Colourful idioms of Cavan women of the 1940šs

By Brendan Murray

“Ye have me stomach destroyed.” (You’re annoying me)
“She had a nose or her that you could cut a seam with.”
“It’s on the Kathleen Mavorneen system.” (HP)
“There’s no fool like an old fool.”
“Better to be an old man’s darling than a young man’s slave.”
“He was singing like a terrier caught in a brake of briars.” (Describing a rival’s signing voice).
“Ye have me heart scalded.” (Children pestering her)
“A Mary run the roads” (A mother’s description of a female child who constantly plays outside to avoid doing home chores)
“A Lady Jane” - (a female pretending to be rather “graond”)
“She looked at me with daggers eyes” (Angrily)
“Well if looks could kill” (A very angry look)
“A big strong woman - she would give you a box (clatter, clout) that would land you into the middle of next week.”
“Lord Muck” (Description of a well dressed overbeating man)
“The truth is sour” (Said sneeringly by a spiteful woman to a man).
“Bit, bite or sup hasn’t crossed my lips this day (So busy, no time to eat).
“She would give you the bit out of her mouth”. (She’s very generous)
“She has a face on her as hard as a boiled smoothern iron”. (She’s got weather beaten austere features)
“She’s as mean as dirt; she was squeeze out of beggary.
“And don’t you dare darken this door again if you are not back here by 8 o’clock (Said by a mother to a teenage daughter going out to meet her friends)”
“Don’t shame me; don’t you dare give me the blushed cheek.”
“The place was packed; they were there from all over Christ’s own Creation.”
“When the drum beats for battle is not the time to be sharpening your tusks.” (Be prepared).
“So, ye have resurrected yourselves at last. (Ye overslept)
“She a right pot walloper” - (A hare-rum, scare-um, divil may care-um”)
“Do your duty, go and dance with that girl over there” (Mother directing her son to an ugly daughter of rich neighbour, especially if some poor good-looking ones are looking at him).
“Live horse and you’ll get grass.”
“As thin as a lath” (Not a pick on him)
“A big fat hape of a fellow, he was like a barrel, full of beer; you could tap him”

The languages of Cavan.
By Ciaran Parker

The Cavan region was for a long time a place where different cultures met and mingled. As many of these spoke different vernaculars and dialects it is hardly surprising that they have left behind their linguistic footprints on the dialogue of the area.

Irish was spoken throughout the Cavan area until the early nineteenth century. It is difficult to ascribe the variety of Irish used to any one regional form, and it is possible that in the absence of unifying or homogenizing forces that a great many forms were used in different parts of what became the modern county. A heavily Gaelicised form of Old Norse was probably spoken by the descendants of the Vikings who settled in Cavan. Their impact is seen in the adoption of Norse personal names by local families, such as Sitric, Ivarr and Godfred. But the entry of many words of Norse origin into vernacular speech had to await a later cultural influence.

English began to have an influence from the later medieval period. East Cavan bordered the Pale, including areas of counties Meath and Uriel (Louth). The origins of Cavan town lie in a market that attracted merchants from these areas. These influences gathered pace in the succeeding centuries in the wake of conquest and settlement. One of the rulers of east Breifne in the sixteenth century, Seaán O Raghallaigh, spoke English. There are a number of survivals of archaic and Elizabethan English in the Cavan dialect: usages which have long fallen into disuse in Standard English.

In the seventeenth century Cavan was included in the Plantation of Ulster, and amongst those who received lands were planters from lowland and central Scotland. They brought with them their own vernacular – Scots. This has tended to be derided as a regional dialect of English, but it is as distant to English as say Swedish is from Danish. The national pride of these language’s speakers would be hurt were there to be any implication that their mother tongues were mere dialects. Marshall McLuhan once defined a language as a dialect with warships. Scotland of course was gradually subsumed into the United Kingdom, and with it went its political identity institutions. Had Scotland retained its independence Scots would be recognised as a separate language.

Scots has the same Germanic origins as English. It also acquired many loan words from Norse and French over the course of Scotland’s history. These were often changed in pronunciation. An example still current in Cavan is ‘brew’, as in the idiom ‘to be on the brew’ i.e. in receipt of unemployment assistance. This comes from the French bureau – an office.

