Western Wail – Frank McNally on ‘grigging’, Mayo-baiting bus brands, and John le Carré’s homecoming

An Irishman’s Diary

A Cork correspondent exiled in Roscommon asks if I am familiar with the word “grig”, a verb meaning “to annoy” which he recently heard used by his wife, a native Rossie.

Well yes I am, from childhood memory, although it is as “greg” that I can hear my late mother using it often, typically in the phrase “stop greggin’ your sisters”.

My emailer had never heard it in Munster, which made me wonder if this was another of those terms used only above the "whin line". That, as long-term readers of this column may recall, is a slanting line of latitude drawn up once by AT Lucas, a former director of the National Museum.

It ran from around Drogheda to Westport. And north of it, according to Lucas, a certain wild shrub was always called "whin", while south of it people said "furze" (Lucas claimed controversially that nobody in Ireland ever said "gorse" unless they had spent time in England or knew the plant only from books).


But "grig" also turns up in Terry Dolan's Dictionary of Hiberno English, with citations from Galway, Cork, and Kerry. James Joyce used it too, in Finnegans Wake: "Ann alive, the lisp of her, 'twould grig mountains . . ." And not only did Christopher Nolan feature the word in his memoir, I'm pleased to see he even spelt it "greg", eg: "She chatted and gregged her brother about his not being able to eat toast in bed."

Some dictionaries, including Dinneen’s, trace its origins to the Irish “griogadh”: “an act of exciting desire or envy”. But Diarmaid Ó Muirithe, late of this parish, noted that “grigge” was in English use at least as far back as 1553. At the risk of “heresy”, he suggested it had been imported into Irish vocabulary from England.


My correspondent was not primarily concerned with the word, however. His main point concerned the event that inspired it, namely the passage through his adopted town one afternoon recently of Bus Éireann’s No 22 service, bound for Ballina, sporting a dramatic sky-blue livery and boasting of the company’s sponsorship of the Dublin GAA team.

This is not unique to the 22 route, I should point out. The company's Expressway service is "official carrier" of both the Dublin and Galway teams, and the special-trim buses may be seen on other routes as well. But it was the sight of a "mobile advertisement" for Dublin GAA – my emailer at first thought it was the actual team bus – heading to Ballina that provoked his wife to suggest it would "grig" Mayo people.

On a more general note, he wonders why Bus Éireann would sponsor "the one GAA county that least requires its services". And indeed, it would seem to involve more sense – as well as sensitivity – to confine such branding to Dublin Bus.

God knows, a blue-and-navy 15A, serving Ringsend to Templeogue, via Rathmines, would probably pass as many Mayo residents en route as the expressway to Ballina. But at least they’d be expecting it there. Whereas, when fleeing Dublin for the west on a Friday night – or worse, on an All-Ireland Sunday – the last thing long-suffering Mayo supporters need is for the colours and branding of their traditional oppressors to accompany them all the way home.


Speaking of people fleeing to the west, news that John le Carré took out Irish citizenship towards the end of his life will not have surprised readers of his greatest novel.

As noted here at the time of his death (Irishman's Diary December 17th), he gave Alec Leamas, his anti-hero in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963), a vague but persistent connection with Ireland.

Readers are told at one point that Leamas's eyes were "brown and small; Irish some said". Elsewhere, another character attributes his oddities to "the Irish blood he swore he could detect". Even the odd surname had echoes of the leading Irish politician of the era, Sean Lemass, who was partly responsible for the film being shot in Ireland.

The author may have been enjoying a joke about this when he has the protagonist correct someone's misspelling of his name: "It's L-E-A, Miss Crail, and only one S."

In the end, of course – spoiler alert – Leamas and his lover do not make it out of East Berlin alive.

They die amid a confusion of shouting in “English, French, and German”.

And now we know that, amid the multilingual cacophony of the Brexit negotiations, one of the Brexit-hating le Carré’s last acts was to acquire an Irish passport, returning “home” to the land of his maternal ancestors.

So doing, he seems to have signed off as “Is mise Leamas”.