Author Archives: Danielomastix

More on Shanty

I have already discussed the origin of the word shanty and its claimed origin from Irish on this blog. As I said before, the standard explanation among scholars is that shanty comes from chantier, which is a Canadian-French word meaning a lumberjack’s headquarters or a timber-yard or dock, originally deriving from the Latin cantherius, meaning a rafter or frame. This derivation makes sense and is certainly more credible than the Irish claim. I notice that there was a brief exchange a couple of years ago about this subject on Twitter, when a tweeter called HibernoEnglish posted the following:

Shanty – a word known around the world from its association with the Shanty Town – a settlement of poor people – comes from the Irish seantigh – Old house. Shanty itself in Hiberno meaning a ramshackle dwelling.

Another tweeter, Coiste na bhfocal, took issue with this claim:

100% cinnte nach ón nGaeilge a thagann sé [100% sure that it doesn‘t come from Irish]

This is a false etymology. Níl bunús leis. [There is no basis to it]

They also cited this blog in support of the idea that shanty is not from Irish. HibernoEnglish rapidly replied, pointing out that Terence Dolan had supported the idea that shanty came from Irish:

Céad faoin gcéad? Disputed maybe, not 100%. This is the entry in T Dolan’s Dictionary of Hiberno-English. Probably the foremost expert on the dialect, could be wrong but unlikely to fall for the sources cited in the blog post above.

It is quite true that Dolan supported this claim, but Dolan, though he was a good linguist and scholar, was not infallible. Here is what he had to say on the subject:

Shanty / ʃænti/ n., a makeshift cabin; a ramshackle house; a shabby liquor-house <Ir seantigh, old house. ‘He’s up there living inan old shanty at the butt of the mountain, waiting for them to build him a council house (TF, Cavan).

Coiste na bhfocal nua answered the other tweet as follows:

He definitely wouldn’t have fallen for that source but I am sure that origin is incorrect. Dolan’s book is generally excellent but that is a bad miss.

Why did Dolan get it so wrong in this case? First of all, we need to look at what Dolan’s book is aiming to do. It is about the English language as spoken in Ireland. He seems to be saying that because it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that seanteach or seantigh could have crossed into Hiberno-English from Irish, that should be included in the book. I agree with Coiste na bhfocal nua that this is a very unlikely claim. If we could find a reference to “a shanty with ancient whitewashed stone walls and a thatched roof”, that would strengthen the case considerably. But we don’t.

I have already dealt with the fact that in an Irish book dealing with gold mining, Mac Gabhann’s Rotha Mór an tSaoil, the words used for their dwellings are teach, cában and bothán, not seanteach. I have noted that the meaning of shanty in Hiberno-English is not describing an ancient house but ramshackle, makeshift temporary structures, just like in other dialects of English.

However, this is not the only evidence in support of the idea that shanty has nothing to do with the Irish seanteach. There is plenty of other evidence in 19th century newspapers.

What about this early reference set in Canada from the 22nd of September 1833, in a London publication called Bell’s New Weekly Messenger?

About sunset, dripping wet, we arrived near the spot we were in quest of, – a shanty, which an Indian, who had committed murder, had raised for himself. It may be proper to mention here, that a shanty is a temporary shed formed of the branches of trees.

Or what about this, from the Cork Constitution of 23rd of December, 1834:

MURDERS IN AMERICA (From the Baltimore American)

It becomes our unpleasant duty to relate the particulars of a most diabolical outrage which has been committed on the line of the Washington railroad, about 18 miles from this city, involving the murders of three of the deputy superintendents of construction. It appears that on Tuesday afternoon, Mr Gorman, one of the contractors, was assailed in his own shanty by eight or ten men, supposed to be some of those at work on the road.

Or this, from the Mayo Constitution of the 12th of June, 1834?

