Borderspake: the way we used to talk

Did you ever cap a cow,  langle a goat,  brer a ditch, build an adag or coup a yoke in a shuck? Did you ever get a sceilp, a dunch, a dúdóg or a gonc? Were you ever called an amadán, gulpin, bawkie, shibby, jaurie, gam, caldera or a wee skitter?

This project began as a bit of light entertainment for the Michael J Murphy Winter School in Tí Chulainn, Mullaghbawn in 2018.  Mickey Walshe and I wanted to capture some of the surviving Irish words in Michael’s home parish of Dromintee, which goes well into Louth, and adjoining areas around Slieve Gullion. In fact, some of the surviving Middle English terms and Elizabethan pronunciation proved just as interesting, as did the things we say in English using Irish grammar and word formation which Réamonn Ó Ciaráin showed us. Later, we added in some  local sayings which reflect great imaginative power.

During the Pandemic we took the project online when Suzanne Igoe researched and selected images to match the words and sayings.




  • Old English: Anglo-Saxon English (Beowulf) at the time of the Norman invasion in 1066. Generally impossible for us to read
  • Middle English from 1200 to about 1500, the language of Chaucer. Lowland and Ulster Scots contain a great deal of Middle English. We can read some of it, but with difficulty
  • Modern English, the language of Shakespeare but not the standardised English of today.. Not always easy but we can read it with care
  • When we list something as Middle/Old English, that means it is not used in standard English today or not with the meaning it still has in our area


We checked local terms against these two main sources, referred to in the text simply as (Dolan) and (Dinneen). We also got help from “Slanguage – a Dictionary of Irish Slang”,  “Foclóir Gaeilge-Bearla” (Ó Dónaill) and various online dictionaries and etymology websites.

Accents and dialects are funny things. On the way to South Armagh the strong Newry accent stops dead at Newtowncloghoge or the Lake End. But the South Armagh accent and way of talking goes far to the west. Listen to people in a shop in Belcoo or Garrison or over the border in Ballinamore and you might think you were in Forkill or Crossmaglen. For confirmation Google “Irish dialect map” and you will see the dark blue stripe stretching from Carlingford Louth to the short Leitrim coastline. This is the South Ulster dialect, a particular blend of Irish and English that is clearly different to the way people talk just to the north and just to the south of us. We have far more Middle English than other dialects except Ulster Scots. We also have particular pronunciations that are clearly 16th century or even Elizabethan: my granny said “door and floor” to rhyme with “poor”, which you need to do if you want to get Shakespeare’s poetry to rhyme.

Irish was spoken by the majority in South Armagh at the time of the Famine and by most people over 30 at the time of the 1901 census. However, we were practically bilingual for two centuries before the Famine and quite possible longer. The whole blue stripe on the map was a war zone in the late 1500s and again from 1641 to about 1660. Plantation and constant war helped us acquire English quickly and a bit earlier than in other parts of Ireland. Abayonet at your throat is a powerful learning incentive. The English we heard from generally unschooled soldiers, many recruited or press-ganged in the West Country for shipping out of Bristol, had not yet become the increasingly standardised language the rest of Ireland heard in the 1700s and 1800s. Regional dialects prevailed with a great deal of Middle English in them. Then from 1611 the Scottish planters with their Lowland dialects brought a new infusion of Middle English.

The terms listed alphabetically below are not unique to South Armagh but many will puzzle people in Newry or Dundalk. They may soon puzzle our own young people because many of them reflect farming methods and ways of life which are rapidly dying.


A muffin-shaped stack built of corn (oats) sheaves, grain to the centre, sheaf butts to the outside, after they have dried in stooks. These would be drawn into the farmstead for the threshing mill. Fr Patrick Dinneen’s “Foclóir Gaeilge agus Béarla (1927)” gives the origin of the term as Co. Monaghan. Also called barrel stack



OK, many traditional terms reflect the misogyny of their time and our images reflect that.

English dialect term for scolding (Dolan) but there may be an Irish link since words can sometimes have more than one origin.

Báirseach = a brawler, a shrew (Dinneen)



This was used to denote a clumsy or awkward person. Some link it to bacach = cripple, beggar (Dinneen) but interestingly ‘baukie-bird’ is a traditional Scots word for a bat which can at least give the appearance of bumping into things. There is a family in Longfield that has Bawkie as a nickname. Further information welcome.


