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Jackeen: 'A fellow who does very little for a living, and wants to do less'

The term ‘Jackeen’ is levelled against Dubliners, primarily in a sporting context and very much in jest. Read about it and more in Come Here To Me! Volume 2, a book celebrating an unexplored Dublin.

Donal Fallon Historian, writer and broadcaster

TODAY THE TERM ‘Jackeen’ is levelled against Dubliners primarily in a sporting context and very much in jest.

The popular theory is that it has something to do with pro-British sympathies among Dubliners historically – the ‘Jack’ in the term is believed to come from ‘Union Jack’. Terence Dolan’s great work, A Dictionary of Hiberno-English: the Irish Use of English, says it is a pejorative term for ‘a self-assertive Dubliner with pro British leanings’.

Looking back, however, it seems that the term was first used more generally as a pejorative term for city dwellers of a certain class, and then took on new meaning over time. In the archives, the term appears to have come into popular usage here around the 1840s, when, on the other side of the world, an article in New York’s The Dollar magazine used it too.

Manages to insult every aspect of an ordinary Dubliner’s existence

That article is still good for a laugh and a little indignation, describing a ‘Dublin Jackeen’ as ‘a fellow who does very little for a living, and wants to do less’. Across two pages, the article managed to insult almost every aspect of an ordinary Dubliner’s existence, noting that:

The dialect of a Dublin Jackeen is as peculiar as everything else about him, and as different from that of his countrymen in general, outside of the Circular Roads, as chalk is from cheese, or Bog Latin from Arabic. The Jackeen for instance, says ‘dis’,’dat’, ‘dough’, ‘tunder’ and the like – while all other manner of Irishmen make a great capital out of the th, and stick it like grim death, shoving it even into such words as ‘murther’, ‘sisther’, ‘craythure’ and every place else where they find a convenient chance.

The Dollar seemed to use the term to describe a certain kind of lawless Dubliner of the lower order, claiming that ‘A Dublin Jackeen is the least cosmopolitan of any man in the world’, rarely venturing beyond the chaotic and drunken Donnybrook Fair. The piece, which was clearly written for laughs, made no mention of the term having any kind of political connotations.

Before The Dollar, the always enjoyable Irish Monthly Magazine had given a somewhat different description of what a ‘Jackeen’ was, describing him or her as ‘a personage, who in our metropolitan society, supplies the same place which the conceited cockney does in the great capital of the sister island, or the bourgeois dandy in that of France’.

A ‘Jackeen’ was ‘the affected puppy of the middle ranks’, though someone ‘who will never be mistaken for a gentleman’. Like The Dollar, the term was associated with a certain lawlessness, though the social class was different.

British overtones

One of the earliest references to the term I can find with any kind of British overtones is from The Kerry Examiner of February 1854, where it was noted that ‘During the last general war, Dublin contributed more than its quota to the ranks of the British army and military records could attest that no better soldiers served than the “Jackeens” of the Irish capital.’

Also from Munster, the Cork Constitution suggested seven years later that a ‘Jackeen’ was someone who ‘hates his own country, and is forever making vain and painful efforts to imitate the English, for whom he professes a violent admiration, and by whom is cordially despised’.

As time went on, the term began to refer specifically to a pro-British Dubliner. While it may have been used in earlier times to describe city dwellers in general, by the early twentieth century it had taken on one particular meaning. When John Patrick Henry published A Handbook of Modern Irish with the Gaelic League in 1911, the term ‘Seóinín’ was noted to mean a ‘Shoneen or Jackeen’, described as ‘a West Briton who copies the English and cringes to them’.

One of the few Bureau of Military History witness statements that references the term ‘Jackeen’ comes from Kevin O’Sheil, who also described the peculiarities of those in districts that were more decidedly unionist in outlook:

The typical Rathminesian, and even more so the typical Rathgarian, was a remarkable type. To begin with, he had developed a most peculiar accent which, immediately when he opened his mouth, revealed his venue. It is quite impossible to describe the accent in mere words, and it is greatly to be regretted that it disappeared before the coming of the recording.

In more recent times, ‘Jackeen’ is primarily a term used in jest between GAA fans, but it has also been used politically on occasion still. In 1990, a Dáil deputy told a meeting in Castlebar that ‘The dignity of the people is being trampled on by Dublin “Jackeens” who don’t understand how small farmers in the West of Ireland operate.’ Just like the tired talk of the ‘Dublin media’ and ‘Dublin establishment’, Jim Higgins was merely using the term to differentiate a Dublin-based government from the ‘plain people of Ireland’.

In time, the term ‘West Briton’ (and later ‘West Brit’) became the preferred insult to level against those deemed unionist in political outlook, or somehow ashamed of Irish identity. Unlike ‘Jackeen’, it could be applied to anyone on the island.

In Westminster, the Unionist MP Thomas Spring Rice had made it clear in 1834 that ‘I should prefer the name of West Britain to that of Ireland.’ Captain R. Henderson remembered in his Bureau of Military History witness statement that at the time of the Rising, ‘the West Britons were resentful at this revolt against English domination, the British Army Separation Allowance element in its then ignorance was infuriated against the soldiers of Irish freedom’.

Regardless of what it may have meant in the past to different people at different times, Dubliners would come to embrace the term ironically. In the glory days of 1970s GAA in Dublin, the homemade banners proclaimed that ‘The Jacks Are Back’.

While we’re not entirely sure where it came from, it’s a term that is likely to stick around as a light-hearted jibe towards Dubs.

Donal Fallon is a historian, writer and broadcaster based in Dublin. Come Here To Me! Vol 2 celebrates an unexplored Dublin, is published by New Island and available in bookshops now.

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Donal Fallon  / Historian, writer and broadcaster

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