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A fascinating – and often hilarious – translation of Irish words and phrases

‘Irish Illusions – A Working Glossary’ was written by David E. Tatham of the British Embassy in Dublin during the early 1980s.

EVER WONDERED WHAT a top British Embassy official does in his/her spare time? Well, on a recent visit to the National Archives of the United Kingdom I came across a fascinating – not to mention at times hilarious – document: Irish Illusions – A Working Glossary (available from NAUK Cabinet Office 164/1729).

Written by David E. Tatham of the British Embassy in Dublin during the early 1980s, as the title suggests, this document contains a glossary of key Irish phrases and words.

In the foreword to Irish Illusions – A Working Glossary, Tatham acknowledged that he first decided to compile this glossary shortly after he arrived to Ireland in 1981. He remembered how he was ‘struck by the fact’ that although he had a relatively good working knowledge of recent Irish history he was still left with many ‘illusions’ that remained unexplained.

Consequently, Tatham decided to bring together an A-to-Z glossary as a survival guide for those British mandarins and politicians, alike, who were brave enough to live and work in Ireland.

For the benefit of the readers of I have reproduced several of Tatham’s glossary entries verbatim. I hope you find the below examples as entertaining as I did when I first came across them.

See how many phrases/words you recognise.


Noun: Those, usually Protestant, who believed in a political link between Britain and Ireland or were simply of settler stock. Brendan Behan’s definition – “A Protestant who rides a horse” – is still probably the shortest.

Banana Republic

This expression – applied to the South – was coined (or at least given wide currency) By Ian Paisley in 197?. (A more expressive term “turnip-Republic” minted by a Dublin journalist never caught on). Recent commentators – mindful of the economic situation – have noted: “A banana Republic, without the bananas”.


Liam Cosgrave’s description of journalists who criticised his administration at a Fine Gael Ard Fheis in 197?. Bruce Arnold (who is English) was primarily referred to.

Blue Shirts

The organisation that develop from the Army Comrades Association at the same time as Fascist parties were coming to power in Europe … The Blue Shirts’ Fascist trappings and salute have been a constant source of embarrassment to Fine Gael ever since: the party is still often referred to by their detractors as the “Blue Shirts”.

Castle Catholics

A derogatory term for Catholics associated with the pre-1921 British Administration … It is still used by the IRA, usually in justify the murder of Catholics in Northern Ireland.


“There is only one Charlie in Ireland” I was told on arrival in 1981. But Mr Haughey’s friends and admires prefer to call him “C. J.”.

Chief, The

De Valera (perhaps originated in the award of honorary chiefdom by an American Indian tribe in 1919?).

Draining the Shannon

During the 1930s?, de Valera promised jobs and prosperity by a scheme to drain the Shannon. The expression has become synonym for extravagant electoral promises.

Free State

… a term of abuse by “Republican” extremists (particularly the Provisionals) to describe the officials and organs of the present Government in Dublin.

Irish solution to an Irish problem

C J Haughey’s description of his Family Planning legislation introduced in 1979. Much used sardonically since for all sorts of other expedients.

Low standards in high places

An elliptical remark by George Colley TD in 19…, perhaps directed at his rival, Charles Haughey.

The matchbox men

Supposedly a number of Fianna Fáil Ministers who made their fortune on insurance fires.

Mongrel Foxes

Liam Cosgrave’s description of those in the liberal wing of his own party …

No property

The men of Wolfe Tone.

Pike in the thatch

To keep a pike in the thatch means to have arms stashed away and to be prepared to use them for political ends if the time seems ripe.


The Provisional IRA. (see also Stickies)

Rising tide

“A rising tide lifts all boats”. Seán Lemass on his economic philosophy.


Literally “little John”. Term of abuse applied to those who are believed to support British rule or (since independence) policy.

Slightly constitutional party

Seán Lemass’s description of Fianna Fáil in a Dáil debate on 12 March 1928.

Stickies, Sticks

Nickname for the Official IRA … From St Patrick’s Day 1971 when the Officials stuck their shamrock on with sticky tape, while the Provos used pins.


An abusive term usually applied to Northern Ireland – occasionally by extreme republicans to the South

And lastly…

West Brit

A term of abuse, usually applied to the Anglo-Irish.

Dr Stephen Kelly is Lecturer in Modern History, Liverpool Hope University. His forthcoming book, ‘A failed political entity: Charles J. Haughey and Northern Ireland, 1945-1992, will be published early next year.

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