Dymphna Lonergan and Sheila

As promised, I have managed to take an hour or two out of my busy schedule to cobble together another article on the shockingly bad research of Irish-Australian academic Dymphna Lonergan. Here is the last instalment of my work on Lonergan, dealing with her theories about the origins of the Australian term Sheila as a somewhat negative or dismissive term for a woman.

The earliest use of this Australian term, according to the Australian National Dictionary, is an article in the Monitor (Sydney) in 1828, describing the St Patrick’s Day disturbances:

Many a piteous Shala stood wiping the gory locks of her Paddy, until released from that duty by the officious interference of the knight of the baton.

The standard derivation for the Australian term among linguists and scholars is that it comes from the Irish Síle either because it was a common name or because it was a generic name for an Irish woman in much the same way as Paddy was used for men. For example, Diarmuid Ó Muirithe discusses the Irish name taking the form Sheila in Australia as a ‘slang word for a girl’. Currently the Oxford English Dictionary is cautious but suggests ‘it may represent a generic use of the (originally Irish) personal name Sheila the counterpart of Paddy’. The Dinkum Dictionary expresses greater certainty: ‘Sheila’ was a common female name in Ireland, used alongside the name “Paddy” to represent the archetypal Irish couple’. There are traces in the folklore of parts of the Irish diaspora that Síle was supposed in tradition to be the wife of St Patrick and her feast day was celebrated on the 18th of March.

Lonergan doesn’t buy this version, that Sheila was a common name and that it was used as a generic name for Irish womanhood.

It is surprising that no one, apparently, has questioned these written assertions that the name Sheila is common in Ireland. It is not. Nor has the name Sheila ever been used in the generic sense of a counterpart to Paddy in Ireland. Neither was the name Sheila common in eighteenth century Australia. Between 1788 and 1828 over two thousand female convicts were transported to Australia from Irish ports.[1] … There were no Sheilas on board those convict ships. The Irish language name SÌle is usually translated into English as Julia. There were no Julias on board these convict ships.

In fact, the absence of Sheilas in official records means nothing, because the official Anglophone culture was completely blind to the Irish language. Let’s take the example of the Irish equivalent of James, Séamus. (You could just as easily use Seán or Conall or Dónall as examples.) The name Séamus is quite common today and we know from various sources that where Irish was spoken, Séamus was a common name. Are any of them ever recorded that way? No. In Church records, they would have been recorded in Latin, as Jacobus. In land records, they would have been registered as the English James, whatever they called themselves or were known as by their neighbours. This would also have been the case in most of the civil registration. Look at any Gaeltacht area and you will find people registered as John, James, Hugh, Thomas, not as Seán, Séamus, Aodh or Tomás.

As Lonergan says, the Irish Síle was usually rendered as Julia, but apparently there were no Julias aboard the convict ships before 1828. I am not sure about this because a few years later, the ships were full of them. A list of the convicts in Tasmania (van Diemen’s Land) in the 1830s and 1840s gives a large number of Julias:

Ahern, Julia     Australasia 246 20 17 March 1849 at Cork, Ireland

Boland, Julia      Phoebe 724 28 March 1844 at Waterford, Ireland

Byrne, Julia    Phoebe 717 30 31 August 1844 at Dublin (City), Ireland

Callaghan, Julia      Maria II 965 20 October 1848 at Cork Co. October Sessions, Ireland

Connolly, Julia     Emma Eugenia 1119 23 4 February 1850 at Newington Quarter Sessions, England

Cronin, Julia      Earl Grey 1054 26 10 July 1849 at Cork Co., Ireland

Culnane, Julia     Martin Luther 1252 23 30 June 1851 at Co Cork, Ireland

Daly, Julia      Gilbert Henderson 275 21 19 September 1839 at Glasgow Cot. Justy., Scotland

Donovan, Julia    Arabian 761 40 4 August 1846 at Cork City, Ireland

Doyle, Julia      Hindostan 255 33.5 4 December 1838 at Lancaster (Liverpool) Quarter Sessions

Dwyer, Julia     Jane II 153 19 18 October 1832 at Middlesex G.D., England

Farrell, Julia     Maria II 419 20 October 1848 at Queens Co. Oct. Sessions, Ireland

