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Dublin: 3 °C Monday 11 November, 2019
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The Irish For: Notes on the naming of a still-contentious Irish-themed cocktail

In Ireland, the Irish Car Bomb is rarely called anything at all, writes Darach Ó Séaghdha.

Darach Ó Séaghdha Writer

THIS IS THE latest dispatch from our columnist Darach Ó Séaghdha, author of the award-winning and bestselling Motherfoclóir. Every Sunday morning, Darach will be regaling (re-Gaeling?) us with insights on what the Irish language says about Ireland, our society, our past and our present. Enjoy. 

Sometimes the name of a dish or drink can mislead you about its origin. A Danish pastry, for example, is called wienerbrød (Viennese bread) in Denmark. A Brazil nut is called a Pará chestnut in Brazil (Pará being a northern province within Brazil).

And the notorious cocktail known as an Irish Car Bomb? In Ireland it’s rarely called anything at all.

In the week after McDonald’s in Portugal apologised for naming a seasonal Halloween dessert Sundae Bloody Sundae, attention has been drawn to the drink and the fact that some people across the world find its name to be a big joke. I’ve even been asked to provide an Irish translation for it in the past.

The story of this drink goes back to St Patrick’s Day, 1979 in the town of Norwich, Connecticut.

Baileys, the liqueur inspired by Irish coffee, had recently arrived in America and bartenders were still working out what to do with it. A barman by the name of Charles Burke Cronin Oat took a notion to top up a three-quarter full pint of Guinness with Baileys, Kahlua and whiskey.

The ingredients reacted aggressively in the glass, foaming over and he decided to call the drink an IRA.

It didn’t really catch on beyond his tavern at the time. A couple of years later, Oat was preparing some IRAs but decided that instead of mixing them himself, the punters could drop shot glasses of whiskey and Baileys from a height into the pint and then slam the drink immediately.

Noting that his clients cried “bombs away” as they dropped the shots in, he called the drink a Belfast Car Bomb.

Bad taste cocktail names 

The wider context for this is that using bad taste humour in naming cocktails was all the rage at the time.

This was in and around the era of Sex on the Beach and the Slow Comfortable Screw Against a Wall (a name which clearly explains to a customer that it is just a combination of the Screwdriver, the Harvey Wallbanger, sloe gin and Southern Comfort).

While those names were merely smutty, there were also drinks such as the Abortion (Creme de Cacao, Amaretto, Baileys and grenadine) the Brain Haemorrhage and the Axe Murderer.

If you’ve heard of the first two but not the last three, you’re not alone – double entendres clearly have more staying power than the grislier ones. So why are Irish Car Bombs still being ordered?

One obvious factor is that the concoction is assembled by the customer and leaves a busy bartender free to move onto the next order, unlike labour-intensive Mojitos, an Old-Fashioned or Irish coffees.

The ingredients are all widely available – none of your fresh mint leaves or lime juice or Angostura bitters – so it can easily be requested in a bar that doesn’t officially serve it.

The creator’s own theory for how the drink and its name spread so widely is that the town of Norwich in Connecticut is near several military bases (the army, air force and navy are all nearby).

Enlists stationed there who descended on Norwich on their night off took the recipe across America and the world with them.

This theory – spreading through military connections – is consistent with the explanations for the spread of cocktails like Gin and Tonic, the Cuba Libre and the Martini.

Inevitably, people who point out that the name of this drink is indefensible are told to lighten up and are submitted to a speech about how easily offended people are these days.

This would be wrong – making a joke about people dying in car bombs was just as awful in 1981 as it is today. It’s not an old-fashioned term that has fallen out of use due to social change.

In some defences of the name, you might even hear the word satire mentioned, even though it is unclear what shy truth is being dragged into the light of day in this case.

It’s just an awful name and I won’t be translating it into Irish any time soon. But should bars refuse to serve it? Well, nobody wants to make a scene.

My advice to pubs would just be to overcharge anyone with the neck to order it. 

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About the author:

Darach Ó Séaghdha  / Writer

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