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  • katherine halligan


Today, by way of light — and you will be relieved to know, brief — relief, I offer you an anecdote of family history, which goes a long way to explaining the unusually sprightly and mischievous nature of my children, of which you will be hearing much on these pages.

It is said in Ireland — and in Ireland, many many things are said, only some of which are to be believed — that the word “hooligan” derives from the name Halligan. In Victorian London, as the engineering marvel that is the Underground was being built, and the Irish poor — which is to say most of that country — fled the aftermath of the potato famine in desperate droves, many an Irishman hopped on a boat to Blighty to seek his fortune, or at least a few scraps on which to survive.

Many of them worked as navvies when they arrived, hired hands down at the docks or on the construction crews that toiled to build the world’s first (and many would argue best) underground railway system. At the end of the day, these hardworking lads, missing home and ready for a bit of craic, would head off for a pint or six on their way back to boarding houses that were surely profoundly depressing and grim. Who can blame them for wanting to spend time with their compatriots to ease their lonely hearts, for it is true that — more than for most other cultures — you can take the boy out of Ireland, but you can’t take Ireland out of the boy. And if you’ve ever been there and seen its thousand shades of green, and seen the green tumble wildly down impossible hills towards water of indigo and jade, and heard the musical lilt and cant of the most infectious and welcoming accent you’re ever likely to encounter, then you will know too that you’re unlikely ever to wrest Ireland from your own heart.

So of course sometimes — probably especially on the days they received their meager wages, after setting aside some to send home to their mams— they overindulged. And that would lead to high jinx: singing, of course, a bit of dancing, maybe some fighting. The fun was probably mostly harmless, and only occasionally problematic. I rarely have even a single bad thing to say about the English, but I shall say this: there is a persistently anti-Irish racism that pervades many an English mindset, even today. It is probably rooted in a strange mix of attempted justification for oppressing their closest and oldest colonial outpost — they’re unruly, and like small children and dogs they must be managed, so that they are seen and not heard — and a deep-seated envy that the Irish, despite aforementioned oppression, were then and are now one of the most creative, articulate, and engaging groups of people you will have ever have the privilege to meet. And so many English people (though certainly not all) developed a resentment of and disdain for these fun-loving lads who, it must be admitted, sometimes let their high spirits get the better of them.

Many of these young men, or so the story goes, were from the green hills of Tara, north of Dublin. My own young(ish) man hails from those same green hills, and a common name there and elsewhere in Ireland was O’Holigon. In the anglicizing forces that shaped and tamped down so much of what was uniquely Irish, the O was dropped, and the name became Halligan; this much we know is true.

What may (or may not, as is often the way in Irish lore) also be true is that a disproportionately high number of these O’Holigons found their way to work as navvies in Londontown, and when the reputation of this especially unruly family was solidified, they became known as “hooligans”, along with the rest of their high-kicking, full-voiced, rabble-rousing countrymen.

And so it is that I find myself the very proud, and often exhausted (unsurprisingly, given their heritage) mother of two little Halligan hooligans.

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