Querulous brogue

Querulous brogue

In Brief

Having encountered one small storm of Hiberno-English from Josie Breen in Lestrygonians, readers weather a denser cell in Scylla and Charybdis when Buck Mulligan launches into several sentences of "querulous brogue." Joyce intimates that the whole performance mimics the language of John Millicent Synge's plays, and it is an effective parody, but the vocabulary is Mulligan's own eclectic concoction of Irish, Hiberno-English, and obscure English expressions.

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§ Gifford observes that "Synge created a [ahem!] singularly poetic and dramatic language out of the peculiar combination of Irish syntax and archaic English diction" that he heard spoken in County Wicklow and the west of Ireland. His one-act play Riders to the Sea was first performed in Dublin starting in late February 1904. It is fair to suppose that when Joyce penned Mulligan's mocking imitation of Irish speech he was thinking primarily of Riders to the Sea and even suggesting that Mulligan has attended a Dublin performance of this play and has its lines ringing in his ears. The narrative introduces his sentences by saying that he "keened in a querulous brogue," and the play is all about keening. Slightly later in Scylla, when Stephen invokes Thomas Aquinas, Mulligan reprises his mourning ("he keened a wailing rune") and repeats nearly verbatim what one of the characters of Riders says as she begins to keen: "It's destroyed we are from this day! It's destroyed we are surely!"

Most English-speakers have some awareness of keening as a high-pitched wailing lamentation for the dead, but they may not recognize it as an ancient Irish practice or know that the word is an Anglicization of the Irish verb caoin. Set on one of the Aran Islands, in the Gaeltacht, Riders to the Sea stages the story of Maurya, who has lost a husband and five sons to the sea. Her daughters Cathleen and Nora receive word that a body which may be that of their brother Michael has washed up on the coast of Donegal. It does prove to be Michael, and by the end of the play the sea also claims Bartley, the one remaining son. All three broken-hearted women keen their ruinous losses, which may well bring them to the brink of starvation. By contrast, Mulligan's mournful wailing is sparked by the fact that Stephen did not show up at the Ship to buy him drinks. The word "querulous" means "complaining, peevish, plaintive." One imagines Mulligan adopting one of his old-woman voices, perhaps some variant of Mother Grogan's, to press his countrified, wheedling, whining complaint.

§ The word "brogue" is a familiar name for English spoken with an Irish accent. But like "keen" it derives from an Irish word: either bróg = shoe (a word that appears several times in Ulysses) or barróg = speech defect. Dolan notes a possible connection between the two, though this etymology is contested: "There is a view that Irish people used to speak English unintelligibly (as a result of linguistic contamination from Irish syntax and vocabulary), and the effect was as if they had a shoe on their tongue." When Joyce writes in Finnegans Wake that HCE's "sbrogue cunneth none lordmade undersiding," he seems to be playing with this notion that thick-tongued Hiberno-English speech can be hard to understand.

The brogue that flows from Mulligan's mouth is indeed hard to understand in many particulars, though its general intention is clear enough:

     It's what I'm telling you, mister honey, it's queer and sick we were, Haines and myself, the time himself brought it in. 'Twas murmur we did for a gallus potion would rouse a friar, I'm thinking, and he limp with leching. And we one hour and two hours and three hours in Connery's sitting civil waiting for pints apiece.
      He wailed:
      — And we to be there, mavrone, and you to be unbeknownst sending us your conglomerations the way we to have our tongues out a yard long like the drouthy clerics do be fainting for a pussful.
     Stephen laughed.
§ The passage paints a simple comic scene of Mulligan and Haines sitting in the pub, painfully waiting for Stephen (as Synge's women wait for news), and receiving only a telegram ("it"). The syntax and verbal delivery echo Synge's representation of the Aran islanders' lilting speech. Using a reflexive pronoun as a subject, for example ("himself brought it in"), is a linguistic practice used often in the play ("Herself does be saying prayers half through the night"), as is the insistent use of "it" ("If it wasn’t found itself, that wind is raising the sea, and there was a star up against the moon, and it rising in the night. If it was a hundred horses, or a thousand horses you had itself, what is the price of a thousand horses against a son where there is one son only?").

"And we to be there" imitates the islanders' distinctive use of conjunctions ("How would it be washed up, and we after looking each day for nine days"). Another such idiom involving "way" ("the way we can put the one flannel on the other") shows up in Mulligan's "the way we to have our tongues out." "I'm thinking" too recalls the speech of the play ("I’m thinking it won't be long," "I'm thinking Bartley put it on him in the morning"). Even Mulligan's counting of the hours ("And we one hour and two hours and three hours") echoes the islanders' speech ("I’ll have half an hour to go down, and you’ll see me coming again in two days, or in three days, or maybe in four days if the wind is bad").

