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A Flair for Cursing

by Bernadette Weyde

It was said of Ciaran of Clonmacnoise, patron saint of the Mylecharaines, Craines and Karrans, one of the great Irish saints whose keeills and devotees were to be found on the Isle of Man, that he was powerful in blessing and violent in cursing – two qualities greatly, if not equally, admired by the early Celtic church.

And perhaps it was from it and the pagan cults preceding it that the Manx inherited a flair for picturesque cursing and vituperation, which was stimulated by the practice of medieval society, and survived the Reformation.

Even at the end of the 18th century men in Kirk Marown and Kirk Patrick were still swearing by ‘Moirrey’ – the Virgin Mary – long after the significance of the word had been forgotten. The Church Courts of the time treated charges of uttering that particular oath as frivolous, though they condemned the use of ‘by my conscience,’ ‘by my troth,’ and ‘by my soul.’

One must not, however, put all the blame for violent speech upon our Celtic ancestors. In 1758 John Cashen of Ramsey, imprisoned for the offence of uttering, as he admitted, ‘rash and imprecatious expressions,’ pleaded that his language had been corrupted by his association with the British Navy into which he had been forced by the press-gang some years before.

Women apparently had a greater fund of striking phrases than men. ‘The curse of God be his bed and bolster!’ cried a Kirk German woman in 1782. It was assumed that the curse used on behalf of the poor and dependent was of peculiar efficacy. Two oft-used expressions were, ‘The curse of the widow,’ and ‘The curse of the fatherless children.’ There is also the case of forlorn Richard Quirk who in 1669 uttered, ‘The curse of the widow man.’

The curses of the greatest power were the euphemistic:

• ‘Curse of the King of Easter of the King of Light and of the King of the Sabbath;
• ‘the SHIAGHT MYNNEY MOLLAGHT, ‘the seven swearings of a curse;’
• ‘DROGH OOIR, DROGH YERREY AS BEGGAN GRAYSE,’ an ill hour, an ill end and little grace (of God);
• and the most potent and most terrifying of all, the SKEAB LOME ‘the bare broom’ or the ‘besom of destruction.’

(source: IOM Natural History & Antiquarian Society Proceedings Vol V No.1 1942-1946; photo is of the Killinagh Cursing Stones in Ireland from ‘Voices of the Dawn‘)

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