Folklore Gaeilge-Béarla – Frank McNally on fear (and loathing) in Anglo-Irish relations

‘Nominative determinism” may or may not be a real factor in the careers people choose (or have chosen for them). But either way, it makes for an entertaining theory.  And the latest example of its possible influence, from the British civil service, is a classic.

According to the London Times, the UK's department for health and social care has just tasked a top bureaucrat with "alleviating public concerns about medical shortages in the event of a no-deal Brexit". His name? Dominic Fear. Which, even if he were not a top bureaucrat, would justify giving him the job. As the Times says, he must surely be known as "Project".

His unusual surname is probably of Norman origin. In France it would be "De Vere", a family whose Irish offshoots included the Limerick-born poet Aubrey De Vere, once admired by Wordsworth.  Somehow the "Vere" turned to "Fear" after crossing the English Channel. There may be a moral in that.



The story reminds me in passing of what may the most strangely named river in Ireland, the "Fear English" in Co Kildare. It's not so much a river as a stream, perhaps, although it also gives its name to a single-span bridge that crosses it near Johnstown.

The Fear English joins the Blackwater nearby, which in turn flows into the Boyne. But it’s not mentioned in the place-name database and I can’t find any explanation for the name, other than the clue from a friend who lives in the area that the “Fear” is locally pronounced “Fair”.

This suggests that while the “English” looks English, the “Fear” is Irish and means “grass” in some form. In that sense, the river may be a cousin of such townlands as “Fear More” in Galway, whose name might sound paranoid to a British tourist but just means “Big Meadow”.


While googling the river, I chanced upon a quasi-scientific website that listed “anglophobia” as a recognised medical condition.

Which it may well be in some places, possibly now including Government Buildings. But I’m not sure if the website’s advice would be much use in treating it.

For all I know, the content was entirely computer-generated, although it starts plausibly enough by defining the disorder as “fear of England or English culture”. Under “symptoms”, however, it begins to sound a bit generic: “ . . . shortness of breath, rapid breathing, irregular heartbeat, sweating [ . . . ], nausea, inability to articulate words or sentences, dry mouth and shaking”.

Then it asks: “Can I take medicine?”

And there follows an even vaguer reply to the effect that, yes, you can, but with caution.No specific tablets are mentioned.

We can but hope that the Irish civil servants preparing for a no-deal Brexit are stocking up on something.

They may not bring sufferers out in an actual rash, but both Anglophobia and Hibernophobia are well attested social phenomena. Wikipedia has extensive sections on each and the contrast is interesting.

Anglophobia is more of a universal condition, for example, affecting people as far away as China.

But while Hibernophobia has a narrower base, mostly Britain and America, it seems to much better supplied with quotations.

Our “ancient and friendly neighbour” (copyright Bruce Arnold) has been insulting us memorably since the days of Giraldus Cambrensis, official apologist to the Norman invasion, who said that Ireland was home to a “filthy people, wallowing in vice”.

Eight centuries later, Margaret Thatcher said we were "all liars".

And somewhere in between, backdating the abuse to prehistory, Benjamin Disraeli, replying in parliament to Daniel O'Connell, said: "Yes, I am a Jew, and when the ancestors of the Right Honourable Gentleman were brutal savages in an unknown island, mine were priests in the Temple of Solomon."


Disraeli was wrong, of course. Around the time of Solomon, as any Horslips fan will know, control of Ireland was disputed by two highly sophisticated races, the Tuatha de Danann and the Fomorians. The former were magicians, who represented light, growth, and civilisation; the former represented chaos, darkness, and death.

Luckily, the Tuatha won, in the process killing the Fomorian leader Balor of the Evil Eye.  And though the victors were driven underground by later invaders, to become the “little people”, their magical influence on growth can still be seen today in Ireland’s annual GDP figures.

The Fomorians, by contrast, are now unheard of, except on the internet. Their latter-day descendants are people haunted by a phobia for which there is no known cure. Wherever they go, they feel they should be somewhere else. Hence the well-known acronym, derived from the opening letters of their name, which means “fear of missing out”.