical discipline and unifying the church in Ireland, and he was sainted in 1199.

N is for No – According to “Ireland: An Encyclopedia for the Bewildered” by K.S. Daly, in the Irish language (that would be the Celtic language, not English with an accent) there is no direct translation for the word “No.” A negative answer has to be expressed otherwise (Q: “Was it you I saw, dancing a jig down at the pub?” A: “It was not me that you saw, dancing a jig down at the pub.”). You can’t say “Yes” directly, either. Those nutty Irish.

O is for Sean O’Casey – One of the most important Irish dramatists of the 20th century. O’Casey’s plays frequently concerned themselves with the life of the Irish, and some of them were so vivid they sparked more than the usual reactions: when “The Plough and the Stars” premiered at the Abbey Theatre in 1926, audiences were so enraged by the play that they rioted. And, really, you can’t buy that sort of publicity.

P is for the Pale — Historically, an area of Ireland extending from Dublin to the port town of Drogheda. Within that area, English law prevailed (assuming, of course, that the English held the area at the time, which they did, quite a bit), and outside of it, it did not. It’s from this that we get the expression “Beyond the Pale,” which in its current form means “something clearly insane.” Which no doubt thrills the Irish.

Q is for nothing -- In the Irish language (back again to the Celtic- derived one), the letter Q doesn’t exist. Neither does V,W,X,Y or Z. This not quite as efficient as, say, the Hawaiian alphabet (which uses a mere 11 letters), but it’s up there.

R is for Rock and Roll – A quick glance at the Irish in Rock and Roll: Van Morrison, Elvis Costello, U2, Bob Geldolf (and the Boomtown Rats) Sinead O’ Connor and the Cranberries. Not a bad showing. Of course, Ireland is also responsible for Thin Lizzy. So it comes out about even.

S is for George Bernard Shaw — The English language’s second greatest dramatist, beaten only by Shakespeare. Shaw can take comfort in the fact there’s a greater drop from #2 to #3 than there is from #1 to #2. The Dublin-born playwright penned 50 plays, among them “Man and Superman,” “Arms and the Man,” “Pygmalion” (which in one of its film incarnations allowed the rather amused Shaw to nab himself an Oscar), and “Saint Joan,” the play for which he was award the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1925. Shaw was no less proficient as a critic than he was as playwright. Which puts him one up on ol’ Bill Shakespeare, frankly.

T is for Taoiseach — The Irish word for their Prime Minister. It means “Chieftain” and sounds a heck of a lot better than “minister.” Other nifty Irish political names: “Oireachtas,” is the name of their bicameral legislature, which the lower (and popularly elected) house being the Dail Eireann, and the upper house (into which members are variously appointed) the Seanad Eireann. And that’s your Irish lesson for today.

U is for Ulster – This is a word that means many different things. To begin, it is the northernmost of the four historical provinces (the other three being Connaught, Leinster, and Munster), and it also generally refers to the nine counties (Cavan, Donegal, Monaghan, Antrim, Armagh, Down, Fermanagh, Londonderry, and Tyron) that were in that province. However, the last six of these counties now constitute Northern Ireland, and Northern Ireland, because of this, is colloquially known as Ulster (which, by the way, is now divided politically in 26 districts rather than six counties). But wait, there’s more! The three Ulster counties remaining in the Republic of Ireland are collectively known as the Ulster Province. Got it? There’ll be a test later.

V is for Eamon de Valera – This fellow with the distinctly non-Irish last name was nevertheless a founding father of one of Ireland’s most recent incarnations, and a guiding light in the two others. During the existence of the Irish Free State (1922 -1937), de Valera was the president of the executive council (read: boss). When the Irish Free State became Eire, in 1937, he was elected premier (read: boss again). In the most recent Republic of Ireland, he was prime minister (yet again boss) twice and then became president (not boss, but no reason to complain) from 1959 until 1973. And what have you done with your life?

W is for wheels – The pneumatic tire (them’s the ones what got air in ‘em) was invented at the end of the 19th century by John Dunlop, a veterinarian based in Belfast (that’s in Ulster, but which Ulster? Surprise! Here’s that test we warned you about). Dunlop developed the tire after his young son experienced difficulties riding his tricycle, which had solid tires. How’s that for spoiled?

