Derevaun Seraun

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.

5 thoughts on “Derevaun Seraun

  1. Jeremy Butterfield

    Reblogged this on Jeremy Butterfield Editorial and commented:
    A fascinating story of (over)interpretation by critics, analysed by an Irish-language expert.

    ‘As is always the case with Irish, the anglophone world is never slow to project all kinds of ridiculous fantasies onto our language.’

    ‘… 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.’

    Reply
  2. Danielomastix Post author

    Hi Jeremy, Glad that you liked that. I have a couple of others on my to-do list, one of which is Sheila-na-Gig. The other is a phrase you admired, mún dreoilín san fharraige (a wren’s piss in the sea, an insignificant amount), because I found out subsequently that the exact same phrase exists in Welsh as well. Hope all is well with you. Have you been to Denmark recently?

    Reply
  3. boneyarsebogwoman

    I’m working on a Joyce paper right now (returning student in U.S.). I’m Irish but rusty on the language. Could it possibly be “Deireadh amháin, saol amháin?” “One end, one life?” I’m maybe winging it here because “saol eile” means afterlife. I’m saying that because Margaret Mary Alacoque was meant to have 12 promises, a lot of which had to do with blessings in life and refuge in death for the devout. I’m sure Mrs. Hill was very Catholic given the prominence of the Alacoque portrait in the home and maybe at the end, given her life, she felt cheated. Maybe in making Eveline promise to keep the home together as long as she could meant as long as Eveline could stand it? Does it sound like I’m grasping at straws here? I’ve got a ton more. 😀

    Reply
  4. Danielomastix Post author

    I’ll come right out with it – yes! You are grasping at straws but no more than dozens of other Joyce scholars so you’re in good company! The problem is that no version corresponds closely enough to the words given by Joyce to be an automatic, certain choice. There are dozens, if not hundreds of things it COULD be. There are lots of things that might be suggested as something similar. But nothing that is a good fit. As I’ve said, deireadh amháin sort of means one end but it really suggests one of a number. Not that Joyce would necessarily have been good enough at Irish to get such subtleties. But the second bit, saol amháin, is very far from seraun to my ear. So, yes it could be, but it could be a great many other things! Sorry not to be more positive but that’s my learned opinion, for what it’s worth! I still believe it is an unresolvable puzzle and that it was designed as such. Good luck with the paper.

    Reply

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