.A native of Dublin, John divides his time between Ireland and Canada, where he and his wife Hanna raise their family. With a mother from the West of Ireland and a father from Dublin, home in Dublin was full of talk and character. Everyone had a story, a song, a joke. An eccentricity.

John follows the lure of travel when he can, rambling in Ireland’s Burren or Dublin's streets, or hill-walking in southern Austria.

Trained as a teacher, he still goes by Yeats’ axiom that only that which is useless or can’t be taught is irresistible.
‘Culchie Colombo with a liberal and urbane heart. Like all the best detective stories it casts its net widely over its setting.(Minogue is) a character who should run and run...’
Irish Times


I grew up assuming that everyone talked and acted like my family. I was ten or eleven before I found out otherwise.

The conversational ballet between my mother and father was often hilarious. Da was a Dublinman. Not a city Dub now, and he had no time for the ‘rale Dub’ talk and carry-on. He’d describe himself as ‘a South County man’, specifically ‘from the Kill.’ Kill is the anglicized version of ‘Cill,’ the Irish for church. Da’s people had been around the Kill of The Grange - ‘The Kill’ - for centuries.

He would remind us that he and his family were by no means the type to doff their hats at the gentry up the road in Foxrock. He grew up and went to school with rough enough lads, many of whom I would meet later in pubs.

’Tell me, how’s that father of yours?’
‘He’s grand thanks, Mr Brien.’
‘Tell him I was asking for him.’
’Da, Snooks Brien was asking for you the other day.’
‘Good lad yourself. Give the bold Snooks a how-do from me so.’

Every one of Da’s childhood pals, or his ‘butties,’ had nicknames. Most were resolutely working class and proudly so. I collected many stories of their exploits. Often I’d look around the bar and see their lived-in faces, and imagine I was in Yoknapatawpha County.

We had more than a fair share of dour and contrary antecedents on Da’s side. Their abiding vice was a desire to be - or at least to appear to be - respectable. That contrary gene has held firm to the present day, the urge to respectability less so.

Da was a first class student with a notable bent for Maths. He was unable to take up a scholarship to university, however. He was eldest and thus breadwinner for the family after his father ‘Old Johnny’ fell ill and died after a considerable period of debility.

From what I have heard, Da seems to have taken his temperament from his mother’s side, a Murphy from Kilihurler, in the wilds of Wicklow. The Murphys were tall and rangy and well used to a long day’s work. Da kept in touch all his life with cousins on his mother’s side.

South Wicklow and Wexford hold a strong appeal to me yet. As near as the area there may appear to be to Dublin, it still feels remote and apart. I believe that a part of Da longed to live in the country there. For several years he and Ma thought about buying a small farm in Wexford and moving there. Maybe he needed to nurture notions like this to enable him to continue working in the civil service for as long as he did, over forty years.

Ma was a Clarewoman, from the west of Ireland. Clare is and was known for its music, talk and distinct accent. In her day, it was relatively remote, economically poor. It was also notably Republican and pro IRA back in the War of Independence.

Ma’s father died when she was 11; from then on she was much taken up with minding her siblings while my grandmother ‘Nana’ trained and worked as a nurse. Like so many country people, Ma came up to Dublin to work in the civil service. She immediately loved the city, as did her sisters and brother and, eventually, her mother Delia.

Along with their own temperaments and backgrounds, Ma and Da brought very different idiom to the family. Ma more often gave off sayings in Irish, and she’d use expressions that I’d hear nowhere else. She loved a good joke and a chat. She’d hum and sing all day.

Ma was a highly sociable and lively woman; rearing four kids in the south County Dublin - ‘so far outside civilization’ at the time - was hard on her. The sexist rules of employment in the civil service, not to speak of the weight of the Irish catholic church on women, would hardly be believed today. She retained her devotions and core beliefs, however.

Ma would sometimes be helpless with a quiet laughter at some expression Da’d come out with. To the end of her life, she told me that he’d utter expressions, or he’d come up with a turn of phrase, that she had not heard before in all her years married to him. ‘A gas man,’ indeed.

Ma might say of someone who could not be relied on: ’Sure, he/she is as I roved out.’ Da, referring to a similar idea might say: ’Sure, that fella is the back of the neck entirely.’ Da might be ‘vexed’ about something. Ma would be ‘put out’ about something.

Endless talk was often delivered in the kitchen where they sat for hours after ‘the tea.’ Slow, episodic talk between them circled in the air amidst the dense smoke from their Carrolls’ Number Ones and Senior Service. They took great comfort from talk together. Even at my most savagely antipathetic in teenage years, I still liked to listen to them, and laugh.

