How words often get killed off - Reclaiming a ‘donnybrook’

IN Brian Friel’s visionary play, Translations, he interrogates the challenges of communication across generations and cultures and he laments the incremental decline, and loss, of original language and metaphor and subtlety of meaning.

The playwright quotes the pragmatic assertion of Daniel O’Connell, ‘the Liberator’, from Kerry, that “the old language is a barrier to modern progress.”

Ireland has been a rich contributor to the world’s lexicon and has exported, along with its sons and daughters, thousands of words and phrases which are used rarely, if ever, in the increasingly urban, if not urbane, society that we have become. Some of them have never gone away.

‘Banjaxed’ remains a popular descriptor capable of transcending international boundaries or even a hard border. ‘Ballyhooly’ is still widely understood. But another was resurrected this week, when the Martens trial, in North Carolina, heard that the argument which preceded the death of Jason Corbett (he was struck with a child-size aluminium baseball bat and a concrete paving brick) was a ‘donnybrook.’ Whether the jury understood the etymology does not seem to be at question.

The word is not so much a description of the well-known RTÉ headquarters in Dublin, as a reference to the fair which commenced in mediaeval times and which became a byword for riotous assembly, drunkenness, and violence.

For economy of meaning alone, it’s worth reclaiming.


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