How’s the Craic?

For the uninitiated, that word’s pronounced “crack.” In fact, that word is crack. Meaning it’s an English word (crack) borrowed into Irish (Gaelic) as craic; then that Irish spelling was reborrowed into English (starting with Hiberno-English, which is, simply, the dialect of English written and spoken in Ireland).

I know, it’s confusing. But craic has started showing up in my Facebook feed in posts of friends who are definitely not Irish, so it may be time for us to look into it. Because we’re not talking about the crack that can break your mother’s back; we’re not even talking about a wisecrack. (Actually, my favorite dictionary lists nine separate definitions for the noun crack, none of which are the crack/craic I’m talking about.)

Still with me?

Crack dates from Middle English (dialects of English spoken for about three hundred years, between the late twelfth and late fifteenth centuries). Back then it was crak, and it meant “loud conversation, bragging talk,” according to A Dictionary of Hiberno-English by T. P. Dolan (Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, 2006). A hundred years later (1590, the oldest reference I could find easily), we see Edmund Spenser using it in The Faerie Queen (book II xi, 8): “vainglorious crakes [braggarts].”

So there it is in (British) English, and the context and meaning evolved as it moved through history, from braggadocio to conversation and chat to news (“What’s the crack?” means “Have you any news?” or even “How are you?”) and gossip and … fun ambience.

And there it is, in fact, in the Oxford English Dictionary (added in 2008), which dates craic at “1968 or earlier.” The concept of crack as fun was in use in Ireland and elsewhere but, according to the OED, the Irish spelling was “popularized by the phrase beidh ceol, caint agus craic againn, lit. ‘we will have music, chat and crack’, the catchphrase of the Irish-language television programme SBB ina Shuí, running from 1976–83.”

Aha. I’d thought it was an old Irish (Gaelic) word, not something we might classify as, you know, mid-century modern. Which is probably what bugs some folks in that part of the world (linguists, for the most part). It’s faux-Irish, they say. And even now you see it spelled crack by some Irish writers (Roddy Doyle and Dermot Healy are two I can say for sure), so the Irish spelling isn’t universally used. But—having some experience in the quibbles of language—I must ask how it can be fake if so many Irish folks use it?

Those cranks are spoiling my craic. Because the Irish have made this word, no matter its origin, their own.

But what does it mean? you ask. In Ireland, that is.

Well, kids, there are as many definitions as there are Irish pubs—some of them really cheesy—in North America, one of which you may find yourself in this weekend. Craic means high-spirited entertainment, including lots of talking and laughing … it means fun, usually when mixed with alcohol and/or music … it means having a laugh in a social context (craic is the original social medium) … it means a good time … it means conversation, chat. It means merriment (my personal favorite). But here’s a definition I stumbled on a few years ago: craic is the combination of the music, the drink, the conversation, and the spirit of the surroundings. “How was the craic?” one might be asked the morning after. “Deadly,” might come the answer.

Which means, you know, really good in Hiberno-English. But that’s another post.

This post originally appeared on my professional blog, Read>Play>Edit on 14 March 2013.

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The Craic

And oh yes, I see I’ve mentioned craic without reminding you of its definition.

Craic (refresher course definition): Pronounced, simply, CRACK, craic is Irish slang that has no exact English translation—and as many definitions as there are pubs in Ireland. Having a laugh in a social context is one. A good time; conversation, chat; high-spirited entertainment; merriment (my personal favorite).

“How was the craic?” one might be asked the morning after. “Deadly,” might come the answer. I did stumble on this definition just now, and thought I’d share: craic is the combination of the music, the drink, the conversations, the spirit of the surroundings, and trying to make headway with people of the opposite sex. Make sense?

For more definitions, you might have a look (be patient; it takes some time to load) at this Web site devoted to Dublin slang. A warning: it’s not for the faint of heart or the easily offended. It makes me laugh.

Come Dance With Me in Ireland

8 February 2006, Wednesday / Co. Dublin

Unlike the last time I traveled to Ireland, my Aer Lingus flight from Chicago wasn’t very full. I read a little and then slept (as much as one can be said to sleep on a plane), and flew through the night. We arrived in Dublin Wednesday morning at seven—and I was surprised to note it was still dark! (This must be a consequence of Ireland being so much further north than Tennessee is, but I never did get used to this late-lingering darkness that completely disrupted my internal alarm clock.) Nonetheless, the well-lit city was pretty from the air, especially the lights along the water’s edge in Dublin Bay.

I breezed on through Customs and found the Irishman waiting for me on the other side, and it was very nice to see him indeed!

At last—someone to help with the luggage!

We picked up the rental car (EuropCar this time, arranged by my AAA travel agent, as I’d read it was cheaper to rent from America than from Ireland), and off we went. I am rather blasé about these things now, although many of you will remember that on my last trip I was quite apprehensive about driving on the left. There is a certain comfort in returning, as I have, knowing it’s not all that odd, really, driving on the other side, knowing I can do it without trouble. We even got a free upgrade this time, from a Ford Focus to a Mondeo, which was considerably roomier and definitely more uptown in terms of looks.

