Diminished responsibility – Frank McNally on the lesser-seen Tadhgeen

An Irishman’s Diary

Further to our discussion of the male name’s revival in popularity (Diary, March 24th), I don’t know if there are any female Tadhgs out there too. If there are, according to the usual rule of Irish diminutives, they’d be Taidhgíns. As, I suppose, would be junior versions of the Tadhgs Furlong and Beirne.

But whatever about being a name, taidhgín is also a word in parts of Ireland, as one of my regular correspondents learned many years ago when accompanying his father – a GP – on house calls in Kerry.  During one memorable visit, near Tralee, the doctor was asked if he would like a "Tadhgeen". This turned out to be a small glass of whiskey, neat, which he accepted gratefully.

Sure enough, the word is in Dinneen’s Irish-English dictionary, as taidhgín, “a small vessel” or “vesselful”.

Dinneen gives a sober example of its usage, involving only “milk”. But as my correspondent writes, the term’s origins involve both alcohol and religion, courtesy of a Biblical Tadhg, the apostle Timothy.

He was preaching in Epheusus when St Paul’s first epistle to him there (1 Timothy 23) included this controversial medical advice: “Drink no longer water, but use a little wine for thy stomach’s sake and thine often infirmities.”

Biblical scholars qualify this by explaining that, contrary to appearances, Paul was not advising him to avoid water. Apparently, he meant he should avoid drinking water only.

Timothy had been living a teetotal life, for good example, but was ravaged with stomach problems. Paul was suggesting he drink some wine as well, to mitigate the Ephesus water supply’s harmful effects.

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Meghan Markle can be considered a Tadhgeen, of sorts, as another correspondent reminds me. You may recall that last year, news emerged of her Irish ancestry, via two great-great-great grandparents who were married in a church in Donnybrook, Dublin, in 1860.

Well, the female half of that match was a Belfast catholic, Mary McCague. And as my emailer – another McCague, from the Monaghan branch – points out, that surname, being Mac (or Nic) Thaidhg in the Irish, is one of many derivatives of Tadhg.

Other anglicisations, like MacTeague, are more obvious. But the MacCaugue pronunciation is a logical result of the lenition of the opening consonant in “Thaidhg”.Thus, Meghan is the descendant of a Belfast “Taig”, as they pronounce it there. It’s just that her ancestral “T” is silent (although probably now briefing US media off the record). This explains everything.

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A reader in Germany recalls that during the Rugby World Cup, a commentator there had to explain to listeners that Tadhg Furlong's forename was pronounced as in the German word for "dough"; ie "teig", but added that, if anyone met an Irish prop forward of that name, it would be "inadvisable to tell him this while laughing".

I don’t know – he’d probably have heard worse. After all, even when not being confused with German bread mixture, the name has a long history of used as an ethnic insult.

I mentioned here recently Thomas Wharton, a former viceroy to Ireland (circa 1709) who built an enormous star-fort, "Wharton's Folly" in the Phoenix Park. The fort is long demolished. But one of his longer-lasting legacies were the lyrics of the Orange ballad Lilliburlero, an anti-Catholic satire from 1686 that begins with the words "Ho, brother Teague".

A century later, “Teague” had crossed the Atlantic to be used in similar spirit during a famous court case of 1770 in which British soldiers were charged with killing five civilians (one of them an Irishman called Patrick Carr) during a protest in Boston.

The massacre is now seen as a prelude to the American Revolution, so it's ironic that the soldiers were defended by John Adams, a future US president, and that he lampooned the protestors as "a motley rabble of saucy boys, negroes and molattoes, Irish Teagues and outlandish jack tars".

Against that, the T-word was adopted and used autobiographically once by Jonathan Swift, albeit with a slightly pained air.

In a letter to an English friend in 1734, he wrote: “As to my native country (as you call it), I happened indeed by a perfect accident to be born here […] and I was a year old before I was sent to England; and thus I am a Teague, or an Irishman, or what people please, although the best part of my life was in England.”

But then there is our old friend Dinneen again, associating even the diminutive Taidhgín with ill repute.

As well as meaning a “small vesselful”, he notes the word’s use in a popular proverb.

In English, he wrote, it meant “one rogue understands another”.

In Irish, it was “Tuigeann Tadhg Taidhgín”.