Names for the northern and southern halves of Ireland

AuthorJohn Johnson Marshall
Date1924
SourcePopular Rhymes and Sayings of Ireland
Section Chapter III

Early in the second century the renowned Conn Ced Cathach (Kead Caha), or Conn of the Hundred Battles, became Ard Righ, or High King of Ireland, but notwithstanding his many fights he was not always successful, his most formidable antagonist being Eoghan Mor (Owen More). The latter is known by three other names, but only one of these concerns the present narrative—Mogh Nuadhat (pro. Mow-Nooat), King of Munster, who defeated Conn in ten battles and compelled him to divide the kingdom between them. For a boundary they fixed upon a continuous line of low hills running across the country from Dublin to Clarinbridge, in the county Galway, the Northern half of which was ruled over by Conn, from which it was named Leth Chuinn, or “Conn’s half,” and the southern portion Leth Mogha, that is “Mogh’s half.” The Northern and Southern portions of Ireland have in later days been characterised as “the Black North.” and the “Sunny South.”

Ireland, having got its two halves named we may now proceed to deal with the four provinces. These are described in a rhyme as:—

“Munster for the learning,

Leinster for the beef,

Connaught for a beggarman,

And Ulster for a thief.”

A slight variant of it is:—

“Munster for learning, Connaught for breeding,

Ulster for thieving, and Leinster for feeding.”

This rhyme does not seem to be very old, as in early times from the middle of the sixth till the ninth century, the period during which the great Irish schools were at the height of their fame Leinster had no preponderating number and it is not till the eighteenth and from that till the early part of the nineteenth century that Munster became of special repute amongst the peasantry as a place of learning. T. Crofton Croker in “Researches in the South of Ireland,” published in 1823, says:—“Amongst the peasantry classical learning is not uncommon, and a tattered Ovid or Vigil may be found in the hands of common labourers. In Munster the village schoolmaster forms a peculiar character; and next the lord of the manor, the parson, and the priest, he is the most important person in the parish … … With the schoolmaster too, it is a matter of special pride to be visited by scholars from remote distances; it is not unusual to hear the respectability of a school estimated by the number of its stranger pupils.”

A very vivid and graphic description of that province “where the swallows fly in conic sections, and the magpies and turkeys confab in Latin, and the cows and bullocks will roar you Doric Greek,” is given by William Carleton, in the story entitled “The Poor Scholar,” (“Traits and stories of the Irish Peasantry,”) in which he depicts the experiences of a poor boy from the North of Ireland travelling to Munster in search of education. Leinster is famed for its rich grazing lands, while Connaught with the exception of the County of Roscommon, is a much less fertile province. The allusion to “Ulster for a thief” is much less easy to explain and cannot be elucidated by the writer. In ancient times Uladh, or Ulster, was designated by the literati as “the art loving province,” as well they might, for by their arrogance and exorbitant demands they had provoked the people, so far that the Ard Righ (High King) proposed that the Bardic order should be suppressed and its professors banished. This design to expel the poets was prevented by the seasonable intercession of Maolchabha, King of Ulster, who received them into his favour and saved them from banishment. This deliverance of the poets is recorded in the following lines:—

“The valiant Maolchabha, King of Ulster,

From exile sav’d by his authority,

The poets of the island; in his province

He entertained them, abandoned and forlorn,

As the great patron of the Irish muse.”

At the convention of Drumceat, held in 574, through the intercession of St. Columbcille, himself an Ulsterman, a compromise was effected, by which they were not banished, but their numbers were greatly reduced, and strict rules were laid down for their conduct in future.

Before passing to county and local rhymes and bynames, there are a few sayings of a general nature known either all over Ireland, or at least over the greater part of it. One of the most common is “Bad cess to you,” in explanation of which it is said that in olden times when soldiers were cessed or billeted on the inhabitants, there were good cesses, or soldiers who pulled well with the inmates of the house, and bad cesses whose presence was most undesirable. Another expression common to both Ireland and England is “The tune the old cow died of.”

“There was an old man who had an old cow,

And he had no fodder to give her,

So he took up his fiddle, and played her this tune,

‘Consider, good cow, consider,

This isn’t the time for grass to grow,

Consider, good cow, consider.”

So that the cow died of having a tune played to her which was an insufficient substitute for fodder as a means of sustenance. Hence “the tune the old cow died of” has become a proverbial or slang way of describing music that is insufferably bad.

Another saying that used to be often heard but has now fallen into disuse was “Fire away, Flannigan!” The origin of this was a certain Captain Flannigan who was in command of a stronghold which was beseiged by Cromwell, or one of his Generals, so the story goes. A demand was sent for the immediate surrender of the place or the besiegers would at once open fire upon it. The Captain, upon receiving this imperative summons to surrender wrote on the back of the missive, “Fire away, Flannigan,” and sent it back.

