Irish for Americans: Craic

Craic: It’s probably the Irish word you have heard the most, even if it isn’t Irish.

In retrospect, I’m surprised I didn’t start my project with this word, as it’s probably the Irish word with the greatest currency outside Ireland. It’s associated with Ireland the way “laissez les bon temps rouler” is associated with New Orleans, and both mean approximately the same thing: Let the good times roll. It produced this piece of dialogue from 1997’s “The Matchmaker”:

Sarah Kelly: You should come to the dance, Marcy, come and have a bit o’ craic.
Marcy Tizard: Crack?
Sarah Kelly: Yah, it’s brilliant craic.
Marcy Tizard: By crack I’m assuming that you don’t mean incredibly hard drugs.
Sarah Kelly: Oh no! It just means havin’ a laugh, like havin’ a bit o’ fun!

So, first things first: craic sounds exactly like crack, the incredibly hard drug. Secondly: It’s exactly the same word. Craic is simply the Irish spelling of the English word “crack,” which has a long history in Northern England and Scotland as meaning “conversation” or “gossip.” The word likely came to Ireland through Ulster Scots in the mid-20th century, and was adopted generally throughout Ireland after that, eventually gaining an Irish spelling. Fintan Vallely’s “The Companion to Irish Traditional Music” claims the Irish spelling wasn’t even adopted until the late 1970s, and the word supplanted an earlier Irish word, geas. He describes the word as “commercially exploited,” reflecting other criticisms that this is a commodified word. Writer Mark McGovern, in his essay“The Cracked Pint Glass of the Servant’: the Irish Pub, Irish Identity, and the Tourist Eye,” is especially critical, identifying the word as being an example of a sort of “stage Irishness” put on by pub owners selling a manufactured version of Ireland to tourists.

 E.M. Trauth, in “The Culture of an Information Economy,” argues the word has meaning beyond that, reflecting an indigenous culture that prioritizes the “capacity to just relax and enjoy themselves,” quoting an interview subject who discussed the sort of easygoing evening of socialization that she enjoyed in Ireland and could not find elsewhere:

I can remember having the most stimulating discussion going on Sunday dinner. Or at a party. Or at a dinner party. Or just a family gathering. Anything would be discussed, right? And then the second half of the night would always be, you know, either singing, story telling, reciting poems, or whatever. And it wasn’t a proper night, it wasn’t a good night, unless it finished that way. I can still remember going to sleep with the sounds of singing from the living room.

This is a broader definition of the word craic than the pub-based version — which, at its least interesting, refers to binge drinking and attempting drunken hook-ups, sometimes with a fumbling fistfight in the street outside. In this way, although craic may have started as an English word, it seems to have evolved into an authentically Irish word, with its meaning straying far afield from the English version to describe a specifically Irish phenomenon.

The word has certainly jumped the pond to America — in fact, here I sit, in the out-of-the-way Middle American hamlet of Omaha, and I find the Irish use of the word in our local paper dating back to 1983, when a local couple who had spent three years in Northern Ireland threw a party they described as “a few jars and a good crack.” That means the Irish use of the word has been in Omaha for at least 31 years, only a few years less than when it is supposed to have colonized southern Ireland.

And it has now thoroughly colonized the Irish-American community. There is a band out of Cleveland, Ohio, called The Craic Brothers, and the word has thoroughly infused the music of American Irish bands. New York Celtic punk band Black 47, as an example, has a song called “Come Good Craic,” while the Examiner declared LA band Flogging Molly to be “a real good craic,” which means the word has managed to travel from American coast to American coast.

And, of course, the word has made it to our pubs. There is a Craic Pub in San Jose, while a series of pubs called Claddagh in Ohio boasts the presence of the craic. Kevin Berry’s Irish Pub in Savannah, GA, warns “be prepared for a lot of Craic” and actually advises customers to greet each other with “What’s the Craic,” to be answered with “The craic is mighty!”

Of course, this is exactly the sort of pub-based, commercialized use of the word that Mark McGovern complained about, where craic risks becomes a sort of advertising slogan for the bar equivalent of an Irish-theme park, where an inauthentic version of Irishness is marketed to the general public.

The only cure for that is to seize back the word, to claim it as an authentically Irish-American word, and to use it in its broader meaning — as an expression of a dedication to easygoing socializing, whether in the pub or out of it.

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Max Sparber

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