Category Archives: Irish history

A Smashing Mot

I came across an interview with a historian called Cathy Scuffil the other day on an RTÉ radio programme fronted by Myles Dungan. This is the man who did the terrible interview with Cassidy in San Francisco where he allowed Cassidy, probably the greatest dork in the history of Irish America since Senator McCarthy, to bullshit continuously for half an hour without bothering to correct or challenge, so he has form in producing really bad content about etymology. Bizarrely, he still insists that Cassidy was a serious scholar, or at least, he was still doing so in 2020, when he tweeted: As outlined by the great Dan Cassidy in his dictionary of Irish American slang.

Scuffil was talking about the Irish language and much of what she said was fine but there were several claims in her interview which were obvious nonsense. I had heard both of them before and one of them I have dealt with in detail on this blog, but it is always worth tackling this kind of nonsense and misinformation and bullshit wherever you find it.

The two claims she made were: that the English word smashing comes from Irish ‘is maith sin’; and that the Dublin slang word ‘mot’ comes from ‘maith an cailín’.

Admittedly, there is no smoking gun with these claims and it is impossible to prove them wrong 100% but we can certainly show that the odds are at least 99% that these are bullshit.

Here are some good reasons why these claims are unlikely to be true.

The claim that Dublin ‘mot’ (=girl, girlfriend) comes from Irish ‘maith an cailín’.

(1)  It contradicts everything that we know about the way that words and phrases are borrowed between languages. The phrase ‘maith an cailín’ only means good girl in the sense of praising someone, not talking about someone. The maith an part means ‘good the’. You could equally well say ‘maith an fear’ (good man!), or ‘maith an bhean’ (good woman!), ‘maith an buachaill’ (good boy!). You would NOT say ‘Is í mo mhaith an cailín í’ for ‘she’s my good girl’. In other words, it is hard to understand how this could ever have crossed from Irish to English and taken the meaning of ‘girl’ rather than ‘good’.

(2)  No scholar of language or expert on these matters, to my knowledge, has ever endorsed this claim. The leading expert on Irish English, Dolan, says that ‘the connection with Irish maith … seems unlikely’. Ó Muirthile is even more dismissive.

(3) There are at least two more convincing origins: from a word meaning ‘an atom or a small creature’ in the Yola language of Wexford; mort, a thieves’ cant expression for woman recorded in the early 19th century. (By Francis Grose, who spent a lot of time in Dublin.)

(4) There is no t at the end of maith. The t is present in mot. It may sound unlike the t of standard English but it is indisputably there. Think of how a very Dublin speaker of English says ‘Ballyfermot’.

(5) It seems to be a very recent invention. The reference in Dolan’s Dictionary of Hiberno-English is the earliest I can find.

(6) Because the policy of making the Irish population Irish-speaking has largely failed over the last 100 years, most Irish people know very little Irish. It is probably no coincidence that someone invented this claim because almost all Irish people will readily recognise the very basic and well-known word maith, so they will be more inclined to accept the premise because of this familiarity.

The claim that the word ‘smashing’ comes from Irish or Gaelic is maith sin.

(1)  The only reason for thinking this is that there is an expression ‘is maith sin’ in Irish which can be used in a similar way to ‘smashing’. However, as linguists say, ‘Etymology by sound is not sound etymology.’

(2) Smash was first used in English (as a noun meaning a blow) in 1725 and it was first used to mean a success in the early 20th century. There are many metaphorical expressions using terms for breaking and hitting in the sense of success. We have a thumping good film, a hit, a belter, or bostin’ (busting, a Midlands English expression) and of course, cracking, a term which has been used in just the same way as smashing since the 1820s. In other words, smashing coming from English smash is perfectly reasonable as an explanation.

(3)  There is no evidence of an Irish or Gaelic origin. Smashing does not occur first in Irish or Scottish contexts and there are no conscious references to it as an Irish or Gaelic expression. This is not what we find with hubbub, or shebeen, or banshee, or Tory, or claymore, or slogan.

(4)  The earliest references to ‘smashing’ in the sense of ‘wonderful’ come from the Americas, not from Ireland or Britain. For example: ‘Lord Dundas is our brave commander, and the Thunderer is a smashing ship’ – Alexandria (Virginia) Gazette (December 10, 1835).

(5)  The phrase ‘is maith sin’ (means ‘that’s good’, not ‘that’s wonderful’),

(6)  When smashing is used as a stand-alone phrase (Smashing! I like it!) then it’s reasonably close to the way is maith sin is used. However, a bilingual Irish or Gaelic speaker would not say “That’s really is maith sin!” or “We had an is maith sin time!” These make no sense. And when we look at the history of the word smashing, it is used as an adjective first and as a stand-alone phrase later, which we would not expect to find if this were a word of Irish or Gaelic origin.

(7)  Terence Dolan described the claim as ‘improbable’.

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:

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!