Irish immigrants have had a significant influence on the history of New York and the surrounding areas. One of the lingering effects is that Saint Patrick’s Day has become a day on which almost everyone, regardless of ethnicity, takes pride in being “Irish for a day.” Unfortunately, this generally translates into nothing more than wearing green, drinking a lot of green beer, and wearing “Kiss me, I’m Irish!” buttons as a way to get a little guilt-free touch from strangers.
Folks should at least learn a little bit more about the Irish as a way to celebrate. Most of us adore an Irish accent (I know it makes me a bit weak in the knees!), though trying to imitate it is a daunting prospect: most mangle it beyond recognition. A better place to start would be a bit of slang that they could pick up to impress their friends over a jar of the black stuff (a pint of Guinness).
Annie Moore was 14 years old in 1892 when she left County Cork, Ireland on the transatlantic steamship Nevada. She celebrated her 15th birthday on the day she landed in New York and became the first immigrant to be officially processed through the newly-opened Ellis Island. Now, there are statues of her both in Ireland and in New York.
There’s also Annie Moore’s, an Irish pub on East 43rd Street in Manhattan. That’s where I would go to wait for my 11:03 p.m. Hudson Line train home from my first teaching job after graduate school. It’s also where I heard my first bit of real, live Irish slang.
One night when I was there with a friend, it was more crowded than usual, and we found ourselves suddenly surrounded by a group of Irish businessmen in town just for a few days. They were laughing loudly, singing, and doing nothing to dispel the stereotype of the drunken Irishman. They asked us to sing them a song.
“All we want is fer an American girl to sing us a song!” And so we sang for them in return for a couple of drinks.
“Ah, fair play, lasses! Fair play!”
There it was. Fair play. I asked what it meant, and he said it was what they say when someone did something good, like saying well done. So we sang some more to get them to say fair play again in that wonderful, lilting Irish accent.
Years later, I was working in Portugal with a woman (I’ll call her Bee) from Northern Ireland. The first time she said fair play, the memories of Annie Moore’s came flooding back. Even better, though, was that I had much more time to learn more Irish slang from Bee than I ever did from bolloxed (very drunk) businessmen.
I loved hearing her speak, even if I sometimes didn’t always quite understand her. She once came into my classroom in the middle of a lesson. She said something that sounded like “Javyerkays?” After a couple of more times, I finally figured out it out: “D’ya have yer keys?” She’d locked hers in the teachers’ room.
Beyond the fabulous accent, I also loved the new words I was learning. In warmer weather, Bee would come slamming through the door of the office after teaching her kids class, and yell, “Ach, the wee fuckers are MINGIN’ today!”
Ah, mingin’. Come to think of it, it was often qualified with fucking (or fecking). I suppose that makes sense. When something smelled bad enough to be called mingin’ or mankin’, and not just smelly or stinky, then it required a strong qualifying adverb. This also seems true of eejit (idiot).
When the kids were good, however, they were no longer wee fuckers but instead became wee dotes, or cute little kids.
Bee would often talk to her da (father) who would always remind her to eat her spuds (potatoes) so that she wouldn’t get ill (Sick would be vomit.) On a Fridays, she might ask us “What’s the craic?” That last word is pronounced like ‘crack’, and it meant that she was asking what fun things were planned for the coming weekend.
The craic then for this weekend is to enjoy the day and, though I’ll be avoiding the 5th Avenue parade and subsequent crowds at Annie Moore’s, I’ll most likely indulge in a pint or two. Of course, no Saint Patrick’s Day celebration would be complete without knowing how to say “Cheers!” like a proper Irish person. That would be the Gaelic word Sláinte (pronounced “slahn-cha” and meaning ‘health’).
And please, for the love of Jaysus, Joseph and Mary, please don’t wish anyone the top o’ the mornin’! ‘Tis yourself dat’ll sound like an eejit.
For more fun Irish slang, check out Irish Abroad.
So you Americans – what slang are you going to try out tomorrow?
And if any real Irish folks out there are reading, do you have anything to add or correct?