X- is for four leaf clover – Yes, it’s tenuous. But an “x” looks like a four leaf clover, if you squint. In any event, as you no doubt know, most clover and shamrocks have three leaves, so finding the rare one with four leaves is supposed to signify good luck to the discoverer. Nowadays, however, you can buy seed packets which produce nothing but four leaf clover, which, karmically speaking, has that “big cheat” feel to it. So don’t. By the way, the reason that shamrocks are important at all to the Irish is that Saint Patrick used them to illustrate the concept of the Holy Trinity. Those would have been the three-leaf versions, obviously.

Y is for William Butler Yeats – Another big gun in 20th Century Irish literature. In addition to founding the Abbey Theatre and contributing his own plays, Yeats is well known for his poetry, which includes the famous “Second Coming” (“What rough beast, its hour come round at last/ Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”), which is what people use when they want to make an allusion to Armageddon but don’t feel like hauling out Revelations. Yeats was award the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923.

Z is for Zozimus – Zozimus was the stage name of Michael Moran, an Irish balladeer and storyteller who lived in the 18th and 19th centuries. Zozimus lived to be 97, no doubt in part due to the amusement he must have gotten watching people trying to pronounce his stage name.

48 thoughts on “An A to Z of Irish Culture

  1. The Giant’s Causeway certainly does look like columnar basalt, at least to my eyes. Speaking of Led Zeppelin, it’s on the cover of Houses of the Holy, albeit in a very color shifted form.

    There’s even bigger columns of the stuff at Frenchman Coulee in Washington,near the Gorge Ampitheater. It’s about 5-10′ across and about 100 feet tall. Apparently it forms when very thick lava flows cool, in a manner similar to how thick mud dries and cracks in the sun.

  2. According to “Ireland: An Encyclopedia for the Bewildered” by K.S. Daly, in the Irish language (that would be the Celtic language, not English with an accent) there is no direct translation for the word “No.” A negative answer has to be expressed otherwise (Q: “Was it you I saw, dancing a jig down at the pub?” A: “It was not me that you saw, dancing a jig down at the pub.”). You can’t say “Yes” directly, either. Those nutty Irish.

    My impression is that this may not be all that unusual. I’ve heard tell that this is true in both Chinese and (classical) Latin (I think the words “yes” and “no” were added sometime in the transition to medieval Latin) — and other languages too.

  3. Dia dhuitch!

    Sadly, that’s about the extent of my Irish Gaelic knowledge, ’cause the pronunciation rules are very confusing.

    That was a wonderful list. Thank you.

  4. A happy list, but on mine, I’d say G is for Genocide, related to B for Blight. One guess where 3/4 of my family emigrated from.

    While we’re on the subject of St. Patrick, many consider the saying that he drove the ‘snakes’ out of Ireland to mean he killed and converted the pagans to Christianity. I’d rather just call it Irish Heritage Day or something for what it means to me and many non-Christians of Irish heritage. But I guess I’m being too PC here. *shrug*

  5. Just watched “The Boondock Saints” at the behest of someone who said it was an Irishman’s flick and sumfink to watch on this day of days. (I’m Scotch-Irish, BTW). It’s set in South Boston but the protagonists are true blue Irish.

    Conclusion? It’s hellafun and not to be missed by those who adore the Lockstock-and-Two-Smoking-Barrel-crowd. Willem Defoe is a revelation. Seriously, have a pint and watch it if you haven’t.

  6. I’m not sure mean “to avoid conflicting with Holy Week” then? It’s Holy Week NOW, today (for 10 more minutes) is Palm Sunday, Friday will be Good Friday, Sunday will be Easter.

    They put it right there in Holy week. Unless you’re thinking “to avoid conflicting with Lent” which it usually does anyway.

    Mind you, Greek Orthodox lent starts this week. The divergent calendars are especially divergent this year.

  7. I’m not sure mean “to avoid conflicting with Holy Week” then? It’s Holy Week NOW, today (for 10 more minutes) is Palm Sunday, Friday will be Good Friday, Sunday will be Easter.

    They put it right there in Holy week. Unless you’re thinking “to avoid conflicting with Lent” which it usually does anyway.

    Mind you, Greek Orthodox lent starts this week. The divergent calendars are especially divergent this year.

    (BTW, your site let me post anonymously by mistake, sorry about that.)

  8. Belfast (that’s in Ulster, but which Ulster? Surprise! Here’s that test we warned you about)

    Pah, that one’s too easy. At least for everyone who owned a radio in the last twenty years. And now I have that song stuck in my brain. Damn.