The Irish laborer, mechanic and farmer, with small capital, must most decidedly better their condition by emigration to the Canadas – but gentlemen accustomed to the comforts of life at home must be losers by the exchange, for they must wield the axe as well as another – they must put up with a salt pork dinner, unless they live near some town or village, for the first few years – they must be content with a log house or shanty, which are easily raised here …

In other words, all of the early references to shanties make it quite plain, not only that the shanty is a makeshift, temporary dwelling, they also make it quite plain that the shanty is a makeshift, temporary dwelling in the wilds of America or Canada!

Nollaig Shona agus Bliain Úr Faoi Mhaise!

Ba mhaith liom an deis a thapú anseo míle buíochas a ghabháil le gach duine a lean nó a léigh an blag seo i rith na bliana. Go raibh bliain den scoth agaibh sa bhliain 2023!

Seo daoibh carúl galánta sa teanga s’againne, Don Oíche Úd i mBeithil:

Ba é Aodh Mac Cathmhaoil (Aodh Mac Aingil) a chum an t-amhrán galánta seo. Rugadh Mac Cathmhaoil sa bhliain 1571 i gContae an Dúin, níos lú ná 30 míle ar shiúl ón áit a bhfuil mise ag scríobh an bhlaig seo sa teanga a shaothraigh seisean ar feadh a shaoil. Bhí saol lán eachtraíochta agus léinn aige in Éirinn, sa Bheilg agus san Iodáil. Fuair sé bás sa bhliain 1626 sa Róimh agus is in Eaglais San Iseadór a cuireadh é.

Baineann an leagan seo úsáid as an tseaniolra thabharthach –aibh (col ceathrair –ibus na Laidine, mar shampla, sa tseanfhocal ‘e pluribus unum.’) Níl sin le fáil sa teanga nua-aoiseach. Agus is minic a bhíonn ‘faoin ghrian’ nó ‘faoin ngrian’ sna leaganacha nua-aoiseacha, cionn is nach dtuigeann Gaeilgeoirí an lae inniu an frása ‘ar grian’ a chiallaíonn ‘ar domhan.’ Níl baint ar bith aige leis an fhocal bhaininscneach grian (‘sun’ an Bhéarla).

Don oíche úd i mBeithil

beidh tagairt ar grian go brách,

don oíche úd i mBeithil

gur tháinig an Briathar slán;

tá gríosghrua ar spéarthaibh

‘s an talamh ‘na chlúdach bán;

féach Íosagán sa chléibhín,

‘s an Mhaighdean Á dhiúl le grá

Ar leacain lom an tsléibhe

go nglacann na haoirí scáth

nuair in oscailt gheal na spéire

tá teachtaire Dé ar fáil;

céad glóir anois don Athair

sna Flaitheasaibh thuas go hard!

is feasta fós ar an talamh

d’fhearaibh dea-mhéin’ siocháin!

Yon Night In Bethlehem (English translation of the above)

I would like to take the opportunity here to thank everybody who has followed or read this blog during the year. Have a great year in 2023!

Here is a beautiful carol in our language, Don Oíche Úd i mBeithil:

This beautiful carol was composed by Aodh Mac Cathmhaoil (Aodh Mac Aingil). Mac Cathmhaoil was born in 1571 in County Down, less than 30 miles away from where I am writing this blog in the language that he cultivated throughout his life. He had an eventful and studious life in Ireland, in Belgium and in Italy. He died in Rome in 1626 and he was buried in St. Isidore’s Church in that city.

Yon night in Bethlehem

will be talked of on earth forever

yon night in Bethlehem,

the night the Word was born;

there is a glow in the skies

and the earth is covered with white;

behold Jesus in the cradle

and the Virgin feeding Him with love.

On the bare stones of the mountain

where the shepherds take their shelter

when in a bright opening of the sky

God’s messenger is there;

a hundred glories to the Father,

in the Heavens above so high!

and forever after on the earth

peace to men of good will!

Netflix Down The Rabbit Hole

I recently heard that Graham Hancock has made a series for Netflix. In case you’ve never heard of Hancock, the man is an arch-charlatan who has been peddling nonsense for decades about a prehistoric super-civilisation wiped out by a cataclysm 12,000 years ago.