Ferrin, Julia     Waverley 235 56 18 April 1842 at Dublin (City), Ireland

Hastings, Julia    Duke of Cornwall 869 47.5 13 April 1850 at Limerick Co., Ireland

Higgins, Julia    Cadet 683 18 5 April 1847 at Central Criminal Court [Old Bailey], London,

Leary, Julia     Kinnear 409 39 3 March 1848 at Cork City, Ireland

Lynch, Julia    Martin Luther 541 32 9 July 1851 at Co Waterford, Ireland

Maher, Julia    Earl Grey 1094 40 25 June 1849 at Kings Co., Ireland

Mahoney, Julia    Atwick 264 19.5 14 August 1837 at Central Criminal Court, England

Mccarthy, Julia    Blackfriar 1266 56 16 September 1850 at County Cork, Ireland

Mccarthy, Julia    John William Dare 1356 24 14 December 1850 at Co. Cork, Ireland

Mccarthy, Julia    Maria II 983 18 September 1848 at Co. Cork, Ireland

Mullins, Julia     Providence II 50 18 15 September 1825 at London, England

Murphy, Julia    Aurora II 1280 31 16 December 1850 at Central Criminal Court (Old Bailey),

Murphy, Julia    Garland Grove 442 38 22 August 1842 at Central Criminal Court, England

Phillips, Julia    John William Dare 454 30 4 June 1851 at Dublin City, Ireland

Pigott, Julia     Waverley 357 26 16 October 1846 at Tipperary, Ireland

Reardon, Julia    William Bryan 132 19 11 March 1833 at Middlesex, England

Smith, Julia    Mexborough 478 24 6 January 1841 at Dublin, Ireland

Sullivan, Julia    Australasia 887 22 20 March 1849 at Kerry, Ireland

Walsh, Julia     John Calvin 729 22.5 3 August 1847 at Kildare, Ireland

Whelan, Julia    Martin Luther 976 21 12 January 1852 at Queens Cty, Ireland

White, Julia     Arabian 688 24 31 August 1846 at Dublin City, Ireland

Wilson, Julia     Mary Anne III 403 32 27 April 1840 at Dublin City, Ireland

A fact that Lonergan fails to mention is that the name Síle was sometimes translated with the names Cecilia, Celia or Cecily, and there are a few of these:

Donohoe, Celia    Mexborough 319 50 15 March 1841 at Galway, Ireland

Hart, Celia    Hope 458 20 8 January 1842 at Sligo, Ireland

Hocks, Celia    Maria II 783 20 October 1848 at Mayo Co. Oct. Sessions, Ireland

Kavanagh, Celia    Earl Grey 383 18 12 July 1849 at Wexford, Ireland

Shannon, Celia    Hope 507 21 5 April 1841 at Mayo, Ireland

Walsh, Celia    Blackfriar 902 45 28 March 1849 at Mayo, Ireland

Carr, Cecilia    Lord Auckland 942 24.5 17 January 1848 at Galway Town, Ireland

Connors, Cecilia    Lord Auckland 951 35 6 April 1848 at Wexford, Ireland

Higgins, Cecilia    Phoebe 591 36 17 October 1843 at Westmeath, Ireland

Egan, Cicely    St Vincent 186 23 20 February 1848 at Lancaster, England

All these women were either convicted in Ireland or had unmistakeably Irish surnames, which means that most of them, if not all, were probably known as Síle rather than Julia or Cecilia.

So, Lonergan is wrong about the name Sheila and its variants. There is no doubt that it was a common enough name in 19th century Ireland. There is no doubt that some convicts called Síle were sent from Ireland to Australia under names like Julia and Cecilia around the time that the first reference to the word sheila is recorded in Australia. And there is certainly clear evidence that Sheila was a generic term for an Irish woman and that the name Sheila was associated with the name Patrick, as the St Patrick’s Day quotation from an Australian newspaper suggests.

Anyway, what is Lonergan’s distinct take on the word Sheila? Why does she want to ‘disprove’ the idea that the word Sheila in Australian slang refers to Irish women? 

