Commentators often have difficulty tracing the continuum from a literal expression to its metaphorical use, especially because they expect a cogent explanation for the shift in meaning. Don Gifford, therefore, hypothesises on (ignorant as) a kish of brogue:
A "kish" is a large square basket used for measuring turf. The expression suggests that if having one’s brains in one’s feet means stupidity, how much more stupid a basket full of empty, rough shoes [brogues].
The expression worries Dent, too, who notes that variations also occur in Finnegans Wake (83.13: go and kish his sprogues) and in one of Joyce’s poems of 1918, “The C.G. is not literary”: “Our C.G.’s about as literairy / As an Irish kish of brogues”). He disagrees with Gifford on the precise explanation of the phrase:
Gifford explicates, surely too literally even if "kish of brogues" does mean "a basket full of empty, rough shoes". I doubt that it does. […] I suspect, although OED supports me on neither word, that "kish of brogues" means "a gathering of brogue-wearers – enough of them to fill a kish of brogues".
Dent is not supported, as he admits, by the OED, but more worryingly neither is he supported by Dinneen’s Irish dictionary. The expression is clearly one that causes problems to commentators.
The kish in rural fairs and markets
The OED finds the Irish word cis (“a large wickerwork basket used in Ireland chiefly for carrying turf; sometimes mounted on a car”) used in English from 1780, in Arthur Young’s Tour in Ireland (1780), and here it is employed in the sense of a wickerwork basket for carrying turf.
Brogues are rough shoes “made generally of untanned hide, and stitched with thongs of leather” (Joseph Wright, English Dialect Dictionary), and a “kish of brogues” is a basket of such shoes, of a kind which were typically used to display shoes for sale at country fairs and markets in Ireland.
That the phrase “kish of brogues” had become a standard expression in Ireland is shown by its use in various official texts. It was one of the regular categories of established pitch at Irish fairs and markets. In Accounts and Papers relating to Ireland, published by the British House of Commons in 1830, the Tolls and Customs section (p. ) contains:
Copies of the Schedules of Tolls and Customs at Fairs and Markets, deposited with several Clerks of the Peace throughout Ireland.
At Stradbally in County Laois (formerly Queen’s County), the Accounts reveal, the cost of a pitch for a “kish of brogues” on market days was 4d (p. 159), as it was also on fair days at Timahoe, Queen’s County (p. 160). Although kish is employed widely as a container for other types of goods (including livestock) throughout Ireland, the Accounts mention “kish of brogues” only in Counties Cavan, Kilkenny, and Laois. Elsewhere, brogues are sold by the car, crate, load, parcel, sack, stand, standing, and table, and at times a kish seems to be equivalent to a stall or stand at a market, as in William Boyle’s collection of poems and tales of rural Irish life published in 1899 under the title A Kish of Brogues, which opens with the author’s note:
One of the most amusing objects of the old Irish fair was the kish or stall of brogues around which feet of various shapes and sizes were being fitted. The brogues themselves were rough, hand-sewn articles, as innocent of polish as they were of padding, but they were light, easy-fitting, and warranted not to tire out the traveller on a journey. If the first pair did not please, another and another still were tried. Seldom had the customer to go away unsatisfied. May the present brogue-seller dare to hope as much?
Boyle’s final question there reminds us that Joyce used the expression kish of brogues metaphorically too. So the question arises, did Joyce create his simile ignorant as a kish of brogues, or was he retailing an expression that was already well-known?
Metaphorical uses of kish
The earliest simile found to date which contains the phrase kish of brogues dates from 1843, in Lloyd’s Weekly London Newspaper of 21 May:
"An' it's bitther could," sis I, "Mrs. Reardon," sis I, "an' troth it's yerself that looks as dull as a kish of brogues this same May morning," sis I.
In the following year the Freeman’s Journal has Joyce’s simile, in one of the paper’s legal reports (which often contain apparently verbatim transcriptions of colloquial Irish idioms):
Mr. Arkins – I am glad to have that opinion from you. See what it is to have an Irish commissioner! If we had one of your English chaps here he would be as ignorant as a “kish of brogues” on the subject.
Freeman’s Journal (1844), 15 August
In 1845 a court report from the Kerry Examiner transcribing an exchange between a witness (Mr. Gallagher) and a policeman (121A) (reproduced the next day in the Freeman’s Journal) shows that the simile is becoming popular as a colloquial Hiberno-Irishism:
Mr. Gallagher – For a broker! I hold you twopence you don’t know the meaning of the word "broker".
121A – I understand it perfectly.
Mr. Gallagher – Compare the word.
121A – Oh, comparisons are odious (laughter). It’s a noun and can’t be compared.
Mr. Gallagher – Ignoramus! it can be compared. Positive break – comparative, broker – imperlative [sic], broken (laughter). What do you call that but comparing it? You’re as ignorant as a kish of brogues.
Kerry Examiner (1845), 25 November p. 2
The simile was sometimes playfully extended, in the way of idioms, and the Leinster Express of 16 September 1854 (p. 7) presents evidence for one such variation, the kish of brogues “without fongs” (or laces/thongs):
Doctor, the ignorance broke out in you at last. You know as much about the affairs or deductions made by thre Club, as a kish of brogues without fongs.
Like many similes, the motivation behind the creation of as ignorant as a kish of brogues is likely to be amusement at or enjoyment of a ridiculous comparison, rather than any new meaning of kish of brogues itself, as Dent would suggest (cf. as daft as a brush). Most similar contemporary expressions (as ignorant as...) involved "babes" or animals such as pigs, calves, etc.). That the expression was recognised widely as an Irishism is indicated by its appearance in the Sydney (New South Wales) Catholic newspaper called the Freeman’s Journal. In an article of 1867 about what Europeans knew of James Stephens and Irish nationalism, the paper reports:
Dr. R—is a gentleman of more than ordinary intelligence and reading, he directs a bureau which gives tone to [a] great part of the journalism of Germany, and yet, before I conversed with him with regard to Ireland, he was as ignorant of what that island actually wanted as “a kish of brogues”.
Freeman’s Journal (New South Wales) (1867), 9 March p. 11
As the expression is obscure to a non-Irish-speaker, it is not surprising that it has been misunderstood – or perhaps developed further.
I once asked a Meath man what was the correct Irish brogue. "Arrah, me good man," he replied, "shure Oireland has a kish of brogues". He did not add as he might have done that in his native country the standard of ignorance is to be "as ignorant as a kish o’ brogues".
Chickasha (Oklahoma) Daily Express (1905), 2 March
The expression was quite in vogue in Joyce’s day. Katharine Tynan introduces a variation in her Daughter of the Fields in 1901 (ch. 10, p. 115):
Looking at the three girls opposite her, she mentally pronounced Meg's neighbours "as vulgar as a kish of brogues" beside her.
and within a month of Bloomsday the Ulster Herald includes it naturally in its report of a speech made on “the Gaelic Movement”:
Let an Englishman or Scotchman come over and settle down there, and although he might be as ignorant as a kish of brogues, that fellow would get more respect from them than an O’Neill or an O’Doherty, whose grandfathers and great-grandfathers lived there.
Ulster Herald (1904), 7 May p. 8
Once again, the documentary evidence demonstrates Joyce’s skill in collecting and employing an everyday expression from the days of his boyhood in Dublin, and weaving it effortlessly into Ulysses.