Hoor You To Talk? – An Irishman’s Diary about unparliamentary language

The recent national outbreak of people saying "bollocks", in the Leinster House canteen and elsewhere, has prompted some readers to recall another famous exchange of unparliamentary language, from 50 years ago.

In that case, it centred on the word "hoor", as it's usually spelt in Ireland. And another difference is that the exchange happened in the actual Dáil chamber, and is therefore preserved for all eternity by the record of the house.

Concerning the choice of short stories then being taught on the Inter Cert English curriculum, the debate pitted a reforming minister for education Donogh O'Malley, from Fianna Fáil, against the ultra-conservative Fine Gael TD, Oliver J Flanagan.

Among other things, Flanagan was objecting to the words "bastard" and "bugger", both of which occurred as quoted speech in Frank O'Connor's story Guests of the Nation. But as part of the defence, O'Malley argued that, in Ireland, such words were rarely used in "their legal sense". On the contrary, he said, they often expressed nothing more than "mild, vulgar opprobrium", and sometimes not even that.


Taking his cue from the fact that O’Connor had prefixed both with the adjective “poor”, the Minister argued that the main effect was to convey “sympathy”. On which note, the following immortal Dáil exchange occurred.

O’Malley: “[...]I think the Deputy will agree with that. In the south of Ireland, if one said: ‘John fell down a cliff, and the poor hoor was killed’” –

Flanagan: “If he is a poor bastard or a poor hoor, he is still a bastard or a hoor.”

O’Malley: “If Deputy Flanagan were down in the south of Ireland at a by-election, pulled up at the side of the road and was told ‘John fell down a cliff and the poor hoor was killed’ –

Flanagan: “I would say: ‘Lord have mercy on him’.”

O’Malley: “The Deputy would say rightly: ‘The Lord have mercy on him’. He would not start slagging [anyone] for using that type of language. He would say: ‘The poor hoor, Lord have mercy on him’.”

Flanagan: “I would not. I would leave out ‘poor hoor’.”

Elsewhere in the debate, Flanagan complained that Inter Cert students were being taught a vocabulary more suited to a "low-class pitch and toss school". But his objections also extended to a work by Sean O'Faoláin, The Trout, in which it was not the language itself, but the plot's alleged suggestiveness, that troubled him. He then read an extract from the story, in which a 12-year-old girl fishes a trout, with her hands, out of a well, in a dark tunnel, at night.

Sigmund Freud might well have been interested in the case, but the Irish minister for education circa 1967 professed himself mystified as to what sinister meaning anyone could deduce.

Instead, being a graduate of a higher-class pitch and toss school, O’Malley lectured Flanagan in French: “Honi soit qui mal y pense” (“Evil be to him who evil thinks”).

In pronunciation, at least, "hoor" can be considered Queen's English. Not the current queen, of course: Elizabeth I, I mean. According to Terence Dolan's Hiberno-English Dictionary, "hoor" is  how "whore" was commonly pronounced in England during the 16th and 17th centuries.

While retaining the old pronunciation, by contrast, the Irish "hoor" gradually broadened its meaning, "from 'prostitute', to refer to any person, male or female, who is corrupt". Now, paradoxically, 'hoor' as an insult is almost exclusively reserved for men, although as Donogh O'Malley noted, it's not always pejorative. His Dáil audience in 1967 would almost certainly have included a number of "cute hoors", a backhanded compliment to anyone so described. But as Terry Dolan points out, you can also be a "dacent [decent] hoor" in Ireland, which is an entirely honourable condition.

Something you don't want to be, ever, is "the two ends of a hoor". That's a phrase used in among other places Patrick Kavanagh's novel Tarry Flynn.

And Kavanagh clearly enjoyed the word. In a second citation from Dolan's dictionary, Hugh Leonard recalls him referring to somebody as a "British whoo-err!", thus spelt to convey the full flavour of the Inniskeen accent.

As readers may know, Kavanagh and O'Malley were rivals in love once. The mutual object of their affections was a Kerry medical student called Hilda Moriarty. But faced with a choice between a penniless, rough-edged Monaghan farmer-poet and a wealthy, suave, Clongowes-educated future minister, she inexplicably chose the latter. Kavanagh was heartbroken (the poor hoor), and poured his feelings into a now-classic ballad, Raglan Road.