At Home and Away with the Fairies – An Irishman’s Diary on the globalisation of a Hiberno-English phrase

Illustration: iStock

Illustration: iStock

 

I see from a recent feature in the Spectator that one of my favourite Hiberno-English phrases has gone truly global. It featured in a column headlined “The real Russian housewives of Knightsbridge”, which contrasted fictional portrayals in McMafia and other dramas with a real-life interviewee named Tatyana.  

About the latter, in passing, the writer noted: “She insists that we speak English, and likes to pepper her diction with idioms such as ‘Forgive me, I am away at the fairies today’.”

Of course, as all Irish people will know, the “at” there is wrong: it should be “with”.  

Small as this seems, the difference is crucial.  

Somehow, to be “at the fairies” sounds harmless. Like being “at the hairdressers”, it’s a thing you might do for the afternoon and return only superficially altered, if at all.

To be away “with” the fairies, by contrast, is much more ominous. It portends a level of personal transformation that not even a celebrity hairdresser, charging Knightsbridge prices, would promise.

In the legend’s most common version, it’s a child who goes away and a “changeling” in the child’s physical likeness that remains. This is all the more eerie because the departing one, entranced, may seem to leave voluntarily, as in a classic Yeats treatment, from 1886: 

“Away with us he’s going,/The Solemn-eyed:/He’ll hear no more the lowing/Of the calves on the warm hillside [...]For he comes, the human child,/To the waters and the wild/With a faery, hand in hand,/From a world more full of weeping than he can understand.”

Elaborating on the subject then, Yeats mentioned a rocky place near Rosses Point where, “if anyone falls asleep, there is a danger of their waking silly, the fairies having carried off their souls”.

I’m not sure how well the poem translates into Russian, but the general concept should not be entirely foreign there.  

McMafia aside, the other backdrop to the Spectator feature was the recent tendency of adult Russians, and sometimes their children, to have mysterious spells cast upon them, from which they may wake up silly, or worse.

***

When I was a child – to change the subject, but only slightly – I once went through a phase that involved what might now be diagnosed as a mild obsessive compulsive disorder but that used to cause my mother to look at me with concern and say that if I carried on like that in public, people would think I was “bothered”.

It was never clear what was meant by this, but I now realise she was implying that I too might be considered away with the fairies. And it turns out that the word “bother”, in its Irish sense, can indeed carry such an implication.

In fact, long before Catherine Tate anglicised it in a catchphrase (“Am I bovvered?”), “bother” was pure Hiberno-English. The Oxford English Dictionary calls it of “origin unknown”, but notes it was first recorded by such 18th-century writers as “Sheridan, Swift, Sterne”, and suggests a link with the Irish bothaire (literally “deafness”).

Patrick Dinneen, meanwhile, in his Irish-English dictionary, has added “mental confusion” to the definitions of bothaire. So presumably, fairies can again be implicated.

As for being “away with” them, that expression appears not to have made it into printed English until the 20th century, becoming popular in the 1980s.

One online etymologist traces the earliest example to a New Zealand newspaper in 1909, although that report was from an Irish murder case in which the defendant, one Michael Coyne, invoked a supernatural alibi.

When his victim’s sister discovered the body, Coyne told her not to worry because “that is not him you see there”.

The sister understood this to mean “her brother was away with the fairies”.

Sure enough, that same case features in this newspaper’s archive for 1909. The original incident had been in Connemara, which along with the rest of Connacht, seems to have been a hotbed of fairy activity then.  

In a less serious case, at Tuam petty sessions, a milk vendor was prosecuted for fraudulent diluting. She admitted to putting “three drops” of water in the milk, as custom demanded: “Otherwise the butter would be taken away by the fairies”. But the court heard the water content was “18 per cent” and fined her a shilling.

As for the murder case, the fairy defence was not accepted there either. Coyne, who had been jailed before, was convicted of manslaughter. Pleading for leniency, counsel suggested his client had been away with a different kind of spirit. As summarised, he blamed the incident on “the awful whiskey they made in Connemara”.

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