Old Words my Parents Knew.

"Irish is pronounced the same everywhere in Ireland, it only sounds different."

Most of the words listed below are associated with my late mother (1909‑2003) who was from Ballinagree (Baile na Graí), East Muskerry, County Cork. They are in bold.

A smaller number of words (Cregg) are associated in my memory with my late father (Stephen Tobin, 1913‑1988) who was from Cregg, which is on the coast of Carbery between Roscarbery and Glandore in County Cork. Most of his words were obtained during conversations in the 1980s, before his final illness, are unfamiliar to me and never formed part of the active or passive vocabulary of our family. Such words are in italics.

Still, many of the words were in regular use during our years as a growing family (1938‑1960s). These are underlined. Some survived to near the end of my mother’s life in 2003. Some of my mother's words were birds of passage used only once or twice and noted down at the time.

However, much of what follows derives from memory or scattered notes and I cannot guarantee the exact provenance of every word. Moreover, as my parents could neither speak, read or write Irish I had to spell the words as best I could, trying to get as close to their pronunciation as I could manage. I use ordinary Irish spelling as I have no training in linguistics and cannot use the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA).

It is noteworthy that very few of the words in Irish could be regarded as complimentary, affectionate or warm. Those that were are noted as such. To show affection or warmth my parents, especially my mother, tended to use English words with the suffix ‑een (Irish ‑ín, meaning small, little, dear) added. For example, ‘face‑een’ (pronounced, ‘fay‑sheen’), neck‑een, hand‑een, eye‑een, leg‑een, dog‑een, cat‑een, house‑een (pronounced, ’how‑sheen’) girl‑een, boy‑een, woman‑een, man‑een, bird‑een, penguin‑een, pigeon‑een. In such words the stress was always on ’een’.

On the other hand, ‑een, especially when added to personal names could also convey contempt, reproach or anger. So, when my mother called out “Barr‑een!” I knew I was for it!

It may be worth noting that when I was a child traces of the 17th century pronunciation of some English words survived in Ballinagree (and elsewhere in rural Ireland, I believe). ’Tea’ was pronounced ’tay’, ’meat’ was prounounced ’mate; ’bomb’ was pronounced like something between ’bum’ and ’boom’ a ’donkey’ was called a ’dunkey’, a lorry was called a ’lurry’ and the bogeyman was referred to as the ’boogeyman’. If this seems a bit odd, remember how we still say ’monkey’. Curiously, the word ’key’ was pronounced as in standard English, whereas the word ’quay’ was pronounced ’kay’ (as in France!). In Cork City itself people pronounced ’quay’ the standard way. However, there was one exception. In referring to the ’Coal Quay’ (the old market area) city folk called it the ’Coal Kay’. Presumably, this was an indication of just how old the place and the name must have been.

Finally, in the 1940s BST was used all the year in Cork City — I remember catching the bus to school at 8.45 a.m., in pitch darkness. However, the rural parts of Cork maintained a rugged independence by simply ignoring this idea. So, in Cork City we had ’New Time’ while in Ballinagree they had ’Old Time’. This meant that if you caught the Rylane bus at 12.00 o’clock you could be passing Blarney before 11.20! We loved it.

Part 1.

Ainniseoir (stress on third syllable, say: ’ang‑ish‑owe‑irr’): a wretched person. Ó Dónaill: “ainniseoir, miserable, mean person.”

Amadán (stress on last syllable, say ’omma‑dawn’, ): a fool, an idiot. This word was and is widely used in Ireland.

Asacháning (stress on third syllable: my mother said ’assa‑kawn‑ing’. However, the usual pronunciation would be ’ossa‑kawn‑ing’): gossiping maliciously about people, backbiting, rubbishing people, spreading bad news about people. Dinneen, achasán (asachán / achmhusán), reproach, reproof, a nickname, a bitter taunt.

Away: meaning to carry on doing something, for example, "The dogs are barking away." or "The children are playing away in the yard." or "The cross teacher is shouting away at the children." However, I do not recall the contemporary Irish expression, "Work away!" ("Carry on!") being used when I was a child.