There was no cursing around our house. That in no way stopped us from become fluent and versatile with same. Yet I was an adult before I heard Da inadvertently let slip the F word. I was startled. There had been drink taken, I reasoned, and he was much older.

Cousins and neighbours brought other regional accents and idiom to the mix, as did our teachers, our public figures and broadcasters. We learned from an early age to mimic and to mock accents too. There were plenty of accents to pick from.

We were early adepts of the flat off-key Midland accent that immediately conjures up a weary cyclist pedalling down a narrow, endless road under a low, louring sky that is steadily releasing rain; the rollicking Kerry blas that rakes and rattles its way through the octaves; the highly whimsical Wicklow accent delivered principally through the septum. And do forth.

Unlike most of my pals, I liked Irish - 'Gaelic'. I don’t know why. It may have had to do with its connection to folklore. That liking was in spite of how it was taught at the time. The Christian Brothers could be severe. We received a good academic education, but being beat did not help. Each year brought a new teacher, and as often as not, a different dialect of Irish.

For several childhood summers we were packed off to the Gaeltacht, to Donegal, to Galway, to Kerry. Each bristled with very different accents and idiom. Somehow I managed, probably by being expected to figure it out. Education by provocation, as Seámus Heaney put it.

But we were keen listeners, all of us. I was never bored listening to the older relatives, even if if was a re-run of Michael Collins’ assassination for the eleventh time. Repetition, rephrasing, reinterpreting, reaffirming - they were all natural and they fit. From this, I think now, came an instinctive liking and maybe even a need for language to be more like music than prose.It was the voices; the accents; the waiting for an expression or a turn of phrase to tumble out; the anticipation of a revelation, a joke, a surprise.

Irish conversation is full of fillers and spacers and prompts, beautifully catalogued by Myles na gCapaleen (Brian O Nolan). You will still hear these staples that we all grew up with:

• ‘
Come here to me..’
It’s immaterial that the parties in conversation are already within three feet of one another.

• ‘
Do you know what I am going to tell you?
Ostensibly preparing the listener for a surprise, it could as easily deliver sarcasm, ridicule or insider news. Almost always it was a set-up for something outlandishly funny.

• ‘
Wait ‘til / and I tell you now..’
The speaker is not actually expecting his/her listener to gallop away otherwise.

• ‘
Go ’way out of that.’
Ranges from outright disbelief to tacit encouragement for the speaker to offer more.

Another key feature of the Hiberno English mode, the flourish that ends a sentence, remains common all over Ireland:

…., I’m telling you.
A fierce going-over the poor man got, I’m telling you.

• ….
so it is, so he/she did.
A right comeuppance she got, so she did.

…, so.
We’ll be off, so.

One which still reduces us to prostration is the ‘I tell a lie…’ There’s something about this phrase that sums up the oratorical pretensions of a lace-curtain Dubliner of bygone years. There are few expressions that pack so much into them: sanctimony, irony, sarcasm, disdain for one’s conversational partners (read: opponents)…

My parents’ generation routinely used expressions from their Catholic faith. These often included a pronounced attention to the Devil. Ma’s often involved the divine more directly, and hers drew more on the Irish too.

God between us and all harm.
This could be fervently sincere, but also sardonic, as a riposte to exaggerated ‘troubles.’

Grand, thanks be to God.
in answer to ‘How’s the form?’

Pulling the divil by the tail. / Flaking away etc
Also a reply to ‘How’s the form?’

Holy God in heaven…!
….do you mean to tell me that has it all et (eaten)?

Mother of God..!
….have you no clean clothes to put on you?

The divil mend him.
This refers to person who, though troublesome, one may also be fond of, or pity.

God bless us and save us ..!
God bless and save us, sure the rain was pelting down.

Wisha, God look down on him/ the door divil.
This was usually referring to a person to be pitied, or comforted. It could also be used with biting sarcasm.

In the name of God
Will you make a pot of tea, in the name of God. (‘Will you’ is not a question)

Sacred Heart of Jesus…!
Sacred Heart of Jesus, you have me driven mad here, entirely! Using the holy name was a rare item around our house. It needed an immediate and careful response.

Go bhfóire Dia orainn ..
God help us (all) Again often used ironically, or intending sarcastic tone.

Weela weela wailya or olagóning
Used to disparage a complainer or a whinger.

Merciful God,
Mericful God, but I have end of clauteens (nappies, diapers) to wash.

• A
Literally sandpiper i.e. needlessly busy, fussy.

• I didn’t have much
meas on him.
Meas means affection for, or respect for.

• He/she is
as-I-roved out / away with the fairies This describes someone with mad notions, careless or feckless, or just plain light-heartedly carefree.

