Under the Kilt – An Irishman’s Diary about Maria Edgeworth and Hiberno-English

When Maria Edgeworth's Castle Rackrent (mentioned in passing here yesterday) was first published in 1800, the editors saw fit to add a glossary explaining some of the language to English readers.

Of course the novel was in English, but it was among Edgeworth’s literary innovations to employ an unreliable narrator – inspired by her father’s land agent – speaking in the local dialect.

Thus the glossary had to interpret such terms as “kilt”.

No, not the traditional skirt worn by men. This was the past participle of the verb “to kill”, which as well as having a distinct spelling in Hiberno-English, also had different medical implications.

Being "kilt" was not usually fatal here, as the editors explained, paraphrasing Julius Caesar: "In Ireland, not only cowards but the brave die many times before their deaths." Sure enough, in the relevant passage, Lady Rackrent is said not just to have been "kilt" in a road accident, but "kilt and smashed". Then she makes a full recovery.

Another of the glossed phrases, interesting to read in post-truth 2017, is explained as a “mode of rhetoric common in Ireland”, whereby an astonishing claim at the beginning of a sentence partly obscures the prosaic qualifier that follows close behind.

In the book’s sample specimen, a character appears to praise the brilliance of a lawyer – “Out of 49 suits which he had, he never lost one but seventeen” – thereby downgrading the win record from 100 per cent to 66 in the space of three words.

To which the editors add the example of a severely inebriated man who swears “upon his conscience, and may he not stir from this spot alive if he is telling a lie, upon his conscience, he has not tasted a drop of anything, good or ill, but half a pint of whisky...”

Boundary dispute

Economies of truth, sometimes highly legalistic, are a running theme in

Castle Rackrent

. Explaining another expression, the editor refers to a case from some years before wherein an old man was called upon to give evidence for his landlord, “Mr M”, in a boundary dispute with “Mr E”.

Not wishing to disappoint the former, but also not wishing to perjure himself, he first took the trouble of removing a sod from Mr E’s land and replacing it seamlessly with a piece of the same size from Mr M’s property.

On the day appointed, he then took up position on the spot before witnesses and swore, in more-or-less good conscience, that the land he stood on had always belonged to Mr M.

Like that one, much of the Rackrent glossary is concerned with the landlord system, of which Maria Edgeworth herself was an inheritor and whose demise she did not foresee, even when satirising it.

By the end of the century in which her book appeared, that world would be swept away and with it such expressions as “sealing money” (a gift to the “squire’s lady”, to seal the signing of a lease), “duty work” (a feudal system whereby tenants had to pledge so many days labour to the landlord ), and “drivers” (men who drove cattle to the pound in lieu of rent arrears).

Good riddance to all those. But many of the other glossed terms have survived the intervening centuries unchanged. An Irish reader would still understand what was meant by calling somebody an "innocent", albeit the definition might now be more sensitive than the Rackrent editor's, "a simpleton, an idiot".

Likewise we would not need to be told that when the book says "Sir Murtagh grew mad", this does not imply a descent into insanity, only rage.

As for cases of non-fatal killing, more than 100 years after Rackrent, PW Joyce included an example in his classic English As We Speak It in Ireland (1910): "A young man died after injuries received in a row and his friend says: 'It is dreadful about the poor boy; they made at him in the house and killed him there; then they dragged him out on the road and killed him entirely, so that he lived for only three days after."

In cases much less drastic than that, I think, the expression is still common today.

This might have surprised Maria Edgeworth. A supporter of the then-imminent Act of Union, and the complete assimilation she thought it would bring, she nevertheless hoped her book would be enjoyed as nostalgia “when Ireland loses her identity”.

As we now know, to paraphrase a later writer, reports of Ireland’s death were somewhat exaggerated.

It may have been kilt. But it wasn’t kilt entirely.