Bacall (Cregg) stress on first syllable: say ’bok‑kul’: an armful, as much as one could carry using both arms: “a bacall of hay”, “a bacall of turf”, “a bacall of timber.” Dinneen: “bacla, the arms, the space between the arms, the arms as a support,”

Balcais: (say ’boll‑kish’, stress on the first syllable): my mother used the form bollkishes to describe any nondescript collection of clothing, bedding, rags etc. Dinneen, balcais, a garment, a rag, a clout; (plural), garments, clothes, usually worthless garments etc.

Banbh: say ’bonn‑uv’ (stress on first syllable). This word, meaning ’piglet’, was in almost universal use during my childhood. Even the national radio station, Radio Éireann, used it when reporting on lifestock prices. In English language media it was written, ’bonham’ but was still pronounced as in Irish. The diminutive, ’bainbhín’ (say ’bon‑nuv‑een’; the stress is on the last syllable) was frequently used by my mother.

Bastable: a three legged pot oven used to bake and roast on the open fire. It was made of iron and had an iron cover on which glowing pieces of turf were placed to increase the temperature inside. We had one in almost daily use until the arrival of our first electric cooker about 1948.

Béiceachán (stress on first syllable: say ’bay‑kuk‑awn’): a premature calf. Dinneen: “béiceachán, a screamer; a mewling child; applied to a prematurely born calf.”

Began: in the phrase, ’who began it’, meaning a punishment or chastisement, for example, "Don’t be bold, or your father will give you who began it when he comes home!"

Bibearach (stress on first syllable: say ’bib‑ber‑uk’): lively, active, full of spree. Applied to children, small animals and birds this was one of my mother’s few complimentary words in Irish.
I have been unable to find an exact matching word in Dinneen or Ó Dónaill but I think it may be related to the word ‘bíodhgach’ (Dinneen, “sprightly, vigorous.”) or ‘bíogach’ (Ó Dónaill, “chirpy; jumpy, twitching; startling.”).

Black hurts: our mother’s word for the wild blueberries of the hills and bogs of County Cork.

Bleddy: the usual way in Ireland, then and now, of saying ’bloody’.

Bold: naughty, cheeky, as in "Don't be bold!" "You're a bold boy!" This usage is common throughout Ireland.

Breac (say ’brack’): a fruit cake. Dinneen, breac, speckled, spotted; a trout.

Breeches: trousers. The word was used in Ballinagree but not by us.

Broghais (stress on first syllable: say ’brow‑wish’). My mother used this word almost daily to describe any old woman she could see through her squinting window. Dinneen: “Broghais: a cow’s afterbirth; the belly or stomach in beasts; any dirty, soft thing; a soiled or torn garment; a lazy or untidy person.”

Browshy (Cregg) stress on first syllable: say ’brow‑shee’: “It’s a bit browshy!” (overcooked stew etc.). Possibly from ‘Broghais’ above.

Brus (Cregg) say ’bruss’: small bits of wood or turf, fragments of any kind. Dinneen: “brus, broken straw; the lopping off of trees; small fragments; a remnant.”

Burncat: someone who sits by the fire and does no work; some one who sits too close to the fire.

Cábóg (stress on first syllable, say ’caw‑bogue’): a country yokel, a fool, Dinneen: “cábóg, an old hat; a rustic; a labourer.”

Cake: bread baked by our mother using ’bread soda’ (sodium bicarbonate) and sour milk as leaven rather than yeast. There was brown cake, white cake, sweet cake or currant cake. The latter included cake made with currants, sultanas or raisins or any combination of them. We often referred to ’cake’ as ’cakey mammy’!

“Ceannach an droch‑dhuine!” (‘the buying of the bad person’, say ’k’yan‑nuk‑un‑drug‑winna’): "Give him something to get rid of him!”

Chronic. Used by my mother when in Ballinagree but not with us. It meant dreadful, terrible, awful.

Cippineens (Cregg, stress on the last syllable, probably from ’cipíníní’, the plural of ’cipín’): the thin legs of a bird. Dinneen, “cipín, a little stick; a dibble; a wood fibre; a pin for tying and fastening a tether.”. In modern Irish ’cipín’ means a match‑stick.

