In my student days I went to work in London every summer. Along with my friend, Brian Long, we landed in Hammersmith on a Friday at four o’clock and two hours later we had the “start” on a building site for the following Monday. We found a bedsit in Fulham and settled in. Next morning we went along to the market near Fulham Broadway to bring in some food for lunches. Brian said to a stall holder, “Giz a bunch o’ scallions.”
“You wot, mate? This is a vegetable stall.”
“Am not yer mate. Giz a bunch o’ scallions.”
The stallholder gave him a blank stare,
“Are your ears painted on?” Brian asked. As the stallholder moved out from behind (he was a big big man) we beat a hasty retreat. Later at another stall he picked up a bunch of scallions and asked what they were. “Spring onions,” we were told. Neither of us had ever heard them called this, although we were both from the country and had grown them at home.
That night in The George on Hammersmith Broadway, Brian told his story to a group from all parts of Ireland which led to others relating their experiences at making themselves understood in London. It transpired that it wasn’t just the accent but rather a completely different language structure which made the difference. It was soon apparent that many phrases have roots in particular parts of Ireland and have currency in a comparatively small area and are not used elsewhere. Others have widespread use and in many cases the origins of the phrases have been lost, although some can be explained. Some have universal use, “Dublin Jacks” and “Cute Kerry hoors” being examples.
One man, John from Waterford, explained how a phrase was used frequently in that part of the world. It signified agreement. The background to it was interesting. The man told us that he was in Dublin on his way to catch the Holyhead boat. He saw the answer to a prayer in the window of a Dublin chemist shop. It was a gadget for sharpening blunt razor blades (this was just after World War 2). He told us he was “like a hen on a hot griddle” as he asked the shopkeeper to demonstrate how it worked. The shopkeeper gave a demonstration and handed the gadget and blade to the customer, saying. “Now fire away, Flanagan.”
“I didn’t realise you were from Waterford,” John remarked as he paid for the sharpener.
When Oliver Cromwell and his army reached Portlaw near Waterford and were preparing to take the city he received a missive from the commander of the defending garrison: “Sir, unless you withdraw your soldiers at once, I shall order my soldiers to open fire.” It was signed: “Patrick Flanagan, Captain.”
On the back of the note, which he promptly returned, Cromwell wrote: “Fire away, Flanagan.” Cromwell had no time for cold war.
Another one I heard that night originated in Wexford. During the 1798 Rebellion the Yeomen sacked the town of Gorey. The inhabitants fled for their lives. The Yeomen ripped off all the front doors for bonfires. When the townspeople returned to their homes they were left doorless for a few years so consequently they forgot the art of using this important piece of furniture. Subsequently, if a Wexford man forgot to close a door someone would exclaim: “Gorey!”
Thirty five years after hearing this I was staying in a bed and breakfast in Enniscorthy for the All-Ireland Fleadh. When a lodger left the room without closing the door I shouted: “Gorey!” The bean a’ ti was greatly amused to realise that the term was used in Belfast.
Many of the phrases used in the North of Ireland are now marketed as Ulster Scots, but that is often stretching the imagination. I was told some years ago about two old women who met once each year at Paddy’s Market, the annual Christmas market in Armagh. They were chatting as they waited for their bus home. Just as the Markethill bus came to a halt, one said: “May ye live long, die happy, an’ may ye nivver be ragged or squint.” Her friend replied: “An’ may the tree that’ll make a coffin fer ye not be planted yet.”
Belfast has a language of its own but it is being diluted by the influence of TV. I was in the CCC club recently with Gerry Mann (the Mann with the hat) who drives a Joe Baxi. The barmaid remembered us from a previous visit. “A double and a green?” she asked. Gerry was flummoxed. “No, give me a pint of Guinness and a pint of Carlsberg.” She just smiled as she continued pouring. Gerry was pleased when another guy looked him up and down and said: “My hand on your hat.”
We overheard one guy tell another about a failed mission: “Yer man came back with his two arms the one length.” To which came the reply: “Go way on.”
Further along the counter two mates were discussing a job offer from the dole. It turned out that what promised to be a lucrative proposition in the run-up to Christmas was a drab minimum wage position. Obviously very experienced in job valuation, he told his friend about the extreme difficulty he had in persuading his prospective employer that he would be a disastrous choice for the position.
The employer duly signed the form confirming this but only after a concerted negative sales pitch. On hearing the full details his friend took a swally of his double and solemnly declared: “A body’d be better handcuffed to a ghost.” Just then a smoker exited the bar leaving the door open. “Shut that f***ing dure ye hallion ye, it’s Baltic in here, so it is.”
Obviously, he had never been to Gorey.