Kruger, the Kop, and the whole Shebeen – Frank McNally on Irish-South African linguistic exchange

The original Irish sibín meant “a little mug”

It’s a small, ironic legacy of history that when a certain rugby match takes place in Paris this weekend, many in Ireland will go to the pub to see it, while many South Africans will watch it in “shebeens”.

The old Irish name for an unlicensed drinking house migrated south of the equator with emigrants from this island, including soldiers who fought for Britain (mostly) in the Boer Wars. It went gradually native there thanks to the apartheid laws. Now, South Africa may be its true home.

A linguistic exchange from the same era, but in the opposite direction, is the word “Kop” to describe a steep hill or terrace, usually in a football ground. The most famous of many is of course at Liverpool’s Anfield Stadium, although there is also one in Windsor Park, Belfast.

That was where a small invading force of Republic of Ireland fans kept their heads down during an infamous World Cup qualifier 30 years ago, lest they suffer a similar fate to the soldiers who tried to occupy the original hill in January 1900.


The Battle of Spion Kop was a disastrous (for the British) sideshow to the Siege of Ladysmith, where so many from this country died that Queen Victoria lamented in a telegram “my brave Irish soldiers”.

Spion Kop was also notable for the non-fighting involvement of two young men whose names would later be writ large in history. Winston Churchill covered it as a war correspondent. Mohandas Gandhi (not yet known as Mahatma) was a stretcher bearer.

Among other visitors to the grim battle scene, three days later, was a group including John MacBride, who had led an Irish Brigade to South Africa to fight with the Boers.

“... [W]e were profoundly impressed with the horror of the spectacle,” he wrote later, “whilst we almost became physically sick at the abominable stench which arose from the numberless half-buried corpses, whose positions were firmly indicated by numerous legs protruding up through the soft clay of the kop. It was an appalling and a disgusting scene, from which we hurried away as quickly as possible.”

Monuments to the Irish dead there and elsewhere in the Second Boer War include the Fusiliers’ Arch at St Stephen’s Green, Dublin, built in 1907.

That tribute goes over the heads of many, literally and figuratively, since the names are inscribed on the arch’s underside But it was not lost on the nationalists of the period and afterwards, who called it “Traitors’ Gate”.

Writing here only last week, I mentioned “Kruger” Kavanagh, a famous shebeen operator in Kerry whose belated application for a licence was a sub-plot in Patrick Kavanagh’s love affair with Hilda Moriarty, now immortalised by the ballad Raglan Road. He was so nicknamed because of his vociferous support for the Boer statesman Paul Kruger, who led resistance against the British. But a wider linguistic legacy of the era was a tendency for Irish nationalists to name their dogs “Kruger”.

In a 1965 letter to the Meath Chronicle, an elderly resident of Navan recalled a period circa 1904 when “almost every household had a dog named ‘Kruger’ or ‘Cronje’ after the Boer leaders”.

It was a popular choice for sheepdogs and Kerry Blue terriers (a favourite of nationalists in rivalry to the Irish wolfhound, which was tainted by association with British army regiments and big houses).

Tom Clarke, who in 1916 would be executed in the same week as MacBride, once wrote in a letter to his son of a big black dog owned by “Granny” Clarke: “His name is Kruger because he doesn’t like the English.”

Getting back to shebeens, the original Irish sibín meant “a little mug” and once also referred to a measure of varying quantity, between two and three quarts, as levied in grain tax. From this came shebeen meaning both “weak small-beer” and the premises in which such drink was served.

Shebeen is therefore a cousin of cruiskeen/cruiscín (“little jug”), as in Cruiskeen Lawn, of ballad and literary fame. Another, lesser-known member the family, meanwhile, is Tadhgeen (“little Tim”).

There will be two Tadhgs playing for Ireland on Saturday night. But neither of those is a Tadgheen, in any sense – except perhaps when measured against the man mountains of South Africa.

As for the drinking Tadhgeen, although the name never left Ireland, its biblical origins might well be quoted in a South African shebeen somewhere, given that it promotes the supposed health benefits of moderate alcohol intake.

The reference is to a line from St Paul’s first epistle to Timothy, who was on a mission to Ephesus at the time and suffering from digestion problems. “Drink no longer water,” Paul advised him, “but use a little wine for thy stomach’s sake and thine often infirmities.”