idioms of Cavan women of the 1940šs
Ye have me stomach destroyed. (Youre annoying
She had a nose or her that you could cut a seam with.
Its on the Kathleen Mavorneen system.
Theres no fool like an old fool.
Better to be an old mans darling than a young
He was singing like a terrier caught in a brake of
briars. (Describing a rivals signing voice).
Ye have me heart scalded. (Children pestering
A Mary run the roads (A mothers description
of a female child who constantly plays outside to avoid
doing home chores)
A Lady Jane - (a female pretending to be rather
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
The truth is sour (Said sneeringly by a spiteful
woman to a man).
Bit, bite or sup hasnt crossed my lips this
day (So busy, no time to eat).
She would give you the bit out of her mouth.
(Shes very generous)
She has a face on her as hard as a boiled smoothern
iron. (Shes got weather beaten austere features)
Shes as mean as dirt; she was squeeze out of
And dont you dare darken this door again if
you are not back here by 8 oclock (Said by a mother
to a teenage daughter going out to meet her friends)
Dont shame me; dont you dare give me the
The place was packed; they were there from all over
Christs 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
Live horse and youll 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
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 languages 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 Scotlands 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
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
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 -
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, shepherds 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
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. Cavans 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: http://ireland.iol.ie/~cparker/cavanese
where there is a by-no-means extensive list.
Taken from Breffni Blue