As soon as I heard about this, I decided to write a post on it. I had picked out what I thought was a great title (Nutflix) but unfortunately, when I checked on Google to see if anyone else had used this, I find that a site exists under this title which is a purveyor of adult movies. This is not the kind of movie I enjoy watching, though given the choice between sitting through a tale of young Scandinavian women whose heating is stuck on full so that they have to take all their clothes off and phone the plumber or watching Hancock’s pretentious self-serving drivel, I think I would probably watch the porn. At least it’s aimed at adults, which is more than you can say for Hancock’s pseudo-archaeological bullcrap.

Why do I hate Hancock so much? Well, there is the fact that his theories are completely lacking in evidence. That he spends a lot of his time whining about the way the mainstream archaeological community (that is, the REAL archaeological community) have sidelined him and refused to take him seriously. Perhaps he genuinely believes some of this nonsense, though the cynic in me keeps saying that at some point in his life, he was probably faced with the choice between carrying on in a legitimate career as a journalist or listening to his bad angel telling him that lashings of money, foreign travel to exotic locations and the adulation of millions of morons could be his if he would just write some books aimed at the weak-minded and conspiracy-oriented.

Maybe that’s an offensive speculation but as Hancock and his friends would say, I’m just asking questions. Because according to him and his sheeple, the archaeological community have stopped asking questions. They’re afraid to get their paradigms all shook up, apparently. The reality is, of course, that the archaeological community ask sensible questions and shift their paradigms all the time. When archaeologists find a wall, they ask questions like, who built this wall? When? Why? Is it part of a larger structure? They don’t ask questions like: “Could this wall be part of an ancient factory used by an advanced super-civilisation which was otherwise completely eradicated?” Their refusal to ask such questions is, apparently, evidence of their closed-mindedness and lack of imagination. Whatever.

Another reason for regarding Hancock as a humungous dork is the way that he changes his mind about key aspects of his theory. Now, that might seem inconsistent, because people like me will always say that the difference between science and pseudoscience is that scientists will change their views according to the evidence. However, the problem with Hancock is that though the details and the ‘evidence’ (such as it is) change, the conclusions don’t. That’s because the conclusions were there first and the ‘facts’ are merely cherry-picked to bolster them.

And that’s also why the ‘evidence’ is so incredibly marginal and unimpressive. A rock carving, interpreted in a particular way, might mean this. The dating on this or that ancient monument might be wrong, even though the experts say not (what would they know, they’re working for THE MAN!) What we don’t get is anomalous technology cropping up unambiguously in a hunter-gatherer context. If we found a sophisticated pot in a camp from fourteen thousand years ago, that would be clear evidence. Something requiring a paradigm shift. Or what about a pre-Columbian skeleton with European or African DNA? Or an actual city belonging to this lost ancient culture? If Hancock’s theories were correct, the evidence would be everywhere and it would be obvious.

Anyway, I’ve said more than I intended to say and given Hancock more attention than this pathetic, boring (and probably very rich) little man deserves.

If you want to know more about pseudo-archaeology and why it is not to be trusted, I suggest you check out the excellent YouTube material by Dr David Miano:

Fortress of Lugh

For many years now, I have had a deep interest in the prehistory of this area of Europe and the origins of my own Celtic ancestors and of their language and culture. Over the last twenty years, this branch of learning has been the scene of deep controversies and certainties which have turned out to be completely wrong. Less than twenty years ago, the first DNA analyses of modern European populations were suggesting strongly that our ancestors were mostly of hunter-gatherer ancestry. The complexities of this debate no longer seem very important but suffice it to say that up until a few years ago, the overwhelming position was that there was little evidence that the gene pool of Europe had been greatly added to or changed since the Neolithic.

About four years ago, improved technology brought a bombshell. As it became easier and easier to test ancient remains, the experts started to get DNA from ancient Europeans, which showed that the gene pool of Ireland and Britain had undergone an almost total replacement at the beginning of the Bronze Age.  There was a clear DNA trail from Ireland and Britain to Central Europe and from there back to the steppe and the transition to Indo-European language was no longer a mystery. The level of population replacement meant that only about 10% of the ancestry of Bronze Age British and Irish people derived from before the Beaker arrival.

