St Patrick (diplomat, snake chaser) – and the gifts of language from Ireland

What better excuse to celebrate the language and turns of phrase of Ireland than the feast day of St Patrick, patron saint and myth magnet.

Beyond the tales of snakes chased into the sea and a herd of swine rustled up for hungry sailors, would you ever spare a thought too for St Brigid, another of Ireland’s patron saints. Brigid, who has the church of St Bride’s in Fleet Street dedicated to her, was no slouch either and is said to have changed water into beer for a leper colony.

“In diplomatic fashion he brought gifts to a kinglet here and a lawgiver there but accepted none from any” — Tarlach O’Raifeartaigh writes of Patrick in Enyclopaedia Britannica.

A fine turn of phrase that is too. And talking of gifts, here are just a few lovely language offerings from Ireland that have caught my ear.

Between the jigs and the reelsThis gets a mention in another blog: “Adventures in language: around the world in eight… expressions”.

I take it to mean “what with one  thing and another” in a situation that’s a little confused or hectic: a Brexit debate in parliament, perhaps, or the switch of dance partners mid-ceilidh.

A Stamp for Ireland, An Post (design: The Stone Twins)

Delicate You could never tell, from the delicate way he has with the stamps in the post office, what an ogre he is behind closed doors. So goes a line (not an exact quote) from a novel by William Trevor, master of the short story who died in 2016. (If you know which one, please leave a comment below. Many thanks.)

Ever heard the expression “street angel, house devil”?

Whether in the same book or not by Trevor, a father asks his daughter (or vice versa), “Shall we try in here for coffee?” when out in town. Shall we, a lovely invitation or suggestion.

Come to think of, I said it just the other day to suggest that we head off at the end of a coffee catch-up with a fellow member of Croydon Chamber.

Madra maith (good dog) It’s a phrase I heard over and again growing up. Without maligning the memory of Trotsky (one ear up, the other down; no resemblance to the photo) I’m not how often he was well behaved. But my Irish mum was kind enough to keep shoring up his self-esteem.

In the interests of fair and balanced reporting, he wasn’t always running away, eating 12 plates of smoked salmon (no squeeze of lemon) or howling at the trombone player. And I never walked a mile in his paws. In retrospect, he was probably a tortured soul among south-London mongrels.

Now — I’ve not been to Ireland for a while, but I remember from many previous visits people saying this when they set something before you to eat or drink.

For some reason that reminds me of some amazing mushroom soup from a childhood visit on a family holiday. Now. A three-letter word that seems to say: you’re welcome, enjoy, savour the moment.

Squinty-eyed When in Dublin a few years back, a distant relative described the city’s big wheel, smaller then the London Eye, as a “squinty-eyed” version. What a lovely way of putting it.

On a return visit to Dublin (soon) I’ll hopefully include a long walk by the sea in Dún Laoghaire and a long-overdue trip south to the Wicklow Mountains.

The sooner you leave,  the sooner you can come back — The logic of that statement is hard to refute… and it’s one that I heard at the end of regular visits to see family in West Cork. I can never see gorse without it taking me back to the countryside near Schull.

Incidentally, have you ever noticed how on-screen mystery writer and sleuth JB Fletcher arrives with a tiny suitcase in murdersville and then changes outfits three times a day?

Suspend our disbelief, and all that.


Just as a character in a Lawrence Block detective novel (“The Burglar Who Studied Spinoza” perhaps) dipped into a dictionary of saints for the stories, so too someone might enjoy the Chapel of St Patrick and the Saints of Ireland in London’s Westminster Cathedral. 

Writing this short blog reminds me of a good friend of mine and fellow writer was learning Irish a while back. Why? Just because.

I must remember to ask how he’s getting on. And start talking in Irish to the hounds in my family.

(Images by Engin_Akyurt, ml991, AlexanderStein, adege, Free-Photos, Couleur & BarbaraALane on Pixabay; screenshot from An Post website)

*What turns of phrase or expressions from Ireland make you prick up your ears?
Please add a comment here, I’ll be sure to respond. Many thanks.*

2 comments on “St Patrick (diplomat, snake chaser) – and the gifts of language from Ireland

  1. Maureen kennedy on

    Happy St Patrick’s to you. Great write-up. The sooner you leave, the sooner you can come back is also a phrase I heard on many visits – I hated leaving. Fond memories at my nan’s – always a pot of tea on the go and endless stews. She grew all her own potatoes, onions etc.; it was great fun helping in the garden. She never had much money but always provided a plate of food for any visitors. We are a big family so there quite a few. We also have not been able to visit, but long to get back to our beautiful country.

    • Brian McGee on

      Thanks a lot for your comment Maureen. That’s lovely to hear about your grandma; it’s good to remember and celebrate the relatives who are still in our hearts. I now know to pick your brains about growing onions and potatoes, both projects of mine. Happy St Patrick’s to you too.


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