Tag Archives: Irish origin of shanty

More on Shanty

One of the most disappointing and irritating things about the recent flurry of Twitter activity surrounding a tweet by the Rubber Bandits was that several people (the Rubber Bandits included) tweeted that ‘the Irish’ for old house is ‘Sean Tí’.

Since the efforts of the Irish state to provide you with a basic knowledge of your own linguistic heritage obviously failed woefully because YOU WEREN’T PAYING ATTENTION, here’s a brief Irish lesson:

The Irish for ‘old house’ is SEANTEACH, pronounced SHANCHAH, with the ‘cha’ as in cha-cha-cha.

The Irish for ‘house’ is teach. It’s only in the genitive. means ‘of a house’, so doras tí is door of a house. But on its own means nothing.

Sean is an adjective. Most adjectives in Irish come after the noun, so teach mór is a big house. However, a handful are prefixes which are attached to the noun. So it’s seanteach. Not sean teach or sean-teach. And still less sean tí or sean-tí.

As for the question of the meaning, imagine that you are standing in a mining camp out in the wilds somewhere. You have just chopped down some trees and built yourself a rough cabin. One of your neighbours comes up and says,

“Hi Séamus, nice house! What do you call a house like that in your language?”

“Well, sure, I call it seanteach, which in my language means ‘old house’.”

And your neighbour scratches his head and says,

“So you’ve just finished building the thing, and your hand sticks to the wall on account of all the pine resin oozing from the freshly-cut logs, but you call it an old house?”

“Aah, but you’re forgettin’ dat I’m Irish, and we have a reputation for quirkiness, eccentricity and irrationality to uphold, so we do!”

Yeah, right, you gowls! And then there’s the fact that we have one book written as a memoir in Irish (Micí Mac Gabhann, Rotha Mór an tSaoil) by a Donegal man who joined the gold rush and lived in a mining camp. When he refers to the houses in the camp, he uses the words bothán, cábán, teach and sometimes cábán tí. He never talks about seantithe. And why the fuck would he?

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More On Shanty

I have already discussed this point, the supposed Irish origins of the word shanty, meaning a wooden house or shack. Many Irish people believe that this is an Irish word. The claim was made in the Cornell Daily Sun in 1936, in an account of a language expert giving a lecture on the influence of Irish on English. The ‘expert’, whose name was Conboy, states that shanty comes from the words sean (old) and tigh (house). In fact, teach is the usual Irish word for house. It is only tigh in Munster dialects. Most experts are sceptical of the Irish origin theory, and believe that shanty comes from the French chantier.

In his ludicrous book, How The Irish Invented Slang, Cassidy repeats this claim. As I have already said, while this claim seems reasonable, it is very unlikely that there is any truth to it, because by definition, these shanties are not old houses. They are new, temporary structures.

Recently, I came across a book in a quiet corner of my bookshelves and decided to read it again. It is called Rotha Mór an tSaoil (The Great Wheel of Life), and it is by a Donegal man called Micí Mac Gabhann. Mac Gabhann spent part of his youth in America and he gives an account of his adventures there.

In a chapter called Tógáil Tí (Housebuilding) he has this to say:

… dar linn gur cheart dúinn cábán beag tí a thógáil dúinn féin, in ionad bheith ag díol cíosa mar bhí muid á dhéanamh go dtí sin. Botháin bheaga adhmaid a bhí sa champa uilig …

… we felt that we should build a little cabin of a house (cábán tí) for ourselves, instead of paying rent as we had been until then. The whole camp was of little wooden huts (botháin bheaga adhmaid) …

Mac Gabhann must have been aware of the English term shanty, but he isn’t tempted to use seanteach or seantithe anywhere in his book. Mac Gabhann’s shanties were botháin, cábáin or tithe.