Cliamhain istigh (My mother always said ’clay‑un ish‑tigg’ though ’cliamhain’ is usually pronounced ’clee‑un’, the stress is on the first syllabe): a penniless man who marries into a wealthy family; any unwelcome man. In standard Irish the phrase is ’cliamhain isteach’ (say ’clee‑un ish‑tock’). My mother’s ’clay‑un’ sounds like the Irish,’claon’ which means perverse, bent, crooked. Whatever its origin it was always said with contempt.

Cnáimhseáling (say ’k’nawv‑shawl‑ing’): whinging, grizzling, complaining. Dinneen, “cnáimhseálaidhe, a grumbler, a complainer.”

Coat: a jacket (the top half of a boy’s or man’s suit).

Codding: kidding, deceiving as in, "Is it codding me you are!" (said to someone demanding a high price for something).

Coileach (normally a rooster, a cockerel, the stress is on the last syllable: say ’quill‑yock’): term of contempt for an old woman, a potato gone stale from being too long in the ground, an old potato found mixed with the new crop.
“Aoile caoile codladh coileach!” (“Eela kweela sleep old hag!” — say ’eela kweela kulla quill‑yock’) was said by a ghost to an old woman. That is all my mother could remember of a scary old story told in Ballinagree in the Irish language she could not understand. Note that she always said ’quill‑yock’. However, the standard Irish word for a hag, witch or nasty old woman is ’cailleach’ which is pronounced ’coll‑yock’.

Commonality: "the commonality" were people not as well off as us.

(cf. ‘sickeners’ in Part 2


Costume: a woman's suit consisting of a jacket and skirt.

Crabbit: my mother’s word for clever, smart, astute. The standard English word is ’crabbed’.

Cracked: daft, crazy.

Crothán (Cregg) stress on last syllable: say ’kruh‑hawn’: a small useless potato; a bunch of grapes.

Crúbáil (stress on second syllable: say ’crew‑baw‑ill’): the walk of a drunk, sick or lame person; walking with difficulty. “You’d think he’d bleddy well have crúbáiled up!” (My mother when told that a relative she was expecting to meet at a neighbour’s house was too unwell to come.) Dinneen: "crúb, a claw, a hoof or paw; hand (contempt).

Crúibín (stress on last syllable: say ’crew‑been’): a boiled pig's trotter, usually sold and eaten cold. Both the word and the delicacy were well known in Cork City and County in the1940s. Dinneen, crúibín, a little hoof or trotter.

Cuddle and soothy! (say ’soo‑dee’): my mother’s expression to describe the action of comforting a baby or small child by carrying, hugging and rocking it in one’s arms.

Cute: In Cork this word meant and means smart (in the American sense), clever, street‑wise, cunning.

Dead: In the derogatory expression ’drop dead’. This was used by my mother to condemn any overcoat she considered badly fitting, oversized or shapeless, "Where’d you find that fecking drop dead?"

Devil (say ’divil’): in the phrase, "Doing the divil red", used by my mother to describe or to condemn any extremely bad behaviour. Also see ’Pull’ and ’Red’ in Part 2.

Dig: a punch, as in, "Give me a penny or I’ll give you a dig!"

Dog: see ’Pull’ in Part 2.

Dote: A term of endearment for a baby, a small child, or a small pet. It was used by my parents and is still used in Cork, I believe. It can be said as ’dote’, ’little dote’ , ’dotey’ or even as ’little dotey’!

Doubt: used by my mother in the expression, "I wouldn’t doubt you!", when one of us had done something incompetent like spilling milk, breaking a cup or letting a gate open allowing a cow or a pig to go walkabout.

Dramhaíl (Dinneen:’dramh‑fhuigheall’, stress on second last syllable: say ’drov‑ee‑ull’, ’drov’ rhymes with ’drop’): any kind of rubbish or useless food. Dinneen, refuse, inferior part of anything, useless remnants.

Drawing: In the warning given by my mother to stop us getting into trouble with children we didn’t know, "Don’t be drawing them on you!"

