Britain’s 1984 glossary of Irish politics

Terms explained to diplomats included ‘gubu’, ‘shoneen’ and ‘the men in mohair suits’

Charles Haughey, whose remarks would lead to the coining of the word ‘gubu’. Photograph: Peter Thursfield

Charles Haughey, whose remarks would lead to the coining of the word ‘gubu’. Photograph: Peter Thursfield

Fri, Jan 3, 2014, 01:00

British foreign office officials kept a glossary of Irish terms and phrases in order to help them understand Irish politics and society, it has emerged in the UK state papers for 1984.

The glossary, which was sent from the British embassy in Dublin to the Republic of Ireland department of the foreign office in London, was not classified. However, the diplomat who compiled it stressed that it should not be circulated outside government.


‘Banana republic’
The terms in it included “banana republic”, a moniker used by Ian Paisley to describe the Irish state in 1977. Under this entry, it was also noted that a “more expressive term ‘turnip-republic’ minted by a Dublin journalist never caught on”.

Another was gubu, an acronym coined by Conor Cruise O’Brien that meant “grotesque, unbelievable, bizarre and unprecedented”. O’Brien was paraphrasing a comment by then taoiseach Charles Haughey which referred to the 1982 arrest of a wanted man in the attorney-general’s apartment. The term gubu then came to refer to notorious political scandals. “Whether it survives will depend on whether political life continues to provide examples” of such practice, said the glossary. Beside the entry, another official had written in pen, “Bound to survive, therefore!”

Other entries included “the Matchbox Men” which was said to apply to “a number of Fianna Fáil Ministers who made their fortune on insurance fires” and “the men in Mohair suits”, referring to a new generation of Fianna Fáil TDs in the 1960s.

Other entries included “shoneen” – used for those believed to support British rule or policies in Ireland – and “These Islands”, used to describe the two states: “How else can one describe the British Isles without using the word British?” The word “archipelago” was judged “too tropical”.

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