From what I can see, her suggestion is that síle doesn’t represent the Irish name but rather an expression for an effeminate man or a homosexual. Her theory seems to be that it was used by convicts of their gay lovers in the early days of settlement when there were few women and many men and that from this it was later used as a rather disrespectful term for a woman. In fact, the word síle is defined as homosexual in the excellent dictonary of sexual slang by Ó Luineacháin, a book I have referenced before in these pages and there is no doubt that it is linked to effeminacy in earlier Irish dictionaries going back to Dinneen’s second edition in 1927. (it isn’t mentioned in the first edition in 1904). To the best of my knowledge, there is no source dating back before 1927. And of course, though there is evidence that síle has been used as a term for an effeminate male in the twentieth century, this is a subsidiary use of the female name Síle. It’s not a separate word with a separate origin.

In fact, if we look for the origin of Síle in the sense of an effeminate male, I would suggest the most likely scenario is that síle in this sense is a conscious recreation of the English word sissy. There is some doubt in English whether sissy is from a shortened form of sister or a shortened form of Cecilia, which would put it in the same class as terms like Molly and Nancy, both of which have been used to describe men who don’t conform to gender stereotypes. However, apparently the pejorative use of sissy only dates back in American English to 1885-1890 and it quickly spread to the English of Britain and (presumably) Ireland. Because Sissy is used in Ireland (including in Irish-speaking areas) as a pet name for Síle/Sheila, it seems likely that people who were bilingual and aware of the meaning of sissy in English could have used the name Síle as an Irish equivalent of sissy. If this is the case, the use of síle for an effeminate person probably wouldn’t date back before 1890.

Of course, there’s no evidence that Síle for an effeminate man is modelled on English sissy but by the same token, there is no evidence that síle was used to refer to effeminate people or gay people in Irish prior to the 1920s.

There’s also nothing in the Australian uses of Sheila to suggest that it originally applied to homosexual relationships among convicts. Of course, if it were true, it would be a great story. So male chauvinist pigs who dismissively talk about sheilas are actually using a term originally used by gay convicts to describe their boyfriends? How delicious is the irony there? But of course, the fact that it’s a good narrative should make us even more careful and sceptical, not less. Who cares if it’s a good story if it isn’t true? Where’s the evidence? 

And of course, it has been spread far and wide because it’s a good story, not because Lonergan has any evidence or any good reason for thinking it’s true. She seems to have a child-like love of publicity and this is what drives her sub-standard and ludicrous research.

Didgeridoo = Dúdaire Dubh?

Some time ago, I promised that I would continue my examination of the whacky theories of Irish-Australian academic Dymphna Lonergan about the Irish origins of certain typical Australian terms. Unfortunately, I have been busy since then and simply haven’t had time to complete the second instalment of my Dymphna Lonergan article. Until now.

Lonergan’s claim is that the name of the Australian Aboriginal Instrument usually known as a didgeridoo or didjeridu is really of Irish or Scottish Gaelic origin.

A bizarre claim, you might think, and you’d be right. How does Lonergan make a case for it?

Well, first of all, she has to argue that the word didgeridoo is not of indigenous Australian origin, though it is obvious that the instrument itself is. She argues that the name is not found in any Aboriginal language. This may be true but of course, a number of Aboriginal languages have died out since Europeans arrived. Another frequent claim dismissed by Lonergan is the idea that didgeridoo is an onomatopoeic term based on the sound of the instrument.

One of the things that really gobsmacked me when I read about Lonergan’s theory of the origin of didgeridoo was the way she chose to deal with the awkward possibility of onomatopoeia. Apparently, Lonergan put a number of volunteers in a room and played didgeridoo music to them: “asking subjects to make the sound of the instrument yielded words full of vowels starting with the letter “b” or “m”. No subjects made the sound didgeridoo.”

I need hardly point out how extraordinarily silly and pointless this is. For one thing, as Aboriginal music expert Randin Graves points out on his blog, there is more than one tradition of playing and some of the more unfamiliar styles would more than likely be represented by a d sound than by a b or an m. Then there is the matter of who Lonergan’s sample were. What a group of modern urban Australians interpreted the sound of the instrument to be is not necessarily what a group of rural settlers in the Northern Territories more than a hundred years ago would have heard.

