In Brief

"Drouth" is an Irishism heard often in Ulysses. It is the same word as the English "drought," but instead of referring only to a prolonged period without rain––a condition of eastern Ireland at the time of the novel––it also applies to human thirst. This double usage preserves a linguistic tradition that apparently was once more widespread across the water.

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The Germanic root driug-, which means "dry," came into the British isles with the Old English words drye, "dry," and drugath, "dryness." For some time, it seems, "drought," "drouth," or "droughth" could refer to parched throats as well as parched landscapes in England. The OED cites such uses in Langland's Piers Plowman (1393), Milton's Paradise Regained (1671), and Browning's De Gustibus (1855), among other texts. But the dictionary lists this definition as archaic, limited to regional dialects in modern usage.

In Ireland, however, the word readily suggests thirst. Dolan's dictionary of Hiberno-English cites an expression from County Mayo ("There's such a drouth on me I could drink up the well"), a line of dialogue in Synge's Playboy of the Western World ("You might take your death with drouth and none to heed you"), and another in Bram Stoker's novel The Snake's Pass ("The house beyant it is a public, an' sure I know I'm safe there anyhow––if me dhrouth'll only hould out!").

Joyce's novel contains many references to alcoholic dryness: Bloom's "Driver in John Long’s. Slaking his drouth" (Lestrygonians); Mulligan's "drouthy clerics" and "filibustering filibeg / That never dared to slake his drouth" (Scylla and Charybdis); Molly's "God spare his spit for fear hed die of the drouth" (Penelope). The narrator of Cyclops thinks of the Citizen's dog as rabid: "his eye all bloodshot from the drouth is in it and the hydrophobia dropping out of his jaws."

But the countryside has also been a long time without rain, and in Calypso Bloom thinks, "No good eggs with this drouth. Want pure fresh water." In Ithaca he reflects on the level in Dublin's Vartry reservoir: "from prolonged summer drouth and daily supply of 12 1/2 million gallons the water had fallen below the sill of the overflow weir for which reason the borough surveyor and waterworks engineer, Mr Spencer Harty, C. E., on the instructions of the waterworks committee had prohibited the use of municipal water for purposes other than those of consumption (envisaging the possibility of recourse being had to the impotable water of the Grand and Royal canals as in 1893)."

John Hunt 2023
Drought in eastern Ireland in 2018. Source: www.reddit.com.
Brendan Behan: “I only drink on two occasions––when I am thirsty and when I’m not thirsty.” Source: www.telegraph.co.uk.