The light of Heaven to him
Poor Jim, sure the light of Heaven to him…i.e. Jim, deceased and missed

Sure, what odds?
‘Who cares?’ or ‘What of it?’ It can also mean mind your own business.

Ma’s mother Nana - widowed matriarch, district nurse and relentless card player – had far-flung family. Of her sister, a nun in the U.S: how could she not get the nickname ‘The Texas Ranger?’ Nana’s own mother was an Irish speaker, a hard-headed and even severe (Ma related) countrywoman with, I suspect, some of the terror and despair of her own family’s suffering in the Famine front of mind all her life.

Like so many other Irish, Nana made wayward use of English. A tiny addition to her cottage? ‘Asia Minor.’ A small boreen through the hills in North West Clare? ‘The Khyber Pass.’

As an adult I came to see this as an almost heroic use of language. To me it was an insouciant drollery, a transcendent mockery; a refusal and acceptance both of her people’s straitened circumstances. Expressions like those, it seemed to me, insisted on a claim to a bigger, better world of events and adventures that might be out of reach for her, but not for her children. In time, she was proven right.

Nana and my mother had no time for ‘the English.’ They were tolerant and charitable toward those they considered ordinary people there, as fellow victims of sorts of the same class-ridden and historically cruel society.

To my mother, what she’d see on English TV stations so often showed coarseness, tastelessness and vulgarity. This did not stop her being an Anglophile in her reading, nor did it prejudice her toward the Anglo Irish or Protestants.

Growing up in Dublin may explain why I readily recall more of Da’s stock. He was liable to say things like ‘
Aughrim is lost,’ or ‘Bad cess to it’ (Ma also, and more.) He was ‘up hill and down dale’ looking for a mislaid tool. Or, he was ‘running around like a Redshank,’ or ‘running around like an I don’t-know-what.’ With tools missing or tools uncooperative, it was a bit more Biblical - ‘Confound it.’

He was equally likely to recite a line of a popular ballad to illustrate a point or to push a contentious opinion. Dialogue from Stephen Hero and Dubliners, even from Ulysses and Finnegan Wakes, and from Beckett’s and Flann O Brian’s writing, were not at all exotic for us, or old-fashioned. We heard it almost daily from Da at home.

Referring to someone unfavourably:

Head-the-ball there.
That fella, he is the back of the neck
A right (bloody) buff, that lad
The state of him / the state of your man
A right hobo, entirely
A bad article, I’m telling you
A bad pill, to be sure
A quare bird, entirely
Oh, he’s a caution
Where would you be, with the likes of that fella?
A go-be (by)-the-wall
A bit of a nyeuch
A fright to God, entirely
I might as well be talking to that wall there

Describing someone with a troubled relationship to alcohol (‘the drink’)

A bit too fond of the crayter/ the sup
Sure, the man was nearly footless / three sheets in the wind
Destroyed with the drink, he is
Maggoty, he was, the poor divil

Announcing his intention to leave, not always an imminent event.

I’m out the door now so ( + so I am)
Away with us, so
Mind the trams, I say
We’re away on a hack
Well, good bye and good luck - said the turkey to the duck.
We’ll be off, like a dirty shirt
I’ll be taking a powder now, if you don’t mind

In reference to a hot summer’s day (i.e. over 20 degrees C)

As hot as the hob of hell
We’re destroyed with the heat, sure
I’m like a Hottentot here with the heat, so I am

Excusing himself to use the toilet - phrasing only used in a public house.

I have to see a man about a horse
I must go and turn the bicycle

In reference to a disorderly environment, human, ecological or other

It was like wild Borneo, by God ( + ’I’m telling you’)

A bumptious character, very often an insolently officious public servant

The high cockolorum himself ( + ‘bejaysus’)
Cock of the walk, morya (mar dheá – Irish for ‘as if’)
Mahogany gas pipes, your man ( + ‘the state or him’ + ‘I’m telling you.’)

Under pressure

He/I was put to the pin of his collar over it
It’s die dog now or ate (eat) the hatchet

An unsuccessful venture

Bunched, so it is.
A washout, entirely.
You can throw your hat at it.
Gone to the wall
He made a Hames of it, entirely.

Nicknames, pet names

Pet names were used, fondly and often. Perhaps it was my mother’s country origins, or that girls were gentler in their choices of names for one another. ‘Babs,’ ‘Maisy,’ ‘Kitty,’ ‘Biddie,’ ‘Bridie.’ I was startled to learn that Ma had had a nick name all her life – ‘Minnie.’ I can only guess it was a pet form of ‘Mary.’

Nicknames were very common between men of my father’s generation.

The Bronc’ M: earned because of a fondness for horses, and Westerns … and perhaps something else.