In fact, onomatopoeia is the most likely explanation for the term’s origin and is certainly long-established. The earliest citations for the word, from 1918 and 1919 are clear that this is what lies behind the name.  ‘It produces but one sound – didgerry, didgerrry, didgerry – and so on ad infinitum’. Smiths Weekly 1918.

However, although this is the earliest mention of didgeridoo, there is actually a much earlier reference to the instrument with a slightly different term for its sound in the journal of Collet Barker, who wrote, circa 1829:

Mago had brought a kind of musical instrument, a large hollow cane about 3 feet long bent at one end. From [this] he produced two or three low & tolerably clear & loud notes, answering to the tune of didoggerry whoan, & he accompanied Alobo with this while he sang his treble. 

Didoggerry whoan is clearly similar to didgeridoo. Furthermore, linguist Sue Butler quotes Professor Nicholas Evans, who offers an alternative origin in his comment on Dymphna Lonergan’s theory:

When people blow the instrument, in Dalabon and Kunwinjku-speaking areas, they speak or mouth into the didgeridoo a type of word which is written as follows in the local orthography: didjmrrooo, didjmrroo didjmrroo. Those words also get used when someone is telling a story and wants to sing, or represent, the sound of the instrument being played. The stretch often finishes up with a simple didj! to represent the last sound it makes before fading to silence. I think this is a practice that precedes any contact with English.

In other words, there is good evidence that the name didgeridoo derives from words used to represent the sound of the instrument in much the same way that Irish traditional musicians use nonsense words like diddley-dee and diddley-eye when lilting a tune.

The second part of Lonergan’s appallingly incompetent theory is even easier to dismantle. Lonergan claims that didgeridoo represents either Irish or Scottish Gaelic and suggests that the didgeri part is really dúdaire (Irish) or dùdaire (Scottish Gaelic). Dúdaire describes a person and has various meanings, such as eavesdropper, trumpeter or crooner in Irish and dùdaire means various things including cornet-player in Scottish Gaelic. As for the doo, Lonergan suggests that this is either Irish dubh meaning black or Scottish Gaelic dùth meaning native or hereditary. Quite apart from this being a fairly ludicrous confection, it is highly unlikely that anyone in Irish would transfer the word for a person who plays an instrument to the instrument itself (a cruitire is a harpist, not a harp and píobaire is a piper, not a set of pipes).

The main methodological issue here is the same as it always is with crap amateur etymologists. The question is not, can I cobble something together by ransacking a dictionary to find something that sounds a little like the target phrase or word? The question is, is this what a native speaker of this language would be likely to use to describe the new object? Do I think a stray Irish-speaker, hearing the sound of the didgeridoo for the first time, would point at it and say “dúdaire dubh”?

No, I don’t think that. I think Lonergan’s theory is ill-informed, pretentious, fanciful, publicity-seeking rubbish.

Dymphna Lonergan’s Bad Etymology

I have commented on Dymphna Lonergan before. She is Irish-born but she has carved out a career for herself as an academic at Flinders University in Australia. A few years ago, she published an entire book about the Irish influence on Australian speech. I have tried to obtain a copy of her book but it is not easy to find a second hand copy and I am not prepared to spend a large amount of money on this. However, some claims made by Lonergan are well represented and covered in other sources on line, so I feel that I am being fair by limiting myself to these claims where I have sufficient information to make a clear judgement.

Interestingly, she has commented on Daniel Cassidy’s work (https://researchnow.flinders.edu.au/en/publications/global-irish-words-submitted):

The American writer Daniel Cassidy in his book How the Irish Invented Slang claims most American slang comprises Irish words in disguise. His claims have been challenged, but I suggest his work is still of value in seeing Irish words existing outside that language and in American English, Australian English and Newfoundland English where they sometimes serve new purposes.

It is quite extraordinary that anyone studying the area of Irish influence on English would choose to ignore the hundreds of made-up Irish expressions in Cassidy’s work but it is quite clear that Lonergan’s research in this field falls well short of the standards that a genuine academic would expect.

Anyway, I will divide my posts on Lonergan into three parts. The first will cover a rag-bag of minor absurdities. The second will cover the foolish claims made by Lonergan about the origins of the term didgeridoo. The third will cover her equally dodgy claims about the origins of the Australian term ‘sheila’ for a woman.

