Irishman’s Diary about swearing: Impatience of a saint

We are not short of religious swearwords in this country but I was excited to learn another one: ‘mudebroth’

Samuel L Jackson, a top snake-wrangler and “mudebroth”, as St Patrick might have called him.

Samuel L Jackson, a top snake-wrangler and “mudebroth”, as St Patrick might have called him.

 

As the acting Taoiseach Enda Kenny demonstrated in Washington, we’re not short of religious swearwords in this country, or of a willingness to use them. Even so, I was excited this week to learn of a new one, and from a source rather higher-placed than Mr Kenny: St Patrick.

The revelation came via a very entertaining website called Strong Language, which describes itself as “a sweary blog about swearing”, but brings an academic approach to the subject, thanks to such editors as Stan Carey, a self-described “lapsed biologist”.

The blog’s offering for St Patrick’s Day (from a contributor named Vox Hiberionacum) was “mudebroth!”, an oath said to have been uttered more than once by the holy man himself.  

It’s a contraction of three Brittonic words: “mo”, “de”, and “broth”, meaning “my”, “God” and “judgement”, respectively. And when spoken in anger, its effect seems to have been to invoke divine retribution on a third party.

On one such occasion, according to Muirchú’s 7th-century Life of Patrick, the saint was disturbed from his rest on a Sunday by pagans working noisily.  

When he berated them for defiling the Sabbath, they just jeered. So he told them: “Mudebroth, in spite of all your labour you shall achieve nothing.”  And sure enough, the following night brought a storm that undid the wretches’ labours. 

Another chronicle, the 10th- century Sanas Cormaic, also attributed the term to Patrick, while noting that “the Irish say it corruptly; it should be pronounced ‘muin duiu braut’.”

 But the striking thing, as the blog suggests, is how similar the Irish pronunciation was to a certain, non-religious swearword of modern times: one popular among hip-hop artists, who sometimes shorten it to “mudda” or “muddafuh”.

And while, unlike the bloggers, I won’t invite readers to substitute the American expression for “mudebroth” in the utterances of St Patrick, the results can be rather amusing.

Then again, I have always been more entertained than is healthy by the coincidence between the name of another holy man of early Christian Ireland, Fechin, and what has since become our national swear-word: now increasingly popular in Britain too, thanks to those late-Christian missionaries, the cast of Father Ted.

Indeed, flattered as I was to have a violent weather system – Storm Frank – named after me this year, I thought we missed a trick in the popular vote by not making it “Fechin” instead.  

 Like the saint, the storm might have started in Connemara and then crossed the country, gathering harshness, towards Termonfeckin, another place associated with him. But the real fun would have been when it hit Britain. Imagine the childish enjoyment we would have derived from hearing BBC news readers talk about it for days.

 Oh well. Getting back to St Patrick, his “mudebroth” has proven surprisingly useful to scholars over the decades. For one thing, it’s an insight into how he spoke. As Philip Freeman wrote in a 2004 biography of the saint, “the surest way to discover anyone’s language is to listen to him when he’s angry”.

A whole century earlier, the Monaghan-born classicist JB Bury, who also wrote a life of Patrick, saw “mudebroth” as an argument for the authenticity of other writings attributed to the saint. He quoted another scholar, a Prof Atkinson, on the subject: “We know St Patrick used very strange Irish, some of which has been preserved and the historians who handed down mudebroth as an ejaculation would probably take care to copy as faithfully as they could the other curious Irish forms which the saint had consecrated by his use”.

Tell that to the next person who gives out to you for swearing. In the meantime, Vox Hiberionacum has already coined a term for potential revivalists of the patrician curse, ie: “mudebrothers”. And if that immediately makes you think of Samuel L Jackson, you’re not alone. 

 The US actor is already a folk hero in Ireland because of his public smack-down of a TV interviewer who claimed Colin Farrell as British (more or less). But Strong Language breaks new ground, almost certainly, by comparing Jackson to our patron saint.  

The similarity rests on a scene from the cult film Snakes on a Plane, in which Jackson does for the aircraft, finally, what Patrick did for Ireland. He first uses the latter-day M-word about the serpents, uttered like a true mudebrother. Then – plot spoiler alert – he shoots out some windows, depressurising the cabin, and punishing the snakes for not wearing their seat-belts.