St. Patrick's Day shenanigans to feature blarney, malarkey, say hooligans

Why do so many Irish names have negative connotations?

Julien Behal/PA/AP
People enjoy the St Patrick's Day parade in Dublin in 2010.

On St. Patrick's Day, you should take care to avoid hooligans, lest their shenanigans draw you into a donnybrook, where you won't be able to take a mulligan.

The Irish language, which is spoken in the homes of about 3 percent of the Irish population, has quietly lent a handful of words to English. These include bountiful words, such as "galore," "slew," and "shebang";  diminutive ones such as "smithereens"; and insults such as "slob," "brat," and "phony."

But of all the Irishisms that have made their way into English, the ones that most strongly retain their Celtic connotations are the proper names – the surnames and the places. And most of these terms, it seems, are associated with bad luck, incompetence, duplicity, and mayhem.

Take "blarney," a term that means "glib, flattering deception." It comes from Blarney Castle, a medieval fortress in County Cork that is home to the Stone of Eloquence, a rock embedded high up in one of the castle's machicolations (gaps designed to allow the castle's defenders to drop things onto the heads of invaders). 

If you want to become a gifted slinger of blarney, visit the castle and climb the narrow staircase all the way to the top and wait in line with all the other American tourists. When it's your turn, set aside your dignity for a moment to dangle upside down while trying not to think about the 90-foot drop, and plant a kiss on the rock, which can easily be identified by the centuries worth of lipstick that laminate it. You have now magically acquired the ability to spout charming twaddle, assuming you didn't possess it already. The greatest thing about the legend of the Blarney Stone is its self-reflexivity.

"Blarney" isn't a particularly harsh word. For something more pointed, try "malarkey." Like "blarney," it refers to discourse that amounts to poppycock, but without any of the flattering undertones. It is best preceded with the phrase "that's a bunch of…"

The origins of "malarkey" are unclear. It first surfaced in the US in the 1920s, perhaps derived from the Greek insult "malakas," the Mediterranean island of Mallorca, or the Irish word "mullachan," which means "ruffian." In any case, it quickly fused itself with the Irish surname Malarkey, casually bestowing an air of fraudulence on its bearers ever since.

And then there's "shenanigans," a word that can mean "sneaky machinations" or "bold mischievousness." "Shenanigan" sounds like an Irish surname, but it actually isn't (although it could become one the next time a Shanahan marries a Finnegan). 

Etymologists say it might come from the Irish "sionnachuighim," meaning "I play the fox," or the Spanish "chanada" or the German "Schenigelei," both of which mean "trick." Whatever its origins, "shenanigans" now has a decidedly Hibernian tinge to it, which probably explains why it's the name of at least half a dozen Irish bands and no fewer than 40 pubs around the world.

Of course, the prevailing negative stereotype of the Irish is not one of dishonesty, but of drunken violence. 

Here, the language doesn't disappoint. "Hooligan," a variant of the Irish name Houlihan, means a rowdy troublemaker, usually one of a group. The word is thought to come from a fictional music-hall song in England in the 1890s, or perhaps from an actual London street gang known as the O'Hooligans. Today, it mostly refers to violent, inebriated soccer fans, although in some authoritarian regimes it has been used as a catchall phrase for anyone the government doesn't like.

Donnybrook is an upscale neighborhood in Dublin's south side. But in the United States, the word means "a chaotic brawl." It gets its name from the annual Donnybrook Fair, which was held there from the 14th century to the 19th century and was legendary for its epic fistfights.  

We'd be remiss if we left out Murphy's Law, the adage that anything that can go wrong will go wrong, emerged in the US in the 1950s.

There's some debate over exactly who the Murphy was who originally lent his or her name to this fatalistic epigram, which at one point was referred to as Reilly's Law. But the preponderance of evidence, uncovered by the writer Nick T. Sparks, points to Edward Murphy, an American aerospace engineer who helped develop high-speed rocket sleds for the Air Force. Capt. Murphy, the story goes, was complaining about the work of his assistants – neither of whom, incidentally, had an Irish name – who had apparently installed an accelerometer gauge incorrectly.

"If there’s any way they can do it wrong," Murphy is said to have bemoaned, "they will." This was the seed that would ultimately sprout the world's most concise articulation of the suspicion that the physical universe is actively conspiring against us.

Of course, Murphy's Law doesn't apply to all Irish names that have become English terms. The city of Limerick, for instance, hasn't been particularly diminished by the five line humorous verse to which it lent its name (although it would probably be more fitting to call the poems nantuckets). And most of us wouldn't mind living the life of Riley, whoever that was.

But on balance, the Irish could stand to have a few more of their names associated with positive qualities. 

For instance, maybe we could say something like: "I witnessed a tipperary after the game last night. It was inspiring to see people settling their disputes nonviolently."

Or perhaps: "The company has a history of financial sullivans, engaging in honest accounting practices and straightforward disclosures to their investors."

Or maybe even: "That speaker sure had an authoritative command of the facts. It was the biggest load of o'carroll I've ever heard!" 

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