Festooned with Saxons – Frank McNally on the mysterious origins of a famous sporting phrase

An Irishman’s Diary

Now that “Saxons” has been dropped as the name for English rugby’s A team, being deemed insufficiently inclusive, I wonder if a related and much-loved phrase from Irish rugby circles will also finally have to be consigned to the museum.

It might be there already because I haven't heard it much in recent years. But that may be partly a reflection of the slicker game Ireland have played in the professional era. For the phrase could only ever be used of a particular kind of score against England, now perhaps out of fashion.

The move had to involve brute force rather than speed or trickery. A prolonged but inevitable surge towards the try-line was also preferable. Above all, the player scoring had to have at least two, preferably more, English players hanging out of him by the end. Then and only then could he be said to have crossed the line “festooned with Saxons”.

The phrase is at least 120 years old. If it were a building, it would be listed for preservation. And the original is usually (if wrongly, it seems, but we’ll come back to that) attributed to one JJ “Jacques” McCarthy, a colourful journalist of the 1880s and 90s.

But whether his or not, it long outlived him. I first heard it almost a century later, in 1982, of a glorious occasion in Twickenham when Ireland’s Gerry “Ginger” McLoughlin scored in the manner prescribed. It was widely agreed afterwards that an official festooning of Saxons had occurred.

Why JJ McCarthy was called "Jacques", I can't say. But it was also sometimes written (by James Joyce among others) as "Jakes". And whatever he was called, he seems to have been quite the character.

His career coincided with an era when Ireland’s three footballing codes were in their infancy. McCarthy’s loyalties were with the oval ball. His favourite themes included the supposed violence of the GAA, which led him to note approvingly once that Croke Park was located midway between the Mater hospital and Glasnevin cemetery.

As for the “Associationists” – soccer administrators – his main accusations were incompetence and financial irregularity. He may have been ahead of his time on that one, although the national HQ was in Belfast then, where, as he put it: “they form a body that would be as difficult to convict of professionalism as it would be for them to prove that they are amateurs”.

In fairness, he insulted rugby too on occasion. Departing from his own scheme of prejudices, for example, he once lamented the injury of an Irish international “who was unable to play through being kicked on the knee, at practice, by an ignoramus of a medical student”.

He must also sometimes have wished that our rugby teams had more of the GAA’s alleged thuggery. Of Scotland’s domination in the early fixtures against Ireland, he complained that the Scots were not just bigger and stronger, “they are also very rough”.

But describing Ireland's first win in the fixture, at a surprisingly dry Ravenhill in Belfast ("when by some as yet unexplained miracle, the amphibious inhabitants of the Northern Athens were favoured with a fairly fine day"), he suggested the visitors had been out-thugged: "They competed fiercely, but when Spunner and 'big' Jock Graham had gotten black eyes and a certain hot Scotsman had come second-best out of an independent boxing match with David Browning, milder methods were adopted."

It’s no surprise to learn that McCarthy also dabbled in creative writing. He contributed to Dublin stage shows, including pantomimes, and even some of the stuff he wrote as journalism blurred the boundaries between reportage and fiction.

As for his best-known supposed line, it was the subject of a prolonged correspondence in this newspaper’s as long ago as 1926 and the controversy has surfaced periodically since. Several letter writers pronounced with certainty that it was McCarthy’s while a bewildering range of players were cited as his inspiration.

But the most authoritative verdict was by the then Irish Times editor, Bertie Smyllie, in 1953, who said he had inherited the knowledge from his predecessor. Both insisted it was written by a Mick Manning, of the Evening Telegraph. The original festoonee was a Mike Ryan, playing at Lansdowne Road in "about 1900".

McCarthy died in 1901. And the misattributed quotation aside, his fame as a newspaper man also earned mention in Ulysses. The scatological element of his name may have been part of the appeal for James Joyce, who liked to mix the sacred and profane. Thus, in the book’s Freeman’s Journal scene, the editor asks Joyce’s alter ego to write something controversial. “Put us all into it, damn its soul,” he says: “Father, son and Holy Ghost and Jakes M’Carthy.”