In a Word: Tory

One person’s heroic raparee is another’s uncivilised plunderer

I’ve been taken to task. When discussing the multi-meaning ‘grand’ here last month I referred to Irish words that have gone on to enrich the English language. Such as ‘Tory’, which I described as “that most offensive word . . . from the Irish ‘toraidhe’, for a plunderer.”

I was, of course, being very political there, not feeling particularly well disposed to Britain’s current Tory or Conservative Party.

A reader disagreed with my translation of the word as 'plunderer'. "Not so, quite the opposite," he said. "In old Ireland cattle raiding, or creach, was very common. The word being 'creach', (for) plunder, creachadoir, for plunderer." My kind interrogator continued that "in actual fact Torai was the owner in pursuit, trying to get them back, the cattle from the toir".

Tories were also known as raparees, as he said, and existed in the 1650s when Leinster and Munster men, who refused to go to hell or to Connacht at Cromwell's bidding, took to the mountains, bogs and forests and harassed the planters and soldiers of the occupiers.

Bless them. Nowadays Leinster and Munster men prefer instead to take lumps out of one another on the rugby pitch, with both sides still resisting attempts to get them to Connacht.

What our reader highlights is the huge significance of perspective when it comes to words, too. One person’s heroic raparee is another’s uncivilised plunderer. Last month I opted for the latter as appropriate for members of Britain’s current Tory party. And I am unanimous in that, as Mrs Slocombe used say in the TV series Are You Being Served?

Further research has allowed me establish that we Irish peasantry used the word Tory as an offensive term well into the 19th century. Why should we stop there?

It was first used in England during the 16th and 17th centuries to describe those of our dispossessed ancestors who took to the woods, formed bands (no, no, no, not like U2!) surviving on wild animals and stuff robbed from settlers who had taken their lands.

What’s not to like, if you’re Irish and not allowed in the parlour?

Indeed, does it not seem offensive to all who went before us that the word is used today to describe Britain’s Conservative party?

What a falling off is there!

Tory, from the Irish toruidhe or toruighe, `to pursue' or `to hunt'.

Patsy McGarry

Patsy McGarry

Patsy McGarry is Religious Affairs Correspondent of The Irish Times