There don’t seem to be quite as many latchikos in Irish life as there used to be, or at least not around where I live. Having flourished briefly in the second half of the last century, the word may be in danger of dying out again. And the odd thing is that many of us are still unsure what it meant, exactly, or where it came from.
It was never a compliment to be called a latchiko, that much is clear. But in Terry Dolan’s Dictionary of Hiberno-English, for example, it’s defined as “an unpleasant, disagreeable person (origin obscure)”. Whereas in most quoted instances I can find, the quality implied was more like uselessness, sometimes to be pitied rather than disliked.
A writer who used the expression more than most, John B Keane, sounded sympathetic when describing "some poor latchiko who wasn't long out of the bogs". Elsewhere, in broadly similar vein (albeit in a bovine context), he also offered a definition, via an agricultural inspector discussing the pedigree of a bull at Abbeyfeale Cattle Fair: "'His grandfather was a latchiko,' the inspector recalled, meaning that the parent in question was sometimes remiss in his obligations towards consenting heifers and often turned his back on what more industrious bulls might regard as golden opportunities."
In its now standard spelling, thanks to the "k", the word doesn't look Irish at all. It would have seemed more at home in 20th-century Russia, where a Comrade Latchiko might have been one the senior apparatchiks vying to succeed Stalin, or where the latchikos could have been a sub-order of the kulaks.
But in some of its earliest print appearances, and more in keeping with its likely origins in Irish, the word was spelt latchico. Even in that form, it seems never to have featured in the vocabulary of this newspaper’s great connoisseur of Irish and Hiberno-English insults, Myles na gCopaleen.
Instead, latchico’s debut on these pages came via a greyhound of the name, which made several (suitably mediocre) appearances at Shelbourne Park and Harold’s Cross circa 1959/60. A decade later, the term turned up in an Irish language column, via the expression “Bac liomsa anois, a latchicoe...” (“Listen to me, Latchiko...”), in the context of someone advising a young man to get his hair cut.
It was only in the mid-1970s that it entered Irish political debate, where it flourished for a period. Tellingly, the first citation was from a speech in Mayo during the 1973 general election campaign, wherein a local Fianna Fáiler satirised the coalition agreement between the two main opposition parties in ribald terms: "They would not have had that shotgun wedding only for the Fine Gael bride was in trouble. She wouldn't touch the Labour latchiko with a 40-foot pole if she had a chance of getting to the altar any other way."
It's no surprise that the Mayo-born journalist John Healy liked the expression too. In his book Nineteen Acres, he described the embarrassment of wearing second-hand clothes sent from the US: "You looked a bit of a latchiko going to school in Lowpark in hand-me-down American knickerbockers".
Around the same time, writing as this newspaper's "Backbencher", he contrasted the high regard in RTÉ for (Labour TD and minister) Conor Cruise O'Brien with his less exalted reputation in Bunnacurry, Co Mayo, where he was seen as "that latchiko who does a lot of spoutin'".
Apart from confirming that a latchiko was not something anyone wanted to be, neither of those quotations helps as a precise definition. But then, in the most plausible explanation of its origins, the word is defined as much by the absence as the presence of something.
When Diarmaid Ó Muirithe featured it a couple of times in his The Words We Use column in the 1990s, he was informed by many readers that the English version had first surfaced "on the building sites of England", used by labourers from the west of Ireland. But one Dublin 4 correspondent – "a man from Ailesbury Road", offered an etymology, via "leath" (meaning "half") and "tiachóg" (the diminutive of a term meaning "bag, satchel, pouch"). This brings us delicately into the area of male genitalia, suggesting that John B Keane's example of the Abbeyfeale bull may have been more apt than he realised. In any case, the theory is also mentioned – less delicately – in Dolan's dictionary, which quotes Ó Muirithe writing in Britain's The Oldie magazine in 2000, and explaining the term as follows: "[W]hen the Mayo labourers, who were only one generation removed from being native speakers of Irish, called somebody a latchico, what they had in mind was a half-bollocks".