Brewer's Dictionary of Irish Phrase and Fable
By Sean McMahon and Jo O'Donoghue
Wedenfeld Nicolson pound;25
Well established as one of the most idiosyncratic of reference books, Brewer's celebrated Dictionary of Phrase and Fable has acquired an Irish offspring, which turns out to be as entertaining and wide-ranging as its parent volume. It is difficult to imagine any reader, interested in any aspect of Ireland ancient or modern, who will not find diversion and enlightenment somewhere in its 6,000 entries and near 900 pages. (Who was Niall of the Nine Sausages? Who was the Belfast Quasimodo? Enquire within.) While certain names and topics will merit an almost automatic place in such a volume, the real attraction lies in the unexpected. As an example of the former, the considerable number of writers (in English and Irish) who constitute Irish literature is generously represented, their lives and principal works economically summarised. In general, the tone of such entries - as of the entries as a whole - is factual and non-judgmental, though occasionally a more pointed gloss makes a welcome appearance. Of Joyce's Ulysses we read: "Fashionable Ireland has long ago gathered the erring book... to its bosom, and among the many people who celebrate Bloomsday each 16 June are some who have actually read it."
The complexities of the history and politics of Ireland are given treatment as comprehensive and balanced as its literature; the entries are remarkably up to date. The many twists and turns of Ulster's recent decades are accorded illuminating mentions under relevant headings of places and personalities. By way of the more "unexpected" in the coverage of Ulster, there are fascinating examples of local linguistic usage, many recorded with engaging humour. Of sheugh (a ditch or water-filled drain) we learn:
"In spite of its onomatopoeic suggestion of unpleasantness, it carries no especial distaste for Ulster people, who use it for any easily crossable drain, even extending it - meiotically - to the North Channel between Co.
Antrim and Scotland."
This editorial interest in the linguistically colourful dimension of Ulster life is again reflected in an even wider selection of words and idioms from Hiberno-English, defined as "English as it is spoken and sometimes written in Ireland, distinct from standard or received English". Here are many picturesque expressions, some complimentary, some more derogatory; witness, in close succession, looby, loodhramaun and loody, all conveying various levels of disapproval of a certain kind of less than admirable male.
In their introductory note McMahon and O'Donoghue see their Brewer's as "a record of people, places, events, aspirations". It is certainly that, though such a description is too modest a claim for a volume so rich in its inclusiveness, so user-friendly and so succinctly enticing in its cross-referencing ("Stab City. See Limerick"). The research that must have preceded such a publication is worn lightly, resulting in a reference book it will be a pleasure to own and to use.
Robert Dunbar is head of English at the Church of Ireland college of education, Dublin