On the lash in Lusk

An Irishman’s Diary about a popular euphemism

The windmill  in Skerries, Co Dublin.   Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

The windmill in Skerries, Co Dublin. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien


A parent from Lusk in north Dublin has emailed me an item from the local Labour Party newsletter, about which he doesn’t know whether to be concerned or relieved. It involves the recent opening of a new community school in the town, an event in itself welcome. Indeed, the newsletter joins the chorus of celebration.

But while so doing, Cllr Ken Farrell makes a startling claim – that the new school has ended a situation, previously the norm, whereby the children of Lusk had to be “scattered four sheets to the wind for a secondary education”.

You can see why local parents might have mixed feelings about this news. On the one hand, the implication that their children have sobered up since the community school opened is clearly a positive. On the other, the suggestion that, before this, they were off their heads with drink – and during classes – will come as a shock.

Were they attending hedge schools in beer gardens? Was it passive inhalation of fumes from a micro-brewery? Or is it possible, as parents will surely hope, that Cllr Farrell is just unaware of the universal convention by which to be deemed any number of sheets to the wind implies a state of inebriation?

In fairness, there is much confusion about the numerical details of the expression, if not its general meaning. Like many English phrases, it’s usually assumed to come from the world of sailing ships, the “sheets” in question being the ropes that tied sails down.

To have sheets flapping made a vessel unstable, and by extension this became a metaphor for drunkenness. Even one loose sheet could be enough – witness Robert Louis Stephenson having Long John Silver deny that he has been a single “sheet in the wind’s eye” (ie, drunk). Two was correspondingly worse. As for three, that was considered the limit.

My Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable still observes the three-sheet maximum for the expression of extreme intoxication and appears to know nothing about what would happen if a fourth sheet were set loose.

But the same inflation that wreaked havoc in the multiple-blade razor industry has been at work. Hence such latter-day examples as the Tom Waits ballad about being drunk in a foreign country – Tom Traubert’s Blues (Four Sheets to the Wind in Copenhagen) .

The schoolchildren of Lusk would not therefore have been the first people to be quadruply sheeted – only the suggestion that it happened during the forced pursuit of education, in decadent foreign outposts like Rush and Skerries, would be a sinister development.

There is, by the way, a competing explanation of the “three sheet” phrase’s origins. It comes from windmills – the old kind, whereon sails could be added and subtracted depending on wind strength. The crucial thing, apparently, was that the number should always be even – ie, two or four. If a windmill had three sheets to the wind, it became unbalanced and wobbled violently.

I’m not sure I believe that version. But if the drinking metaphor is indeed so rooted, it can rarely have been more apt than on the old windmill in Dublin’s Thomas Street. Once part of Roe’s Distillery, when that was Europe’s biggest whiskey manufacturer, it now presents a sober sight. It went cold turkey about a century ago, and hasn’t had even a single sheet to the wind since.

In fact to see a proper, old-style windmill near Dublin, you have to go to the aforementioned Skerries. I believe they have a restored one there that has no fewer than five sails. Maybe that’s where the concerned parents of Lusk should begin their inquiries.

Changing topic, somewhat, I hope there won’t be any sheets to the wind in Trinity College over the next three days. If there are, try and catch them, because the college will hosting its annual sale of old and rare books – the biggest event of its kind in Ireland and now itself an antique, aged 25.

The milestone event begins tomorrow at 5.30pm, with an auction of 80 of the rarer items later in the evening. All books are donated, and all proceeds are reinvested in the Trinity libraries. So no doubt that well-known UCD graduate, Myles na gCopaleen, would be delighted to know that he is among the auction’s most profitable prospects.

Not for The Third Policeman , the manuscript of which (unpublished in his lifetime) he once claimed had been blown sheet-by-sheet out of the boot of his car during a trip to Donegal. No, in this case, bidders will be vying for a first edition of his 1943 play Faustus Kelly – a very rare thing, I’m told. (tcd.ie/booksale)
fmcnally @irishtimes.com

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