So, why do I think Lonergan is such a poor researcher? Well, let’s start with a couple of very clear examples.

For example, on a blog called Tinteán, we find a comment from Lonergan on the term pampootie. The pampootie or pampúta is a type of moccasin worn traditionally by the people of the Aran Islands in the west of Ireland. They are usually known as bróga úrleathair (rawhide shoes) in Irish but the term pampúta is also found. The origin of the word is unknown but it is worth noting that almost no native Irish words begin with the letter p.

Here is Lonergan’s claim:

In a similar vein the Irish pampúta, ‘a moccasin or primitive shoe made from two pieces of leather’, originating on the Aran Islands, has made its way into Australian Aboriginal English as pampuu, meaning ‘a shoe’.

Do you see the problem with this argument? Basically, the problem is that it isn’t an argument. It’s a random assertion without any attempt to provide evidence. While it’s possible that an Aran Islander made his or her way to remote parts of Australia and that the Aboriginal speakers adopted the term from them, this isn’t the only possibility, or indeed the most probable. The word pump means a flat shoe in English. It has had that meaning in English since the 16th century and the English word isn’t derived from pampootie or pampúta. Doesn’t pampuu sound more like pump than pampúta? Of course it does!

If this were an occasional lapse on Lonergan’s part, you could forgive it, but unfortunately, this kind of garbage is far from occasional in her work. In the same source, we find this claim about the word doodeen. Doodeen is a familiar Hiberno-English term, a transliteration of the Irish dúidín, which refers to a short clay pipe. However, here’s another gem from Lonergan in relation to this word:

Another Irish word that has travelled globally is the word dúd ‘a stump’ in its diminutive form dúidín. It can still be heard in Irish English as doody, the word for a baby’s pacifier.

Why do I object to this? Well, there are lots of terms like this for a baby’s dummy or pacifier in lots of areas. Here in the north of Ireland, we call it a dodie. They also call it a dodie in the north of England, where Irish influence is very unlikely. These terms resemble also the word diddy, which is a common term for a nipple in various dialects of English. It’s not completely impossible that Lonergan is right about this but … where’s the evidence? There isn’t even a decent examination or discussion of easily available evidence, never mind a search for more obscure sources. Lonergan thinks it comes from dúidín, therefore it comes from dúidín!

One source I found was a lecture given by Lonergan in TCD in Dublin. I was astounded at a couple of instances she gives of phrases quoted from Irish people in Australia that she thinks prove that they were thinking in Irish. The first is from a prisoner called Paddy Galvin who was being whipped to make him rat on his fellow conspirators and who said that:

You may as well hang me now, for you will never get my music from me.

Lonergan says that this has been supposed to be poetic but according to her, it really reflects the fact that Galvin was thinking in Irish, because the word music can mean information in Irish. Really? Her only ‘evidence’ is from the Ó Dónaill’s dictionary, which cites the expression ‘beidh ceol faoi seo’ as meaning ‘there will be talk about this’. That isn’t the same as saying that ceol (music) means information. It doesn’t. There is no evidence of anyone using ceol in this way. Does a song mean a row because you can say ‘don’t make a song and dance about it’? No. If Galvin said something like ‘Bheadh sé chomh maith agaibh mé a chrochadh anois, mar ní bhfaighidh sibh mo chuid ceoil asam go deo na ndeor,’ that sounds every bit as poetic and unprosaic in Irish as it does in English. Her claim that Galvin’s utterance represents a normal Irish expression that sounds poetic when translated is simply nonsense.

She also quotes a comment about a priest, who was said to have ‘the swiftest and sweetest tongue of Irish that I ever heard’. This, according to Lonergan, shows that the person who said this was thinking in Irish because the term sweetest tongue evokes the Irish term blasta, meaning tasty but often applied to language. The problems with this are so obvious it hardly seems necessary to point them out. For one thing, there are other terms in Irish that correspond more closely to sweetest tongue. What about briathra meala, honeyed words, or binnghlórach, sweet-voiced? And then, of course, you would have to prove that the image of words being sweet or honeyed is not used in other languages like English. Again, this is nonsense. You only have to think of words like mellifluous, honey-flowing, a term often applied to language.