English attained linguistic dominance in Cavan during the nineteenth century, but this was never a speedy, clean-cut process. The move from Irish to English was no doubt preceded by a period of functional bilingualism, where speakers were fluent in both vernaculars, but used them for different purposes. Even when English became the dominant speech it was still heavily influenced by Irish speech patterns and syntax, not to mention the use of numerous words of Irish origin.

The English used in Cavan has always been influenced by external forces. Returning emigrants from England introduced dialect words and speech patterns from the regions in which they had lived and worked. For example, the idiom ‘to get the breeze up’ i.e. to become perturbed or concerned about something, originates in the north of England. The influence of American English, first through the cinema and later through television has a continuing and baleful impact that tends to wipe out earlier cultural variations.

It is interesting that words from the various languages outlined above tended to cluster in categories of use. There are a lot of words of Irish origin dealing with land use. For example to plough ‘in core’ from Irish comhar. The implement used for digging in west Cavan was the loy (lái), while the wicker basket which carried dung and manure for spreading on ridges was a bardog (bardóg). In areas of potato cultivation the potato planting was called ‘guggering’ (gogaireacht) while the implement employed for making the holes was called a guggering stick. In Cavan there was also lots of glaw (glár).
Irish was also employed to describe forms of domestic architecture, so a small cabin was termed either a ‘pruheen’ or a ‘pruhog’ (pruchach – a hovel).

The official disfavour which greeted the use of Irish was reflected in the persistence of ‘cuggering’ (cogar) for whispering. While the verbal phrase ‘mar dhea’ implied that what had directly preceded it in whatever language was to be taken with a grain of salt. Someone did not attribute much importance or value to something was said not to put any means on it.

Scots also contains words about land use. The fairly widely used ‘sheugh’ for a ditch comes from the Scots … and ultimately from the German zeugen. A common farming implement, especially for lifting manure, was a grape (ultimately from the Norse greip). An undersized animal was described as a ‘croil’, from the medieval Dutch kriel - dwarfish.

Scots supplied terms for the weather, such as a ‘drawky’ day – a cold damp day. (Drawky is a Scots adjective deriving from the Old Norse verb drakkja to submerge.) An infectious disease, whether affecting humans or animals, is still called a trake. This Scots word may also have a Scandinavian origin. A plant or flower with gangly stems and foliage is often described as ribey (from the Scots ribe, also used to describe a long-legged person).

Some of the elements of English that have been used in Cavan are Elizabethan in origin. A form of exchange used at markets in Cavan down until the early 20th century was called ‘boot’. This comes from an archaic English verb meaning to exchange or to be worth something. Milton used it in his ode Lycidas where he asks rhetorically:
… What boots it with uncessant care
to tend the homely, slighted, shepherd’s trade?

There are other outdated English terms that cluster around ill-mannered individuals or those of retarded intellect. The former are described as ‘haverillls’, ‘hallions’ (‘hellions’ in neighbouring Fermanagh); while slow-witted people have been called ‘clifts’ (a version of the standard English cleft, implying that such unfortunates had cleft palates or that their minds were cleft).

The survival of regional dialects has always been fought against by those attempting to impose a ‘good’ or ‘proper’ form of speech. They were derided, and their speakers mocked as unsophisticated. Schools sought to educate but only once a large body of knowledge had been depreciated and discarded. The languages of Cavan are the dialogues of everyday life; they are far removed from the sterile atmosphere of the schoolroom. In the past the efforts of linguistic policemen were doomed. But regional forms of dialogue are now sadly in decline. Part of this is an inevitable response to insatiable forces of television and popular entertainment. These seem hell bent on imposing uniformity and blandness. But the words and phrases used in Cavan (and indeed in any other region) grew out of a need to describe features and situations which no other available words could cope with. Cavan’s dialogue was both rich and reflective. Its homogenization will make Cavan and its inhabitants inherently poorer.

We must never see peculiarities of dialogue as quaint. They are nothing of which Cavan people ought to be ashamed. They should be treasured as an authentic element of identity.
Those interested in the words, phrases and idioms used in Cavan might like to visit my webpage at: where there is a by-no-means extensive list.

Taken from Breffni Blue
April 2004