For the day that’s in it, here’s a little something on a ‘verbal ejaculation’ attributed to St. Patrick – the fifth century Romano-British* missionary who was later elevated to the rank of patron saint of Ireland. It is to be found in several early medieval hagiographical texts concerning the saint’s activities, and is, allegedly, a corrupted version of a sweary expression he used. Intriguingly, it may actually represent a kernel of truth as the ‘ejaculation’ would appear to be an original Brittonic phrase that was subsequently passed down/corrupted through the medium of Old Irish (Brittonic would have been Patrick’s native language). If so, then there is something refreshingly subversive and endearing in the idea that Old Irish tradition would be interested in, let alone preserve, an ancient earthy expression from the very mouth of its patron saint.
Patrick is said to have uttered the expression at people who were seriously pissing him off. Its earliest appearance is in a 7th century hagiographical text:
Once on a Sunday holy Patrick, resting above the seashore beside a marsh which is a short distance to the north of Druimm Bó, heard a loud noise of pagans working on Sunday and digging the moat of a rath. Patrick sent for them and forbade them to work on Sunday. They, however, did not heed the words of the holy man, but even laughed at him and jeered. And holy Patrick said: ‘Mudebroth, in spite of all your labour you shall achieve nothing.’ And so it happened. The following night there came a heavy storm and stirred up the sea, and the storm destroyed all that the pagans had done, as the man of God had said.
Mudebroth seems to be three words which have been jumbled together: mo de broth. According to a 10th century Irish etymological glossary, it may have been something like “My God’s Judgement (on you)”, or perhaps “My God’s Doom (on you)”. Although it is included in earlier lives of the saint from the 7th-9thC – the later glossary is the only occasion where it was specifically identified as a corrupted Brittonic word. It is possible that this had more to do with the particular author’s interest in such words, rather than an actual derivation.
Then again, the way it is rendered in Muirchú’s life (above & below) suggests an intention and interest in reproducing the entire phrase in one go, as it perhaps sounded to early medieval Irish ears. This would have been fairly obvious to anyone reading or listening to the words. Aside from a few Irish names, Muirchú’s text is written in Latin. Mudebroth would really have stood out as something unusual yet familiar, foreign yet understandable, funny and more than a little bit sweary.
Knowledgeable men tell us that there lived in Mag Inis a hard and greedy man, who in his folly pushed his avarice so far that, when one day the two oxen drawing Patrick’s cart after their holy toil rested and grazed in his field, this vain man brutally and forcibly drove them away in the presence of holy Patrick. Holy Patrick grew angry with him and said with a curse: ‘Mudebrod, you have done wrong. May this your field here never again yield profit either to you or to your descendants; from now on it will be useless.’ And so it happened. On the same day a vast flood of the sea submerged and covered the whole field…
I know, I know. It doesn’t sound particularly offensive to modern ears. But trust me. In early medieval Ireland, such a thing would have had real impact. Personal damnation by God was not something you uttered lightly. It would have perhaps had the same effect as someone today saying: ‘Fuck you and the horse you rode in on’ or ‘Eat shit and die screaming’.
The idea of a Potty Mouthed St. Patrick certainly tickled the imaginations of early 20th century writers – many of whom were enjoying the first fruits of an increasing awareness of such medieval texts as a result of modern English translations. It occurs as a mysterious swear word/invocation of the national saint in The Return of the Hero by Darrell Figgis; and even James Joyce included a play on the medieval original in Finnegans Wake (“White eyeluscious and muddyhorsebroth!”) – wonderfully described in McHugh‘s Annotations as an “ejaculation of St. Patrick’s” (with an honourable mention to the great J.B. Bury).
Hence the title of this post.
A mischievous part of me wonders whether this had anything to do with how mudebroth sounds to modern ears. In aural terms – mʌðəbrəʊ (MuddaBruh) just so happens to sound like mʌðɚfɚʊ (MuddaFuh). ‘Motherfucker’ seems to have been around since the late 19thC/early 20thC and may have been growing in popularity around the same time as Figgis and Joyce. Then again, Mofo from ‘Motherfucker’ is probably a few decades later.
Whimsical musings aside (and despite not having any connection whatsoever to the original language/usage) – viewing St. Patrick’s ‘Mudebroth!‘ as being coincidentally akin to an early medieval exasperated ‘MuddaFuh/MotherFucker!‘ is nonetheless strangely appropriate. I mean, the underlying intention/effect is essentially the same – especially when you substitute it for the original in the texts. See for example, the previously quoted excerpts from Muirchú’s Life of Patrick:
They, however, did not heed the words of the holy man, but even laughed at him and jeered. And holy Patrick said: ‘Motherfuckers, in spite of all your labour you shall achieve nothing.’ And so it happened…
Holy Patrick grew angry with him and said with a curse: ‘Motherfucker, you have done wrong...
It certainly fits, right? Now try these examples…
Then said the druid, ‘Let us work miracles together that we may know which of us is the stronger.’ ‘So be it done,’ said Patrick. Then the druid brought snow over the plain till it reached men’s shoulders. Said Patrick to him, ‘Put it away now if thou can.’ Said the druid: ‘I cannot till the same time to-morrow.’ ‘Motherfucker‘ said Patrick, ‘it is in evil thy power lies, and no way in good’…
Then three of them stole (and ate) one of the two goats that used to carry water for Patrick, and came to swear a lie. It bleated from the bellies of the three. ‘Motherfuckers’ said Patrick, ‘the goat himself hides not the stead wherein he is….’
Once a blind man came to meet Patrick. Hastily he went, through the desire for a cure. A man of Patrick’s household laughed at him. ‘Motherfucker‘, said Patrick. It were meet that thou shouldst be the blind man…
There, at the stream, the (tribe of) Grecraige flung stones at Patrick and his household. ‘Motherfuckers‘, said Patrick, ‘In every contest ye shall be in ye shall be routed, and ye shall abide under spittles and wisps and mockery…’
So, whatever you get up to this St. Patrick’s Day, know that you can (authentically) raise a glass and a cuss in honour of the mudebrother himself. If nothing else, you can surely amaze/bore your friends with some genuine early medieval Irish/British* swearing.
I’d like to think its what he would have wanted.
* British (cf. Britons, Brittonic) is used here in its original meaning – a term used to denote the multiple identities/ethnicities of the indigenous inhabitants of the island of Britannia before, during and slightly after the end of the Roman period. It should not be confused with its modern day meaning and usage.
Bury, John Bagnell. (1905) The life of St. Patrick and his Place in History. London.
Lanters, J. (2000) Unauthorized versions: Irish Menippean satire, 1919-1952. Washington, D.C., Catholic University of America Press.
McHugh, Roland (2006) Annotations to Finnegans Wake. Baltimore. Johns Hopkins University Press.
Rodway, Simon (2009) ‘What Language did St. Patrick Swear In?’, Ériu, Vol. 59, 139-151.
Stokes, W. (1887) The Tripartite Life of Patrick, with other documents relating to the Saint. Edited with translations and indexes. London.