Monday 20 May 2019

Kevin Myers: We all know St Patrick's Day parades are from US -- but far less palatable is origin of the word 'craic'

The cover of today's St Patrick's Festival programme is emblazoned with the categories, COMEDY, FILM, MUSIC, SPECTACLE, FAMILY, and foremost of all, CULTÚR & CRAIC. So once again, we declare our supposed devotion to the Irish language as the centre-piece of St Patrick's festival. Now I already know what I'm in for here: the usual tearful squeals that I hate the Irish language, and how nasty I am to say such horrible things about it. Et cetera.

Look. I don't hate very much, and I certainly don't hate the Irish language. But the very week that the Irish language commissioner points out that just 1.5pc of public servants can provide a service in Irish, it's just a little rich for the St Patrick's Day Committee to put "cultúr agus craic" in pride of place on its programme, especially when there'll be almost no Irish language component today for most of the patrician revels.

We all know that the St Patrick's Day parades are largely an importation from the US. That doesn't make them bad. It's just the truth. Perhaps less palatable is the other truth that this pseudo-Gaelic word "craic" is a relatively recent confection within the English language.

According to 'The Irish Times' archive -- the only word-scanning archive I have access to -- the term "craic" first appeared in that newspaper courtesy of the fair Jill Nesbitt in September 1986. She was drawing the distinction between crack-cocaine and the popular Irish word for socialising, "crack", or, as she explained, "('craic' in Irish)".

The word next appeared in advertisements in October 1986: "Cork Jazz -- Inclusive tour by coach -- Quality arrangement and 'Craic'". It was next used by a very young and tasty Noirin Hegarty in August 1987, when she reported on a forthcoming clan reunion of the O'Connors, in there would be "merriment, ceol and craic".

It did not reappear in the newspaper until April 1988, when Kate Holmquist italicised it in a colour story about the Eurovision contest at the RDS: "A thousand people attended the Eurovision craic in the Eurovision village." She used the term again two days later: "The craic was outrageous."

Four months later, Lorna Siggins was next to use the word. Writing about the Gaeltacht, she referred to "ceilis and craic and icy swims".

In August, 1989, Philip Churn of the Pogues was quoted by Paul White: "I went over there for the 'craic'." (Though I suspect that a returned exile from England would actually have spelt it "crack").

In June 1989, Lorna Siggins again used the word, this time to describe Mitterand at an EU meeting: "He might have enjoyed more 'craic' than pomp."'

A breakthrough came in September 1989, when Hugh Oram, in an advertising-feature about Clare, referred to "traditional craic". This was the first occasion in 'The Irish Times' that the word was given a vernacular status in English, being neither italicised, nor put in inverted commas, nor compounded with another Irish word. The following February, Gerry Moran also used it without italics or commas but, parodically, alongside "je ne sais quois". He was making fun of it -- but too late: it had arrived, and thereafter became commonplace.

Interestingly enough, the primary journalistic pioneers of "craic" had been women, though the social gathering they were writing about was, traditionally, largely male. Moreover, most of these women were not of the majority Catholic tradition: Lorna Siggins and Jill Nesbitt are both Irish Protestants, and Kate Holmquist is American. Maybe that's relevant; maybe not. Either way, like a linguistic barium meal, they had registered the emergence of "craic" in Hiberno-English.

But in both mainstream English, and Hiberno-English, saying "craic" is rather like referring to "le snobbisme". For "craic" is not Irish at all, but merely a transliterated Gaelic version of the English word "crack". The 'Shorter Oxford English Dictionary', (noun, item 3c) defines "crack" as: 'A gossip, an intimate talk. Scottish and north, E(arly) 18th century.' And the verb, "to crack", meaning "to discuss the news, to gossip or chat", is even older, being Middle English, between the 12th and 15th centuries. However, because of the frequency of the many forms of "crack", it's virtually impossible to find its first use in 'The Irish Times' with this meaning; though certainly in May 1972, Patrick O'Sullivan, wrote of Clare, "the people are friendly and the crack is always good", so foreshadowing Hugh Oram's observations about the "craic" of the county, some 17 years later.

But with the Celtic Tiger came a commodification of virtually everything Irish. The empty boastfulness of this cultural branding was in direct proportion to the degree that the language was NOT spoken: thus "craic" became the uber-chic badge of Noughties Irishness. It has now even been retrospectively inserted into The Dubliners' song, "McAlpine's Fusiliers", penned 60 years ago by Dominic Behan. This ran - "The crack was good in Cricklewood" -- which was how Denis Coghlan wrote it in 'The Irish Times' in May 1973. But now, as any internet search will confirm, the line is tweely rendered: "The craic was good in Cricklewood."

Which merely confirms what I've maintained all along. This truly is an Irish-speaking nation. Not.

Irish Independent

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