Words of war — Frank McNally on the fighting Irish origins of the word ‘slogan’

The old war cries became mere verbal decorations in the end

Of all the old Irish words that ended up in English, few can have travelled quite so far or wide as “slogan”.

Brewer’s Dictionary tells us it derives from the phrase sluagh ghairm, literally “army yell”. And it dates to a time when Gaelic clans invariable went into battle with a unifying – and I suppose intimidating – war cry.

Thus, for example, the O’Neills’ “Lamh Dearg Abu” (“Red Hand Forever”) is at least nominatively the ancestor of such latter-day slogans as “Just Do It”, “Vorsprung durch Technik”, and “Snap, Crackle, and Pop”.

It is also a forerunner of political sloganeering, including the likes of “Take Back Control”, and “Get Brexit Done” (As the O’Neills’ marketing department noticed centuries ago, three-word war-cries are often the most effective).


No doubt the art of corporate and political slogan-writing would have evolved independently, without any help from the ancient Gaels. But even so, the very success of the word in the modern world is evidence of the original concept’s fame and power.

That was one of the problems Poynings’ Law (1494), aka the Statute of Drogheda, sought to address.

Worried that the old English settlers had gone native, becoming “more Irish than the Irish themselves”, the Tudor monarchy forbade them from, among other things, using the native battle-cries they had in many cases borrowed.

Typical of this phenomenon was the Leinster branch of the Fitzgeralds, who had adopted the slogan “Crom abu”, referring to Crom Castle, an ancestral stronghold in Limerick.

Despite exile in the Pale, the Geraldines still invoked the power of the older home place when they or their allies were threatened. As a poem put it: “But not for rite or feast ye stayed, when friend or kin were pressed/And foeman fled when ‘Crom Abu’ bespoke your lance in rest.”

The old slogans were variously derived. Sometimes they invoked the clan’s name, sometimes a place of conspicuous importance in the tribal heartland, sometimes the family motto, sometimes an historical event or tradition.

References could be obscure on occasion. The McKennas of Truagh in North Monaghan had the strange war-cry, as anglicised, “Keartlevarry-abu”.

This refers to a “ball of tow-yarn”, presumably worn as a distinguishing badge in battle. It doesn’t sound like something that would strike fear into the hearts of enemies. But the continuing domination of the McKennas in Truagh suggests it must have worked.

Another old slogan, adopted by the Hiberno-Norman Knights of Kerry, was “Farre Buidhe Abu”, urging victory for the “yellow man”.

This must have been a reference to the saffron shirts that, in the days before uniforms, distinguished the home side from the enemy. It is not therefore far removed from the war cries you now hear in Croke Park and Lansdowne Road: “Come on you boys/girls in green/blue, etc”.

Yet another famous slogan – also a three-worder – was Faugh a’ Ballagh, from the Irish Fág an Bealach (“Clear the way”). That’s still used by the British army’s Royal Irish Regiment. And some histories claim it originated in an Irish-inspired British victory over France during the Peninsular Wars (1807–1814).

But that hardly explains why at least two GAA clubs, in Dublin and Castleblayney, use it in their names. In any case, it was also immortalised in more recent wars by the US army’s “Fighting 69th”, whose heroics JFK recalled on his Irish visit.

Then there is “Remember Limerick”, which was not the war-cry of any one clan, I think, but was used by the expatriate Irish fighting and winning for France over England at Fontenoy in 1745, a battle itself perpetualised in GAA club names.

In most cases, the old war cries became mere verbal decorations in the end. “When the mode of fighting changed,” one historian tells us, “these cries were laid aside, or transferred as mottoes to the crests of families using them.”

They thereby prepared the way for the word slogan’s move into the corporate world, where it now sometimes takes the form of such atrocities as “We’re Backing Brave” and where the bold statement is often accompanied by legal qualification.

This all happened too late for Silken Thomas (1513–1537). We are told that his ill-fated rebellion against the crown was inspired in part by a bard who, at a time of great distrust with the English, invoked the ancient battle-cry:

“Tis Thomas of the vest of silk, the raven of the vale/The falcon of Kildare’s tall towers, that scorns the mountain gale,/The raked up ember whose fierce flame shall prove the overthrow/Of every hungry Saxon dog – then ‘Farrah Crom-aboo’.”

An historian writes: “The bard’s exhortation decided the fiery youth, and casting the sword of state upon the [Privy] council table, he rushed forth with his men to engage upon that wild and hopeless struggle, which ended in the ruin of himself and his family.”

If only the bardic sloganeering had been accompanied by a qualifier from his legal department, to the effect that terms and conditions applied, and the value of the investment might fall as well as rise.