Commonly used to describe an infected wound of any kind. Middle English belen To fester, to suppurate, to burn (Dolan)


Elsewhere beestings (Dolan) from Middle English bestyngs, first milk from a cow which has just calved, colostrum


Middle English betel, Old English bætan,  to beat (Dolan)

Old English = Anglo-Saxon used some different letters such as  ð, þ, ȝ, ƿ, ſ, æ

Wooden beetles were used to mash boiled spuds (or poundies). Beetling mills used water power to batter the husks off linen fibre. There is a slip jig called “Throw the beetle at her”

“There was an old woman who lived in a lamp, she had no room to beetle her champ.
So she up with her beetle and broke the lamp, and now she has room to beetle her champ.” (Unknown origin)


Middle English besme (Dolan)

Making brooms from heather or from the broom plant was a cottage industry around Slieve Gullion a couple of hundred years ago. The brooms were sold at fairs in Jonesborough, Forkhill, Crossmaglen and Newtown



I really thought this was an English word, but there it is: bladaire = a flatterer, a wheedler, a voluble talker (Dinneen)



or boiteán (Dinneen) = A small bundle of hay or straw. We heard it as “a bottle of straw (or hay” which was as much as you could easily carry on a rope or tether. A pre-baler term.



broim =breaking wind (Dinneen). Even if you didn’t know the word you have probably heard the expression “brimsy brown the colour of a mouse’s fart”.                                                          And now you know why



callaire = a loud speaker or a loudspeaker device (Dinneen). We used it to mean a fool, or perhaps even more a person who acts the fool a bit too often.


Capping cows

This is probably my favourite term: at school in Newry it was part of our rural code language. Driving cattle, blocking them or turning them. “Stan’ in that gap ya boy ya and cap them bullocks past.” ceapaim = I stop, catch, seize, control (Dinneen)



cár or cárr = grimace, twisted mouth, twisted espression (Dinneen). As a method of quietly expressing anger or disappointment it was absolutely banned in my childhood home. “Take that cár off your face or I’ll take it off for you.” Alternatively, upping the threat level “… or God’ll leave it there.”


ceis =a crossing place in a river or bog, or a causeway made of wattle hurdles (cliath) (Dolan). Very much an Ulster word (Long Kesh): further south they talk of ‘ath cliath’ (hurdle ford).


ciotach = lefthanded (Dinneen). We used say “kitter”, often used as nickname



clábar = filth, dirt, mire, mud

People from humble origins who had clawed and fought their way into the gentry were referred to as “Lord Muck from Clabber Hill”.  The term was immortalised by W.F. Marshall, the clergyman poet of the Clogher Valley, in his poem “Me an’ me Da”: “I’m livin’ in Drumlister in clabber to the knee.”



From Middle English clegge (Dolan),generally known as horseflies. You can feel an ordinary fly lighting on your skin, but not these guys, the first you know is when the painful lump rises. Seems they inject anaesthetic before they suck your blood. We used to think they made cattle ‘bizz’ (stampede) in hot weather but I hear the warble fly under the skin was the real cause.



(Misogyny alert) A dirty or untidy person, a poor housekeeper

Middle English – to cover or smear with dirt (Source: Wiktionary)



(by hunger or thirst)

Old English clamm = fetter or cramp

(Source: “Slanguage, a dictionary of Irish Slang” which notes Ulster usage: perished with hunger or cold)



Dolan writes rather unhelpfully that it is English but its origins are obscure. “Slanguage” says it is Ulster usage for a beetle or cockroach. Googling “beetle clock” turns up something called the black clock beetle

                  Clocking hen

Middle English clacken = sitting on hatching eggs(Dolan)


clúdóg = a clutch of eggs (Dinneen). When hens were ‘laying out’ we would be sent to look for their clúdóg, often in the nettles. On Easter Sunday when we went to climb some hill to boil our eggs on an open fire, older people would ask: ” Did yez boil your clúdóg yet?”



cológ = collop (Dinneen); Dolan says collop is from colpa, a standard measure of grazing land. In the South Armagh vernacular it meant a big lump of pretty much anything. In Eric Cross’s The Tailor and Ansty, Timothy “the Tailor” Buckley describes a collop as “an old count for the carrying power of land”, noting that it was the grazing of one cow, or two yearling heifers, or six sheep, or twelve goats, or six geese and a gander. That is almost certainly a Brehon Law definition

Cowp a yoke in a shuck

This phrase practically sums up South Armagh dialect and culture on its own. Literally translated it means ‘overturn a vehicle in a stream or drain’ but the interesting thing is that it may just unite three languages. ‘Cowp’ has to come from Norman-French couper; yoke is a middle English borrowing which can be applied to any object or implement; ‘shuck/sheugh/sioch’ may be Scots or Middle English or Irish; most likely is that ‘sioch’ is an early borrowing/Gaelicisation from one of the others. We don’t care, we are more worried about how to get the yoke out of there.

                                      Creels and bardógs

Creels and bardógs are wickerwork panniers used on donkeys and ponies: creels are circular while bardógs are oblong with a hinged flap on the bottom for dumping contents without unloading the donkey. They also have a metaphorical meaning. If someone suddenly put on a lot of weight around the waist my mother might say: “that fella’s carrying creels and bardógs”.


To crig (your toe). cnag = to knock, rap or strike. In Ulster Irish cn becomes cr. Just as cnoc (hill) is pronounced croc, so cnag becomes crag and it’s not far from there to crig. Sore in any dialect




cró = stall, pen or hut Dinneen). Around Slieve Gullion, pronounced craw it denoted any small building for animals – pigcraw – and by extension any low-quality building or house. The first illustration on the left looked a bit “National Trust” compared with what the pigs in South Armagh had to put up with: the one on the right is the real thing, the pigstyes at Quarvue Farmhouse in Cornamucklagh



Here’s another one I was quite sure was English, but there it is in Dinneen:

clabhta = clout, a blow with the open hand. It is listed in my Pocket Oxford Dictionary with exactly the same wording. Of course, we didn’t just get words from the English, we gave them words too. All those troublemakers at football matches don’t realise what they owe to the Ó hUallachain family who settled in London’s East End


Craic – an impostor

“a hideous neologism (Diarmaid Ó Muirithe, senior lecturer in Irish, UCD)

“a linguistic lie” (film critic Donald Clarke, Irish Times)

With its false ‘Irishy’ spelling it is fake as the cringeworthy leprauchan culture imported from the USA for what they call Paddy’s Day.

‘Craic or crack is a term for news, gossip, fun, entertainment, and enjoyable conversation, particularly prominent in Ireland. It is often used with the definite article – the craic – as in the expression “What’s the craic?” (meaning “How are you?” or “What’s happening?”). The Scots and English crack was borrowed into Irish as craic in the mid-20th century and the Irish spelling was then reborrowed into English. (Wikipedia)

The term is recorded in Scotland with this sense as far back as the 16th century.

It is believed that the first written records of the use of “crack” in Ireland did not appear until the 1950s. (Irish Central)

“Crack” first appeared in Middle English around the year 1300 (Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary; Oxford, 1979)

Middle English crak (“loud conversation, bragging talk”). Wiktionary

Walter Scott used the word in Rob Roy ….. Robert Burns also used it, and his glossary defined it as “to chat, to talk“.


Now everyone, repeat after me:

“Dawkin dawkin in and out, take the sting of the nettle out”. All nonsense of course, just a ritual to divert a child’s attention while the sting eases of its own accord. Isn’t it? Perhaps not. Dock leaf sap contains a soothing antihistamine say some on the Internet. Others rubbish it


Middle English dingen = to beat, strike or bruise (Dolan)

The standard English word is dent; dinge is not in my Pocket Oxford




That is how the old people pronounced drought, used just to mean thirst. No such meaning is listed in standard English dictionaries so it may be specific to Ireland, or a shift of meaning since it evolved from Middle English droghte (Dolan). Sometimes spelt drouth


No open slap here but a full punch. Dinneen and Dolan translate it as “a box on the ear” but that is far too genteel for South Armagh




dúidín = a short tobacco pipe (Dinneen). Often used to refer to clay pipes. Clay pipes and tobacco were part of the undertaker’s offering at funerals a century ago. The tradition arose that as the coffin was carried out through the ‘street’ in front of the house, mourners would break the pipes and throw them on a stone ditch.

“My curse upon you Sweeney, you nearly have me robbed,

Sittin’ by the fireside with your dúidín in  your gob”

The Rocks of Bawn, traditional South Ulster song complaining about the cost and laziness of hired farm labourers. May be from Cavan


In standard English dunch means a nudge with an elbow. Locally (and in Scotland and seemingly in Tyneside) it always has the sense of being butted by an animal.




All time favourite, usually “falling into an oul’ dwam”. This time I was sure it was Irish, but no. Dictionary of Irish Slang says it is Scottish, meaning fit of dizziness or coma-like state. Collins Dictionary reckons it comes from Old English dwolma = confusion. Lexico traces it to the early 16th century, referring to the reverie before sleep. We used it more to refer to an absolute absence of energy or motivation.



Potato bread made on a griddle. Slanguage says it is Scottish, Dolan says it is obscure. We called it slim and my granny made the best slim in the world. The secret was that she never washed her baking board, just banged it against the wall of the henhouse.




                                         Failed/well mended

With our tragic history it is understandable that losing weight was not highly regarded in traditional culture. In my childhood it still had all the negative overtones from the consumption (tubercolosis) which had ravaged the countryside and laid whole families low just a generation earlier. However, old photographs show just how rare overweight people were half a century ago – and I have no memory of obesity at all.



