How Ireland got Fluthered – Frank McNally on Seán O’Casey’s real and fictional Fluther Good

A day in court

Following “in the footsteps of Seán O’Casey” – it was the name of an actual walking tour – last Saturday, I found myself wondering at the origin of the term “fluthered”, one of Ireland’s countless euphemisms for “drunk”.

Not that any of the participants in the walk were intoxicated, except with the fascinating information provided by our guide Joe Mooney, of the East Wall History Group.

What set me thinking about the f-word was of course Fluther Good, one of O’Casey’s best-known dramatic creations but also – and not to be mistaken for the character, as a libel case eventually heard – the name of a real-life resident of the area.

The fictional Fluther was often fluthered, or at least spent much of his life in and around pubs. The real-life Fluther (who had been baptised John) enjoyed a drink too. And you might therefore assume the nickname to be of alcoholic derivation.


Except that, thanks to Percy French, we already had “Phil the Fluther”, named for his vocation as a flute-player.

And besides, as a term for inebriation, the f-word only ever occurs in the past tense. You can never be in the process of fluthering, for example, even in Ireland. The condition has always happened already.

But in his Dictionary of Hiberno-English, not even the late Terry Dolan could explain where “fluthered” came from. “Origin obscure,” he says, before nevertheless including “O’Casey’s character Fluther Good” as a reference of possible interest.

As we learned on Saturday, the character was a composite of at least two real people. One was O’Casey’s brother Mick, who supplied much of the vocabulary for the stage persona and who, attending the play in the Abbey, turned to his neighbour and said: “That’s me.”

The character’s name, however, was already well known around the Dublin docklands. Indeed, O’Casey had been advised against using it in The Plough and the Stars but liked it too much to leave out.

And when the real-life John “Fluther” Good also attended the play, his reaction was more like “That’s not me”, to the extent that he wanted to sue for libel.

Wiser counsel (of the kind not paid by the hour) prevailed then. But as the fictional Fluther was known to say: “It’s my rule never to lose me temper till it would be dethrimental to keep it.”

And a few years later, after Hollywood turned the play into a movie, the flesh-and-blood Good finally had his day in court, thanks to Barry Fitzgerald.

During a promotional interview for another film, in 1937, Fitzgerald boasted to Manchester’s Sunday Chronicle that his debut role as Fluther, “a boozy old Dublin wag”, had been based on a real character.

“I knew him well – the original,” he added. “When I played him first on the Dublin stage he threatened the law on me, but we patched up the row most amicably, and he was upset when the play finally wound up.”

Lawyers for the real-life Fluther now argued that in the eyes of Dubliners, surprising numbers of whom apparently read the Chronicle, their client had been portrayed as a “disreputable character and dissolute drunkard”.

Among the witnesses produced was a wholesale wine merchant named Treacy, who testified that he had been sitting with a friend “in the lounge of a golf club” when the friend handed him a copy of the newspaper.

He had immediately recognised the reference to his long-time acquaintance, Mr Good, “a very respectable person, whose conversation was most interesting owing to his fund of reminiscences of old Dublin and the number of interesting people [he knew], including Mr Sean O’Casey”.

Neither the Chronicle nor Barry Fitzgerald were represented in Dublin. “They are ridiculing this man from long range,” said Good’s counsel, to which the sceptical judge responded: “I am sure he loves it.”

The court also heard that Mr Good did not seek big damages, wanting merely “to put an end to the exploitation of him as the original character in the play”. And sceptical or not, the judge found in his favour, awarding £25 plus costs.

The real-life Fluther was a carpenter by trade, working for the Nugents, a big horse-racing family from East Wall who lived in a house called “Seaview” (still standing, although long since deprived of the view).

Speaking of which, I have discovered since Saturday that “fluther” is a collective term for jellyfish. One possible derivation for that is “flutter”, which used to mean to be “tossed by waves, to float to and fro”. So perhaps it is via forgotten maritime origins that Irish people get “fluthered”, a condition common in seaports like Dublin, although by no means confined to the coast.