It was cold and windy, but I was prepared for this. I’ve lived in the American South for a long time, and before that California, so I’m not by nature used to the chill, but the answer is, simply, layers: a camisole, a turtleneck, a vest or another shirt, a lightweight coat. You’d be amazed at how much warmth is held when you wind a scarf around your neck, too, even if you’re inside (a habit I got into). And don’t forget a hat and gloves when you don your coat!

The Irishman’s neighborhood is only about fifteen minutes from the airport, but we were making the journey in the middle of the morning rush hour, and it took considerably longer. It was fun to watch everyone scurrying off to work or school, knowing I was just beginning a long, leisurely vacation; the bumper-to-bumper situation bothered me not one whit. You’ll recall there’s a B&B just around the corner from Gerry’s house, and I’d made reservations to stay there again, at the Blaithin (Bla-HEEN) House.* It’s homey and comfortable and convenient.

We stashed my bags at Blaithin and went off to the Irishman’s for a nice big Irish fry-up, and kids, I’ve been waiting for this for two-and-a-half years: bring on that white pudding! White pudding, you may recall, is an important part of that Big Irish Breakfast—and it’s the best part, as far as I’m concerned. Popular in Scotland as well as Ireland, it’s a large-diameter sausage made of finely ground pork, suet, bread, oatmeal, and traditional spices (though each butcher has his own recipe). Sliced off in rounds and fried, it has a soft, spreadable consistency, which makes it delicious on toast. I could make a meal of it! (The traditional Irish fry-up consists of rashers [lean bacon], eggs, broiled tomato—which the Irish pronounce toe-MAH-toe—sausage links, black pudding [blood sausage], plenty of brown bread, and white pudding—more than enough to keep one going right on through ’til dinnertime!)

Thus fortified, I’d caught my second wind and was anxious to start my vacation! In practical terms this meant going into Dublin (the Irishman lives in a neighborhood in north Dublin, so, yes, technically I was in Dublin; but what I mean is go downtown to where the action is—or, as the Irish would say, go into the city center). We mostly wandered around the Temple Bar area, which stretches along the River Liffey. Essentially an arts district, the area is home, by day, to art galleries, theaters, funky shops, street vendors, and trendy restaurants and pubs, and at night is packed with people partaking of the craic at the many nightclubs and pubs. (You can read more about it here.) We also wandered through the Grafton Street area (this is Dublin’s main upmarket shopping area; the major department stores and designer shops are here) to get to Trinity University, as I wanted to hit the gift shop there.

John Mulligan’s, Poolbeg Street, Dublin. Late afternoon.

From Trinity we made our way to Poolbeg Street and Mulligan’s pub, an unpretentious, old-fashioned real Irish bar. We sat near the front, with the sun streaming in the windows; it was quiet in this late afternoon lull before the after-work regulars began to arrive. So it was here I had my first sip of the black stuff upon my arrival in the Republic … and oh, it was good, so very good to be back.

You’ll be interested to know that Chinese take-out restaurants in Ireland serve curry, an anomaly I find intriguing (since I generally think of curry as being Indian food). Of course, they also serve chips (fries to us Yanks) too. I know all this because we ordered Chinese in that night … later while Gerry cleaned up, I sat on the couch, holding up one-third of the conversation and pretending to be awake.

Then, just as I thought I might have to be carried “home” to my B&B, a very special treat arrived in the person of one Orla H. The Irishman had introduced me to his youngest niece (and her three older siblings—Neil, Eoin, and Clare—children of his older brother, William, and his wife, Gwen) via phone a year ago, and we’d been friends and e-pals ever since. Orla is, in a word, fun. But why stop at one? She’s bubbly, she’s funny, she’s bright, she’s sweet, she’s eighteen years old. And did I mention gorgeous? Her brother Neil was content to let Orla rule the conversation, but, Dubliner that he is, he got his subtle licks in. I found him intelligent and witty, as all my favorite Irishmen are.

The highlight of my evening? Learning how to tie my winter scarf like an Irish girl! You see, here in the South our woolen scarves are more decoration than protection; an homage to Jack Frost, perhaps, but little more. We wind them once around and throw the long end down our backs (we did this in California, too, where I grew up). In the Midwest, where scarves can be essential in a blizzard, they use a double-wrap maneuver, with both ends hanging forward, often to be pinned firmly under a coat. But in Ireland (and Paris, too; more about which later), they do it differently.

In my last visit to the Republic, you’ll recall, I learned that the Irish can spot us Yanks a mile away: ye shall know them by their clothing, you might say. Well, let me assure you, in Dublin in February they know us, in part, by our long, flopping scarves. And since I want to try to blend in as much as possible, I asked Orla: “How do you tie your scarf?” She knew immediately what I meant, of course, and promptly gave me a demonstration. It’s simple, really; embarrassingly so. Ask me sometime and I’ll show you.

So that’s it. We haven’t really gotten started yet, you know! Tune in next time, when I’ll try to refrain from whinging about the shower at my B&B.

* It’s closed now, sadly.