I’d been warned. A friend had traveled to Ireland a few years back. “I got black lung,” he told me, with typical hyperbole. The pubs billowed with cigarette smoke, he said, burnishing the walls with a nicotine patina and wrapping the patrons in drifting eddies. You could barely tip a pint before having to dash outside and gulp in the chill, damp night air, he complained.
“And then, there’s f**k,” he tossed off, almost as an afterthought.
“F**k. They say it practically every other word.” Then he adopted a lilting accent worthy of the Lucky Charms leprechaun: “F**kity, f**k, f**kin’ f**k!”
Turns out, Ireland blessedly banned smoking in restaurants and pubs before my first visit. No similar statute has been enacted regarding f**k. It rings out over the tar-colored, creamy-topped glasses of Guinness in every Dingle pub. It bounces off the walls flanking narrow pedestrian streets in Galway. It rattles around Dublin restaurants.
I suppose I should have gotten a heads-up when Irish actor Colin Farrell first made the rounds on U.S. talk shows, spewing extravagant riffs of bleeped obscenities. Sure, Ireland jumped aboard the high-tech bandwagon, but all along they were manufacturing a surplus of good, old-fashioned f**ks. It was only a matter of time before exports spiked. I began to wonder if I should start spouting a few myself, just to help the U.S. balance of trade.
Deploying the f-word in true Irish style requires practice. What comes naturally to those with a gift for gab and a rich literary history didn’t just trip off my tongue. “Finnegan’s F**in’ Wake,” I muttered experimentally. “The F**kin’ Ballad of Reading F**kin’ Gaol.” Wilde might have appreciated my efforts. I’m not so sure about Joyce.
It’s crucial to nail the pronunciation, too. The Irish “f**k” rhymes with “clock.” The “g” at the end of “f**king” is always dropped. And of course, a proper brogue is essential. You should also note that in Ireland, f**k doesn’t require gall or outrage. “It’s a f**kin’ gorgeous day, so let’s get the f**k outside,” someone might suggest – “F**k yes!” being the proper response.
Mostly, I listen and learn at the feet of the masters. A few years ago, I happened into Vaughan’s pub at Kilfenora, County Clare, just as the TV announced a new pope was about to be revealed. A tweedy, leathery-faced clientele was glued to the proceedings, the heels of their mucky rubber boots hooked into the rungs of the barstools.
As we all waited for the pope’s identity to be revealed, the bartender regaled me with tales of his recent visit to the U.S. “Las Vegas is f**kin’ brilliant,” he confided. “I won enough at blackjack to pay for me whole f**in’ vacation!”
Rumor had it an African cardinal was in the running. “Is it a black pope or a white pope?” a ruddy farmer inquired, pushing through the pub door.
“Actually, he’s f**kin’ green, for a change!” a patron shouted back.
“Why’s it takin’ so f**kin’ long?” another inquired.
“Those cardinals will all be huggin’ and kissin’ him for a while now before we f**in’ get to see him,” the barkeep replied.
Finally, at St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City, the thick velvet curtains were pulled aside. The Vaughan crowd’s calloused hands gripped their glasses of Guinness a bit tighter as the new pope stepped forth.
“It’s a freakin’ German!” a man exclaimed, slamming his palm on the bar.
A freakin’ German? Freakin’?
I had just found the limit of the seemingly unlimited fount of f**ks. The pope was freakin’ sacred. Even if he was a German.
F**k has been around for a long time. The earliest cited usage occurred around 1500. Versions of the word show up in Germanic languages, French and Italian. Shakespeare even alluded to it. But this visit to a pub in Kilfenora sealed the deal. The Irish are the masters, reigning with style – and yes – even a speck of restraint.
I never did join the fray. Sure, in the privacy of my rental car, I’d send a few practice phrases tripping off my tongue. “It’s a f**kin’ manly scent, but I like it, too!” I’d try, dredging up one of the classic ad slogans of my youth. Even kissing the Blarney Stone didn’t give me the confidence to let loose like a local. I would be an absolute failure in some hip, updated version of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion.
Will the U.S. ever close the f**k deficit? I fear we lack the lyrical chops. But we may be carving out our very own niche. A little book called On Bulls**t rode the New York Times bestseller list for weeks. Could it be that bulls**t is our country’s special calling?
“F**k, yes!” the Irish would say.
By Gayle Keck