Recently, I discovered a very detailed account of the origin of the Celts and their place within the Indo-Europeans in the light of these discoveries. It is on a site called Fortress of Lugh and is entitled: Are the Welsh and Irish Celts? The name Fortress of Lugh is a little odd and I have come across some criticisms of its author, Kevin MacLean, which suggest that he may be rather right-wing in some of his political attitudes. As anyone who has followed this blog will know, I am left-wing and liberal in my attitudes. I do not know if these criticisms of MacLean are justified. All I will say is that if he does have unpalatable political opinions (and I am by no means convinced that this is the case), he does an excellent job of keeping them out of his content. And then again, perhaps a right-winger who respects the facts is preferable to left-wingers who don’t (like most of Cassidy’s supporters).

Anyway, MacLean’s presentation on the Celts is superlatively well-researched, with an intelligent analysis and informed speculation. There is virtually nothing in it that I would take issue with and I cannot recommend it highly enough as a clear and cogent introduction to the new information which is coming to the fore in our knowledge of European prehistory.

I would advise you to check it out on YouTube here:

More on IrishCentral

I noticed recently that the dim-witted article on Cassidy’s book on IrishCentral is still there. As I’ve said before, IrishCentral is dreck and should be avoided by anyone who wants trustworthy information. Anyway, I then decided to have a quick look at the comments section below it.

As usual, this comments section typifies the shallowness and pretentiousness of the online world. Not that there aren’t sensible comments on it. There are, but they tend to be drowned out and shouted down by morons.

There are two specific types of fool represented here, one called Noel Ryan and the other Catherine Desmond. I have little to say about Noel Ryan, because he is so obviously full of shit and makes no attempt to actually discuss the issues involved. It is also clear that if he actually read Cassidy’s book, he didn’t read it with any great care, as he claims that jazz comes from deas. Cassidy, of course, claimed that it came from teas. 

Catherine Desmond is more problematic. In many ways, people like her are more damaging because on the surface, they look like people who have the same agenda as us, to satisfy curiosity and discover the truth. However, this is not borne out by a close analysis of what she actually has to say. She starts by saying (to Paddy Ó Ruadhán, one of the critics of Cassidy in the section:

Paddy, based on your comments, I take it that you can speak in Irish. Because of that, I might not translate some Gaelic words as I respond to your comments.

So, she speaks some Irish. You would expect her comments to be sensible. Are they? Unfortunately not.

You might not agree with Cassidy, but there’s no denying that many Irish words have been shook down into the ordinary English vernacular, and are used daily by speakers of English, including the English themselves.

There are several assumptions being made here. Is it true that a number of words from Irish have been shook/shaken down into ordinary English? A few, certainly but the fact that some words in English do come from Irish has little bearing on Cassidy’s nonsense. The existence of words like esker and shebeen is well-established, their Irish derivation beyond doubt. The words in Cassidy’s book (apart from some that are already in dictionaries) are not like this. They aren’t from Irish.

Catherine Desmond gives three examples of English words of Irish origin.

Here are a few examples:

Let’s take ‘A whole slew of people.’ I’m sure that we all know what that means, but do we all know that the word ‘slew’ comes from the Irish word ‘slua’ which means ‘crowd’, multitude, etc.

While in England, I’ve often heard someone say: ‘I’d like a slug of that.’ the ‘slug’ is derived from the Irish word ‘slog’. So, if you were to translate into Irish ‘Give me a slug of water’, you would say ‘ tabhair dom slog uisce’.

Similarly, ‘It’s smashing’ comes from the Irish ‘Is maith sin.’