Firing stones

Sometimes in England we get odd looks when we say odd things, like firing stones rather than throwing them. The Irish word caith can mean a lot of different things including “throw” and “fire (a gun)”. As Mark Twain said, we are divided by a common language. My late mother asked for a sliced pan in Manchester and they told her to try the ironmonger’s.





We didn’t come up with a satisfactory illustration for this one but it is absolutely vital  for understanding local culture. One local man described the life of a small farmer as “footherin’ round the doors and makin’ drops of tay”:  the doors (rhyming with tours) being to the byre and the pig-craw and the calf-house and the stable and so on.

Dolan describes it as fidgety, awkward behaviour or acting in a bungling manner, whereas I would think of it more as pointless, useless activity or work, perhaps trying to fix something beyond the point of hope. He says it comes from Irish fútar which sounds right but Dinneen does not list it. Dubliners and others talk about foostering which seems to be similar.



All the men wore galluses when I was a lad: I think I even had a pair myself but us young folk

called them braces. Dolan reckoned it is a corrupted or obsolete form of gallows.





It is interesting that Irish-language insults seem to have such a high survival rate.

gám = a silly, foolish person (Dolan)or a soft, foolish person (Dinneen).



This was a very common term for a boy when I was a boy. You would be hailed “well, gasun” or sometimes “well, avick”.

Also gasúr or garsún. From French garcon and Latin garcio

gasúr = a boy, a youth, a servant (Dinneen)





Variants girning and gurning.

ag gearán = complaining, crying, whimpering (Dinneen). 

Dolan reckons it is an English dialect word. Les Dawson used gurning to mean pulling funny or grotesque faces



geirrseach = lass, damsel, girl (Dinneen) – girseach is a more common spelling in Ulster Irish. Very common a couple of generations ago. Like gasún it was more often used as a way of addressing a young person directly rather than referring to them in their absence








giostaire = a gabbler (Dinneen). A garrulous older man (Dolan).

 Livelychattyold man; precociousloquaciouschildgabbler (Ó Donaill, Foclóir Gaeilge-Bearla

I remember it being used in South Armagh but not exactly who was being insulted, although “Oul’ gistra” comes easily to mind






glár = mud left behind by receding water (Dinneen)

We had a lot of words for muck and we needed all of them, but Dinneen is on the button with this one. Glár is very fine mud or silt. I remember it being used to describe badly cooked stew




golgháire = a loud noise (Dinneen). goldar, a loud angry shout (Dolan)

Often pronounced gulder, it meant a roar or loud shout – “he let a gulder out of him”






Another one I thought was English, or even American, but it is not in standard dictionaries

gonnc = a snub or disappointment (Dinneen). May be spelt gonc in Ulster Irish.

Used locally for getting a shock or unpleasant surprise. “I got a quare gunk so I did”





This is listed as an Irish word (meaning glutton) in Ó Donaill’s Irish-English dictionary,but it may have come in from English.

A glutton, a greedy eater. English dialect, origins obscure (Dolan)

Northern Irish mid-17th century of unknown origin (Oxford Dictionary)

Greedy, voracious eater (Slanguage)

It was common in South Armagh



griosach = hot ashes or embers (Dinneen)

“It’s time everyone was spittin’ in their own greesha”

The bastable oven was an oval cast-iron pot used for baking bread on an open fire: there was a lip around the lid so hot greesha could be piled on it to even up the baking heat. The pots were made in a foundry in Barnstaple, England.




A slightly sloped channel in the floor of the byre behind the chained cows, where dung and urine could be swept out for removal. “The cow kicked me and scattered me in the group.”

Variation of gripe from Old English grype (sewer), Dutch groep (ditch or trench) (Dolan)





More muck.

English dialect, from French gutiere, goute = drop (Dolan)

However, the Irish word guta = puddle, mire, mud, filth, dirt (Dinneen)






This one is a real stray.

From gutta-percha, Malay word for the gum of the percha tree, better known as rubber



Stealing apples from a garden or orchard, a major sport of my childhood

English dialect, origin obscure (Dolan)







The hames is the stiff metal/wood frame that goes in front of the padded collar on a horse’s neck for attaching chains to pull a cart or plough

From Middle English hame, from Middle Dutch hame  = horse collar, harness (Wiktionary)

The expression “to make a hames of something” is still common in the area and was used by James Joyce in Finnegans Wake.  According to the Collins Online Dictionary it means “to spoil through clumsiness or ineptitude”,and notes that it is “Irish informal”.  Lots of websites cite the phrase but none of them have a conclusive or convincing explanation for its origins.



