Russ in Urbe – Frank McNally on an existentialist question of Hiberno-English

An Irishman’s Diary

Russ Parsons, food writer of this parish, recently arrived in Waterford from California, has asked me about a curious expression he hears in Ireland, ie: "the day that's in it." He might equally have mentioned "the weather that's in it" (certain differences between here and Malibu must have become painfully apparent by now). And my own favourite example of the usage is the great existential question Irish people ask each other when they haven't met for a while: "Is it yourself that's in it?"

This is yet another inheritance from the mother tongue, and specifically from the Irish adverb "ann", which means "there" or "present", but when used in certain ways has no exact equivalent in English.  The great social historian Patrick Weston Joyce referenced it in one of his books, circa 1910, giving the example "atá sneachta ann" ("there is snow there").

He suggested that logically, in English translation, the ann “should be left blank”. But as Joyce added, “our people will not let it go to waste”. One of the results he cited was “the weather that’s in it is very hot”, a statement which may have been true in 1910, but is probably not one of the usages Russ Parsons has heard since moving here.

There is a related and even odder construction, also mentioned by Joyce. For its own reasons, instead of “I am standing”, Irish makes us say “I am in my standing”. That still lurks in Hiberno-English too, albeit as another of those expressions you only tend to hear in the negative.

Just as nobody speaks of a neighbour “having” the run of himself, only losing it, so we do not usually consider being “in” our standing newsworthy. Whenever my late mother referenced the phrase, it was always after some ordeal, involving hunger, weakness, or a shock. Then she would report: “I nearly fell out of my standing.” Which in English-English means “I nearly fell”.

Getting back to the existential echo of “ann”, there’s a fine example from the other Joyce, author of Dubliners. “Ah, poor James,” says Eliza, one of The Sisters in the story of that name: “‘God knows we done all we could, as poor as we are – we wouldn’t see him want anything while he was in it’.” Irish readers will not need to be told that “poor James” was by then out of it, or as they say in England, dead.

Although it doesn’t use the phrase, I’m also reminded here of Flann O’Brien’s gothic tale Two in One, about a taxidermist called Murphy who murders his bullying employer Kelly and uses his skills to flay and preserve the skin of the dead man so he can don it as a disguise. It’s the perfect crime until he wears the skin in bed, where the heat causes it to fuse with his own, irreversibly. The tale ends with Murphy about to hang for his own murder. Nobody thinks of asking his disguise the obvious question: “Is it yourself that’s in it?”.


Leaving Hiberno-English aside a moment but staying with people called “Russ” and “O’Brien” (even I have to admire the smoothness of this link), there has been an interesting exchange on the subject of late in the London Review of Books.

The Russ is that case is a surname, of the late Richard Patrick Russ, the English novelist better known as Patrick O'Brian. And the debate began with the reviewer of a new biography suggesting that the spelling of his pseudonym was "a bit odd", adding: "'O'Brien would have been better if he'd been serious about convincing people he was Irish."

But as a letter writer has since explained, the version Russ chose may have been another example of the meticulous research he used in writing a classic series of novels set during the Napoleonic wars. Because whereas “O’Brien” is the usual anglicised form of the surname, “O’Brian” was nearer the Irish original. Thus, the letter writer pointed out, of London O’Briens listed in the 1841 census, 72 per cent identified as Irish, while for the rarer O’Brian variant, the figure was 88 per cent.

Richard P Russ was certainly serious about convincing people of his fictional nationality. According to the London Review of Books, the identity became “half real” to his second wife, who once sent him a post card from Waterford (again) to say “your country is wonderful”. Since he was intensely private man and never gave interviews, his readership took him to be Irish too. The pseudonym became a protective barrier. Thus, it was a cause of great trauma when in 1998, the BBC made a documentary about his life and revealed it was Russ, not O’Brian, that was in it.