Slew is from Irish slua. That fact is in all the dictionaries (though not so much in British dictionaries because it is a recent arrival from America). The mainstream accepts that it’s from Irish. As for slug coming from Irish, this is controversial, as I’ve written on this blog, because there is an attested phrase, ‘to fire a slug’, which uses the same metaphor as ‘a shot of whiskey’. It’s possible that it comes from Irish but we can’t be sure. As for smashing, if you Google smashing and Irish derivation you will find a lot of people casting doubt on this piece of folk-etymology, not just me. It is not the cast-iron certainty that Catherine Desmond is misrepresenting it to be.

I could go on and on listing English words that have their origin in the Irish language, just as I could go on and on about English words with Latin roots.

Could you? Certainly not the way you could with words of Latin derivation. There are countless thousands of words of Latin origin in English. You could easily go on day after day recounting them. This is not the case with words of Irish origin. I think you would get to 200 easily, mostly with fairly obscure terms like tanist and erenagh and fiorin, but I don’t think you would get to 300 before having to bring in fake ones like smashing and longshoreman to make up the numbers.

Irish/Gaelic is a pre-historic language, and no one is sure where it originated.

There is a lot wrong with the handful of words above. Irish/Gaelic is not a language. Irish is a language, and Gaelic is another language. (Or a generic term for three languages, Irish, Manx and Scottish Gaelic.) Neither Irish nor Gaelic are prehistoric languages. They are modern languages. If you register to learn Gaelic on Duolingo, you will get the modern language which is spoken in parts of Scotland and if you choose to learn Irish, you will get the modern language of the Irish Gaeltacht. Talking about the ‘age’ of languages is in many ways meaningless. In a way, all languages are as old as each other, with the exception of High Valerian or Klingon or Esperanto, so really all you are doing is quibbling about how long it has had its current name or how long it has occupied its current territory. 

I’ve read various theories, but at the end of the day, these theories are unproven. As the Celts moved across what is now Asia and Europe, they incorporated into Gaelic some words from other languages. Today, some researchers say that because there are words from this or that country to be found in the Celtic language, then the Celtic language, most likely, originated in these countries and have then asserted that Gaelic is a member of the Indo-European group of languages. I don’t know whether it is or not.

And this bit really cuts right to the heart of why I regard people like this as more of a pain in the arse than people like Noel Ryan. This is so totally wrong and so wilfully ignorant. If you look at any reputable source for information about the Celtic languages, you will find something along the lines of: “Celtic languages descended from a common ancestral language called Proto-Celtic, which is a member of the Indo-European language family.” You will find this in dictionaries and encyclopaedia entries and archaeology books and books on language. However, Catherine Desmond doesn’t accept this as fact, because according to her, those silly scholars have found some loanwords in the Celtic languages so they have got the idea they are Indo-European! Of course, scholars of language don’t just base their conclusions on vocabulary. They look at grammar and phonology and identify loanwords and try to date the loans by looking at regular sound changes in the language borrowed into and the language which loaned the word. The vocabulary of the Celtic languages is largely Indo-European, with a certain amount untraceable to any known Indo-European root. You could say the same about, for example, Greek or the Germanic languages, which contain much bigger vocabularies of non-Indo-European origin, but are still termed Indo-European languages by linguists in spite of this. Everybody who knows about the subject is quite sure of the Indo-European nature of the Celtic languages. And while there are lively and interesting debates about the area where Celtic developed, they are all well in Europe, not in Asia. Mostly, the debate is between Central Europe and the Iberian Peninsula (Celtic from the West).

Why does this irritate me so much? It irritates me because, while the experts don’t always get everything right, the fact is that they get it pretty much right most of the time. And real science is at least full of lively debate between people who know the basic facts. Speculative ideas (and there is nothing wrong with speculation as long as it’s within the bounds of reason and matches the evidence) will either be accepted or rejected by the processes of academic investigation. People who insist that Covid is harmless until ‘activated’ by facemasks, or people who believe that the Olmecs were Sub-Saharan Africans, or people who believe that Barry Fell found ogham inscriptions in North America or people who believe in Graham Hancock’s theories about a prehistoric civilisation which was so completely destroyed by a cataclysm that no trace remain are all playing the same game, ignoring the experts and the facts while promoting ludicrous fantasies which have no basis in reality.

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 (

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: