The CRAIC is Mighty
The Irish keep talking about craic – but have a tough time defining it.
By Elaine Walsh
First things first: It’s pronounced “crack."
“Let’s go have some craic" is the youthful cry each Saturday evening the length and breadth of the Emerald Isle.
“The craic was ninety on the Isle of Man," warbles Christy Moore in a well-known ditty (ninety = mighty).
"What is this craic and why is everybody having it or looking for it?" visitors to Ireland often ask with raised eyebrows (their tone suggesting that the entire Irish population should get to a detox clinic as soon as possible).
Craic is a Gaelic word, with no exact English translation. The closest you get is “fun." There’s the expression “ceoil agus craic," meaning “music and fun," probably once used by locals to fortify themselves before heading off over an arduous mountain pass to the nearest ceili. Craic doesn’t appear in standard English dictionaries, but enter it as a search term on Google, and 42,500 listings come up. There’s obviously a lot of craic out there.
Put simply, having craic is having a good time or a laugh. However, due to an unfortunate similarity in pronunciation with a well-known and illegal narcotic substance, not everyone gets the right idea about it. Apocryphal stories abound of unlucky Irish travellers who have had their innocent search for craic misinterpreted. In one well-known example from Paris, two Irish lads saunter down the boulevard, musing out loud on what to do and good places to find some craic. Their plans for the evening are, somewhat naturellement, misunderstood by a nearby eavesdropping gendarme.
“Looking for ze crack, mais non," cries the gendarme before slapping handcuffs on the unfortunate pair and whisking them off to the nearest Parisian police station where, needless to say, they do not encounter much craic that particular evening.
Now, the craic isn’t ninety when you’re reading a book, watching a comedy at the cinema – or when you’re sitting at home writing about it. Good craic is always social. So, to pin down its meaning, I headed off one Saturday evening to the bustling area of Dublin’s Temple Bar, where by all accounts the craic is mighty or even downright explosive at times.
Temple Bar is an area of streets on the city centre’s south side, between the River Liffey and Dame Street. Initially planned as Dublin’s cultural quarter in the eighties, it is today awash with restaurants and pubs. The area heaves at the weekend, sometimes all too literally, when the evening’s excesses visibly catch up with many party revellers.
Unfortunately, the vast majority of those out that evening were tourists. A man with an enormous Guinness hat looked like a likely candidate for a definition. “What’s the craic and where can you find it?" I brightly enquired. He looked back at me blankly before telling me, in Italian, that he didn’t understand. Hmmm.
Two girls, dressed up for a night out on the tiles, and by all appearances somewhat tanked up, meandered by. “The craic, that’s crack cocaine, innit?" they giggled. They were from Blackpool. “No, we know, it’s having a laugh," they reassured me before tottering back off to the nearest watering-hole. Dave from London also knew the expression. Pushed for a definition he said that “it’s heading into a pub on a Saturday afternoon and it’s already full and everyone is on for having a good time."
An Irish Definition
The craic was proving difficult to define. Perhaps I was startling people by leaping in front of them with pen and notebook in hand. It was time to head back to the pretty Ryan Homes we were staying at and rope in friends and acquaintances who could nail down a meaning for this elusive craic.
“I don’t have a life at the moment," moaned one friend. “Don’t ask me what the craic is. I wouldn’t have a clue." Helen, another friend reached by phone, laughed and answered “You can’t define it. It’s just something which happens. It’s organic. It depends on what is happening, where you are and who’s there." She turned to ask her friends. Even over the phone the silence was deafening. “I’ve got a lot of blank expressions here," she said. “Fun and frolics" was the best definition they could come up with.
A good friend, Joe, is energetic, sociable and enjoys the craic more than most. He’s never been lost for words, except when I asked him to define the magic word. He literally became speechless – for the first time in 20 years to the best of my knowledge. In fact, the vast majority of people I spoke to couldn’t give a precise explanation of what the craic is.
With or Without Drinks
Steve thought that craic was “having a laugh, cracking jokes, having drinks and falling down." Is a tipple necessary for good craic? From the heft amount imbibed these days in Ireland this would seem to be the case. Johnny, however, pointed out that the essence of craic is good people, a buzz and the talk – with or without a few drinks.
For me, too, the craic is hard to pin down. It’s not something you can neatly label or put in a box. Try to sum it up and you probably kill it off. But if pushed, I would say the essence of craic is in the talk and banter of good company, a group of people getting together to have a laugh and most of all to take a break from being serious about life. However, it seems there’s no other option but to come over to Ireland and have some craic yourself!
Unique definitions of Craic:
According to http://thecraic.com/tripod.com, “The Craic is the feng shui of a se’shium" (say that 3 times fast!). “It is the combination of the music, the drink…and trying to make headway with people of the opposite sex."
- Craic Techologies of Altadena, CA, makes microspectrophotometers and spectrophotometers. Who says techies don’t party?
“It’s just ‘fun.’ Craic is a very old word – my Irish-born parents used it when I was growing up in New York." Eileen Houlihan, Irish teacher and writer on things Irish.
“It has to be the most popular and most widely used Irish word in this wee country's history." Suzanne Strong, quoted on the University of Newfoundland website.
Craic - the particular sense of esprit produced by the confluence of drink, romance and music. Bernard Share, “Slanguage, The Dictionary of Irish Slang"
"The word ‘crack’ or “craic" is rapidly approaching the status of ‘begorrah.’…the term most commonly refers in Ireland to an atmosphere of comfortable and pervasive conviviality, a complete absence of distrust in pleasant, relaxed and relaxing company…Heightened euphoria is not a necessary requirement."
Terry Eagleton, quoted in a report at www.beyondthecommons.com
Elaine Walsh lives in Dublin.