Bad-drop mechanism – Frank McNally on a mysterious genetic inheritance
An Irishman’s Diary
Constance Markievicz: her version of the “bad drop” was a very particular one
It’s a while since I’ve heard the phrase, long used in Ireland to explain bad behaviour by individuals or entire families, that he/she/they had “a bad drop in them”. In fact, in a scan of the archives, I find that the last recorded use of it in this newspaper was by, er, me, in a 2012 column: “A History of Ireland in 100 Excuses”.
But as I was reminded again this week, it was also invoked on one memorable occasion by Countess Markievicz. And that occasion was doubly unique in that, departing from the usual tradition of diagnosing the bad drop only in other people, she identified it in herself.
The incident is recorded in a new book called The Treaty: Debating and Establishing the Irish State, by Liam Weeks and Mícheál Ó Fathartaigh, which notes her suggestion in a 1922 Dáil exchange that she should have been sent to London as part of the Treaty negotiating team, because she was more equipped, genetically, to see through the other side’s deceptions.
Or as she put it: “[...]you all know me, you know that my people came here in Henry VIII’s time, and by that bad black drop of English blood in me I know the English – that’s the truth. I say it is because of the black drop in me that I know the English personally, better perhaps than the people who went over on the delegation.”
The claim was greeted with “laughter”, a rare light moment in debates on the period. But if the countess was being serious, it was too late by then anyway. The treaty had just been passed, and the opposing sides were heading for Civil War.
Her version of the bad drop was a very particular one, with what we might now consider racist overtones. The supposed origins of such drops are usually vaguer in Irish conversation, and thereby all the more powerful in explaining why your ne’er-do-well neighbours turned out as they did.
Still, in none of its forms does the phrase seem to have made it into Terry Dolan’s Dictionary of Hiberno-English. Nor can I find it in Dineen’s usually all-embracing Foclóir Gaedhilge agus Béarla, although in another online resource, I have located the Irish word drochríd, exemplified by the sentence: “Tá drochríd ann, there is a bad drop in him.”
No doubt advances in DNA screening will eventually eradicate the bad drop
Tracing the expression in journalism or literature is in any case complicated by the prevalence of others kinds of bad drop, a surprisingly flexible combination of words.
You can have a “bad drop” in several different sports, including rugby, golf, and mountaineering. The phrase also occurs in connection with alcohol. Less predictably, I have found it featuring in old court reports about the once common crime of milk sellers adulterating their product with water.
Back in the area of adulterated humanity, meanwhile, the concept featured in a 1983 Dictionary of Cork Slang. Unfortunately I don’t have that book, so I don’t know if the definition added to our knowledge of the mysterious condition.
The phrase merited only passing mention in a report of the launch by Irish Times correspondent Dick Hogan, who in a near-Joycean summary of the book’s contents, wrote: “If you don’t know what waxin’ up a Gaza is in the first place, there’s a bad drop in you and the best thing to do would be to get the lops out of the diddlum, slip on the rubber dollies, forget about the lashers in pana, make sure the pawney isn’t on the way and hope against hope that someone doesn’t put the cawhake on you.”
No doubt advances in DNA screening will eventually eradicate the bad drop, which I have always assumed to afflict only Irish people. But I may be wrong about that last part, because one of the other places the phrase occurs sporadically is in 19th-century archives of the Spectator, a quintessentially English magazine.
In an 1864 article about the aristocratic Somerset family, for example, it delved even further into English history than Countess Markievicz: back to the War of the Roses. Ancestors of the Somersets were said to have conspired once with “Irish Catholic rebels” but in more recent generations had been sound “Tories”, albeit devoted mainly to the “sustained magnificence of their stately lives”.
The article is long, and difficult to follow. But at the end, happily, the Spectator concludes that the family’s character had remained fairly consistent over four centuries and could now be summed up in ten words: “The Somersets are Plantagenets with a bad drop in them.”