Irish Things that are Actually British – Throwback Thursday

It’s getting to be mid-March, and all good Buzzkillers’ minds turn towards things Irish. We have done shows before on St. Patrick and on the Irish Slaves Myth, which, of course, were quite serious and brought up important historical issues and themes. But this March we thought we’d be a little more light-hearted, yet probably generate more comment and hate-mail than our other Irish episodes. That’s because I want to bring up an intriguing aspect of Irish history — the nature of Irish identity, and the strength of the belief in Irish identity. So I should apologize in advance to the entire Irish side of the Buzzkill Dynasty, to all of Irish America, and to many of my favorite Buzzkillers in Ireland, especially Farmer Michael and his lovely wife, Kathleen. They’ll be sure to give me both barrels after they’ve heard this episode.

I want to talk about three “quintessentially” Irish things that are actually British. And I’ll save my rants about conceptions of national identities and the fluidity of such identities for the end of the show.

St. Patrick

And we can start right at the top — St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland. He was born in Britain around the 5th century A.D. (accounts differ – from 460-493) to an aristocratic Christian family with a townhouse, a country villa, and plenty of slaves. What’s more, Patrick professed no interest in Christianity as a young boy.

At 16, Patrick’s world turned. He was kidnapped and sent overseas to tend sheep as a slave in the chilly, mountainous countryside of Ireland for seven years. It was, by his own account, a pretty horrible life, but he had a religious conversion while he was there and became a very deeply believing Christian. According to folklore, a voice came to Patrick in his dreams, telling him to escape. He found passage on a pirate ship back to Britain, where he was reunited with his family.

The voice then told him to go back to Ireland. According to Patrick’s own “Confessions,” “I saw a man coming, as it were from Ireland. His name was Victoricus, and he carried many letters, and he gave me one of them. I read the heading: ‘The Voice of the Irish.’ As I began the letter, I imagined in that moment that I heard the voice of those very people who were near the wood of Foclut, which is beside the western sea—and they cried out, as with one voice: ‘We appeal to you, holy servant boy, to come and walk among us.’”

He got ordained as a priest from a bishop, went back, and spent the rest of his life trying to convert the Irish to Christianity. Patrick’s work in Ireland was tough—he was constantly beaten by thugs, harassed by the Irish royalty, and admonished by his British superiors.

After he died on March 17, 461, Patrick was largely forgotten. But slowly, mythology grew up around Patrick. Centuries later he was honored as the patron saint of Ireland.


One of the words most closely connected to Ireland and Irish culture (particularly Irish socializing) is “craic.”. It generally means to have fun, especially with a group of friends in a circle joking around and enjoying an evening out. It’s often used informally to refer to spontaneous fun or enjoyment, especially when trying to convince someone to come out and join the group:

“I think I’ll stay in tonight. There’s nothing much going on.”

“Ah, come out with us, for the craic.”

It’s used in anticipation of how an event or gathering will go. “The craic will be mighty!” And, of course, people rate the quality of an evening, based on the craic. “The craic was 90,” meaning that it was fantastic. The Irish have a healthy skepticism towards exaggeration, and would never say that an evening out was 100% perfect. “90” is very high on the Irish scale.

But, you know what I’m going to say, Buzzkillers. The origins of “craic” are actually English, not Irish. “Crack” is an old English word meaning “loud conversation” or “bragging talk.” It comes from the Middle English word, “crak.” It was used in England and Scotland for centuries to refer to energized talking (usually in a group), but by the early 19th century it was used also to mean gossip or the latest news, or used in a greeting.

Chat. Conversation. News. Gossip. The Crack. That’s how it was used in northern England and Scotland in the 19th century. Perhaps some of you Buzzkillers will know the 1850s song, “The Work of the Weavers,” which starts off by saying, essentially, “We’re all met together here to sit and crack…” The song was popular and important in the 20th century folk song movement, and Lee Hays, Ronnie Gilman, Pete Seeger, and Frank Hellerman formed The Weavers, partly inspired the song’s title.

How did “crack” become Irish, then? Socio-linguists trace it as moving from Scotland to Ulster, the northeastern province of Ireland, in the mid-20th century. It was still spelled “crack” in the 50s and 60s, but as it migrated to the rest of Ireland by the late 1960s and 1970s, it was “Gaelicized” into “craic,” and has become one of the words most closely connected with Irish social culture. Over the same period, the mid-20th century, it faded out of usage, more or less, in England and Scotland. By the late 20th century, it was so thoroughly “Irish” that it began to creep back into English usage (especially among young people in Britain), but using the Irish spelling “craic.”

Danny Boy

The subject of the “national” origins of perhaps that most famous of all Irish songs, Danny Boy, is almost certain to set people off. Again, all hate mail should be directed to

Danny Boy was written in the English town of Bath, by the English lyricist, Frederic Weatherly, in 1910. It fit in with the romantic “ballad” or “air” tradition of the 19th and early 20th centuries, and became particularly sing-able when Weatherly’s sister sent him the sheet music for “The Londonderry Air,” and Weatherly adapted his lyrics to better fit that tune. Weatherly had originally written it to another tune, but the melody of The Londonderry Air was better, and so he adapted his lyrics to fit that tune. That’s the song we know today.

The lyrics to Danny Boy do not refer to Ireland or any place in Ireland, or any place Scotland or Wales. The song could have been set almost anywhere in the Celtic world, particularly since the word “glen” is used in the opening verse, “Oh, Danny Boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling… From glen to glen, and down the mountain side…” But using “glen” to refer to a gentle valley is as much Scottish as it is Irish.

Not only that, but the Weatherly’s original intent seems to have been for the song to be sung by a young woman to a young man, saying goodbye (for whatever reason) and yearning for the time when he will return. And fitting with the tragic tone heard in so many ballads of that time, the young girl refers to the possibility that she will have died by the time he got back.

Oh, Danny Boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling
From glen to glen, and down the mountain side.
The summer’s gone, and all the roses falling,
‘Tis you, ‘Tis you must go and I must bide.
But come ye back when summer’s in the meadow,
Or when the valley’s hushed and white with snow,
‘Tis I’ll be here in sunshine or in shadow,—
Oh, Danny Boy, oh Danny Boy, I love you so!

But when ye come, and all the flowers are dying,
If I am dead, as dead I well may be,
Ye’ll come and find the place where I am lying,
And kneel and say an Ave there for me.
And I shall hear, though soft you tread above me,
And all my grave shall warmer, sweeter be,
For you shall bend and tell me that you love me,
And I shall sleep in peace until you come to me!
(Oh Danny Boy, Oh Danny boy, I love you so.)

We’re not entirely certain whether Weatherly insisted that the song be sung by a woman, but early sheet music of Danny Boy often said that, the phrase “Eily Dear” should replace “Danny Boy” when it is sung by a man.

And yet, the song seems to have been given a different interpretation by the mid-20th century. Rather than a plaintive ballad sung by a broken-hearted young woman, it is often thought to be a parent singing to a son who’s leaving Ireland because of famine or work migration or some other reason that drove the Irish diaspora, especially to North America.


And that brings me to my historian rant against claims of the purity of national identity and the national origin of many aspects of a culture. Despite what the supposed “genetic studies” of your DNA by 23andMe and might tell you about the specific geographic origins of your ancestors, precious few things that we characterize as “Irish” or “American” or any other nationality come down to us through the ages, untouched by other cultures. Sure, you say, this is obvious for relatively “new” countries like the United States, but ancient cultures, such as the Irish culture in Europe, go way way back.

But even the most obvious cultural identifier, language, is almost never pure, and nowhere is this more obvious than in the historic languages of the islands of Britain and Ireland. Ancient Celtic, Norse, Saxon, Germanic, Latin and Romance languages have flowed over and through those islands and the people there, and led to many blends and hybrids.

So, while it might be technically, almost pedantically, correct to say that “St. Patrick was British,” “‘Craic’ is an English word,” and “Danny Boy is originally an English song,” does it matter? As “crack” traveled from Britain to Ireland, became Gaelicized, and then re-introduced to Britain, additional layers of cultural meaning were placed on it. The meaning of “craic” is no less Irish (especially to 21st century people) because it may have started in England and been, again, technically, introduced to Ireland relatively recently. To deny this would be to deny the ability of people to adopt and adapt cultural attributes. That would be just as “ahistorical” as ignoring the original national or cultural origins of things that become used in other places and other times.

Let me leave you with the first recording of “Danny Boy,” which is dated 1917. It was recorded by Ernestine Schumann-Heink, who was born in Czechoslovakia of German Bohemian ancestry, and became a popular American operatic singer in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. So we have a Czech-Bohemian-German-American singing English lyrics to a tune of (probable) Irish origin, that can refer to almost any part of Northwestern Celtic Europe, but that has almost all of us, weeping in our beer at its beauty and multiple meanings.


Buzzkill Bookshelf

Joseph Coohill, Ireland: A Short History

From the first prehistoric inhabitants of the island to the 21st century, this uniquely concise account of Ireland and its people reveals how differing interpretations of history, ancient and modern, have influenced modern Irish society. Combining factual information with a critical approach, Coohill covers all the key events, including the Great Famine, Home Rule, and the Good Friday Agreement. Updated with two new chapters expanding the discussion of pre-modern Ireland, as well as developments in the 21st century, this highly accessible and balanced account will continue to provide a valuable resource to all those wishing to acquaint themselves further with the complex identity of the Irish people.

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