§ More such echoes could be cited, but this note will highlight just one other that is heard often in Irish speech. Commenting on the churchmen that Mulligan says "do be fainting" for a drink, Slote cites P. W. Joyce: "In the Irish language (but not in English) there is what is called the consuetudinal tense, i.e. denoting habitual action or existence. It is a very convenient tense, so much so that the Irish, feeling the want of it in their English, have created one by use of the word do with be: 'I do be at my lessons every evening from 8 to 9 o'clock'."

This kind of verbal construction is not completely absent from the English spoken in England: there, people sometimes use the future tense to imply habitual action, saying that boys will be boys or clerics will be drinking. But the Irish way is much more vivid. Many examples can be found in Synge's plays, including a few in Riders to the Sea: "the black hags that do be flying on the sea," "In the big world the old people do be leaving things after them for their sons and children, but in this place it is the young men do be leaving things behind for them that do be old." Characters speak in this way at several other points in Ulysses. In Lestrygonians Nosey Flynn tells the story of a woman who hid in a clock in the Masons' hall to discover "what they do be doing," and Bloom imagines a constable pressing a servant girl with the question, "And who is the gentleman does be visiting there?" In Wandering Rocks Patsy Dignam thinks of "One of them mots that do be in the packets of fags Stoer smokes."

While the syntactic rhythms of Mulligan's keening are clearly derived from reading or listening to Synge, the vocabulary is his own, and it far outdoes Synge for obscurity. Riders to the Sea employs no words more unfamiliar than "poteen" (Irish moonshine) or "Samhain" (a pagan Gaelic fall festival). Mulligan leads off with "mister honey," which no commentator has even directly addressed, much less satisfactorily explained. In a personal communication, Senan Molony argues that this must be a playful anglicization of some Irish phrase. He offers one possibility: más é do thoil é, literally "if it is your will," or figuratively "if you please." Spoken quickly, as this very long way of saying "please" must be, "mar-shay-duh" would sound quite a bit like "mister," "hol-lay" could be twisted into "honey" with the change of one consonant, and the meaning, "please," might conceivably advance Mulligan's wheedling entreaty. The fit is admittedly loose, but Molony's hypothesis is intriguing. Perhaps other Irish language models will eventually be proposed.

The next two strange expressions appear to comically amplify the beggars' thirst. Slote cites P. W. Joyce's observation that in Hiberno-English, "particularly in Ulster, 'Queer and' is an intensifier." Being "queer and sick," then, means that Mulligan and Haines were sick unto dying with thirst. The OED identifies "gallus" as an obsolete form of "gallows." The suggestion does not seem to be that the two men were longing for a pint that deserved capital punishment, or for a deadly one, or for one capable of promoting sexual excitement (Gifford, responding to the mention of rousing a friar who is "limp with leching," wildly surmises that the word evokes "the commonplace that a man being hanged has an erection in the process"). Much better, though certainly strange enough, is Slote's observation that "gallows" too can be an intensifier. The OED lists, after all its other meanings, this one: "With intensive force: Extremely, very, 'jolly'." A jolly big alcoholic potion, then.

In the next paragraph, "mavrone" is a common Hiberno-English interjection borrowed from the Irish mo bhrón, meaning literally "my sorrow" or "my regret." Mulligan's keening here takes the form of "alas!"—no drinks after all that time waiting. In "drouthy clerics," he dips into obscure English once more. This is a Scottish variant of "droughty," so the basic meaning is "dry, without moisture, arid," but the OED lists a metaphorical application: "thirsty; often = addicted to drinking."

Finally, the "pussful" of ale that the good fathers and brothers do be wanting might possibly refer to their faces, but more likely it echoes a slang use of "puss" for "mouth." These meanings cannot be found in most dictionaries of English written for English people, but The American Heritage Dictionary, which reflects many usages brought into American English by Irish immigrants, identifies both slang uses: "1. The mouth. 2. The face. [Irish bus, lip, mouth, from Old Irish, lip]." Dolan's Hiberno-English dictionary translates "puss" only as mouth, and "shaping the lips so as to make a pout; sulking." It cites a response to such pouting: "Take that ugly sour puss off your face and get on with the messages." Slote cites P. W. Joyce's relevant observation that "puss" is "always used in dialect in an offensive or contemptuous sense." Churchmen can never catch a break from Mulligan.

JH 2021
1907 drawing of John Millicent Synge by Jack Yeats. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Sybil Thorndike as Maurya in a 1960 BBC-TV production of the play. Source: screenplaystv.wordpress.com.
1904 edition of Riders to the Sea. Source: www.gutenberg.org.
Detail from p. 68 of The State of the Protestants of Ireland under the Late King James's Government (1692) about a barrister in the English courts who has "a more than ordinary Brogue on his Tongue." Source: languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu.
Line from Mo Ghile Mear, an Irish song. Source: www.youtube.com.