The Jacks are Backdated – On the mysterious origins of a Dublin nickname

An Irishman’s Diary

“The Jacks” has fallen out of fashion to describe the Dublin men’s GAA team, even as their female counterparts have been reviving it, with a twist. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

“The Jacks” has fallen out of fashion to describe the Dublin men’s GAA team, even as their female counterparts have been reviving it, with a twist. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

Along with the Mansion House Round Room itself, discussed here yesterday, the royal visit of 1821 may have bequeathed Dublin a small linguistic legacy, also now 200 years old.

I’m not completely convinced of this myself, but there it is in one of the bicentennial exhibits, recording George IV’s fondness for walkabouts in the city, during which: “he shook hands with ‘rough fellows’ and called each of them ‘Jack’ – a nickname for Dubs which has stuck”.

Is that how “Jack”, and its diminutive “Jackeen”, started? I don’t know. Terry Dolan’s Dictionary of Hiberno-English doesn’t put a date on the terms, except to suggest they both descend from John (aka Jack) Bull: the stereotypical Englishman of a 1712 pamphlet.

As a pejorative name for a certain kind of Dubliner, Dolan seems to root the J-word in another, later royal visit. He quotes a Cork correspondent recalling that when Dublin children turned out to greet Queen Victoria in 1900, they were given little flags to wave: “small Union Jacks or Jackeens”.

Maybe so, but as a description of a person, “Jackeen” had been around for at least 60 years before that. The Oxford English Dictionary finds it in print from 1840, as a “contemptuous designation for a self-assertive worthless fellow.” And by 1841, it had already crossed the Atlantic, inspiring a longer and more satirical definition in a New York magazine called The Dollar: “A Dublin Jackeen is a fellow who does very little for a living, and wants to do less. He is an adept in all the modes of gambling […] but it is in the mysterious accomplishment of the Thimble Rig [a fairground con involved three thimbles and a pea] that his genius displays itself to the greatest advantage.

“He is of that popular order of dandies who seldom trouble themselves about mounting a shirt (unless they find an occasional one among the hedges) but who wouldn’t appear in public without a collar […]. And even when our friend the Jackeen does find a shirt, it is sure not to stay long with him, for the first time his favourite actress takes a benefit, it is popped off to the [pawnbroker’s] and its recent occupant – [jacket] buttoned up to the chin – pops into the upper gallery.”

That’s quite a rap-sheet, albeit without the politics – specifically “west-britonism” - later attributed to the character.

By contrast, circa 1855, the Young Irelander Charles Gavan Duffy presented a more politically-tinged definition when, after meeting the composer Samuel Lover in Paris, he wrote of him: “In manner and bearing, he is a superb Jackeen”.

Lover was no rough fellow, nor did have any shortage of shirts. Well-born, in Dublin’s Grafton Street, he had bypassed gambling and thimble tricks in favour of becoming a highly popular songwriter on the London and American stage.

But Duffy was unimpressed: “Poet, painter, and lyricist as he undoubtedly is, I have found it hard to like him. He is an Irishman under protest. There is not a gleam of the divine fire of nationality in all his writings […] His face is comical but not plastic or expressive. It is the face of a droll; his stories are of the stage species, without natural humour. They are carried off by a certain boisterous pleasantry, but in print would be deadly dull.”

Apart from being another character assassination, that seems a long way from what The Dollar’s writer was talking about.

Whereas another half century later, in his “English as we Speak it in Ireland”, Patrick Weston Joyce left politics out of it again while relocating the phrase firmly among the roughs: “Jackeen; a nickname for a conceited Dublin citizen of the lower class.”

Then there was the other Joyce – James – who mentions the word in the closing passage of Finnegans Wake, where the river spirit Anna Livia Plurabelle berates her sleeping husband as a vainglorious rabble-rouser: “You were pleased as Punch, recitating war exploits and pearse orations to them jackeen gapers.”

For a time in the 1970s, exhibiting the self-assurance that has always been a common thread in the phenomenon, Dublin GAA fans reclaimed the J-word with pride. “The Jacks are back”, they declared then. Perhaps it was significant that they had dropped the “een”.

That diminutive suffix plays an odd role in Irish life, balanced delicately between affection (as in “cruiskeen”, “mavoureen”, and the Irish versions of female names) and contempt (“shoneen”, “sleeveen”, “maneen”, etc).

But “the Jacks” has since fallen out of fashion again to describe the Dublin men’s GAA team, even as their female counterparts have been reviving it, with a twist. By the usual rules of Hiberno-English, Dublin women should be the “Jackeens”. Instead, the county’s female footballers call themselves the “Jackies”.

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