Daly Star – Frank McNally on the origins of Ally Daly, Betty Martin and other etymological mysteries

A synonym for nonsense, a mark of excellence and a guarantor of authenticity

During the calm before the famous Christmas dinner row in Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist, the child narrator admires the plump turkey on the table and recalls how it was chosen: “He knew that his father had paid a guinea for it in Dunn’s of D’Olier Street and that the man had prodded it often at the breastbone to show how good it was: and he remembered the man’s voice when he had said: ‘Take that one, sir. That’s the real Ally Daly.’”

But who was the real Ally Daly, originally? No one seems to know now, except that she was female and that, in Ireland, she may have predated even the real McCoy as a guarantor of authenticity.

Green’s Dictionary of Slang suggests the prototype was an Alice Daley, noted butter maker of the early 19th century. If so, her cult endured well into the 20th, albeit with occasional name changes.

Joyce’s mention is from 1916. By 1942 Sean O’Casey had a character praising somebody as the real “Annie” Daly, while in 1969, novelist Patrick Boyle transformed her to Ally “Dooley”.


In between, Brendan Behan remembered her as Joyce did. He also added an extra layer to the definition: “ ... the real Ally Daly, the goat’s genolickers”. There’s another word you don’t hear much any more, if you ever did.

The Ally Daly mark of excellence appears to have fallen out of use in the later decades of the last century, although Green also quotes one incidence from the Munster Express as recently as 2008: “By God Woman, you’re the real ally daley, what an absolute dinger.”

Maybe her fame lingers in southern counties to this day. But writing in 1995, not even The Irish Times’s late “Words We Use” columnist Diarmaid Ó Muirithe could shed any light of her origins.


Neither could Tery Dolan, whose Dictionary of Hiberno English has nothing on her. Mind you, near the place where she should be, Dolan does feature the equally mysterious “Andrew Martins”, a man once synonymous with trickery and acting the fool.

We don’t know who he was either, assuming he was anyone in particular. Dolan suggests a link with Andrewmass, the Feast of St Andrew on November 30th, when tomfoolery may have been general.

But the expression seems to have been especially popular in Leinster once. And if there was an original Andrew Martin or Martins, the name became merged into a single word at some point, typically spelt as Andramartins.

Hence a mention in an 1894 story in which a character warns: “Don’t think your andramartins can be carried out unknownst to everyone.” Joyce, inevitably, uses it too, with variations, in Finnegans Wake.

Any link with Andrew Mehrtens, however, a deeply serious rugby player who made 70 appearances for the All Blacks’ between 1995 and 2004, can probably be ruled out.


While we’re at it, I don’t suppose Andrew Martin was related to Betty of the same surname, an obscure figure who for long served an almost opposite role to Ally Daly: being a synonym for nonsense.

Hence the first mention I saw of her, in a column by Myles na gCopaleen when he dismissed something as being “all my eye and Betty Martin”.

But the phrase has been around since the 1700s and has been the subject of folk etymologies, including a theory that it might be the corruption of a Latin prayer: “Ah! [Da] mihi, beate Martine” (Ah! Grant to me, blessed Martin”).

Alas, nobody has traced the alleged original of the prayer, so that’s probably all my eye, too.

Another possibility, advanced by a classicist, is that it derived from an even more ancient invocation: O mihi, Brito Martis.

This involved a goddess from Crete whose cult was popular with the Phoenicians and could have been exported to these parts via the tin trade with Cornish Celts.


I don’t know about that. But while researching the phrase a while back, I found the website of an American Betty Martin, no apparent relation although perhaps worthy of a cult in her own right.

Her work is not all my eye, or anyone’s. On the contrary, it involves the human anatomy as a whole. She describes herself as “a chiropractor, a Body Electric School-trained Sacred Intimate, certified sexological bodyworker, Foundations of Facilitation trainer, and a self-propelled erotic adventurer and intimacy coach”.

Complicated as that all sounds, it comes down to an understanding of “the nature of touch”. She explains: “I’m one of those lucky people who grew up in the touch-y feel-y hippie years. Then I got serious and learned to touch with clear intent.”

Support activities featured on Dr Martin’s website include a “cuddle party”, which sounds interesting. Such a thing could have therapeutic benefits even in this country, where the concept of being “touched” typically involves either (a) insanity or (b) somebody asking you for a loan.

But a cuddle party could also give some people here the wrong idea. Even in Seattle, they need to clarify: “Not a sexual event.”