Early Medieval Ireland via The Modern Irish Mammy


Image: Ireland definitive 6p postage stamp showing An Claidheamh Soluis / Irish government (Public Domain)

Its funny how certain smells, music, or even the utterances of certain words or phrases that one hasn’t experienced in years can suddenly stir half-forgotten memories, and simultaneously transport oneself back in time in an instant. I recently had occasion for doing exactly that, upon seeing the following tweet concerning an old County Carlow expression as recorded in the Irish National Folklore Collection …

Staring at my smartphone in the 21st Century, I could almost hear again the exasperated voice of my own long passed grandmother (herself a Carlow woman, and purveyor of many bastardized, corrupted Irish-English sayings) uttering the same towards various grandchildren – myself included – who were up to no good and acting the maggot in another room.

“Don’t make me have to get up off my seat and come in there again, or ‘I’ll mallafooster ye!”

And then on to my own mother, who had obviously picked up the same expressions and country terms growing up. A sudden flashback to a dark autumnal evening coming up to Halloween. My mother coming home with the ‘messages’ (shopping). The clothes line in the back garden, still full of the days washing, getting damp in the early night air. Her grumbling at the lack of ‘cop on’ of her delinquent children and rushing out to take them in as soon as possible.  A nine year old me, thinking this was a perfect time to play a trick. Sneaking around the shed, and jumping out at her from behind. Snarling like a monster. Her, in absolute fright, spinning around in automatic defense mode, fist flailing without a second thought. Me, punched in the face, gob-smacked, spread-eagled flat on the ground in seconds.

“Jesus Christ! Don’t EVER. DO that. AGAIN”, she said, already walking back into the kitchen for a bag of frozen peas. “Or I’ll really mallavogue ye!”

If this sounds like the start of a dreadful Irish childhood misery litt biography, then, my apologies. Its certainly not meant to. Nor is it meant to denigrate those who weren’t as lucky as I was. I can look back in humour at the linguistics, precisely because (accidental shiner aside) there wasn’t a hand laid on me growing up. But that certainly didn’t stop me from experiencing what many Irish people will attest to: the dramatic, cartoonish, deliberately-animated, blood-spattered expressions of medieval-esque ultra violence uttered by that most fearful of creatures which haunted an Irish youth:

An Angry Irish Mammy. With a Wooden Spoon.


Image: dope! / flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Irish mammies of a certain generation had a way with words. It wasn’t enough to simply wave said weapon of mass destruction and let errant childers know that they were in deep trouble. It had to go further and beyond. It was nothing less than total mental domination. To threaten and instill a level of expectant dread that would naturally result in instant deflation and resignation to ones ultimate fate – and hopefully, better behavior in the interim until sentencing/reckoning later.

I’ll beat ye black and blue…

I’ll murder the pair of yis…

I’ll bate ye good-lookin…

I’ll kill ye stone dead…

And my all-time personal favourite…usually uttered in a low growl through clenched teeth and flashing eyes, when one had offended out in public, or in someone else’s house…

‘Just you wait til I get you home…I’m going to CLEAVE the legs off ye!

That one has always stuck with me for several reasons. The satisfying vocalization  of same through a gritted granite face (Try it yourself). The ludicrous threat of extraordinary and horrific maiming. Despite knowing it was not meant literally, the metaphorical inference that ones transgressions were so heinous that mere death was too easy and dismembered disfigurement was preferential. I mean, really, how hard would one actually have to swing in order to sever the legs of a bold child with a wooden spoon? Pretty feckin’ hard.

And that was the entire point. The over-dramatic threat. The delicious exaggeration. The verbal articulation of fantastical never-actually-occurring looney tune level of violence acting as a poetical substitute and key indicator of seriousness and intent to avenge.  My childish mind, half laughing, and yet horrified, at the thought of hopping around the house forever more on two bloody stumps, having been cleaved off – eventually – after multiple attempts with a wooden spoon etc etc etc.


Image: Abdul Rahman / Flickr (CC BY 2.0)


Whats interesting to me now, looking back, is that these bastardized blunted expressions, handed down from one generation to another in the  early 20th century, not only contain enshrined halfway-house Irishisms, but if one excavates the words themselves, one can almost smell the Early Medieval tongue in cheek.

Take for example, mallafooster: Stan Carey has previously looked at Hiberno-English ‘Foostering’ examples of usage and notes that ‘Mallafooster’ is made up of French mal ‘bad’ + Irish fústar. I would contend that one doesn’t need to go all the way to France for same.

French and English  Mal usage is heavily influenced from Latin malus,  denoting ‘bad, evil, wicked, injurious, destructive, mischievous, hurtful, ill-looking, ugly, deformed, (of fate) evil, unlucky’. Old and Middle Irish, also heavily influenced from Latin in certain quarters has lots of examples of Mal elements…

  • malart: damage, injury, destruction, maltreating, injuring
  • malartach: baneful, destructive
  • malartaid: one who injures, spoils, ruins or destroys
  • malacht (< Lat. maledictio) a curse, malediction

Things have hardly changed in modern Irish, i.e.