Middle English holk, Scottish, Northumbrian

Scottish howk, Middle English and  Low German holken = to burrow, dig (Slanguage)

A Killean man who was less than impressed with a digger driver said: “Our oul’ sow could hoke more than thon fella.”




deoraidheach = runt of the litter, or an exile (Dinneen),  by inference any person of small stature. Generally the last piglet to be farrowed.  Jauries too small or weak to push and fight their way onto a sow’s teat had to be taken indoors and bottle-fed before being put back in the fray



To dodge or avoid

English dialect (Dolan). 17th century or earlier, found in Scotland and Appalachia

“stoop or duck quickly; elude by darting or dodging,” c. 1500 (




The jury, one might say, is still out on this one. To put the kybosh on something means to stop it in its tracks, to spoil or defeat a plan. It is widely believed in Ireland that the word comes from an caip báis, the black cap worn by a judge passing the death sentence, or the pitch cap used to torture United Irishman suspects in 1798. And maybe it does, but others believe the word may be Yiddish, Anglo-Hebraic or Turkish




Another very English-looking word which is pure Irish

léasadh = a beating or whipping (Dinneen). Or it could be a loodering

lúdradh = a beating (Dinneen)



langaid = a spancel or fetter. “Slanguage” says langle is known in Scotland with the same meaning. Wandering cows fond of breaking out through holes in hedges used to have a plank tied around their neck




In ye olden days before silage, before machinery in general, hay cut in rows with a reaper was first turned to dry it; then raked into rows; then built into lapcocks. Hay was heaped together in a tight bundle perhaps three feet high, then a series of loose hay coverings were shaken on top and combed down and patted with the fork until there was a compact little stack with a topping of roughly aligned hay capaple of throwing off some rain. After a week or so drying in the lapcocks, the hay would be built again into larger stacks to be drawn home to the farm.



Lashings (and leavings)

The first known use of lashings (and leavings) to mean abundance dates from 1828 according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary. identifies the term as Anglo-Irish and there are certainly many examples of its use in Irish literature.





A lane or byroad. English dialect, rom MIddle English lone (Dolan)

From Old Norse lán (Wiktionary)

Common across Ulster, Scotttish Lowlands and north-east of England. Unknown beyond Dundalk





A quantity of something, a few. Middle English loc (Dolan) Irish loca = a handful (Dinneen)

Pints of Guinness in ascending order of magnitude : couple, lock, rake



Local variant of leprauchan; various spellings including lougrryman and lochrieman

luchorpán (Dinneen). Also luchramán

“The Northern Leprechaun or Logheryman wore a “military red coatand white breeches, with a broad-brimmed, high, pointed hat, on which he would sometimes stand upside down”.




March ditch

Boundary ditch between farms. From Old English mark, a boundary or border.

We have the March Wall at Jonesborough. Colum Sands wrote a song called “The March Ditch” as a synonym for the sectarian divide in rural areas



Pronounced ‘mehil’.

meitheal = a team of workers (Dinneen). Generally contains the idea of co-ooperative working; you come to me to do the hay, I’ll come to you for the spuds and the two of us will go to Mickey’s for the threshing. Seems to be a survival of rundale, the cooperative system of open-field farming


Late Middle English: compare with Low German miseln and Dutch dialect miezelen (Oxford Languages). My granny called it “thon oul’ wettin’ rain”; it is true that fine rain seems to wet you more.

There is a theory that Irish has more  words for rain and wetness than any other language. We probably need them all



Confused, muddled, stupefied

Irish dialect, Midlands English, Late 16th century

Moider/moither = to bother or bewilder (Collins Dictionary)



English dialect word for armpit, from Old English ohsta (Dolan)

The Irish for armpit is ascall which also means avenue. Ascall na Rí could be Royal Avenue or the king’s oxter


On the pig’s back

Direct translation: ar muin na muice = well-off, doing well, all right (Dinneen).

Widely recognised as an Irish saying, possibly related to “living high on the hog” in America.  Possibly refers to the better and more expensive cuts of port and bacon




From Middle English pissemyre (early 14th century),  Danish tissemyre

Anthills have an acrid smell of formic acid



Local version of preátaí. Potatoes were picked in the autumn and stored over the winter in a pit known as a priddy hole. A long mound of potatoes was covered with a foot-deep layer of straw for insulation and another foot of earth which was beaten flat to throw off rainwater.






