This is a question I have been meaning to deal with for a while. It was never discussed by Cassidy but it is of some interest.
Derevaun Seraun is a phrase found in Joyce’s Dubliners story Eveline. It is uttered by a dying old woman, the mother of the eponymous Eveline.
There is no doubt that it sounds Irish and some people claim to hear some clear message in it. As a fluent Irish speaker, do I hear anything Irish in it? Well, I have to admit that when I say it to myself, I do find Irish words in it. I hear (in a Munster accent) the words dearbhán saothrán. Dearbhán means a voucher, as in a card exchangeable for a certain amount of money in a bookshop or a restaurant and saothrán means a culture, specifically a culture of bacteria or fungus on a Petri dish.
Neither of these words or concepts was much discussed in the Gaeltachts of Ireland when Joyce was attending Irish classes (which he did – he was not as hostile to the language as many modern Gaelophobes would like to think). I doubt if dearbhán existed when Joyce was writing and saothrán certainly didn’t.
So, if it doesn’t mean that, what does it mean? As is always the case with Irish, the anglophone world is never slow to project all kinds of ridiculous fantasies onto our language.
So, according to one person, there is a ‘simple naturalistic meaning’ of ‘the only end worms’, (explained as deire amháin with the word pronounced ‘Seraun’ used in Connemara for worms). Okay.… Does deireadh amháin mean ‘the only end’? Kind of, but only kind of. To me, deireadh amháin means ‘one end’ (of a number). I would express the only end in other ways – an t-aon deireadh, for example. As for során, this is a word meaning wireworms, which are a problem for gardeners but aren’t really associated with death, unlike cruimheanna or péisteanna.
A frequently quoted claim is that Derevaun Seraun is a corrupt Irish phrase meaning ‘the end of pleasure is pain’ but I have never seen the supposed Irish original of this. Another is ‘the end of song is raving madness’, presumably suggesting that the majority of deveraun is linked to the Irish amhrán, meaning song, while seraun is presumably meant to be siabhrán, meaning a slight derangement, confusion or mental delusion. How you get the word for end in there is another matter!
Or then there’s the other claim that it means ‘I was there, you should go there’ in Kerry Irish. Apparently, the first bit is supposed to be ‘do raibh ann’, which can’t be right. It would be ‘do bhíos ann’ or ‘(do) bhí mé ann’. There’s no reason for the raibh form here.
Neither is deireadh saothair likely (the end of labour or effort) as it doesn’t really sound anything like the phrase and deireadh saor doesn’t mean the end of freedom (freedom is saoirse). Deireadh saor means ‘a free end’ or ‘the end of carpenters’.
So, again, what does this phrase mean? The late Breandán Ó hEithir had some strange and rather right-wing ideas but in relation to this, I think he was spot-on when he said that the phrase was ‘probably gibberish’. It’s meant to sound Irish without meaning anything. It suggests Irish but leaves the whole thing open to interpretation. I imagine that Joyce chose these meaningless Irish-sounding words very carefully, knowing that a tantalising puzzle with no solution would have critics of his work swarming all over it like flies on shite.