It is just possible, if the story has any foundation, that the gallant Captain paid dearly for his temerity, as the drastic measures used by Cromwell and his Lieutenants in their Irish campaign gave rise to the most bitter malediction that an Irish peasant can use—“the Curse of Cromwell on ye,” while Commonwealth Government’s scheme for transplanting the native Irish beyond the Shannon was responsible for the saying “to hell or Connaught,” an expression also used in the latter part of the eighteenth century by the Peep o’ Day Boys when giving Defenders notice to quit the country. The Defenders finally merged in the United Irishman, whose abortive rebellion took place in 1798, in connection with which arose another saying:—“Kill a Hessian for yourself.” The Hessians were German soldiers who formed part of the army employed in putting down the insurrection; they wore large riding boots greatly admired by the insurgents, whose prize they became if they killed a Hessian. An insurgent one day brought in a pair which a comrade endeavoured to get from him; the proud possessor’s reply was:—“If you want boots kill a Hessian for yourself.” In connection with this there is another saying:— “As musical as the cow that ate the piper,” or “she has a cruel taste for music like the cow that ate the piper.” Readers will get all the particulars of the foregoing sayings in the story of “Paddy the Piper,” as related by that veracious chronicler, Samuel Lover, in his “Legends and Stories of Ireland.”

An expression common all over the North of Ireland is “Blackmouth,” or “Blackmouthed Presbyterians.” The origin of this epithet has never been cleared up. Some explain that in times of religious persecution in Scotland the Presbyterians were in many instances obliged for their safety to take to the hills, and that their mouths became stained or blackened by the wild fruits such as blackberries, and blaeberries (whortleberries) on which they were obliged to subsist. “Blackmouth” must have been a well-known expression by the middle of the seventeenth century. In Wariston’s Diary (Scottish Hist. Soc.) edited by Dr. Hay Fleming, under date of 4th August, 1650, there is the following:—

“I blessed God that had given us a new Sabbath beyond and contrary to Cromwell’s allowance, whose army sayd the last Sabbath that they would that day stoppe the blackmouth’s (meaning God’s servants) from rayling.”

If the expression originated in Scotland, as it is not unlikely that it did, it is now practically obsolete in that country and confined principally to the North of Ireland. If it were used originally as a term of contempt or reproach, time has taken away its sting, and it is nowadays used in a half jocular fashion at which no offence is taken. William Carleton, who has stereotyped for all time the dialect of his native Tyrone as spoken in the early part of the nineteenth century uses it in his sketch of “The Poor Scholar,” referred to in a previous chapter, as follows:—“We can aisaly put it off on some of these black-mouthed Presbyterians or Orangemen.” W. B. Yeates in “Folk Tales”, 1888, p. 187, has:—“The first marriage that happened between a blackmouth an’ a catholic.”

The larger dictionaries both of standard English, and of dialect fail to throw any light on the origin of the term, but give “black-neb” which has a restricted currency in Scottish literature. There is in Scott’s “Antiquary,” 1810, p. 128:—“We shall set you down among the black-nebs by and by.”

“‘No, Sir Arthur, a tame grumbler.”

“The Wild Geese.” This was the term applied to the Irish youth who enlisted in the Irish brigade under Louis XIV of France and his successors. The Catholic gentry cut off by the penal statutes from all hope of rising to distinction at home, sought promotion in foreign service, and those who thus left their native shores were termed “Wild Geese.”

“Oh! are they foam flakes on the ocean,

In the winds of early spring,

Or are they trembling sails in motion,

Or wild geese on the wing?

Oh! they’re the wild geese, pretty daughter,

That fly before the spring—

The wild geese o’er the roaring water—

The wild geese on the wing.”

No doubt when the ‘Wild Geese’ after campaigning “on far foreign fields from Dunkirk to Belgrade,” returned on a visit to their native land, covered with wounds and glory they were received by their relations with a “Cead Mile Failte.” We have no knowledge of how old this characteristic welcome of the warm-hearted and hospitable Gael may be, but in the ancient form of “Eivlin a ruin” (Eveleen Aroon), by Carroll O’Daly, a bard who flourished in the fourteenth century, the last verse runs:—

“Cead mile failte, here!

Eivlin a ruin!

Cead mile failte here!

Eivlin a ruin!

A hundred thousand welcomes, dear,

Nine hundred thousand welcomes here,

O welcomes for ever here!

Eivlin a ruin!”

Translation by Dr. Sigerson.

In the reign of Queen Elizabeth the Irish question occupied the attention of the Government just as much as it did in the beginning of the twentieth century, and there was much resort at court of those employed in the government of Ireland, as well as of Irish Chiefs and nobles, consequently in the works of Shakespeare, reflecting as they did the manners of the time, we find many references to Ireland and the Irish. In the tragedy of “Coriolanus,” II. l.200, he uses the literal translation of the Irish greeting:—“Ye’re welcome all. A hundred thousand welcomes.”

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Contents Popular Rhymes and Sayings of Ireland
CategorySocial History

Popular Rhymes and Sayings of Ireland - 3rd Edition

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