Drisín (stress on last syllable: say ’drish‑een’); a sausage / pudding made from the blood and intestine of a sheep. It could be eaten fried or boiled in milk. Like ’crúibín’ the word and the delicacy were well known in Cork City and County in the1940s. Dinneen, drisín, the main intestine of animals (such as sheep, goats etc.), usually filled with food stuff and cooked as pudding or drisheen.

Drothán (Cregg) stress on last syllable: say ’druh‑hawn’: awkward or useless piece of furniture.

Drúits (‘droo‑itch’, stress on first syllable, say ’drew‑itch’): an untidy old person, possibly from the English ‘drudge’.

Dúidín (Cregg) stress on last syllable: say ’do‑deen’: a clay pipe. Dinneen, “dúidín, a short tobacco‑pipe; a dram measure made of horn.”

Eejit: simply the well‑known Irish version of the word ’idiot’.

Fairy: my mother used this word to refer disparagingly to a child she neither knew nor saw no reason to trust as, "Who’s that fairy coming up the path to the front door?"

Fairy thimbles: our mother’s lovely term for foxgloves.

Fawns (Cregg): big sticks for beating carpets.

Feck / Fecking: My mother’s way of saying the ’f‑’ word was and is found all over Ireland.

Fierce: Terrible, dreadful.

Finnán (stress on last syllable, say ’finn‑awn’): coarse, useless grass. Dinneen, “Fionnán, a kind of long coarse white grass which grows on marshy land, used for making grass ropes (súgáin) and as bedding for cattle…”. Used in Ballinagree by my mother when talking to relatives but not in our family.

Flopster (Cregg): an untidy person hanging together.

1. See ’Skin’ in Part 2.
2. In my mother’ s expression, ’ a flying kick’. When I was very young she saw me dropping some very young chicks over a wall. She chased me and gave me a well-placed ’flying kick’ as I ran!

Fright: Used by relatives in Ballinagree but not by us in the phrase, "’Tis a fright to God!", meaning it’s a tragedy, a catastrophe, a disaster.

Furze: our word for gorse was and is widely used in Ireland.

Fústaring: (stress on first syllable, say ’foostering’):any unskilled, aimless or bustling activity that irritates the observer as in, "Stop your bleddy oul’ fústaring and do something useful for a change." Dinneen, fústar, fussiness, confusion, immoderate haste.

Gaisce (Cregg) stress on first syllable: say ’gash‑ka’ stress on first syllable: someone who has done something like saving a man from a bull and makes too much of it later on. Dinneen, gaisceadh, amrs, equipment; valour, feats of arms, heroism, a great exploit; boasting.

Gallowses (stress on first syllable, say ’gall‑owe‑sez'): braces, worn by boys and men to hold their trousers up. Used in Ballinagree but not by us.

Gam (say ’gom’): a simple‑minded or foolish person. Dinneen, gam, a soft, foolish person.

Gamalóg (stress on last syllable: say ’gomm‑mull‑ogue’ ): any stupid man, woman or child. Dinneen, gamalóg, a stupid-looking girl.

Ganzey (stress on first syllable): a jersey, a sweater.

Garters: elastic ribbon used to hold up the knee‑high stockings (we did not use the word ’ socks’ ) worn by boys and girls.

Gedilleen (stress on first syllable): a word expressing affection or endearment used when speaking to or referring to a little girl. Probably from ’girl‑een’.

Giobals (derogatory, stress on first syllable: say ’g’yub‑bulls’): clothes. Dinneen, “giobal,a rag, a clout, a cast garment,; fur, down, hair; a handkerchief.”

Glib: a wisp of hair on a bald head; a term of contempt for hair, especially when thin or untidy. Dinneen, “a lock of hair; long hair; unkempt locks of hair hanging over the eyes; a person having dishevelled hair.”

Gliogar (stress on first syllable: say ’glugg‑gur’): an addled egg. Dinneen, “gliogar, rattle, empty noise, clanging; prattle, gabble, boasting…”.

Goats: see ’Notions’ in Part 2.

Go‑cart: a push‑chair.

Gogaí (stress on first syllable, say ’gugg‑ee’): another of my mother’s few positive words in Irish. It was the word she used for a boiled egg: “Eat up your gogaí egg!”. In the 1940s there was a yellow ointment for eyes — we used to call it "gogaí eye ointment". Dinneen, “gogaidhe (same pronunciation), a childish name for an egg.”

