Irish for Americans: Mavrone

This Side of Paradise: Och, mavrone, I don’t know what it means to be Irish-American.

It will probably surprise nobody that the Irish have a few ways of expressing grief. Everybody has a few. In English, we’ll shout out “woe,” or, at least, we do in moody Victorian literature. Jews have their “oys” and “gevaults.” Spanish speakers will sometimes cry out a heartfelt “Ai yai yai.” We all feel sad sometimes, we all feel bad now and then, and we all need a way to communicate it.

However, the Irish seem to have a philosophy that there is no use having one word for a thing when you can have a hundred instead. It’s something Flann O’Brien jokes about, claiming that while it is possible to make due with 400 words in English, the average Irish peasant needs 400,000. He wrote:

The plight of the English speaker with his wretched box of 400 vocal beads may be imagined when I say that a really good Irish speaker would blurt out the whole 400 in one cosmic grunt. In Donegal there are native speakers who know so many million words that it is a matter of pride with them never to use the same word twice in a life-time. Their life (not to say their language) becomes very complex at the century mark; but there you are.

And so Irish has a lot of words for grief, and we’ll address a few of them: “och,” “ochone,” and “wirra.” But it’s fitting we start with “mavrone,” as the word literally means “my grief.” The word appears twice in James Joyce’s writings, both in sentences that seem designed to remind readers why Joyce can sometimes seem to be incomprehensible. Her’es the word in “Finnegan’s Wake”:

Men, teacan a tea simmering, hamo mavrone kerry O? Teapotty. Teapotty

 And here the word is in “Ulysses”:

And we to be there, mavrone, and you to be unbeknownst sending us your conglomerations the way we to have our tongues out a yard long like the drouthy clerics do be fainting for a pussful.

Of course, if there was ever someone whose language use we might treat with suspicion, it is Joyce, who sometimes seemed to write as though he thought composing an entire book in fake Latin and Irish would be fun. But mavrone is a real word, folks. It probably dates back quite far, but the first example I find is from 1810, from a book titled “The Shamrock, Or the Hibernian Songster.”

The book includes a song called “Judy O’Flannikin,” a daffy love song to, I believe, a tavern-owner’s daughter, which features this couplet:

Oh, hone! good news I need a bit!
We’d correspond but larning would choke her.
Mavrone! I cannot read a bit;
Judy can’t tell a pen from a proker.

From here on it, the word makes frequent appearances in Irish song, poetry, and fiction. My favorite is in the boastful song “The Rale Ould Irish Gintleman,” which contains a torrent of expressions of grief:

But och mavrone! once at a row ould Barney got a knock,
And one that kilt him, ’cause he couldn’t get over the shock ;
They laid him out so beautiful, and then set up a groan,
Och ! Barney, darlint, jewel dear, why did you die ? och, hone !

 When the word came to America, is was likewise embedded in stories, songs, and poems. I first locate it in a tale called “The Legacy; Or, The Miser’s Bargain,” published New York’s Irish American Weekly in 1858. In it, a relative tries to talk a miser out of his ways, arguing that at his death, the miser would want good stories of him in life. “Oh! marvone, why not?” responds the miser.

We first find the word used in America in a non-literary way on March 11, 1864, in a letter from a Tennessee soldier to a friend, published in the Daily Illinois State Register. The letter is presented as a humorous account of military life, although it now less reads as comedy than horror. He complains of new recruits who are age 12 to 16 — we would consider them child soldiers now. He makes frequent use of racist epithets. “Och marvone,” he says, “the way I excoriate these fellows is a terror.”

The word became associated with literary, and especially theatrical or Tin Pan Alley-styled Irishness (sometimes called Oirishness, because of its use of stagey Irish accents.) Perhaps the most famous example of this is in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s first novel, “This Side of Paradise.” The book’s protagonist, Amory Blaine, who tries his hand at writing a poem at one point. The poem is titled “A Lament for a Foster Son, and He going to the War against the King of Foreign,” and is written in a thick literary brogue, as well as being peppered with Irish words and phrases. The poem includes:

Mavrone go Gudyo [My sorrow forever]He to be in the joyful and red battle
Amongst the chieftains and they doing great deeds of valor
His life to go from him
It is the cords of my own soul would be loosed.

Fitzgerald’s Irishness was always a bit ambiguous, and Amory Blaine is clearly just Fitzgerald by another name. He’s reaching out to his Irish past in the face of the Great War, but all he can find are cliches and language so foreign that he must translate it parenthetically, and by the end of the novel, Amory is sick of it — “tired of the Irish question,” as Fitzgerald wrote.

In 1987, Irish author Julia O’Faolain wrote “No Country for Young Men,” which included a number if Irish-Americans who come to Ireland, and likewise have complicated, difficult relationships with the country. One cries out:

“Words! The Irish are great with words!’ he exclaimed. ‘But they don’t mean anything,’ he roared. ‘They obfuscate. They play about with. They lie and deny. They skirmish and ambush. All your whole goddamn literature is about evasion. The exile who had to go away. The lover who lost his lass. I bought a book of popular love songs to fill my empty hours—I told you I’m like a kept woman. I have to fill the time. And I see now what you meant by negatives. Renunciation. Dig my grave both deep and wide. Laments. Goodbyes. No commitment to anything but giving up. The system is the way it is and ochone and mavrone and leave me alone and I’ll sing a song about it.”

And this seems to be what the word has become — not just an expression of grief, but an ambiguous expression of grief, representations of a foreign Irishness that we’re not sure we share.

I’m not sure it needs to mean this, but ochone, mavrone, what is to be done?

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Max Sparber

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