In Brief

As the self-appointed embodiment of Irish nationalism in the bar, and as someone associated with the Gaelic League, the Citizen voices contempt for Irishmen "that can't speak their own language." He regularly sprinkles Irish words and short phrases into his speech: "a chara," "Bi i dho husht," "Sinn Fein!...Sinn Fein amhain!," "Slan leat," "Na bacleis," "pishogue," "Raimeis." But many of these expressions were commonplace in Hiberno-English speech, and two of them mean something other than the Citizen seems to suppose. Like the narrator of Eumaeus, who regularly tosses out italicized French and Latin words in order to appear cultivated—and as a result sounds pretentious—the Citizen shows off a bilingual facility that is more broad than deep. In this as in many other ways, he is full of hot air.

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Some of the Citizen's Irishisms are colloquial enough. When his dog starts growling he says, "Bi i dho husht" (Bi i do thost), or "Be quiet!" When Joe Hynes asks about his health he replies, "Never better, a chara"—"my friend." He repeats the phrase later when Hynes offers him a drink: "I will, says he, a chara, to show there's no ill feeling." Later, Hynes compliments him on being the man who "made the Gaelic sports revival" and who set records in the shot put, prompting him to say, "Na bacleis" (ná bac leis), or "Don't bother about it." When Bloom boldly challenges his bigotry he says, "Raimeis" (ráiméis), "Nonsense!" or "Foolish talk!"

The last two of these words, however, had long entered into Anglophone speech, in forms like "nabocklesh" and "rawmaish." Dolan includes both in his Dictionary of Hiberno-English. Among uses of the latter he cites this: "Don't be talking raumaish; I know exactly what happened." Not only had Anglicized versions of ráiméis long been staples of Hiberno-English, but that word was also circulating prominently in print journalism at the turn of the century. Citing F. S. Lyons' Culture and Anarchy in Ireland 1890-1939 (Oxford, 1979), Gifford observes that it "was made into a household word for cant by D. P. Moran in The Leader," a Dublin newspaper established in 1900. Moran used it for the widespread "pretense and humbug" which he was fighting. The Citizen, then, could be drawing on a well-known staple of the English of his city rather than on extensive knowledge of the Irish language.

The same can be said of "Sinn Fein!...Sinn fein amhain!" (sinn féin amháin). The meaning is "Ourselves! Ourselves alone!"—i.e., Ireland for the Irish, without the English stranger. But, as Gifford notes, this was a common patriotic toast and the motto of the Gaelic League. It was also the refrain in a famous song titled The West's Awake, about the movement to "wake the old tongue of the Gael; / The speech our fathers loved of yore." The Irish language, according to the song, was made "weak and low, / O'ermastered by its foreign foe." But now "We've won the fight; Sinn Fein Amhain!" and people can see "How strong and great 'tis bound to be!" Well, perhaps. The song itself is written in English, and the Citizen need only have listened to it, or hoisted a few glasses with his Gaelic League friends, to learn the Irish phrase.

The outright misunderstandings of Irish begin when Joe Hynes hands around some pints and the Citizen says, "Slan leat" (slán leat), literally "safe with you." This Irish way of saying "goodbye" to someone who is leaving (slán agat is used when the speaker is leaving) would be wildly inappropriate as a response to someone who just bought you a drink. A far more fitting reply would be "Go raibh maith agat," or "Thank you."

Another dubious use of Irish comes when the Citizen, warming up for his assault on Bloom, unleashes a string of invectives against Josie Breen's husband, who is not in the bar. The intention behind the first two seems clear enough: "a half and half" and "A fellow that's neither fish nor flesh" imply that Dennis Breen is somehow deficient in manhood, despite his bevy of children. Similar charges are later made more explicitly about Bloom when he steps out of the bar: "— Do you call that a man? says the citizen. / — I wonder did he ever put it out of sight, says Joe. / — Well, there were two children born anyhow, says Jack Power. / — And who does he suspect? says the citizen. / Gob, there's many a true word spoken in jest. One of those mixed middlings he is."

But, not content with "half and half," the talkative bigot cannot resist showing off his knowledge of the native vernacular: "A pishogue, if you know what that is." Not only was this word well known to people who did not speak any Irish (hence the lack of italics), but the Citizen himself seems not to know what it is. Pishogue or pishrogue (Hiberno-English equivalents of the Irish piseog or pisreog) was a peasant superstition about witchcraft. It usually meant a charm or spell, but it was sometimes applied to the people (typically old women) who cast the spells, or to the mistaken belief in such witchcraft, in a sense synomous with "an old wives' tale." One of Dolan's citations notes that country people often invoked the idea to explain shortages of butter in their churns: a neighbor must have cast a pishogue to steal the good stuff.

None of this appears relevant to the Citizen's desire to asperse Breen's manhood, though Gifford tries to link them, speculating that the word might refer to "one who is bewitched." Declan Kiberd too argues that "pishogue" could mean "by extension, a man 'away' with the fairies." But the word was seldom if ever applied to people being hexed, and there are no accounts of pishogue spells having been used to impair virility.

It seems much more likely, as Paul O. Mahoney notes in "The Use of 'Pishogue' in Ulysses: One of Joyce's Many Mistakes?," JJQ 47.3 (2010): 383-93, that the Citizen is thinking of another word, piteog, that looks like piseog and sounds almost identical (pit-YOHG) but means something very different. Dolan defines it as "an effeminate man or boy, a sissy; a weedy, insignificant man," as in: "That piteog's always using after-shave or perfume or something." This word is more purely Irish. A native Gaelic speaker might use it if he did not know English words for unmanly men, but it is not a staple of Hiberno-English speech. Perhaps the Citizen has heard it in someone's mouth and confused it with the more familiar "pishogue."

Mahony remarks on the word's broad range of potential applications: "It typically describes someone who is remarkably unmanly in any way; it can cover homosexuality, sexual deviancy, or simply a particularly odd quality or quirk of character. In some instances, it preserves the ambiguity, increasingly obsolete in English, of the word 'queer'. In most contexts, lighter terms of disparagement such as 'nonce' or 'nancy-boy' would approximate, but not quite translate, its meaning....A piteog could be a lad who shies out of tackles during football training or a man in a mackintosh hanging around a schoolyard" (385). Mahoney observes that this constellation of qualities seems well suited to Dubliners' dislike of Bloom, who is suspected not only of sexual inadequacy but also of other kinds of untrustworthiness.

The sexual implications predominate in Cyclops, and they return in Circe when "pishogue" is once again used in a context where piteog would be more appropriate. Just before Boylan invites Bloom to look through the keyhole and masturbate while he fucks his wife, Molly uses the word to demean her spouse: "Let him look, the pishogue! Pimp!" But if the implications of the one word are being mistakenly mapped onto the other, the question arises, who is making the mistake? The repetition of the error in a second character's mouth would suggest that the defective knowledge of Irish may be Joyce's, not the Citizen's. Mahoney tentatively endorses this reading: "Inasmuch as Joyce's usage is a continuing puzzle, the best explanation may be that he simply made a mistake" (389).

This could well be so—not even James Joyce is perfect—but a strong case can be made for the contrary view. Molly's mistaken "pishogue" may simply echo the Citizen's language, since on every page Circe voraciously recycles the words and phrases of earlier chapters. It makes sense that she would do this in the very moment when her emasculating humiliation of Bloom confirms the Citizen's view of him as unmanly.

It is also plausible to suppose that Joyce could have known both words. Piteog hails from Galway, so he might have learned it from Nora, and his knowledge of Irish has consistently been underestimated. As Brendan O'Hehir writes at the beginning of his preface to A Gaelic Lexicon for Finnegans Wake (1967), "the undesigned revelations of Stanislaus Joyce have shown that his brother left Ireland with a better initial knowledge of the language of his ancestors than anyone had previously supposed. The Irish lessons James Joyce submitted to, for instance, lasted sporadically for about two years rather than the single session Stephen Dedalus undertook: with Joyce's linguistic flair even a desultory attention for so long would have given him at least a modest competence in Irish."

Assuming that Joyce had sufficient knowledge of Irish, it would be very like him to skewer a character by making him get just one letter wrong and then say, "A pishogue, if you know what that is." And it would cohere with his skepticism about the Gaelic League project of promoting the revival of Irish. In Telemachus Haines, an Englishman, speaks Irish to a peasant woman who should understand him, according to Celtic Revival mythology, but who instead says, "Is it French you are talking, sir?" In Cyclops the Citizen reaches for an Irish expression to express his contempt for unmanly men and instead evokes a peasant superstition about stolen butter. His blunder, if such it is, suggests that he speaks Irish very poorly, and also that linguistic traditions smashed by the imperial steamroller are as difficult to recover as peasant folklore swamped by urban modernity.

Many thanks to Vincent Altman O'Connor for his helpful suggestions about the Citizen's misunderstandings of slán leat and "pishogue."

JH 2021
2016 photograph of Irish President Michael Higgins with now US President Joe Biden, whom he addressed in a 2020 letter as "Dear Mr President, Joe, a chara." Source: www.irishtimes.com.
Source: folklore.ie.
Political poster from 1930s Ireland (the dotted "m" is interchangeable in Irish with "mh"). Source: www.whytes.ie.
Still shot from STAR translations services, Dublin. Source: www.youtube.com.
Source: imgur.com.
Concrete chunk with the Irish message "Piteogs out of Ireland," thrown through a window of Dublin's gay bar Pantibar in 2018, Source: twitter.com.