But Lonergan doesn’t bother working this out. ‘I knew they were Irish speakers, because of the way they spoke English’. No, you really don’t know that, because there is nothing in these utterances that suggests their original language of composition was Irish.

Before leaving this initial look at silly claims made by Lonergan, let’s look at the expression brumby. She seems to be quite proud of having conned compilers of dictionaries into taking her claim seriously but it really is quite stupid. The term brumby is used to refer to feral horses in the Australian outback. The most likely explanation is that brumbies descend from horses originally belonging to James Brumby who left some horses when he relocated to Tasmania in 1804. Lonergan thinks that brumby really comes from bromaigh, the plural of the Irish word bromach, which means a colt, a young male horse. Quite apart from the fact that Brumby is a well-attested character who can be proven to have existed, there are several problems with Lonergan’s claim. One is that words tend to be borrowed in their most simple form in language contact, so you would expect it to be borrowed as bromagh and the plural to be bromaghs. Which sound even less like brumby. The other is that of all the words for horse, why would it be bromach? Why not a generic term for a horse like capall or beithíoch? Why would a word for a young male horse become the term for all wild horses? I can’t see any reason why it would!

In other words, I think Lonergan is a terrible researcher and I have demonstrated as much above. However, the worst myths she has been guilty of promoting are the ones about the slang term Sheila for a woman and the utterly ridiculous idea that didgeridoo comes from Irish. I will deal with each of these in an individual post. Watch this space!

A Wren Pissing In The Sea

A few years ago, I wrote a piece called Gosh Darn It, Danny in which I said that a bit more nonsense on IrishCentral would be – as we say in Irish – like a wren pissing in the sea. (Mar mhún dreoilín san fharraige.) Jeremy Butterfield, an expert lexicographer and linguist, commented that it was a great expression and that he would squeeze it into English conversations whenever he had the opportunity. Then, a year or two later, I learned that the Welsh use the same idiom (fel piso dryw bach yn y môr). This started me wondering where the expression originally came from, so I decided to do a little research.

Strangely, one of the oldest known proverbs in history is very similar to this idiom. It is found in the Sumerian language: The fox, having urinated into the sea, said: ‘The depths of the sea are my urine!’

However, this Sumerian expression doesn’t seem to have left any direct mark on the world’s languages and it is not until a few hundred years ago that we find it in contexts where it is more likely to have spread into Irish or Welsh. According to The Oxford Dictionary of Word Origins, a similar expression is found in a 1590 work (Deviz Familiers) by the French writer Gabriel Meurier:  peu ayde, disçoit le formy, pissant en mer en plein midy’. (A little helps, said the ant, pissing in the sea in broad daylight’.) Within a few years, a similar expression was recorded in English, in a letter from a man called Philip Gawdy to his brother, but in the Gawdy version, the ant has become a wren and he omits the word piss (bycause the wrenn sayde all helpte when she … in the sea).

In other words, this is an expression that seems to have formerly existed in a number of European languages that interacted regularly with one another: French, English, Irish and Welsh. However, it seems to have been lost in English and probably in French. Why this should be is a mystery, as it is a good expression.

When I looked at this question, it reminded me of another phrase which I found beautiful when I began learning Irish in my early teens, the phrase bóín Dé (little cow of God) which is the usual term for the insect known as a ladybird or ladybug in English. I later learned that phrases with the same meaning are found in many of the Slavic languages (boża krówka in Polish, Божья коровка in Russian) and I wondered why. The answer is, of course, that this was formerly widely spread throughout many European languages. In English, it was known as Godyscow in Middle English and in French it was vache de Dieu. Gradually, other expressions, mostly to do with the Virgin Mary, have supplanted these names in many European languages, leaving Irish and the Slavic east with what looks like a special connection, whereas in reality what we have today are just the remnants of something far more extensive.

If you are the kind of person who enjoys etymology and word history, you will find a lot more of it (and much better researched) over at Jeremy Butterfield’s blog: https://jeremybutterfield.wordpress.com.

Coming up on CassidySlangScam

I have had very little time to contribute to Cassidyslangscam recently but I am not completely finished with the blog. There are a number of loose ends that I have not tied up yet and I intend to get them all done some time this year. Hopefully!

