Valour invalidated – Frank McNally on a mysterious Irish anti-hero: the “Great Gaiscí”

A penchant for satire

The Great Gatsby you’ll have heard of, no doubt. A “great gaiscí” you probably haven’t, unless perhaps you’re a bilingual Kerry person with a penchant for satire.

Because according to Terry Dolan’s Hiberno-English Dictionary, the word gaiscí means “one who performs great deeds, but [is] normally used sarcastically”.

For sample usage, Dolan credits an “SOM, Kerry”, paying mock tribute to someone thus: “If you aren’t the great gaiscí!”

Yes, the term is related to “gaisce”, as in the President’s Award. And gaisce too is in the HE Dictionary, but also under dubious circumstances.

READ MORE

There it signifies “a deed of valour (often sarcastically),” says Dolan, or “a boastful person”.

So much for the Gaisce awards, annually applied for by thousands of idealistic young Irish people as a way of proving (or improving) themselves.

In Ireland’s southwest, at least, too much of that sort of thing can earn you a bad name. Hence, citing a usage suggested by “VQ, Kerry”, the HE dictionary tells that “doing the gaisce” means “showing off”.

Among the few incidences of the phrase “great gaiscí” I can find in newspaper archives, it is sometimes hard to be sure if irony was intended.

During a review of a 2004 history of Croke Park, for example, an Irish Independent writer seems sincere when describing Croker as “a field of dreams where great gaisci are performed . . .”

On the other hand, I also found the phrase in a 1973 editorial from the Southern Star newspaper – based in West Cork rather than Kerry - and there it was seasoned with at least some disdain.

The subject was the general election that had just ousted Corkman Jack Lynch’s Fianna Fail from power. A result the leader writer seems to have taken poorly:

“Well, it’s all over and the “bad boys”, the “blackguards”, as their opponents habitually dub them, have been replaced by the “good boys” of Fine Gael and Labour, now trading under the new grand title of ‘National Coalition’ and being swept along on a tide of limitless euphoria to what, we presume, must be ‘great gaiscí’ ahead.”

Those kinds of gaiscí must also have been the root of an insult once beloved of Myles na gCopaleen: “Gawshkogue”.

That also forms part of a sub-category of words in The Irish Times archive that only Myles ever used. And yet despite his apparent monopoly, he could never make his mind up how to spell it.

As well as Gawshkogue, it appears variously as Gawshogue, Gawskogue, and even Grawskogue (which with the “r” sound seems to be departing from a “gaisce” origin).

The Irish Times style guide of the period could not have much help on this matter and it would have been a brave subeditor who ever corrected Myles’s spelling.

In any case, it seems safe to assume that the first half of his word derived from “gaisce” or “gaiscí” while the suffix came from the Irish “óg”.

By combined implication, the person so described was not just a vainglorious doer of would-be great deeds. He also carried the stigma, however vaguely, of being a boy wonder gone wrong.

Uncertain as its spelling might be, we can at least guess the origins of Myles’s Gawshkogue. This wasn’t always the case with his Hiberno-English vocabulary of abuse.

His favourite putdown for much of the 1950s was “Thooleramawn”: he even had a “Thooleramawn of the Year” contest for a time.

But the word is unknown to my HE dictionary. And the most plausible origin I have seen cited, from the Irish dúramán (meaning “dunce”), doesn’t look all that similar.

Then there was “thullabawn”, also much loved by Myles and even more mysterious. Before he started applying it to people he didn’t like, it was the name of an inoffensive townland in Mayo, from the Irish “white land”. How that qualified it to be a term of abuse is uncertain.

It was rare for Myles to deploy all three of his favourite insults to a single target. But it happened at least once, during a 1951 feud, running to seven columns, with the president of UCC Dr Alfred O’Rahilly.

Over successive days, he awarded O’Rahilly the Triple Crown of Mylesian calumnies, calling him a “Cork Thoolermawn”, a “Cork Gawskogue”, and – forgetting the victim’s Corkness for a moment – “the most extraordinary and incorrigible thullabawn.”

The row must have made Irish Times editors nervous. And yet, whatever about the rest of his text, the abusive terms themselves were probably beyond the reach of prosecuting lawyers.

Along with the sub-category of words only Myles used, these may have been part of a sub-sub-category of words only he understood. Gawskogue is perhaps the most explicable the trio.

But even with the help of expert witnesses from the Kerry Gaeltacht, you would struggle to prove it was libellous.