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For the love of culchie

An Cailín Rua

An Cailín Rua
Anne-Marie Flynn

It’s been a trying time for those of us out west. First, there was the well-documented farce of government formation, which reminded us west of the Shannon just how important we really are. There was the abolition of the Department of Rural and Community Affairs. The spectre of carbon tax hangs over us like a dark Green cloud.
And, as if things weren’t bad enough, last week, we found our very identity being threatened and denied, by an all-powerful, all-influencing lobby, in a move that we can only conclude is designed to slowly phase us country people out. This attack came from unexpected quarters, but isn’t it always the unanticipated strikes that weaken an army?  
When the North American Scrabble Players are voting on whether they want to ban the word ‘culchie’ from their official US Scrabble competitions, well, it’s a threat to our very existence that should be taken most seriously. What next? A wall at the Shannon?
To make matters worse, the World English Language Scrabble Players Association (WESPA) is debating whether they should follow suit, citing the current ‘vigorous debate across the Scrabble community’. Even Hasbro, makers of Scrabble, agree. Indeed, Scrabble is all fun and games until someone loses an I. In this case, an Identity.
What did we culchies ever do to have our identity denied so? Well, to be fair to the Scrabblers, their intentions are sound. In the interests of decency, the US competition organisers are discussing banning a number of terms which could be described as hate speech, including racist, homophobic and anti-Semitic terms. Somehow, ‘culchie’ found its way onto their list.
‘Culchie’ is defined in various places as a ‘pejorative term for someone from rural Ireland’, and is apparently perceived as offensive and demeaning. Which might come as news to some of us, who revel proudly in our culchiedom.
But where did it all begin, and what does ‘culchie’ really mean? Writer and English-language enthusiast Stan Carey has written a fascinating piece on the possible origins of the word and its usage, well worth reading (you’ll find it on his blog at In it, he explores a number of theories, including its phonetic likeness to the word ‘culture’, possible connotations with ‘coillte’, the Irish word for woods, and its use among the college fraternity as a slang word for agricultural students. There is also the supposed Kiltimagh connection, as referenced by Brendan Behan in Confessions of an Irish Rebel. It’s an article that illustrates the glorious richness of the Irish vernacular, and of course, acknowledges the tribalism associated with the word culchie.
Speaking of tribalism, since the GAA has paused, the culture war between Mayo and Dublin has also been put on ice – a Cold War, if you will – but naturally, recent events have reignited exchanges. It has been universally agreed that if you’re from the west of Ireland it is perfectly acceptable to call yourself a culchie, indeed, it is a badge of honour, but it is seen as the lowest form of insult, to be referred to as same by someone from inside The Pale. It is, of course, simultaneously perfectly acceptable for us to label Dubliners as Jackeens – a Jackeen, of course, being a ‘contemptuous designation for a self-assertive worthless fellow’. Perfectly reasonable, if you ask me.
This is all very tongue in cheek, of course, but it’s an interesting, if tenuous, intersection between two discussions taking place in Ireland at present – the freedom-of-speech debate, stimulated by the Black Lives Matter movement, and the urban/rural dichotomy.
Freedom of speech, it should always be pointed out, also brings with it great responsibility and consequences. The Scrabble players should be commended for taking steps to eradicate terminology that only serves to divide and hurt, even if ‘culchie’ is not one of those terms.
Closer to home, culchie tribes all over the west and further afield are banding together like never before to assert our right to a sustainable future, and to protest a government that should represent and support us all equally but fails completely to do so.
We won’t stand for it. They might take our ministers, but they’ll never take our culchiedom. Put that in your triple-word-score box and smoke it.