What kind of material will be included? Well, I would like to start (soon) with a brief article about an interesting Irish idiom (mún dreoilín san fharraige) and its links to similar idioms in other languages. Watch this space for that one!

I also plan to publish a review of the fascinating research of Barbara Freitag into the Sheila-na-gig, statues which are found on churches and castles in Ireland (and in other countries) of naked female figures displaying their genitalia. Are they pagan fertility symbols or Christian warnings against licentiousness? Where does the expression Sheila-na-gig come from and what are its origins in the Irish language? I hope to be able to provide some information on these questions and others here.

I would like to write a proper debunking of the abysmal ‘research’ of the Australian academic Dymphna Lonergan, originator of the notion that didgeridoo is derived from an Irish phrase, whose work is almost as amateurish and phoney as Cassidy’s.

And I would dearly love to have a go at a man called Bob Quinn and his ridiculous theories about the north African origins of the Irish. That has been on the cards for a long time but I would like to research it properly and do the subject justice (even if Quinn couldn’t be bothered doing that!)

In other words, I do plan to post here when I have the time to do so. I will also answer questions or comments when they warrant an answer. That is, when the comment or question is coherent and actually raises a sensible issue. Believe me, many of the comments I have had here are completely incoherent and absolutely not worth answering!

A Note on the Word Geis

I had a message recently from David L Gold, a true language scholar and a long-term online friend of this blog. It was David who suggested providing a glossary devoid of invective against Cassidy and his enablers. David’s message is worth quoting in its entirety:

Who says that the compilers of the OED try to play down the influence of Irish on English? Here’s one of the entries from the edition of 1933, recently revised:

geis, n.

Pronunciation: /ɡɛʃ/ /ɡeɪʃ/ /ɡiːʃ/
Forms: Also gaysh, geas. Pl. geasa, geise.
Etymology: Irish.

In Irish folklore: a solemn injunction, prohibition, or taboo; a moral obligation.

1880 S. Ferguson Poems 63 This journey at this season was ill-timed, As made in violation of the gaysh.

1899 D. Hyde Lit. Hist. Irel. 344 He thought he saw Gradh son of Lir upon the plain, and it was a geis (tabu) to him to see that.

1899 D. Hyde Lit. Hist. Irel. 373 Every man who entered the Fenian ranks had four geasa (gassa, i.e., tabus) laid upon him.

1928 Observer 22 Jan. 5/4 Apparently a man could be either:—(1) Born under a ‘geis’ prohibiting certain actions on his part, or (2) Laid under ‘geis’ either at birth or any time during his life, either by divine or human agency.

1965 New Statesman 23 July 129/2 In a sense which most Irish people will know, this put Fallon under a geas, a moral compulsion, to say his bit.

David is entirely correct about this. The word geis is an interesting one, as it is a survival of ancient ideas about supernatural injunctions or taboos placed on people. The most famous example is probably Cú Chulainn, who was weakened sufficiently by being tricked into eating dog-meat that his enemies were able to destroy him. The word for a superstition in my dialect of Irish is geasróg, which comes from geis. (The more common word in southern Irish is pisreog, which is also common in Irish English as pishrogue.)

As David points out, there are many words like this in the mainstream dictionaries. There is no conspiracy to hide Irish influences on the English language, no sinister cabal of Anglophile academics trying to play down the role of the Irish in the linguistic history of America. It’s all pure nonsense!

A Welcome Message

I had a message from Mr. Richard Wolfe the other day:

“I recently bumped into Mr. Cassidy on C-SPAN while watching the 27th (2007) Annual Book Award sponsored by the Before Columbus Foundation. Cassidy was among many being honored for their contribution to multicultural literature. He began with a quote from H. L. Mencken: “Puzzling the Irish have given the English language indeed very few new words…” He spoke very briefly but entertainingly about his proof of Mencken’s mistake, and moved on. And I went shopping. I was about to click BUY on Cassidy’s book when I decided to Google “reviews” instead.
“Buyer beware,” they say.”

