The Sanas of Doo-wop

In his astoundingly daft book, How The Irish Invented Slang, Daniel Cassidy made a number of baseless claims about the influence of the Irish language on the English language. The vast majority of his claims are rubbish but few of them are as obviously stupid as those based on song lyrics.

There are nonsense refrains in many styles of music. Think of the Irish song Whiskey In The Jar, popularised by Thin Lizzy, which has the jingle:

Musha ring dum-a do dum-a da, Whack for my daddy-o,
Whack for my daddy-o, There’s whiskey in the jar-o.

In other words, many songs contain stretches of junk lyrics which have flashes of recognisable words but are not really carrying any message at all. Most of us would be happy to accept this and move on but unfortunately, Daniel Cassidy was not like other people.

Cassidy developed a crazy theory about a song called Poor Paddy Works On The Railway. This is entirely in English, apart from one nonsense line: Fil-i-me-oo-re-i-re-ay. This was interpreted by Cassidy as being a secret bit of Irish:

Fillfidh mé uair éirithe, ‘I’ll go back, it’s time to get up.’

Is this likely to be correct? Well, first of all, the case for this being a piece of Irish rather than a piece of melodic nonsense is very, very weak. For Cassidy’s theory even to be possible, the Irish would need to be clear, accurate and appropriate. It would need to be recognised by any Irish speaker as Irish and easily understood by them. So, is it?

Leaving aside the question of the phonetics, which is pretty iffy, fill has a number of meanings relating to going back, returning, or folding in Irish. Usually, if someone says fill without a preposition, they mean return here. If you want to talk about returning to another place, you use fill with the preposition ar. So, ‘I’ll return to work’ would be fillfidh mé ar an obair. Uair éirithe does mean ‘time to get up’, but normally if an expression of time like uair éirithe is used after a phrase like fillfidh mé (rather than before it), it describes when that activity will take place. So, fillfidh mé arú amárach means ‘I’ll return here the day after tomorrow’ and fillfidh mé uair éirithe would mean ‘I’ll return here when it’s time to get up’, not ‘It’s time to get up, I’ll return (to work)’.

This doesn’t make a lot of sense. Why would the person come home when it’s time to get up? Or sing about it? The truth is, they wouldn’t. The line fil-i-me-oo-re-i-re-ay is similar to lots of bits of nonsense in lots of songs and Cassidy’s interpretation isn’t at all convincing.

It is very easy to take a piece of nonsense and make up something in Irish (or any language) which gives it a spurious ‘meaning’. For example, as an exercise in making things up, here is the mysterious Irish sanas (an obscure literary term for secret knowledge now used primarily as the equivalent of ‘etymology’) of doo-wop.  Doo-wop showaddy-waddy is plainly dúbháb seo adaí, adaí, (‘black beautiful girl here yonder, yonder’, with the Ulster form adaí instead of the standard úd) and ‘shang a lang’ is seang álainn (slender and beautiful). I am working on Shama lama, baby, rama lama ding dong, hey, yea but I haven’t quite cracked it yet …

Of course, I don’t really believe that these come from Irish, any more than I believe that the passage from Poor Paddy Works on the Railway is really a piece of hidden Irish. As with everything else in this book, it is just the mindless, implausible ramblings of a boring, egotistical windbag whose self-belief was vastly more extensive than either his knowledge or his talent.

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