An Irishman's Diary


EVEN in these dire times, the word “boycott” continues to be a source of national pride. It is now all of 130 years since it began life as a humble noun/verb start-up, located unpromisingly in impoverished rural Mayo. Despite which, it has gone on to become one of our most enduring exports.

If anything, its popularity is still growing. In the past week alone, Sudan was reported to have boycotted the EU/Africa summit; at least 18 different countries were planning to boycott the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony; and combining politics with sport – an area in which the word has fared especially well – left-wingers in Israel were calling for a boycott of the inaugural Jerusalem marathon next year.

Which just goes to show that if you give the world something it needs, attractively presented and packaged, repeat business is all but guaranteed.

But consider by contrast the fate of another noun-verb, also a surname, that this country once offered to the world and that, a mere 80 years ago, seemed to have a similarly bright future. I refer of course to the word “Jinks”, derived from the eponymous Sligo TD John, who made global headlines in 1927 by saving the Cumann na nGaedheal government.

The story is well known. In the wake of the assassination of Kevin O’Higgins, the ruling party had forced Fianna Fáil’s entry into the Dáil, thereby threatening its own majority. A no-confidence motion was duly tabled, and with the support of FF, Labour, and others, looked likely to succeed; leading to the formation, without an election, of a new government.

The numbers were tight up until the last minute. But Alderman Jinks, a vestige of Parnell’s old Irish party, quietly absented himself from the Dáil chamber shortly before the division, which was tied 71-71, allowing the Ceann Comhairle’s casting vote to save the administration.

The alderman’s immediate notoriety was no doubt helped by a colourful surname, to which was added the colourful circumstances attributed to his abstention. Specifically, two Sligo friends, including the Irish Timeseditor RM Smyllie, were rumoured to have conspired in his absence. Decades later, even that most sober of historians, FSL Lyons, was still speculating “as to whether they achieved this result by an excellent luncheon which the alderman was obliged to sleep off in his hotel, or whether they simply sent him home on the next train to Sligo”.

The truth may have been more prosaic. Jinks was inclined to vote for the government anyway, but his party leadership had instructed him differently. Thus, excellent luncheon or not, he was conflicted. Besides, based on known voting intentions, he had reason to think that the no-confidence motion would carry, regardless of his actions.

But in the event, his abstention proved pivotal. And amid relief in establishment circles that Fianna Fáil’s ascension to power had been postponed (for five years, as it happened), the Sunday Independentreported that Mr Jinks had “won immortality”.

So it must have seemed. In fact, the term to “do a jinks”, meaning to absent oneself at a key moment, did enjoy a certain currency for a while. And their shared Connacht ancestry apart, “jinks” and “boycott” would have made natural companions: both of them describing an action that is, essentially, the absence of action, but in different degrees.

The problem was that the English language already had a “jinks” and, for good measure, a “jinx” too. Not only that, but in their broadest sense, those two words already seemed to have Ireland’s 1927 political crisis well covered.

The verb “to jinx”, meaning “to bring bad luck” on something, most likely derives from a famous Vaudeville song of the 1860s: Captain Jinks and the Horse Marines, which was about an incompetent soldier.

Which incompetent soldier may have taken his name from the once-popular dice game, High Jinks: a key point of which was that the losers had to consume alcohol. And that title in turn probably derived from the Scottish verb, to jink, meaning to move in an unexpected or elusive manner.

Thus the name “John Jinks” was itself a sentence, describing – albeit loosely – what the deputy for Sligo did on that fateful day in 1927, with indirect references to the bringing of bad luck (on the no-confidence motion), and even to the consumption of alcohol. No wonder his name was not considered a necessary addition to the English language.

Worse still, from the point of view of any Dáil members who, even now, may be considering a similar bid for glory, Jinks lost his seat in the next election, which followed only three months later. And in the absence of a lexicographical monument, the Sligo man had to settle for a temporary tribute in another sphere.

As FSL Lyons put it: “Mr Jinks, his moment of fame fulfilled, passed from the political stage, though not entirely from memory, since his name was carried for several years by a very successful racehorse.”