Who will set us free of the bogus Irishness of craic?
Spelling change can be traced back to the surge of confidence that began in the 90s
President Barack Obama speaks to students and other guests at Belfast Waterfront in Belfast this week. Photograph: Reuters
I am about to do something I have never done before. It will hurt. I will be forced – in the style of a cowboy preparing for the removal of a bullet – to swig back half a bottle of hard liquor before approaching the keyboard. I am about to spell “craic” as it appears on the blackboards outside public houses. This will happen many times throughout the column.
On each occasion, it will cause as much discomfort as (I can only speculate here) it would to write the word “toilet” when one means “lavatory”.
This unavoidable ugliness is, of course, triggered by a speech from Barack Obama in Belfast. Listing the various things we enjoy doing now we’ve stopped blowing each other up, he noted that “students lounge at cafes asking each other ‘what’s the craic?’” Cue the sort of hysterical cheering that members of the British royal family receive when they manage to don a ceremonial headdress without falling over.
To be fair, it can’t be denied that Northerners do frequently address each other in this manner. He has not had a “top of the morning” moment. To be fairer still, Mr Obama didn’t intimate how he was spelling the word. He could, in his busy head, have been dropping the “i” and recklessly including a rogue “k”. After all, on the rare occasions we found ourselves writing the word down, most of us spelt it that way (when writing in English, anyway) until some point in the early 1990s.
Diarmaid Ó Muirithe, an invaluable contributor to this newspaper, offered, some years ago, a definitive takedown on this horrible entity.
“The constant Gaelicisation of the good old English/Scottish dialect word crack as craic sets my teeth on edge,” he wrote. “We find advertisements proclaiming ‘music, songs, dancing and craic’; the implication is that craic = boozing and high jinks, great fun as it used to be.”
Mr Ó Muirithe went on to confirm our suspicions and locate uses of good old “crack” in various ancient Scottish and English texts. The word did not escape from Gaelic roots to be ignorantly conflated with that Sassenach onomatopoeia. The reverse is the case. The word first appeared in English, was translated into Irish and then reintroduced to its parent language as a bogus conduit to Celtic authenticity.
There is, of course, no good reason to deride a fellow for using “craic” when writing in English. If he wants to write “Aerfort” for “Airport” or “héileacaptar” for “helicopter” that’s fine too. All languages are awash with foreign influences. The problem is the current insistence that “craic” must be spelt that way and, worse, the deranged implication that it always has been spelt that way. We can forgive people under 40 for believing this. But the older generations that have allowed themselves to be brainwashed have no decent excuse.
Before Italia 90 everybody wrote the word as “crack”. Spelling it that way did not identify you as a Brit or any sort of cultural imperialist. I have proof. I am holding in my hand – well, I am observing on a website, anyway – the cover of Christy Moore’s 1981 album Christy Moore and Friends. Next to a grainy image of the great man, we find the words The Crack was Ninety in the Isle of Man.
Search for the title of Barney Rush’s 1960 song on the internet, however, and you will now be asked whether you mean “The Craic was Ninety.” No, I bloody don’t, Mr Google.
The change is a relic of the peculiar surge of confidence that energised the Irish experience in the 1990s. That World Cup success was a harbinger. The rise of Riverdance was another. I was living in London at the time and – not averse to the odd kilderkin of beer – observed the transformation from a convenient barstool. To this point, you could scarcely imagine a less trendy entity than the Irish pub. Sticky carpets, curled ham sandwiches, Margo on the jukebox: out-of-town carpet warehouses offered more temptations to the urban hipster.
All of a sudden, people in good shoes were voluntarily entering hostelries bedecked with copper kettles, battered road signs and broken bicycle wheels. It was clear that a murky Rubicon had been crossed when my local pub in Kings Cross, hitherto the Charles I, changed its name to the Craic House. There was so much wrong with this. The allusion to establishments where addicts consumed freebase cocaine was, in an area still home to vagrancy and prostitution, not in the best imaginable taste. And then there was this irritating acceptance of a linguistic lie.
Eventually, confidence ebbed. The Charles I became the Charles I again. Jerks in hats moved on to tapas bars. But Riverdance still tours and we’re still expected to celebrate “the craic”. Who will set us free?