Ireland's best insults: Hey, you thundering amadán, if brains wer dynamite you wouldn't have enough to blow your nose!
Darragh McManus has Ireland’s best insults, from pre-Christian times to today’s politicians
Published 20/11/2010 | 05:00
Sorry for the abuse, we were just getting into the mood for this article about the noble Irish tradition of insults. Every race, of course, loves to offend, criticise and slag off all and sundry, but we have it down to a fine art.
Is it because we had to resort to verbal subversion during centuries of colonisation? Or could it be the by-product of our famed facility with language, or is it just emblematic of a spirit of devilment? Who knows? All we do know is that the Irish love a good insult, as noted by Samuel Johnson when he wrote in the 18th century: "The Irish are a fair people -- they never speak well of one another."
Indeed, going back as far as old legends and poetic sagas, we find a wonderful range of insults that soar far above the normal staples of rudeness and swearing. The Tain, for instance -- first recorded in the 11th century but dating back to pre-Christian Ireland -- holds such curses as "You shit of a crane" and "May your body be a feast for wolves".
The great warrior of Connacht, Ferdia, taunts his Ulster opponent Cúchulainn, "You chicken-hearted coward", as they prepare to meet in single combat. Cúchulainn won the day, but Ferdia at least had the consolation of knowing he had -- in the modern parlance -- zinged the other guy good.
Rather more poetic were the following: "May the raven of the battlefield be joyful over your breast"; "Slow speech on your descendants forever", and "There will be only stable boys from you!" Ouch.
Even the religious were not immune to verbals. Saint Moling, second Bishop of Ferns, declared, "Short life to you on this side, and hell on the other" to a swineherd who'd done nothing more than killing someone. Although, to quote 'Blackadder', it's good to see the Church taking a strong line on social issues.
Later, in medieval times, the bard assumed a position of importance in Irish high society, presumably because they were among the 0.2pc of the population who could read and write. Considered a lower form of poet to the revered file, bards were nevertheless highly trained writers who were paid to versify by kings and chieftains: either in praise of the boss man or to bring the literary smackdown to those who displeased him.
It was believed at the time that a well-aimed bardic jibe could raise boils on the face of its target. The bards, like the chroniclers of mythology, also strove to make their insults more poetic than the norm. They even wrote music.
Other great insults from fadó, fadó include: "May the curse of Mary Malone and her nine blind illegitimate children chase you so far over the hills of Damnation that the Lord himself can't find you"; "You're as thick as manure but only half as useful"; "He's the seed, breed and spawn of an English whore"; "May the cat eat you and the devil eat the cat", and "When you were born you were so ugly, the nurse slapped your mother".
The Irish tongue has provided us with several terms of disparagement, such as ludramán, amadán, pleidhc, stiuchán, eejit and oinseach. And many of our best digs revolve around money.
It might be said of a notorious tightwad: "He's so cheap he'd live in your ear"; "He's so mean he wouldn't spend Christmas"; "He wouldn't give the steam of his piss to the clouds if he thought it'd make rain", and "He'd go up your arse for a penny".
More specific examples of the classic insult include Jonathan Swift managing to slag off an entire class of musician by declaring: "He was a fiddler, and consequently a rogue."
George Bernard Shaw, meanwhile, did likewise for the medical classes when he said: "A doctor's reputation is made by the number of eminent men who die under his care." He'd probably get sued for that nowadays, though Shaw, being the incorrigible curmudgeon he was, would hardly have cared. The playwright and socialist was almost a professional insulter too.
He offended the sensibilities of the religious by saying: "Martyrdom is the only way a man can become famous without ability." He slagged off the political and literary fraternities by sniping: "Find enough clever things to say and you're a Prime Minister; write them down and you're a Shakespeare." He even insulted an entire race by announcing: "The English have no respect for their language, and will not teach their children to speak it."
A renowned internationalist, Shaw also viciously attacked the more enthusiastic nationalists of his time: "Patriotism is a pernicious, psychopathic form of idiocy."
Writers, needless to say, are among our finest purveyors of verbal abuse. Brendan Behan took time out from binge-drinking on a heroic scale to say of literary critics: "They're like eunuchs in a harem: they know how it's done, they've seen it done every day, but they're unable to do it themselves."
James Joyce, meanwhile, slagged off the whole Irish nation by loftily declaring: "Ireland is the old sow that eats her farrow." WB Yeats famously bemoaned that "Romantic Ireland" was "dead and gone", and had a dig at the fourth estate by writing: "A journalist invents his lies, and rams them down your throat." More recently, Joe O'Connor described our fair capital city as "Disneyland with super-pubs, a purgatory open till five in the morning".
But, of course, Oscar Wilde was the king of the literary insult. Here are a few of his bons mots: "America is the only country that went from barbarism to decadence without civilisation in between"; "Crying is the refuge of plain women but the ruin of pretty ones"; and "She is absolutely inadmissible into society. Many a woman has a past, but I am told that she has at least a dozen, and that they all fit."
Finally, we come to more modern times, and the wonderful forum of insults, abuse and foul temper that is Irish politics. Our public figures love to jibe and sneer at one another, although they've never quite acquired the reputation of their foreign counterparts for quickfire repartee or memorable statements.
So whereas, say, the US has Martin Luther King's iconic "I have a dream" speech, we have Albert Reynolds sniggering, "That's wimmin for ya", or Bertie blabbering to Gay Mitchell, "You're a waffler, you've always been a waffler, you've been hanging around here for years, waffling". Yes, yes, all right, waffler, we get it.
Still, there have been some good 'uns down the years. Who can forget Ian Paisley describing Cardinal Cahal Daly as "the red-hatted weasel of Armagh"?
Michael McDowell put Gay Mitchell in his place by saying he was "the evil of two lessers", and followed up with a tripartite broadside against Pat Rabbitte, Gerry Adams and Trevor Sargent, whom he lamented as being "the left, the hard left and the left-overs". But the former justice minister got a taste of his own medicine when Charlie Haughey told him: "You are the nastiest piece of work to crawl in here."
Haughey, among his other sins, was a divil for the old insults. He reportedly claimed that he only went to the funeral of Erskine Childers "to make sure the f**ker was planted", and insulted every single citizen of Ireland by shamelessly claiming, in his retirement speech, "I have done the State some service". Go on out of that, Charlie, you big kidder.
Joe Higgins did much to dismantle the image of socialists as humourless bores by zinging Ivor Callely thus: "Tell Paddy The Plasterer to steer clear of Callely's house, he's in enough trouble with the painter already."
The Soldiers of Destiny bared their own teeth with Willie O'Dea's description of Ruairi Quinn as "Mr Angry from Sandymount". And party-mate Mary O'Rourke went further, saying of poor Ruairi: "Deputy Quinn persistently seeks to act out his political life as a misplaced character from 'Noddy Gets Narky' and I for one have had enough."
We also liked Pat Rabbitte's description of Michael Smith as a "monsignor down a bad phone line from Medjugorje", John Donnellan's statement that Alan Dukes "would come out with a fork if it started raining soup", and Paul Gogarty's brutal but effective "F**k you, Deputy Stagg, f**k you".
But the all-time greatest -- not to mention most hilarious -- Irish political insult came from barmy family-values campaigner, Una Bean Mhic Mhathuna, in the wake of the 1995 divorce referendum. Practically frothing at the mouth, she called the pro-divorce campaigners a bunch of "wife-swapping sodomites" on live TV.
Wife swappers and sodomites? What sort of married couples does she know, exactly?