Understand the Irish in 6 Words
In December 2015 I was in Dingle for the annual Other Voices festival with 8 Irish friends. We brushed shoulders with Glen Hansard, drank pints, sang with the locals in a pub well over stuffed at 30 people. It was my first outing in Ireland as the only American in a group, and I think it was the moment I fell in love with the way the Irish talk.
Taking a note from my time learning Spanish, I started a note in Google Keep, and every new phrase or usage got a line. The locals caught on quick and before long I had entries like “Raidióteilifís Éireann — a mad Irish bastard.” (It’s actually the name of the national broadcast company). Over time, the breadth of the dictionary grew (you can see all 87 entries in a separate post) but so did the depth of a few terms, which started looking less like the way the Irish speak, and more like my beautiful, wonderful friends. Here are my favorites.
1. The Craic
Craic is woven into the Irish lexicon and culture as tightly as the wool on a paddy cap. Craic might be most casually translated as “fun,” but a true Cork lad gave me a word I like better: divilment (or devilment). A roller coaster is fun. A night out where your mate gets up on the bar, takes his shirt off and sings all of Bohemian Rhapsody is The Craic. A great night is THE craic. A terrible one is shit craic. When you’re asking your friend, “how’s it going?” It is “What’s the craic?” You head out for the craic the way you head out to the bar. It’s a place, a state of life, a higher plane. Ireland is a dark and dreary place most of the year. When it’s not just cold, it’s cold and raining. Craic is the escape, the promised land, just a pub and a pint away.
2. The Session
When you are mad after the craic, you’re on the session. A session can last a night or a week. You go on the session, the same way you go on the run, knowing someday you’ll be back to pay the piper. It’s the hunt for the craic wherever it lies, at a festival, in a pub, round the kitchen table, wandering some back alley with a naggin of whiskey and friendly ear. It’s the fire you sit beside until the sun comes up or the embers die out or the police or your mom or your girlfriend come by to say enough is enough. If craic is a higher plane, the session is the staircase that takes you there. When it was time to put together our last party in Ireland, we called it The Session to End All Sessions, inspired by Irish comedian Tommy Tiernan, where he talks about “The session to end all sessions… The one that I’ve read about in the great book… The session that is our birthright. Of course, we won’t know it, because we’ll all be demented.”
3. Your Man
Your Man does not belong to you or to me. Your Man is the guy in the post office, the person who knocked your hat off and didn’t bother to say excuse me. Your man might best be translated as “that guy.” He’s a character in a story. Your man gave me change for a 20, your man was in my seat and wouldn’t move. As nonsensical as the possessive is, I fell in love with the phrase and what it says about Ireland. There are fewer people in all of Ireland than there are in Chicago, and fewer now than were there in 1830, and just because I don’t know your man who was selling tickets to the GAA match, you might, or your cousin might, and on a tiny island, we’re all on one team. Your man might very well be your man. Too many times when I asked about something I couldn’t figure out where to buy, the answer was “Oh, ring your man down the road and he can sort you out.” Of note, your man is only for one single male. Multiple people are not your men, and a female is designated as “your wan.”
4. The Shift
The Shift is a round of potentially not-so-covert kissing at a bar with a relative stranger. “Did you get the shift?” You might ask your friend after she comes back from the smoking area. “Oh, I got the shift alright.” Shifting, the verb, I learned is comes specifically from the motion a tongue makes during the Shift. It might be translated as “french kissing,” but that’s dressing it up a bit. In theory you could shift your girlfriend, but nobody shifts their wife. The Shift is the frantic moment the music stops in Irish pub mating musical chairs. What comes prior to this remains, to me, largely a mystery. From the outside it looks like a lot of guys putting their arms around women until one of doesn’t shrug them away.
Notions is not the plural of notion. Notions is that thought that maybe you’re something special, that maybe you’re a little to cool to be hanging around in Skibereen or with your brother and your cousins, or to go to mass even. And, probably specifically to the older Irish generations, this is not a good thing. The good Irish boy keeps his head down, “he’s no notions about him” would be high praise. The best example I’ve seen of a few lads with absolutely no notions about themselves are the O’Donovan brothers from West Cork. They became national heroes in Ireland after their Silver Olympic medal performance at Rio 2016. Asked by an interviewer whether they had any strategy going into the race they responded with, “tis simple enough really, A to B as fasht as you can go, close the eyes and pull like a dog”.
In America we have grand ballrooms, The Grand Canyon, The Grand Slam (both in baseball and at Denny’s), so when I started hearing grand left and right in Ireland, I thought I knew exactly how to use it. “How are you finding Ireland so far?” “Oh, it’s grand.” “That bad huh?” Grand does not mean good. It‘s probably best translated as “fine.” How was the rain in Cork this weekend? How was traffic on M50? How was it shifting your man? Grand. How are you feeling after those 4 shots of Jameson? Grand. How it is going with your girlfriend? Definitely not grand unless you want some follow up questions. I like to see grand as this little covert ray of optimism. As a country, when the sun never comes out and you’ve been oppressed for a thousand years, and you get your collective heart ripped out in one international sports competition after another, it may be shit, but feck it, if it’s not still grand.