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THE FIGHTING IRISH

By David McGoldrick

There are many stereotypes associated with the Irish, but "political correctness" was never one of them. So, if you consider yourself "Woke", this article may not be for you. Can you imagine how boring the Saint Patrick's day parades around the world would be without a bit of "cultural appropriation"?

The main stereotype about the Irish that I will be looking at, is that we are belligerent, tough, short tempered, aggressive and that we favour violent solutions to problems. This, of course, is not an ideal stereotype in polite society, but in a conflict, such a reputation will definitely put your opponent on the back foot. No phrase puts this idea across more succinctly than "The Fighting Irish". 

The term was really popularised by The University of Notre Dame in Indiana. However, my argument is that the Irish had a combative reputation long before Notre Dame ever used it. Now, I could give you history lessons about the fearsome reputation of the Irish Brigade or tell you about the disproportionately high number of world Bare Knuckle boxing champions back in the day, with Irish surnames. But I think it would be far more interesting to look at other expressions that were (and are) in use which helped cement the pugnacious reputation of the Irish into the common psyche.

"Beyond the Pale". This expression is used to describe something lawless, crude, immoral, wild or uncontrollable. The Pale was the area around Dublin where British law and order was more enforced, before Irish independence. It was the centre of government in Ireland and obviously, Dublin is the capital to this day. This area was fenced off from the rest of the country and Paling is an old word for fencing. The fencing was designed to keep the peasants out and anyone beyond the Pale was considered unruly. 

"Donnybrook". This expression isn't really used in Ireland anymore but I understand that it is still known in America. It means a skirmish, brawl or riot with numerous people involved and would be the equivalent of a melee in French. Donnybrook fair was one of the most notorious events in the Irish calendar. Despite the fact that the village of Donnybrook was within the Pale, the fair managed to maintain it's reputation for drunkenness, lascivious behaviour and faction fighting for 650 years. Despite the high number of deaths that resulted from the faction fighting every year, the British government couldn't close down the fair. The licence to hold the fair had been granted by King John of England in 1204 and the British government couldn't overrule it. Eventually in the 1850's, local businesses bought out the licence and closed the fair. Ironically, Donnybrook is now quite an affluent area and a much sought after address despite it's violent history. 

"Coat dragger". This expression refers to someone who is looking for trouble and trying to provoke a fight or argument. It comes from a traditional method of starting a faction fight where one person would drag his coat along the ground whilst holding his stick in the other hand. If someone accidentally (or more likely, deliberately) stepped on his coat, that was taken as a challenge. A fight would quickly ensue and the members of both factions would jump straight in. Before you know it, a full on faction fight was under way. 

"Shillelagh". This is term used to describe a Blackthorn stick with a knob at one end. Although it is carried as a walking stick, it's more nefarious purpose is that of a highly effective weapon. The town of Shillelagh in Co. Wicklow was on the outskirts of one of the oldest forests in Ireland (Irish forests dated back to the end of the Ice age). Because of the age of the forest, the abundant Blackthorn that grew in the area was excellent for making weapons. So, much the same way that Champagne in France became associated with the best quality wine, Shillelagh became associated with the best quality Blackthorn sticks. 

"Batter". This word means to strike violently (and/or repeatedly). Although there are many words such as bat, beat and baton that appear in English and other European languages, they come from the much older Irish word; Bata (or Bhata) which is a stick for striking. Many people assume that Ancient Greek or Latin provide the basis for most European languages (and they do), but Gaelic was around before them and continued long after they were no longer in use. In my home City of Dublin, it is quite common to threaten someone by saying "I'll batter you" (this sounds more threatening in a Dublin accent).

"Have / Throw a Paddy". These expressions mean to lose your temper and to fly into a sudden rage, as in "I didn't mean to insult you, don't have a Paddy". I found that "throwing a Paddy" is a far more common expression in England than it is in Ireland. I guess that's because the Irish had a reputation in England for resorting to violence where in Ireland, that would be considered to be normal "problem solving".

"Paddy whacked". This means to be attacked or ambushed (usually by being hit on the head with a stick). This phrase has been preserved in the nursery rhyme "Knick knack Paddy Whack". Knick Knack are the sounds of Blackthorn sticks clashing in a faction fight, but like most old nursery rhymes, we will never know the true origins for sure.

"Paddy wagon". This refers to a Police van. The expression is more common in New York or London or any place that had a lot of Irish immigrants. It is hardly ever used in Ireland. There are a couple of contradictory origins. The first is that the Irish tended to get involved in a disproportionately high number of violent incidents and therefore were arrested and brought to the police station more than most groups of immigrants. The second is a bit more respectable and refers to the Irish getting more involved in the legal profession and especially becoming police officers. There are generations of Irish families involved in law enforcement now, especially in and around New York. 

"Gouger". This refers to a low life or someone with no ethics or sense of honour. This was a very common insult in Dublin and obviously implied that you would stoop to gouging someone's eye out in a fight. Interesting one of the Irish translations of the name Sullivan, is "One eye". I think that gouging someone's eye out in a fight may have been a popular tactic. 

"Hooligan". This expression refers to a ruffian or thug who gets involved in rioting, bullying or vandalism. It comes from the English pronunciation of the Irish family name Houlaghan (although there are many spellings of this name). The G is usually silent in Irish, but most other English speakers would not have known that. In the 1890's, there was a particularly violent Irish gang in London called the Hooligan boys and there was a music hall song that referred to a particularly riotous family called the Hooligans. I went to school with a lad called Houlaghan, and to be fair, he was a bit mental. 

So now that you're up to date on some of my favourite Irish expressions in the English language, it's time to see if you have been paying attention. Let's see if you can make sense of the following...

"Sullivan was a well known coat dragger. Some gouger thought that he had gone a bit beyond the Pale and Paddy whacked him with his Shillelagh. So his friend, who was a right Hooligan, threw a Paddy and started battering him senseless. This quickly escalated into a massive Donnybrook until the Paddy wagon turned up and took the main culprits away." 

How did you do? Did you understand that? Do you know of any other expressions that portray the Irish as being pugnacious or violent? At the time that many of these expressions came into common usage, there was a great drive towards respectability and therefore these phrases were meant to be quite insulting towards the Irish immigrants. But as I mentioned at the start of the article, the Irish have never had much regard for political correctness (or indeed anyone telling us how we should conform). So, rather than whining about such phrases, we owned them. I noted that in my research for this article that there is a big drive for Notre Dame university to drop the phrase "The Fighting Irish" because it's culturally insensitive (or some such rubbish) and they have refused. Good! D

David McGoldrick

RBUB Instructor

Muinteoir of the Wolf Faction

Devon, England

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