Also pissabed or pishabed, English dialect for dandelion (Dolan)

In French the dandelion is formally known as dent de lion (lion’s tooth) but most French children call it pis-en-lit (piss-the-bed). The leaves have a diuretic effect if eaten or even if smelt according to English folklore. The Irish word caisearbhán has no implications







to burp or belch. From Old Norse rypta = break (Slanguage)





saileog = white willow (Dinneen), Also saileach

When we were young and naughty (or bold as we said), we would be told: “Go out and cut a sally rod for yourself.” When we brought it in, it would be thrown in the fire. Anticipation was punishment enough.





sceilp = a blow or slap (Dinneen). A very common word in our childhood but to be fair, more by way of threat than action

A person of ruddy complexion was said to have “a face like a well-skelped arse”





Sometimes called white scour, it seems to have been endemic in the calf herd 50 or 60 years.


In Ireland, cryptosporidium and rotavirus are the two most common causes of calf scour.


samhadh =sorrel (Dinneen). When we were thirsty while making hay my father would find shammy leaves in the grass for us to chew. Sour but refreshing taste






A small steam or drain.

This one will cause a row. First use of sheugh in English dates to 1501, from Middle English sogh = swamp. The Oxford English Dictionary says it is a dialect variation of sough, a boggy or swampy place. On the other Dinneen lists an Irish word seoch for “a sheugh or drain along a fence”. The word is indeed mostly used for field drains running inside a ditch, particularly in the old cutaway bog fields. Definitely far more common in Ulster so in all probability it came into Irish from English a long time ago.


Sometimes spelt swingletree. A word which was common but has faded along with horse ploughing – there used to be a couple of ploughs and singletrees lying about every farmyard. Chains linked the hames (frame in front of padded collar) to the ends of the singletree from dthe midpoint of which a short rigid link hjooked onto the plough. For two-horse ploughing a doubletree was used. The Irish term is cuing céachta



There are more than 70 different local and dialect names for the wood louse. Slater seems to be more common in Scotland and northern England and has been dated to the 17th century.





sleán =a turf spade (Ó Dónaill. Hard to get – I saw an old one on Ebay for 175 Euro. There is a wonderful recitation about the adventures of a man who was just going into the Cope (Co-op) in Dungloe to buy a new turf spade – – but when I went in there were none for sale.



This is pure Irish, meaning a mouthful or a swallow, from

slogaim = I swallow (Dinneen). Later associations with alcohol were accquired when the word became part of American slang.

 an amount of an alcoholic drink, typically liquor, that is gulped or poured: he took a slug of whiskey.





snadaidh (old spelling) = a sneaky person, a sneak. Insulting words have a tremendous survival rate








Origins uncertain: thought to be Irish slang from the 1930s.

”The origins of the word are not certain, but it is thought to have its roots in the cross-pollination of the Scots and the Irish language.” Scotsman newspaper 2014

There is an old Scots word stot meaning to stagger


See adag above.

A group of sheaves of grain stood on end in a field. From Middle English stouk (Dolan)

Middle English stowk, stouke, stouc (Wiktionary)




Translation of sraid = the space around a house, a farmyard (Dinneen)

Used for the common area between houses in a baile, the traditional rural housing cluster

Common term for farmyard in South Armagh




To drain the last drop of milk from a cow’s elder (from Middle Dutch elder: Dolan), the local version of udder

Strig seems to be a variant of Irish sniogadh (Dinneen) which has the same meaning. It was important because failing to empty the elder could cause mastitis. The local word was “felan” or something like that but I have been unable to trace it.




stailc = stubborn, sulky (Dinneen)

People are said to be ‘in a stulk’






“A young heifer or bullock; figuratively, a short, stout, thick-set boy or girl”

From Middle English stirke = heifer (Dolan)

Misogyny alert: “Beef to the heels like a Mullingar heifer”


toirneach = thunder (Dinneen)

Best known around Crossmaglen





Teeming the spuds.

From Middle English temen = to drain (Dolan)

Also hard or heavy rain




Throat, windpipe—used especially of the horse (Mirriam-Webster Dictionary)

from Late Middle English thropul = windpipe (Wiktionary)

Also used locally as a verb: “If you don’t shut up I’ll thrapple you.”





Direct translation of trí na chéile =mixed-up, confused. More often used to convey untidiness and lack of order






Mattress filled with straw or chaff


The word originally referred to the ticking, the sackcloth or linen which held the mattress filling, usually chaff from threshed oats. Every year at the threshing, the old chaff was tipped out and burned, the ticking was washed and dried and fresh new chaff was filled in.




Middle English whynne, Old Norse hvein (“gorse, furze”) (Wiktionary)

North of a line from Dundalk to Wesport, whins rule. The rest is a mix of gorse in the east and furze in the south-west.

The PSNI were out helping deal with what they called a “very serious gorse fire” in the Mournes. When asked how it started the local inspector said: “Some eejit lit the whins.”

“When gorse is out of bloom kissing is out of fashion”: English saying, mid-19th century.

