Irish for Americans: Avourneen, Mavourneen

If you have to pick a term of affection, go for one with a hit song behind it.

John McCormack was one of the great Irish tenors, an opera singer of unparalleled precision who made a tidy career for himself touring the world and offering concert performances. I have an ad before me from the Springfield Republican from 1915 promoting one of McCormack’s performances on record, on the Victor label, and they list “The song that made him famous.” The song was titled “Avourneen,”and was sometimes parenthetically translated: “Darling.”

That seems close enough. The original Irish was a mhuirnīn, derived from a diminutive of mūirn, which is variously translated as “affection” and “joy,” so perhaps the phrase might be better translated as “my little joy,” but these words all boil down to “the one I feel affection for.” There’s another variation of this phrase, by the way: mavourneen, which is possessive. If avourneen is “darling,” mavourneen is “my darling.” And mavourneen gets its own song as well: “Kathleen Mavourneen,” composed in the United States in 1837 by Frederick Crouch, lyrics by Marion Crawford, which included:

Mavourneen, mavourneen, my sad tears are falling,
To think that from Erin and thee I must part!
It may be for years, and it may be forever,
Then why art thou silent, thou voice of my heart?
It may be for years and it may be forever,
Then why art thou silent, Kathleen, mavourneen?

 This song managed to be enormously popular during the Civil War as well as being the signature song of Irish soprano Catherine Hayes, who likewise toured extensively. As a result, whether or not the phrase was ever all that common in Ireland, it became a signature Irish phrase in the United States. It’s hard to tell how widely used it was before then — a survey of Irish literature from the early 19th century produces a few examples of it, particularly including the use of the phrase “Erin Mavourneen” in patriotic literature. But I don’t expect it was it’s popularity that led Crouch and Crawford to the phrase. One sort of expects that Crouch, whom was English, and Crawford, an Irish woman who lived in England, chose mavourneen because it rhymed with Kathleen.

But music is a great mechanism for popularizing language, and so this affectionate phrase, in both its forms, started to appear with a great deal of frequency in the middle part of the 19th century, most famously in the song “Finnegan’s Wake,” which in its current incarnation contains the following lyrics:

His friends assembled at the wake
And Mrs. Finnegan called for lunch.
First she brought in tay and cake,
Then pipes, tobacco, and whiskey punch.
Biddy O’Brien began to cry,
“Such a nice clean corpse did you ever see?”
“Arragh, Tim, mavourneen! Why did you die?”
“Arragh, hold yer gob!” says Paddy McGee.

The song itself dates back to the 1850s, and I cannot find an example from then to see if these lyrics were there are the start. The oldest versions I can locate date to the end of the 19th century, and variations of the “Tim, mavourneen” line were fully entrenched at that time.

This is the way the word was often used. You’d say somebody’s name, hold for a comma, and then add in avourneen and mavorneen. The Baltimore Gazette and Daily Advertiser ran a piece titled, rather protractedly, “From Trails and Stories of the Irish Peasantry: Shane Fadh’s Wedding,” in which Shane’s mother, speaking to her son, cries out, “Shane, avourneen, deelish, if ever I was harsh to you, forgive your poor mother.” 

As phrases go, the coupling of “avourneen” and “deelish” comes up fairly often, although with a deliberate air of antiquity, as something old people and farmers say. Deelish, sometimes rendered dhelish, is a transliteration of the Irish dílis, meaning “faithful.” Since no Irish phrase, or any of its infinite variations, will ever go without a song making use of it, there was “Savourneen Deelish,” written by George Colman and recorded by none other than John McCormack. And so, if you want to found especially old-fangled, you might say someone’s name hold for the comma, and then call them your faithful beloved, as found in 1846’s “The casket of Irish pearls, a selection of prose and verse from the best Irish writers,” which contains the following scene from an Irish wake, in which a family member introduces the author to the corpse with these words:

He’s here now, standin’ over you, and it’s he, of all his family, kind and respectable as they are, that was your own favorite, Denis, avourneen dhelish!

Sometimes you wouldn’t even bother with the comma, as with the article “Ellen Avourneen, or Connolly’s Manet for His Daughter” by Mrs.Crawford from an 1844 edition of The Metropolitan Magazine — perhaps the same Crawford who wrote “Kathleen Mavourneen,” and, if so, an author who seemed struck in a bit of a rut. The Indianapolis Sentinel in 1879 ran a poem called “Katy Avourneen,” telling of an intoxicated Irishman tapping at the window of his nonplussed girlfriend, which included the chorus “Oh Katy Avourneen, you must let me in.” She refuses.

But avourneen and mavorneen, and presumably savourneen, could be used by themselves, as in the phrase following sentence, from the marvelously titled story “Hester Griffin; Or, The Wayside Waif” published in the Irish American Weekly in 1897:

Katherine, me girl, ’tis a poor little motherless cratur pierce found an the road. Mind it, avourneen, while I help him to bring in its mother.

There are are more than a few other phrases of affection, which we will look at soon, and they tend to sort of tumble out all at once. It’s never enough to call someone avourneen when you can pile on two or three additional affection phrases, which sometimes is intended to sound wheedling, and sometimes just represents an outpouring of sentiment, as though no one adoring term could ever be enough.

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Max Sparber

Max Sparber is a playwright, journalist, and history detective in Omaha, Nebraska.