Goody: a tasty snack made by cutting up slices of bread into squares, covering them with sugar and then pouring hot milk over all. "Neam neam!" (which see).

Graball Bay (Cregg) My father’s term to describe our unruly table when we were having our meals.

Grabhasing (Cregg) stress on first syllable, say ‘grow‑sing’: complaining, whinging etc. Dinneen, “grabhas = gramhas, a snout or mouth (contempt); a malformation or contraction of the mouth; a grin, a frown, a grouse.

Grace: as in "Child of grace made of butter!", a phrase used by my mother to express affection for a baby or a very small child.

Grámhar (stress on first syllable, say ’graw‑vur’): lovable, comfortable, at ease, good humoured as, "Sit down now by the fire nice and Grámhar for yourself!". Ó Dónaill, Grámhar 1. loving, tender, affectionate. 2. loveable, amiable.

Grand: great, wonderful, decent, kind etc: "He's a grand man!" or "It's a grand day." or "She's a grand little girl." or "It's a grand place to be."

Greadadh chugat! (literally, a pounding to you!): Be off with you! Bad cess to you! — Stress on first syllable: say ’grad‑da koo‑at’): said to a beggar or any unwelcome caller.

Hadhc (‘hike’): said to a horse to get it to stop or to go backwards. Used in Ballinagree but not in our family — we had no horses!

Hair: see ’Skin’ in Part 2.

Hairy Molly: a large caterpillar, darkly coloured, with a thick covering of hairy fur. I still do not know its correct name or what butterfly or moth it was intended to become.

Hanam ‘on diabhal! (stress on first syllable: say ’hon‑num un dee‑ul’): “Your soul to the devil!”, In Ballinagree it was a common way of expressing amazement as in, “Hanam ‘on diabhal, but you know what it is…”. However, it was not used in our family.

Hanging: One of my mother’s most frequently used words, it meant tired, worn out, exhausted, unwell, out of sorts.

High: see ’Notions’ in Part 2.

Holy spoon: our word for the common serving ladle usually called a perforated spoon.

Honest: used in the expression, an ’honest Mike’, meaning someone honest and well‑intentioned but a bit naive and trusting. His best intentions usually ended with him being cheated or becoming a loser in some way.

Hucksters: dishonest or incompetent shopkeepers.

Hurrais! (Dinneen, call used in driving away pigs, stress on first syllable: say ’hurr‑ish’). Used just once by my mother (in 1994) to describe a female estate agent who had patronised her…

Hurts (blueberries): see ’Black hurts’.

Iarmhar (Cregg) stress on first syllable: say ’ear‑vurr’: the smallest or weakest piglet in a litter, any weak or dependent animal or person. Dinneen, “iarmhar, a remnant, a remainder; posterity; last survivor of a race, etc.; a person or animal of wretched appearance; an elf–child, changeling.”

Íochtar (‘lower’ — stress on first syllable: say ’ee‑uk–tur’): similar in usage to ‘Iarmhar’. Dinneen, íochtar, lower, northern or latter part (of time); bottom, end, north; the last of a brood or family.

Kerry: see ’Notions’ in Part 2.

Lad: used by my mother to praise everyday objects as, "That’s a fine lad of a teapot!", or "That’s a fine lad of a hammer!"

Lang: "On the lang.": mitching from school.

By Barry Tobin


1. ’Dinneen’: The Rev. Patrick S. Dinneen, An Irish‑English Dictionary, Dublin, 1927.

2. ’Ó Dónaill’: Niall Ó Dónaill, Foclóir Gaeilge‑Béarla, Dublin (1977).


Old words my parents knew: Part 2


Oatmeal and Buttermilk
Summer in Ballinagree wasn't the same without it!

This tribute to her grandmother was read by Gabrielle Tobin at the funeral Mass in Cardiff on Monday 17 February, 2003.

Nascanna don Ghaeilge / Links to Irish / Gorgysylltiadau i'r Wyddeleg

A Word for Irish.

The Green Dragon No 12

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