Naggin

In Brief

In Ireland today a "naggin" is a small bottle of liquor in the familiar hip flask shape. (A bottle nearly twice as large, less easily smuggled into events where alcohol is banned, is called a shoulder or daddy naggin.) In Ulysses the word carries the same meaning but can also refer to the liquid measure contained in naggin bottles, or to drinking vessels of that size. It comes from the Irish naigín or noigín (possibly an offshoot of the English "noggin"), which originally named a kind of small wooden pail that served as a drinking cup.

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In Calypso Bloom sees an old woman trudging out of a liquor store quite early in the AM, "clutching a naggin bottle by the neck." In Scylla and Charybdis Stephen likens the Athenian magistrates who put Socrates to death to current arbiters of public morality: "neither the midwife’s lore nor the caudlelectures saved him from the archons of Sinn Fein and their naggin of hemlock." Exactly how much fluid is being referenced in these passages hardly matters, but "naggin" typically indicates a precise amount, and in its perversely particular way Ithaca forces the reader to assign some little importance to it. The Blooms' kitchen shelves, the chapter observes, hold "a jug of brown crockery containing a naggin and a quarter of soured adulterated milk, converted by heat into water, acidulous serum and semisolidified curds, which added to the quantity subtracted for Mr Bloom’s and Mrs Fleming’s breakfasts, made one imperial pint, the total quantity originally delivered."

How much of the original pint was used for morning cups of tea before the milk soured and curdled? A British "imperial pint" is 568 ml and traditionally a naggin was one quarter of a pint, so it would seem that 177.5 ml of the milk remains (one and a quarter of one quarter). But, to muddy the waters a bit, naggin bottles of liquor in Ireland today hold 200 ml. I do not know when liquor purveyors started making their naggins more generous, but by this standard 250 ml of spoiled milk would be left in the crockery jug.

The theme of exact measurement also figures in the strangest appearance of the word, near the end of Oxen of the Sun: "All off for a buster, armstrong, hollering down the street. Bonafides. Where you slep las nigh? Timothy of the battered naggin." In one of many "Trivia Ulysseana" analyzed in JJQ 19.2 (1982): 151-78, Fritz Senn (following an observation offered by Dubliner Gerald O'Flaherty) notes the relevance of a paper delivered to the Irish National Literary Society in April 1893 by Patrick J. McCall. The paper mentions a private house near St. Patrick's cathedral that became a public one in the 18th century, and that at the beginning of the 19th was owned by a minor nobleman called Sir Timothy O'Brien.

"The worthy baronet," McCall says, "appears to have been an eccentric character in his way, and among a certain class of his customers (before he resigned his retail for a wholesale store) he was invariably known as 'The Knight of the Battered Naggin,' recalling Cervantes' Knight of the Golden Basin in Don Quixote. This cognomen of Sir Tim had reference to the dilapidated conditions of his pewter measures by means of which, his customers asserted, the niggard landlord saved a goodly amount of the precious liquor" (quoted from a reprinting of McCall's paper in the 1976 book In the Shadow of St. Patrick's, p. 26). Among other ways that the story might have found its way into the novel, Senn suggests the possibility that "the name became locally proverbial for any miserly landlord" (172).  

Terence Dolan's Dictionary of Hiberno-English cites a couple of colloquial uses of the word and several literary ones, including this from the title song of Finnegans Wake: "when a noggin of whiskey flew at him." Since this action precedes the crucial moment at which some of the precious liquor splashes on Tim and revives him, it seems likely that the "noggin" is a drinking vessel rather than a bottle, and indeed some versions of the folk song refer to "a bucket of whiskey" rather than a noggin or naggin. Dolan quotes from Peter Martin's 1921 article "Some Peculiarities of Speech Heard in Breifny" to the effect that a naggin is "a wooden vessel made of tiny staves, one of which is longer than the others and forms a handle." Dublin pubs had probably long abandoned such wooden cups for metal and glass ones by Joyce's time, but it seems reasonable to assume that in his Dublin a naggin could be either the "small mug or drinking-vessel" of Dolan's traditional definition, or the glass bottle of modern liquor stores.

The traditional wooden cup is the subject of a scholarly study recently published by Claudia Kinmonth. The essay, titled "Noggins, 'the nicest work of all': traditional Irish wooden vessels for eating and drinking," first appeared in Irish Architectural and Decorative Studies: Journal of the Irish Georgian Society 18 (2015): 130-51. After winning an award from the Irish Antique Dealers' Association in 2016, Kinmonth published a revised version in Folk Life: Journal of Ethnological Studies 55.1 (2017): 46-52.

JH 2019
A naggin of Irish whiskey. Source: joycesfresh.com.