When I was a child, we had a version of the ‘ip dip rhyme‘ in the school playground. Whenever we needed to divide into groups or isolate someone as the starting ‘it’ for a particular game, we’d gather in a circle with one foot forward. Our version (1980s Ireland) involved someone going around counting each foot whist chanting ‘Ip dip, dog shit, out goes smelly’. Whichever foot was landed on for ‘smelly’ was out, and the counting began again, usually in the opposite direction. It would go on until the last person with a foot in – was ‘(sh)it’.
Fast forward several decades and I’m knee deep in early medieval hagiography and toponymy – particularly that of a seventh century text written by a Mayo man. It’s ostensibly an itinerary of the places and people allegedly visited by St. Patrick in central and western Ireland. Of course it’s not in any way historically authentic – but it does provide a fascinating window into the context, concerns and linguistic usages of when it was first written. Although it’s in Hiberno-Latin, a large number of the personal and place names mentioned are rendered in Early Irish and the author, who had a great sense of humour and a slight rebellious streak, sometimes uses such ‘names’ to great comic effect.
One of my favorites is this little passage:
“He went to Assicus and Bitteus and to the druids who were of the race of Corcu Chonluain, the brothers Hono and Ith. The one received Patrick and his holy men hospitably and offered him his house. And he proceeded to Imlech Honon, and Patrick said to him: ‘Thy seed shall be blessed, and from thy seed will come priests of the Lord and abbots worthy (to be) in my revenue and in thy inheritance.”
Tírechan’s Collectanea, (transl. L. Bieler) / Liber Ardmachanus, fol. 11v (Gwynn, 1913, 22)
So far, so good. The passage is pretty standard medieval fare. The saint rocks up to some important people (in the past); is faced with two sons; favoured by one; to whom the saint then blesses and bestows favour in return; along with a prophecy of future success for his own descendents. It’s a way of ‘explaining’ why one particular branch of the family might be in control. The implication? That the descendents of the other are not favoured, or have transgressed, at some stage in the past. Result? Keep in with the successors of the saint’s authority and they will keep in with your secular authority. Quid pro quo.
However, for an early medieval audience (both readers of the text and listeners of it being read aloud), there was quite an overt subtext to the episode. The original passage is written in Latin, except for the Irish names and places (highlighted in bold, for effect). Even if someone couldn’t read or understand Latin at all, hearing those names in the vernacular would have enabled them to appreciate the full effect of the authors ‘subtlety’ and perhaps hazard a guess as to what he actually thought of their contemporary descendents.
The main protagonists, the two druid brothers, are of the Corcu Chonluain, i.e. ‘the race, or dynasty of the Conluain’, a rather unfortunate tribal name when one breaks down the basic etymological elements. Old Irish con means ‘dog’. Old Irish lón/lúan means ‘haunch, rump, buttock’.
Ergo: to be of the Corcu Chonluain in seventh century Ireland would have been something along the lines of being of ‘The People of the Dog’s Arse’.
Wonderful stuff. However, if you look and see how conluain was used, or glossed in other early medieval texts, you get even more of an idea of the kind of image it portrayed:
conluan nó conlon .i. cac na con, = conluan, or conlon, that is shit from dogs (O’Davoren’s Glossary)
buaín in conlóin a talmuin = remove the dog’s (left behind) ordure (Senchus Mór/Early Irish Laws)
Therefore, a real appreciation of just what Corcu Chonlauin would have sounded/meant in seventh century Irish vernacular would not just be ‘The People of the Dog’s Arse’, but rather, the stuff that comes out of said dog’s arse…
i.e. ‘The People…of the Dog Shit’.
Calling them by such a name was an early medieval equivalent of ‘Ip Dip Dog Shit’ – a way of textually excluding, dividing and casting aspersions on people ‘in the future’, by referencing ‘the past’. I can’t imagine there would have been many people challenging legitimacy or authority utilizing a dynastic heritage with such concoctions.
But wait, there’s more. Of the two brothers Hono and Ith – Hono was the one who offered his house/land to St. Patrick and therefore favoured. Ith was the smelly one who was left out. Anyone with a smattering of school Irish nowadays will recognize that word. While Old Irish íth carries attested medieval usages of ‘fat, lard, grease’ (Fatty Lardy Greasy Shit?) and ‘pap, pottage’ (Pappy Shit Pottage?), by far the most used meaning of ithid/ith is ‘eats, devours, bites’.
Now, early medieval people didn’t use names and surnames the way we do today, but if they did… Ith Clonluain could possibly translate into something along the lines of: ‘One Who Eats Dog Shit’.
I shit you not.
Ah, Irish people. Insulting you to your face, behind your back, since time immemorial.
Oh, and by the way, if your modern surname is Conlon, and you’ve been telling people that it means ‘a lion born of a hound’, then…sorry. That would be your ancestors trying to make the best of a bad lot.
No (sh)ith, sherlock.