A night of Irish entertainment

U 9.1105: Swill till eleven. Irish nights entertainment.

Gifford claims that the expression “Irish nights entertainment” is a reference to Patrick McCall’s book The Fenian Nights’ Entertainment, published in Dublin in 1897, which he describes as “Ossianic legends written in peasant dialect and vaguely modelled on the Arabian Nights”.

Stephen’s sarcastic reaction to Buck Mulligan’s “Come, Kinch, the bards must drink”: “Swill till eleven. Irish nights entertainment”1 makes this seem to be a rather far-fetched literary allusion, but Gifford unwittingly hints at the origin of the expression with “vaguely modelled on the Arabian Nights.2

The success of the 1704 French translation the Arabic kitāb ʾalf layla wa-layla (One Thousand and One Nights) inspired the pirated anonymous English translation (the “Grub Street edition”) of 1706 with the memorable title The Arabian Nights Entertainment. Its popularity was such that only three years later, in 1709, Charles Gildon could publish a collection of stories with the title The Golden Spy: or, a Political Journal of the British Nights Entertainments. The overwhelming enthusiasm with which the exotic, erotic, romantic Arabian Nights Entertainments was met led to various “nights entertainments” collocations over the next 200 years, as we find a profusion of American, British, English, Hibernian, Fenian, Ayrshire, European and Stevenson’s Island nights entertainments.

In the 19th century a new strand appeared which may well have contributed to Joyce’s usage. “Irish Nights” of song and dance, instrumental music or dramatic performances enjoyed considerable popularity in Ireland, England, America, and elsewhere, and may have contributed to the idea of Irish nights’ entertainment:

An Irish Night in the Town Hall, Blackrock […] Some of the most striking scenes from [medieval Irish] history will be reproduced in tableaux vivants […] Irish songs will be sung by distinguished amateurs.

Irish Times (1891), 2 February p. 6

An Irish Night’s Entertainment

Will be provided by the Gaelic League:

On Sunday, 15th December

At the Town Hall. Grand Irish Concert and Bi-Lingual Play […]

Songs, Dances, and Recitations

Connacht Tribune (1912), 7 December p. 4

Documentary evidence shows that the full phrase Irish night’s entertainment had been in use much earlier than the 1897 source Gifford suggests:

It made an amusing variety in an Irish night's entertainments; and, what with a lively tea, a little music, and another hour's miscellaneous conversation, the rector had every reason to think that the first day was a tolerably successful one.

M. W. Savage My Uncle the Curate (1849), vol. 2 ch. 31 p. 109

Quite an Irish night's entertainment, what with Parnell’s notices of motion on Irish Church temporalities, Dublin Rate Collection, and the murder of Sergeant Brett.

Punch (1877), 23 June p. 280

The Speaker having succumbed at this early period of the Session to the protracted Irish debates, Mr. Raikes took his place. Raike’s progress was not more satisfactory than the Speaker's ; and the House had another Irish night's entertainment […]

Punch (1880), 28 February p. 86

In 1893 an article in the Pall Mall Gazette about a parliamentary debate on Irish estimates also bore the title: “An Irish Night’s Entertainment”.

Except for the first example, all the others use the phrase in a clearly ironic sense. Irish night’s entertainments of this kind were obviously considered tedious and predictable, whether it involved earnest recitations, endless discussions in Parliament, or a drunken night out in the pub “till eleven”.

Harald Beck


1 The marginal insertion in the first draft of the Scylla & Charybdis episode (NLI 36,639/ 8C) still has the apostrophe in “Irish night‘s”.

2 This book was the favourite of the dubious sailor Murphy Stephen and Bloom meet in the Cabman’s Shelter.

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