The nickname might have had some reference to an event Da recalled from his own early years. ‘The Bronc,’ a labouring man like many of his neighbours, was poor. In the Dublin of the early 1900s, poverty was rife, and the working class had little or no protections.

One day, The Bronc could take no more and went up the hills and killed a sheep to feed his family. This occurred in South County Dublin. I suspect this anecdote about ‘The Bronc’ came from the General Strike, and then Lock-Out of 1913. A bitter strike was broken by factory owners by them starving their striking employees.

Da never forgave one of them, William Martin Murphy, a prosperous newspaper publisher. Da never bought one of his newspapers in his life, and would never consider voting for the Fine Gael party.

Snooks’ B : gifted with a prodigious nose, also a readiness to scrap
Onions’ M: a childhood fondness for fried onions
Stone’ N: not in the running for a Nobel, also heartlessly belligerent
Podger’ B: Snooks’ brother, known to be handy in a forge
Kipper’ F: a sour facial expression combined with wrinkled skin
Duck’ M: prominent lips trafficking with constantly dripping nose
Blondie’ C: a man extraordinarily vain about his hair

Da’s nickname in childhood was ‘Hollicker.’ It came from his liking for sausages made by a long-gone German butcher in Dun Laoghaire. I learned this early, and I had to do something about it.

This arose as an issue when a local had teased me several times by greeting me thus: ‘Howya there, Hollicker,’ and/or ‘Grand evening, Hollicker.’ I wasn’t sure how to respond. And who or what was ‘Hollicker’ anyway? I continued on my way, too wary or too puzzled to let loose with a retort.

Yes, a retort. I had plenty of those, as I am youngest in the family and had a talent for remembering and mimicking talk.I had amassed a grand big store of curse words. Proof of that came in a dispute I had on the local bus. A bus driver had been high-handed with me and a pal, letting us off at a stop further than we had requested. I announced my deep displeasure at this to his face, loudly and unstintingly - and leapt off the bus.

The driver later related this exchange to my father. He was less offended by my bold claims about his parentage or even what his face resembled than he was stunned to hear such cursing from a nine-year old. Having relayed this to me, Da then suggested we should ‘maybe have a little talk later on.’

‘A little talk’ meant nothing to me, but ‘later on’ had a bad sound to it. A reminder: our family was nothing like the paragons of TV sit coms, or what parenting experts would soon call ‘families who practiced open communication.’ It was the children’s job to be a child, the adult an adult. That was it, and that was all. Time passing would settle the rest.

The time for ‘the little talk’ soon arrived. Da summarized what he had been told by the bus-driver and then he sat back and drew thoughtfully on his Senior Service. This was a signal that I might now ‘have my spake.’ I argued provocation, pressures of time and hunger, and most of all the titanic unfairness of an adult picking on a poor young lad of nine.

Da had been looking out the window, I recall, likely mentally planning garden work, some thing he relished. A few long, portentous moments slid by. I recall how he seemed to come to then, and to examine the glowing end of his cigarette as though it was a complete surprise that it was there. He then issued a nod in the direction of the door. That ended ‘the little talk.’

Returning to the ‘
Hollicker’ problem. it took several repeats of the issue to bring me to refer the matter to Da. I approached him deep in the garden, in his redoubt, following the smoke signals rising over the shrubs from where he was again filling the coffers of the manufacturers of Senior Service. Well, he explained, the one who had teased me had been a former schoolmate of his.

Schoolmate? This to me was ancient history. Da married later in life; he was in his mid-fifties by the time I was nine. Da did not say so directly, but I inferred that this man, a County Council labourer, and a bachelor, was likely one to nourish grudges.

I pressed Da: so what should I do about it? ‘One word,’ he replied, arching an eyebrow. ‘And no more: Onions.’ ‘Onions,’ I repeated. ‘Correct. Say this: Howiya there, Onions.’ Da did not need to add that I should then run like hell.

The effect was as expected. My tormentor’s face immediately darkened. He commenced to growl and mutter and set aside his shovel. I was a good runner.

Some days later, Da reminded me that it was my turn to dry the dishes. I wasn’t keen on drying dishes. Because I was the youngest in the family, it was all too easy to stir sibling wrath and cries for harsh justice against ‘the baby’ for getting away with derelictions.

As I was finishing up the hated task, Da trailed in through the kitchen, en route to the back porch where he would put his gardening shoes and vanish until dark. That business of nicknames? I must now call a halt to it, he said.

Sure enough, I heard no more of it. Scowls took over, but scowls I could live with. It was some time before I learned how ‘Onions’ remonstrated hotly with Da about it down in the pub one night. To have to hear a young pup call him by his old nickname?

An outrage, entirely.