Gorse is never out of bloom

 English words, Irish meaning

Wicked = cross, short-tempered

Bold = naughty. May be due to influence of Irish word dána (Dolan)

Doting = dementia. Middle English dotien to be silly, out of one’s wits (Dolan)

Thole = endure, tolerate. Old English tholien (Slanguage)

Ditch = embankment, field wall. Old English dic, early Modern English dyke were closer to Irish meaning

Foundered = very cold. Old Frech fondrer = to collapse with the cold

Get = bastard. English dialect (Dolan). “Ye hoor’s get ye!”

Hunt = chase away. Hunt them out of it

Do you mind the time ….? MIddle English minden =  to remember

Skite = splash, squirt. English dialect (Dolan). Also to strike or hit

Shore = drain. English dialect variation on sewer

Forbye = besides. Middle English forbi (Dolan)

Figary = a whimsical notion, a fanciful mood (Dolan)

Unbeknownst = unknown. The Oxford English Dictionry recorded first use in 1854

Scow-ways, skew-ways = crooked or off kilter.  English dialect (Dolan) but possibly influenced by Irish sceabha = skew, slant or slope (Dinneen)

Fornenst = in front of, facing. Early Modern English fore + anent (Dolan)

To go for to do something

Moidered = confused (16th century)

I houl’ you: used to make an assertion: “I houl’you it’ll rain the morra”. Can be found in Shakespeare: “I hold thee…”

Divil a hate = nothing. Originally “the devil ha(ve) it” if asked if you had money (Slanguage)

Skitter = a vain, frivolous or useless person, of Norse origin (Slanguage); sciodar = a contemptible,worthless person (Ó Dónaill)

Sparrowfart = small person, insignificant person. In Australia it means very early in the morning

To red up = to tidy or clean up. MIddle English radden = prepare. In Denmark they say rydde op = tidy up

Odd bits

He’s a canatt: cnat = a selfish, niggardly person

He’s a real card: ceardaí = trickster (Dinneen)

Gulpin: guilpín = unmannerly lout (Dinneen)

Slabber: clabaire = excessively talkative person

Hallion (misogyny alert): aggressive woman, English dialect (Dolan) but note áilleánn = a good for nothing person (Dinneen)

Cranky: crancaire = a grumbler (Dinneen)

Shibby: a fearful person. No sources, theories welcome

You had no call to say that = no need or right. call = want, necessity (Dinneen)

You had a right to go away home now = it would be the right thing for you to go. Bíodh an cheart agat dul abhaile anois.

I’ll give it to you again (pay you at some other time). I gather the New Irish have great trouble with this one

Is it yourself that’s in it it? Not sure if anyone actually says this but they should

Oul’ buck =  back chat, cheekiness

Oul’-fashioned = precocious (child)

Scraw: scraith = topsod (Dinneen)

Glan well: a ‘clean’ well fed by its own single spring. Where there were several wells on one spring, Famine diseases could pass from one to another.

Hungry ground = an féar gortach (literally hungry grass). Superstition that particular places could induce hunger-related weakness. Some say famine graves or places where people died.My grandfather had tiny packets of salt and oatmeal sewn into his coat to ward against the hungry ground.

16th Century Pronunciations

Tay = tea

Bate = beat

Fut = foot

Hoor = whore

Scrabe = scrape, scratch

Brak = break

Door, floor rhyming with poor

Irish Pronuciations

Film – two syllables (fillum). In Irish m could not follow l without a vowel in between, so we mentally put one in

Safety – three syllables. Same rule

Idiot (eejit) – very much a northern thing similar to the way we say Bríd (Breege)

I amn’t ( I’m not). I have no idea why we say this but we do

Childer, chimley

Irish constructions

For this section in particular I have cogged shamelessly from the 2010 work of my friend Réamonn Ó Ciaráin ( now chief executive of Gael-Linn) who took part in our original workshop in Mullaghbawn and a subsequent session in Crossmaglen Library:



Centuries after we stopped speaking Irish, we still put sentences together using rules and conventions of Irish, or literal translations from Irish which English people think is hilarious. They would not understand any of the things below

  • I’m only after my dinner
  • He be’s here every day (does be). There is no present habitual tense in English so we make one up
  • Come here till I comb your hair. Till/until has to do with time in English; here they are used in place of the Irish ‘go’
  • That fellow’s after you
  • I’m not great with you any more
  • The child’s making strange (coimhthíos)
  • The man above (God)
  • The likes of him (a leithid)
  • Don’t let on to her
  • The cup broke on me. Bris sé orm
  • b e-to-be = should. I  be to be getting away home now. He be to be coming soon
  • A brave day = lá breá
  • twang = teanga
  • whisht = éist
  • twig on = tuig (understand)
  • Dear (Dia=God) knows
  • He nearly fell out of his standing
  • The humour is on me now
  • Friends meaning relatives
  • I’m not great with you (mór leat) any more

Probably the biggest difference is the one we don’t notice. English people can answer a question just by saying “yes” or “no” but unless we are in court we never do that- we repeat the verb just like you have to do in Irish.

