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Con Houlihan: You need a way with words

Some words change their meaning, often for the better, sometimes for the worse. "Cowboy" is an example: in the old days it signified a man of exceptional courage, skill and wisdom. Now it refers to a builder who does dodgy work, overcharges and disappears.

"Mickey Mouse" in the old days, when he was on the cartoon strip, meant a man of great honour, wisdom and courage. He was the mouse for all seasons. Now when you say an operation is "Mickey Mouse", you mean it is no big deal.

A "spalpeen" was a man of many skills and great fortitude. He usually dwelt in the hills and had little or no land. He worked for the farmers in the valleys and he could say: "Have spade and have scythe and have reaping hook and will travel." The coming of mechanised farming made him less important until finally he was almost redundant. Now "spalpeen" signifies somebody who is of little value.

Not only do words change -- sometimes sentences change. When we say that somebody, usually a politician, has shot himself in the foot, we mean that he has perpetrated a verbal own goal. There was a time when it meant that somebody had inflicted a slight damage on one of his feet to avoid conscription.

Now we will look at certain words that have changed to some extent in this generation. A "rogue" used to mean that you were less than honest. Now it means hardly anything at all. We speak of charming rogues. The word "maggot" is very common, especially in Dublin. It means somebody who is fundamentally a very good person but inclined to do odd things. Nobody is insulted when he is called a maggot. There was a politician one time in Mayo who was called the The Maggot Durkan. It never worried him, neither did it cost him any votes.

The word "messer" means somebody who is full of good intentions but occasionally gets things wrong. The word "scrounger" means that a person is a rogue with no redeeming virtues. The word "fellow" sounds well if, for example, you are a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons but when you say "that fellow", you mean that he is of little worth. "Rascal" is almost a term of affection.

There are some words in parts of Ireland that change their meaning depending on the pronunciation: the word "hero" means somebody of great stature; the word "hairo" means somebody who can't be trusted. It is the same with "cleaner" and "claner." A friend of mine went to a newly opened dry-cleaning shop and was less than pleased with the work they did for him. He said to me: "They call themselves cleaners -- they are claners." A "claner" means somebody who tricks you financially.

Words play a big part in class distinction. Big farmers are very good at emphasising their status: when they call somebody a "cottier", they put him into a class below himself.

You will see that James Joyce in Dubliners was very conscious of class. In describing a scene in the capital, he refers to the workmen there as "mechanics", even though they were not.


Snobbery is as much as ever part of Irish life. You will see this for yourself in Knocknagow. One truth it emphasises is that there is a barrier between the classes that is unbreakable.

Mat, the hero of the book, idolises Mary, the daughter of a local big farmer, but he wouldn't let his mind dare to think about it because she dwells in another firmament. That distinction is alive as much as ever in rural Ireland, and urban Ireland is not free from it.

The author Charles Kickham seemed to believe that if marriages were based on mutual affection rather than money or property, we might have a better race. We might need them soon because scientists tell us they have discovered a new planet that is inhabited by apes. You would never know, they might think of invading our planet.

Irishmen and women avoid class snobbery by emigrating. In the anonymity of London or Coventry or Birmingham, nobody worries too much about whether you are a cottier or a farmer.


A strange feature of Irish life is that some families do not talk to other families. And if you are away in England or some other place, when you come back you will need to find out which family is talking to which. Thus, you could save yourself social embarrassments. Where those vendettas begin can be traced to the Civil War of 1922, but in other cases they go back much further. And the people concerned have only a vague idea of where the madness started.

In bad times, such as the 1930s when people needed to co-operate as much as possible, this bitterness of family feuding was at its worst, because when people are poor they tend to blame other people. Even within families, you will find brothers and sisters who did not talk to one another or even to their parents.

Samuel Johnson, that wisest of men, had a fair knowledge of this country and he used to say: "The Irish are a very honest people -- they seldom speak well of one another."

Fogra: Congratulations go to Ruairi Finnegan for winning the gold in the 1,500m at the European Youth Olympics, and also to Siofra Cleirigh Buttner for bringing home the silver in the girls' 1,500m