I am very glad that reviews of Cassidy’s work like this blog were able to prevent you from wasting your money on this rubbish. That is what this blog exists to do. It’s a pity there aren’t more sensible people around like you who check before they click.

The Belfast Hills and Gulliver’s Travels

In this blog, my primary target has been the fake etymology of Daniel Cassidy but I have touched on a number of other phoney memes about Ireland and Irish such as the silly claim that Swift was inspired to write Gulliver’s travels by the appearance of Belfast’s Cave Hill, which looks like a sleeping giant. Extensions of this myth say that Swift also took the name Lilliput from a farm in North Belfast as the name for his nation of tiny people and that Lilliput Street commemorates this farm. According to many sources, the name Lilliput in Belfast goes back to before the time when Swift lived in the area.

The truth is quite different, as I have said before. Swift did live in Kilroot near Carrickfergus for about two years between 1694 and 1696, and had a relationship with a girl called Jane Waring from Waring Street in Belfast, so he undoubtedly travelled into the town through the area around Lilliput Street, and Cave Hill does look a little like a sleeping giant. However, he did not write Gulliver’s Travels until the 1720s (it was published in 1726) and there is absolutely no evidence that Swift had Cave Hill in mind when he wrote about his giants.

In fact, the idea that Swift was inspired by Cave Hill is very recent. The earliest reference to it that I can find is from an article in the Scotsman in 2004. Experts on Swift and his work tend to make the point that Swift was influenced by the French writer Rabelais, whose satirical works about the giants Gargantua and Pantagruel are much more obvious as inspirations. For example, Oxford Quick Reference says about Rabelais that he had a widespread influence on English literature, particularly on S. Butler, Swift, Sterne, Peacock, and Joyce. Whole articles have been written on the subject, such as Eddy’s 1922 essay, Rabelais, a Source for Gulliver’s Travels. And then there is Marion Graz Carr’s 1924 work, A Comparison of the “Gargantua” and “Pantagruel” of Rabelais with Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels.” Just Google Swift and Rabelais and you will find hundreds of references.

As for the idea that Lilliput Farm in Belfast was the inspiration for the name Lilliput in Gulliver’s Travels, this is only possible if Lilliput Farm was called that in the 1690s. This is often claimed on the internet and by self-appointed local historians in Belfast but if we look for evidence, there is none. The earliest reference to Lilliput as a place in the Belfast area seems to be (it’s not absolutely certain that it’s the one in the Belfast area but seems likely) a reference in the Belfast Newsletter to an auction of furniture at the house of Hercules Heyland in Lilliput in 1786. There are quite a few references to Lilliput House and its garden in the early 19th century too, and this is definitely in the right area of the city. It seems to have been a nursery or garden and seed suppliers at that time.

However, 1786 is sixty years after Gulliver’s Travels was published. It seems likely to me that someone chose to build a house and call it Lilliput because they were a fan of Swift or because they were small or the house was small – for some whimsical reason which hasn’t been recorded. If that’s the case, it wasn’t the only one. There was a Lilliput Lodge in Limerick in the early 19th century. There is also a Lilliput House at Nure in County Westmeath which was named after Swift’s creation in the 18th century. There are probably many other Lilliputs named after Gulliver’s Travels rather than the other way round.

There is also the question that Lilliput doesn’t sound like an Irish placename. There aren’t any places anywhere in Ireland (apart from the occasional Lilliput) with the element Put in them, to the best of my knowledge, and the same goes for Lilli. They aren’t common elements like kill or maghera or bally or knock…

So, if Swift didn’t get the name of Lilliput from a place in Belfast, where did he get it? Well, experts on Swift have speculated about that one. The answer seems to be that the Lilli- is a childish rendering of little, which makes perfect sense. As for the put, this word was a common slang term meaning a stupid fellow or a blockhead in Swift’s day. Swift was an opponent of slang and actually mentioned the word put as one of the words people shouldn’t use in an article he wrote in the Tatler in 1710! In other words, Lilliput would be the kingdom of the little fools.

And, just as the Irish language doesn’t need a Cassidy to make it interesting or important, the Belfast Hills have more than enough going for them without a fake association with Swift. They are stunningly beautiful and they are full of genuine history. So let’s just ditch all this newly-manufactured fakery and stick to the facts!