Will you have a cup of tea? No I won’t.

Did you come on the bus? Yes I did.

And there are the things we never say because they have no Irish equivalent. You don’t hear people saying “fetch” they use “get”. And like Americans we virtually never say “shall”. There is a difference between shall and will, but nobody here including me knows what it is.

Us older people say ‘up to Dublin’ and ‘down to Belfast’. Our parents said: ‘away up the country’ meaning southward and ‘away down the country’ meaning northward. The convention that north is at the top of the map was only established with the Ordnance Surveys of the 1830s: in the traditional Irish view the south was up, being closer to the sun. Look at our double townlands and parishes: Upper/Lower Killeavy, Upper/Lower Creggan, Upper/Lower Fathom, Faughilotra/etra. In each case the ‘upper’ is further south.


Made in England, survive in Ireland

Bad cess to you: cess (possible abbreviation of assessment)= tax or rates, early 16th century. Thought to refer to charges for maintenance of the English armies which were sent here to civilise us. It came to mean mild curse – bad luck to you.

Bad scran to you: scran = feeding, provisions, English dialect (Dolan). Confirmed by Collins English Dictionary which says it is 18th century. Sometimes pronounced  ‘scrant’. Also came to mean mild curse – bad luck to you.

At the heel of the hunt = popular Hiberno-Irish phrase (Oxford Reference Dictionary)

Strutting around like a lord’s bastard – a historic putdown for showoffs

I love you in big lumps like Free State sugar

You can see the track of the rope in that fella’s neck

You’re on bad drying ground – in a bad situation, ill-prepared


He took a strong weakness

Pronounced ‘wakeness’.





To hell with poverty, throw another herring on the pan




Boot on your goat, there’s a buck at the border

We have no idea where this one came from or even what it means: it was generally a shout of

encouragement to anyone faced with a difficult task





I’d know his skin on a bush

A favourite of my granny’s to emphasize how well she know someone. Animal hides were stretched over thorn bushes to dry. Seems to be a direct translation from a lost Irish saying about ‘ a craiceann ar crann’.





I could sleep on a harrow






Up on your  bike for Skull Hill

There was a dance hall in in an old schoolhouse on the hill in Kilcurry, hence the name (scoil), and they came in their droves by bike from Dundalk and further afield in the 1930s and into the 1950s. I was there in the 1960s for a ‘record hop’. There was no electricity, the microphone and record player ran off car batteries, the hall was lit by Tilly lamps. I will never forget the announcement: “The next dance will be a quickstep and would Barney Murphy come up and pump the lamps.”






Pulling the divil by the tail

Under pressure but coping, struggling but getting there a bit at a time






That’s a bit more Protestant-looking now

Said after sweeping out the kitchen or cleaning up a bit. It has its origins in the “Ulster Custom”, the tenancy agreement granted to Scottish and English settlers in the Plantation of Ulster. They were guaranteed compensation from the landlord for any improvement they made to their landholding: building ditches, draining, reclaiming bog or mountain or building a house or farm buildings. Different terms and conditions applied to the natives. If you improved the farm and raised its value you could be evicted and the land let to another tenant at a higher rent. It was in your interest to avoid obvious improvements, to preach the Poor Mouth (An Béal Bocht) and make sure your children had no arse in their trousers if the landlord was about. Protestant farms were neat and tidy: Catholic farms were not. It is still there in the culture: drive through the drumlins of Down or Armagh and see for yourself. But now you know why




That’ll be a fire when it lights, as the monkey said when it pissed in the snow

No idea of origins but my granny used to say it when she started on some big job such as painting or wallpapering



Every little helps, as the jenny wren said when it pissed in the ocean

Die dog or shite the licence

I first heard this from Monaghan people but it is known in Dublin and reportedly in Australia.

(Aus./Irish) to commit oneself unreservedly  (Green’s Dictionary of Slang)

If you are committed to a course of action and you find out it is probably unwise but you feel you must press on anyway. So the Gardaí come looking for your dog licence and you say you have no dog but they say there’s one barking round the back and you go around but on the way you lift the hatchet off the chopping block and you say to the dog ……

“ I had always believed that if a fellow went into the I.R.A. at all he should be prepared to throw the handle after the hatchet, die dog or shite the licence.” Brendan Behan – Borstal Boy




Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *