Swearing is rife in Ireland. No, that’s an understatement, swearing is epidemic in Ireland. It used to be that swearing was reserved for all-male gatherings, or certain places (like sporting events or the school yard), but in recent years swearing has become much more common, uni-sex, and offensive.
Before we discuss why this is, consider that we Irish have always admired masters of the art of conversation. While poets and writers are all very good and are greatly respected, they practice their art on the page and only reveal their wit and wisdom after much contemplation. Verbal dexterity and a quick wit are among the most-prized attributes in Irish life, the best poets often can’t raise a candle to the person with a ready quip. In place of real wit or wisdom, the average person can arm themselves with a devil-may-care attitude, cynical putdowns, and well-timed oaths. Shock value is often substituted for originality, and sadly a lot of people wouldn’t know the difference anyway (not that that is unique to Ireland…).
While there can be a particular poetry to a creative and amusing oath or dash of spirited invective, the problems occurs when swearing becomes an unconscious part of everyday language. Listen to any group of young drinkers at an Irish pub any night of the week, and you’ll hear a steady stream of fucks and fuckin’s used adjectively without any rancor or malice. (Among older groups in parts of the country the fucks will be reduced to fecks, out of either regional habit or a sense that feck is milder and more polite.)
Why has swearing become so commonplace and unremarkable to Irish ears? I’ll offer a couple of reasons, though everyone may not agree.
Distrust of Authority
First of all, the Irish personality is to instinctively be suspicious of authority. Even though we’ve long thrown off the “shackles of colonial oppression” (as Tom Branson might put it), the attitudes of resentment towards authority remain, and are often expressed through vulgar language. The attitude is that we don’t trust our politicians and consider all civil servants corrupt, but since they’re Irish we’ll confine ourselves to a gruff tone and salty language.
Cult of the “Big Fella”
Secondly, we worship the “big man.” Irish politics in the twentieth century bears witness to the cult of the big man, the fixer, the influence peddler, the modern-day Celtic chieftan who takes care of his tribe of friends and family and attempts to rule with an iron fist. Kids pick up on this young, and try to affect the swagger and air of authority that the local “big men” — fathers, elder brothers, and local sports stars — seem to possess. A relaxed attitude to swearing is simply another marker that the speaker doesn’t care for convention; the message is they make their own rules.
Some young men have that idea beaten out of them by strict parents, but over time parents seem to have become less concerned and children of course become adept at picking their battles as they grow up.
As the property bubble grew many ordinary people began to find themselves paper millionaires, and the rush to enjoy the material trappings of success was on. Alongside this newfound prosperity, the unconscious attitudes of defiance and a desire to appear important festered, and found expression in some serious attitude.
So, when I hear people declare that the reason for all this swearing is a lack of education, I feel they’ve missed the point. While poor education and simply not knowing any better may be a contributing factor in some poorer communities, the main reason is a disrespect for education rather than the lack of it. It’s a consequence of the old class consciousness that there’s as much a concept of people getting “above themselves” in Ireland as there is in England (Ireland just doesn’t make Masterpiece Theater serial dramas about it). Attitudes to education are mixed: while it’s valued as a means to a better income, those who do well and enjoy their education are often the target of resentment: from simple bullying in school, to career advice that counsels not reaching too far or “getting above yourself.” A lot of lip service is paid to education in Ireland, but the educated can be resented. It’s an old prejudice, from when only the Protestant (i.e. English) gentry could be educated. And, that’s not to say people can’t turn the swearing off at work or when they need to, but they slip easily back into the common speech patterns after work, like into a comfortable pair of shoes. Nowadays, swearing simply marks them out as part of the tribe, part of the group, and that’s always preferable to being an outsider.
My own experiences with swearing have been enlightening. I left Ireland in my early twenties and went to work with children in America. I knew from the first that I’d have to moderate my language, and schooled myself to drop all casual swearing. It wasn’t difficult, as being around impressionable children in an environment different from your home tends to make you more aware of what and how you speak. When I later began college in the US, I expected to no longer have to school my language quite so consciously. I was wrong, mainstream American life is no different from a children’s summer camp — unless you’re using sex to sell things, but that’s business, and all things seem to be excused in the pursuit of money… Many people look uncomfortable when a swear word is dropped casually into conversation, to swear at work is never casual, and those who use swear words a lot in bars are clearly outsiders. In short, it’s very much the opposite of Ireland today (although class divisions and the desire to appear more powerful are still factors).
This, of course, has made me notice the swearing much more when I’m at home. What used to be so common as to be unremarkable is now glaringly obvious. I can easily see the shock and disappointment of many tourists when confronted with effin’ and blindin’ wherever they go. And, I can understand how they can mistake casual swearing for an expression of distaste or antipathy. The class-consciousness of Ireland is a taboo subject, particularly as it’s bound up with religion, so the importance of iconoclasm and self-aggrandizement to the Irish psyche is not fully appreciated or articulated. Attitude and speech patterns can convey an active, positive self-image that is all the more important because it may not actually tally with an individual’s economic power in the current economic climate.
None of this is to excuse boorish behavior or foul language as a matter of course, but it’s important to understand why casual swearing is commonplace in Ireland, and that it’s not hostile, personal, or a reflection of poor education or values. Centuries of oppression and a lack of self-determination or economic opportunities leave scars, and the flip-side of our national readiness to welcome everyone and party at the drop of a hat is a certain gruffness of expression and that sense of fatalism that we wear as armor.
WB Yeats put it all so well when he wrote that “being Irish, he had an abiding sense of tragedy, which sustained him through temporary periods of joy.”
*I intended to write a light-hearted piece about swearing in Ireland, something that many regard as a bit of an art form. However, after doing a little research, I discovered there’s no shortage of humorous pieces on Irish swear words around the internet, but there are a lot of people who are genuinely shocked and offended by the level of routine bad language in Ireland. So, what’s really required is some explanation.