  9. I saw “Juno and the Paycock” at the (new) Abbey on my first visit to Ireland in ’97. Bored me to tears. Giant’s Causeway and the Antrim coast was much more to my liking. If I had to select a literary “O” it would be Flann O’Brien.

    If you’re not travelling much beyond the Pale, then I also recommend the Newgrange Passage Tomb near Drogheda. Within Dublin itself, which to my mind has become much more bland over the last decade, see the bog people at the museum, and the Chester Beatty Library where you can see some of the most amazing manuscripts not owned by Amazon (and a very decent world-food cafe).

  10. I can’t resist, you know, at this hour of the morning.

    The battle which took place in 1601 was the Battle of Kinsale, not Kinsdale.

    In 1937 the Irish Free State became known as Eire, not Erie.

    And the Pale, at certain times historically, extended a small bit south of Dublin. (Certain history books will tell you it extended as far south as Waterford, but it certainly encompassed parts of Wicklow and Wexford.)

    It’s my country, I can’t help it.

    Oh, and Erin go braugh is an Anglicism for Eireann go breá, which means good or beautiful Ireland.

  11. It strikes me that I’m a little too twitchy about trivial errors when it comes to my country. But it suffers sufficiently from the nonsense our own Tourism Board uses to promote it, so. :)

  12. Not to worry, Liz. I don’t mind the pointing out of errors. Makes them easier to correct.

  13. 4 Leaf clovers are nothing. Its the 5, 6, and 7 leafs ones we used to find outside the Chemistry building where I went to college that always creeped me out.

  14. Sweet! Thanks, John!

    Plus, thanks for the happy little icons, John. Now I can Stumble your pages like mad. Mad, I tell you. Even from work, where I have no happy Stumble toolbar.

  15. Sure and to be remembering that it is we non-Irish that should be honoring the sainted Patrick, who was a Welshman, by the way. The unruly Irish were starting to develop into a unified country when Patrick started converting them to being Christians and gave them another reason to fight each other. With out him there might have been an Irish dominated Europe and nobody would have been able to spell anything. Or make a simple sentence being on the account of the flowery and circular way of speaking that is typical of the people of the Emerald Isle.

    Of course, it could be worse. If my Welsh ancestors had dominated Europe we would all be eating leek soup and trying to spell words with no vowels but plenty of “d”s, “ll”s and other letters.

  16. My ancestors (on my dad’s side, anyway) cleared out of Northern Ireland in the 1830s. They would no doubt be appalled that one of their descendents celebrates St. Patrick’s Day: those ‘green’ Irish were the cultural enemy of the ‘orange’ Irish from which I descend.

    Me, I’m glad that St. Patrick’s Day has become so ecumenical, while the Loyal Orange Order (a largely racist, virulently anti-catholic organization formerly active in Ontario) has all but disappeared.

    As for Yeats, his lines earlier in that same poem: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity” is something that I see all the time.

  17. My impression is that this may not be all that unusual. I’ve heard tell that this is true in both Chinese and (classical) Latin (I think the words “yes” and “no” were added sometime in the transition to medieval Latin) — and other languages too.

    You’re right about the Chinese, at least for Mandarin. (Amy Tan has an essay about how “Chinese has no words for yes or no” gets misused to prove “the Chinese are inscrutable, indirect people” – it doesn’t seem to be available online, though.)

    Welsh is from a different branch of the Celtic language family, and it does something similar. “Was it you I saw, dancing a jig down at the pub?” could be answered “It was” or “It wasn’t”. (Chinese, if you were wondering, works much the same way.)

  18. Hmm glad I read this before I went to work. Forgot to wear green but I fixed that before leaving.

    Now at work glad because who knows what would of happened. Cute coed’s might have pinched my as… umm

    Damn

    Damn you Scalzi! You ruined my day!

  19. By the way, it’s “Paddy,” not “Patty.” Patty is for peppermints, Paddy is for beer (not green).

  20. The great Gaels of Ireland
    Are men that God made mad
    For all their wars are merry,
    And all their songs are sad.

    Cead mil failte AND pog mo thoin! (No accents because I have no idea where they go.)

    I’d like to take this opportunity to pass on a handy little Irish pronunciation trick I learned over years of Monday night ceilidhs at the Starry Plough Pub in Berkeley, CA:
    An ‘h’ in Irish means “backspace + delete”.
    That is, when confronted with an Irish word that has a ‘h’ in it, don’t pronounce the ‘h’ or the letter immediately before it.
    So:
    samhain -> sa-ain
    bodhran -> bor-an
    ceilidh -> cei-li
    In each case, while not entirely correct, much closer than the phonetic pronunciation.
    Mind you, this is only a quick-n-dirty trick*, but with luck it’ll keep the actual Irish people from rolling their eyes at the ignorant n00b.

