Tibb’s the Season – Frank McNally on the patron saint of things that never happen

An Irishman’s Diary

In eastern parts of Canada, December 23rd has come to be celebrated as "Tibb's Eve", a phrase – although not an event – that was also popular in Ireland until a generation or two ago, since when it seems to have died out.

The reason it was never an actual event on this side of the Atlantic is that the original Tibb (sometimes spelt “Tib”) was an entirely spurious female saint, noted for her conspicuous lack of saintliness.

She in turn seems to have derived from a stock character in old plays: a woman of loose morals who was in no danger of canonisation. Hence “St Tibb’s Eve” was a reference to a feast-day, and by extension to any event, that would never happen.

Brewer's Dictionary has nothing to say about the term's origins, only what it means. But a famous English lexicographer of 1785, Francis Grose, in his "A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue" attributes its usage mainly to this island.


After listing “Tib” (“a young lass”) and “Tib of the Buttery” (“a goose”), he continus: “Saint Tibb’s Evening, the evening of the last day, or day of judgement; he will pay you on St Tibb’s Eve. IRISH.”

From being at first a non-entity, however, the event at some point acquired associations with Christmas, if only as a rhetorical device, dividing the zero chance of something happening into two zeroes.

The usage is demonstrated by the winner of The Irish Times’s “Prize Story Competition” in 1905, which includes this exchange between a courting couple:

“‘I’m afther telling the mother you’ll marry me o’ Shove Tuesday, and she’s proud to hear it,’ Terence said, as he helped Kathleen out of the cart, close to the village. ‘It’s a dale more likely I’ll marry you o’ Tibb’s Eve – naither before nor afther Christmas!’ the girl said with a sigh, as she lifted her cans and trudged off to the village.”

That seems to have been the form in which the concept migrated to Newfoundland and Labrador.

And although it still meant “never” (a St John’s newspaper of 1921 quotes one JJ Mullally warning that “you and the Mayor might be writing till Tibb’s Eve without a result”), the Christmas association must have persisted.

By the 1940s, in places where the early weeks of Advent were sober, “Tibb’s Eve” became an excuse to start drinking on December 23rd. In more recent years, it has been an actively promoted event in Canada, popular with charity fund-raisers and pubs.

In the meantime, even the phrase has been in decline here, having retained its original meaning to the end. That was the context, for example, of a 1931 speech by the minister for finance Ernest Blythe, when wondering aloud whether Fianna Fáil could be trusted in government.

No, he declared, while noting that the ruling Cumann na nGaedheal had passed up several opportunities to take decisions that would have kept them in power “until Tibb’s Eve”.

A year later, Eamon de Valera had ousted Blythe & Co and was soon boasting of how he had dismantled the 1921 Treaty. The hated Oath of Allegiance was now a “dead letter”, he told supporters, as reported, and “could stay on the English Statute Book until Tibb’s Eve, for all they cared [Applause]”.

Less successfully, this newspaper's foreign coverage once noted with confidence the punitive effect of Japan's war in Manchuria, which it thought was sure to force peace soon. "Japan is a not a rich country, and she cannot afford to remain on a war footing until Tibb's Eve," we said. That was in early 1939.

Some subjects were better suited to the term than others, clearly.

It is no surprise to find that it was especially prevalent in Ireland’s northern province, where euphemisms for “never” are always in demand.

Hence a nationalist politician's lament in 1914 that unionists were proposing to exempt all of Ulster from Home Rule, "not only for six years, but until Tib's Eve, when Sir Edward Carson and his Covenanters would have agreed to some unknown Federal scheme."

Fast forward to 1982, and the most recent mention of the expression in reported speech I can find in our archives.

The occasion was a Dáil debate on the prospects of Britain making a declaration of intent to withdraw from Northern Ireland at some point.

Taoiseach Charles J Haughey did not rule out the possibility, but Donegal TD Neil Blayney wondered if repeated British assurances about majority consent meant that they "would stay there until Tibb's Eve."

That particular version of the feast-day may be a more real prospect now than it was then. In the intervening four decades, however, the phrase in general has disappeared.