The same ancestral medieval/modern Irish ‘bad/destructive’ Mal element is to be found within mallavogue, naturally – its verbal expression (as enshrined in the memory of my poor hissing mother) literally encapsulating a modern day descendant of early medieval  malediction. Looking back with the benefit of hindsight, they were not merely threatening us with cartoonish violence, but channeling, albeit unknowingly, a long standing, all pervading, exaggerated linguistic Irish accursed destruction, damnation and ruination. Which is nice.


But what about my favourite: “I’ll CLEAVE the legs off ye!”. What would my mother and grandmother be doing messing around with a Middle English, Old English, Proto-Germanic term denoting ‘splitting, slicing and separating’?

I’d almost hazard, nothing at all, if one considers its aural twin in Irish: i.e. Claíomh, a word denoting ‘sword’, and/or a plethora of sharp blade related actions and usages.

A word pronounced almost exactly the same way as the English word in the south leinster/north munster dialect my grandmother would have been exposed to as a child herself. Not only that, claíomh (<claidheamh and claideb) also enjoys an ancient linguistic lineage and usage going back to Early Medieval Ireland:

  • claideb: (slashing) sword
  • claidbech: sword-wielding, equipped with swords, of or pertaining to the sword
  • claidbed: act of putting to the sword, striking with the sword
  • claidbid: puts to the sword, strikes or cuts with a sword

I can’t say for certain, but I’d really like to think that the threat of the ‘cleaving’ of legs by my Irish Mammy (channeling her Mammy, and perhaps her Mammy before) albeit anglicized and replaced with a wooden spoon, nevertheless contains faint verbal echos of Early Irish Swordsmanship. A cutting and thrusting verbal feint of early medieval benevolent malevolence, wrapped up in razor sharp mother-tongues.


Image: Filippo Locatelli / flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

In fact, now that I think about it, linguistic lashes aside, one could do far worse than look to modern (twentieth century) stereotypical Irish Mammies – those strong willed, iron-fisted, High-Queens of their own households, responsible for all and sundry within, unafraid to wield colourful language to keep their own subjects in line – in terms of understanding and encapsulating Early Medieval Irish society, culture, literature and politics, in general.

A ranked, authoritarian society where kings and warriors floated bombastic boasts and over-dramatic, cartoonish, deliberately-animated, blood-spattered expressions of medieval-esque ultra violence; facilitated by scribes and poets fighting with language itself producing blood and gut epics, verbal insults, oneupmanship and defamation. Nothing less than total verbal domination. To threaten and instill a level of expectant dread in ones enemies (family and friends!) that would naturally result in instant deflation and resignation to ones ultimate fate – and hopefully, better behavior, cattle and tribute in the interim until sentencing/reckoning later.

That, essentially, is Early Medieval Ireland in a nutshell.

And if I hear another word out of any of yis, I’ll mallafooster ye all into next week.

16 thoughts on “Early Medieval Ireland via The Modern Irish Mammy

  1. I’m having a good giggle here. Irish mammies sound terrifying. One of my favourite Irish expressions learned since I’ve been living here and useful in the classroom : ‘would you stop acting the maggot!’ Wish I’d know about the cleaving bit for extra emphasis. English mummies threatened to ‘have your guts for garters’ if you misbehaved! Now deconstruct that one!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Foostering around with an Irish word | Sentence first

  3. The “messages” is a term used in the West of Scotland, so is it Irish or Scottish?
    I was brought up in the East end of Glasgow, my Mothers ancestors were Irish of course.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for that Danny. Thats a good question. I’m not certain. I do know that ‘The Messages’ is very widespread here, all over the country. And of course, there’s significant Irish seasonal emigration to Scotland in the late 19th/early 20thC – especially agricultural workers. Quick check online threw up an astounding figure, apparently almost 1/3 of those were in and around Glasgow. Again, can’t be sure, but chances are, its an Irish introduction to Scotland?


  4. My Families Glasgow Irish. They lived in the Garngard or ‘little Ireland’ I don’t think the communities mixed that much socially until later in the mid 20th century

    Was thinking of Alex Woolfs paper on the rise of Anglo Saxon and Fall of the British language as related to apartheid and economics.

    Click to access Apartheidandeconomics.pdf

    I think little Ireland in Glasgow would have some features in common with 6th century British communities i.e population concentrated in areas of high production and low consumption, little chance of advancement, not particularly high levels of social intigration. Early 20th century identity politics maintianed a sense of being Irish from one generation to the next. My Grandparents families boycoted U.K. produce and would buy imported Irish goods for example.

    Usage is also wide spread in Scotland and I don’t think intigration really kicked off until the mid 20th century.

    Does not strike me as fertile ground for language change (but I have a bias in favour of Alex’s thesis)

    I wonder if its older and related to the spread of English in both communities?


    • Possible. Just not sure. Did a bit of digging around, several mentions of it being an Irish, Scots, N. Eng idiom. Now I’m seeing people in Canada reporting same, but whether its an Irish or Scots intro there…


  5. Really good writing as ever- thanks! As an aside, the non verbal communication equivalent of “the over-dramatic threat” (and using the updated weapon-of-choice) is the opening of the kitchen drawer while rattling it to let the intended victim know it was wooden spoon time- the sound of the rattling kitchen drawer became a very Pavlovian event for me!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Yes! Heard many of those in my youth. But foostering – that was used in the sense of fumbling or wasting time. ‘Your Dad is foostering around in the garden. Tell him his tea’s ready’

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Pingback: Link love: language (69) | Sentence first

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