    * The ‘h’ really affects the breathiness of surrounding vowels/consonants, but honestly I’ve never been able to sort out breathiness/non-breathiness OR broad/slender..

  21. Boy do I agree with rutty at #19! What about the great Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wils Wilde??? Sure, Shaw was more prolific and more pretentious a playwright, but Wilde was far more entertaining and, dare I say, memorable to a larger segment of the population, except for the few who know that My Fair Lady was based on some play? :D

    “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”

    With extreme bias, because I took my nickname from the master’s play…

    Slainte,
    Salome

  22. Nicole the Wonder Nerdon wrote on 17 Mar 2008 at 11:07 am

    “The great Gaels of Ireland
    Are men that God made mad
    For all their wars are merry,
    And all their songs are sad.”

    And all their names are unpronuncable
    And all their rhymes are bad.

    Ever listen to the lyrics of C&W music, which is descended in part from Celtic music? Depressing to a great degree. My wife was shocked to hear cheery songs at a family reunion that, when you paid attention the words, were about murders, death, crippling injuries and such. She was afraid to stay for the sad songs late at night.

  23. Some argue that the Dublin-born Joyce is the greatest writer in English in the 20th Century.

    For “greatest”, substitute “tedious, overrated, and unreadable”…

  24. JJ: I heartily agree! I spent the term we were supposed to be reading Joyce in high school reading Michner instead. Thank goodness the teacher gave an open book test because the Joyce was the most un-readable book I had ever picked up.

  25. What, nothing about the Sidh or the otherworld? Anyway, an album to listen to is Stiff Little Fingers: Inflammable Material for that rowdy northern Ireland sound.

  26. Nothing about Hurling, the historical sport of Ireland (that has nothing to do with drinking, thank you for the joke you were about to make)? It’s a fantastic sport to watch, I highly recommend it if you can get the chance. The Dublin (Ohio) Irish festival had a Hurling exhibition last year in which a few clubs that have been started competed… it’s not quite the same over here if for no other reason than a) Americans don’t learn how to play the sport from childhood, and b) the pitch size is fairly much larger than a football field, the usual area in which U.S. hurlers practice and play when they’re in the States.

  27. What a fun piece! Thanks for not putting out the standard sort of St. Pat’s day crud that makes fried chicken and watermelon jokes on MLK day look PC.

  28. Good post, but regarding Celts; we representing in northern Spain as well.

    In fact it’s my understanding that Irish celts are descended from invaders from Galicia and the area.

    Which has nothing to do with St. Patrick’s day, of course but makes me twice as drunk :)

  29. The Irish Celts are the second wave of migration. In an incredible feat of navigation they left Europe and managed to miss the big island between the mainland and Ireland, settling on the Emerald Isle. The earlier wave, about 100 years earlier, seemed to have been better sailors.

  30. As to Celtic/Irish migrations, unfortunately, at some point post-Patrick, the more ancient mythology, with its historical kernels of truth, was thrown out to link the Irish people into a Biblical timeline.

    From what I’ve read, they wandered all over the Mediterranean, and before arriving in Ireland, the tribe was known as the “Scoti,” later giving rise to “Scotland.” They claimed that the tribal chieftain had married a daughter of Pharaoh named ‘Scota,’ and being matrilineal, became ‘the Scoti.’

    In the myth of their arrival, the island was ultimately given the name of the chieftain of the Tuatha de Danann’s three daughters: Banbha, Fodla, and Eriu. The former two are still used poetically, the latter in the genitive is “hEireann” (spelling?) and this is why you’ll find Ireland referred to as “Erin’s Isle.”

  31. One more little nitpick for Q: There’s also no J in the Irish alphabet.

    Nice list and nice alternative suggestions from some of the commenters.

    And Hunted Snark: My ancestors (on Mom’s side) left Northern Ireland in the 1850s. They’d likely be happy the “orange” Irish were celebrating the holiday with us (though they’d still have plenty to be disappointed in, as at least one of their descendants isn’t spending the day at mass).

  32. Love the green updated look. I did a bit o’ the Irish on my design blog.

    Great collection of Irish factoids. Thanks for sharing the research!

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