The Sanas (etymology) of Faro

Daniel Cassidy DanCas1 at AOL.COM
Sun Dec 5 20:29:02 UTC 2004

The Sanas (Irish Etymology) of Faro
“There isn’t any  such person as an honest gambler.” Richard Canfield  
Conventional wisdom on the history of the banking card game of Faro is that  
it derives from the Italian card game  Bassetta and first appears in France  
under the mysterious name of  “Pharaon” sometime in the  17th century, where 
it transformed into a gambling game called  “Faro.”  As the "tale" goes, Faro 
was later carried from  France to New Orleans in the early 19th century, in 
the words of  writer Herbert Asbury, "by the scum of the Paris underworld."  
>From  its base in New Orleans, the gambling craze called Faro then  spread across 
 America in the decades before the Civil  War. 
The words Pharaon and Faro are said to be from the word “Pharaoh” for an  
Egyptian  monarch, supposedly a common image on the backs of 16th and 17th  
century French card decks, which were then later imported to England, where Faro  
became the rage of the hoity toity (airde d’airde, highest of the high)  
gambling-addicted aristocrats and snooty (snua airde, high visaged,  fig. “stuck-up”
) nouveau riche merchant classes.  However, no  evidence of Pharaoh face 
cards in 17th, 18th, or 19th centuries has ever been  documented.(2)

In Pharaon and Faro the main move is called “the Turn" and  occurs when the 
faro dealer turns out two cards together from the card shoe or  “tell” box and 
places them face up on the faro layout; the first card is a loser  and all 
bets on it are collected by the bank or "house;"  the second card  is a winner 
for  the gamblers who have bet on the correct denomination and  pays two to 
one. The Irish verbal phrase “fiar araon” means  precisely, “to turn both; to 
turn each of two; to turn both together” and is the  source of the word Pharaon. 

Pharaon: The earliest name for Faro. 
Fiar araon
To turn both; to turn two together
Fiar, (pron fair) is an Irish transitive verb that means “to turn,  twist, 
coil, or bend; the adverb araon, means “together, both, each of  two.”  The 
verbal nominative of the Irish verb Fiar, to turn, is Fiaradh  (pron. fairoo) and 
means (the act of) turning. Fiaradh (pron. fairoo,  turning) is the secret 
Irish name for the “turning” game of  Faro.. 

Faro: a banking card game where the main move is  called “a turn.”  
Fiaradh, m.,  (pron.  Fairoo) 
Turning,  a turn. Vn. Turning, (act of) turning,  coiling, twisting.  (4)
The Fiaradh (Turning) of the “Wild Geese”

>From an historical perspective, it is not surprising that Irish words  found 
their way into 17th and 18th century French gambling “slang” and the Paris  
underworld.  In the two hundred years between the ‘Flight of the Irish  Earls” 
in 1607 and the unsuccessful United Irish Uprising of 1798, hundreds of  
thousands of Irish-speaking soldiers, rebels, refugees, and Gaelic aristocrats  
fled to France in the largest protracted Irish continental immigration in the  
early modern period. In 1691, alone, 11,000 Irish soldiers sailed to France  
after the Treaty of Limerick. This centuries long migration of Irish soldiers  
and mercenaries to France, Spain, and Catholic Europe is known in Irish history 
 as “the  Flight of the Wild Geese.”
The social complexity and negative impact of this long Irish exile  
experience in France and Spain has been highlighted by  historians Maurice  Hennessey 
and David Bracke, who traced  the pervasive crime and destitution  in the ranks 
of the Irish Regiments in France to military force reductions by  Louis XIV, 
following the Treaty of Riswick in 1697 . Flocks of Irish exile  soldiers 
resorted to crime to survive “A good many of (the Irish) became  highwaymen and 
robbers...formed themselves into gangs and roamed the roads and  farmlands in 
search of prey.”   The Wild Geese shape shifted into the  Irish-speaking 
highwaymen, gamblers, smugglers, convicts,  and   buccaneers (bocaí aniar, wild 
playboys from the west) of  imperial France and Spain and their American 
The Gaelic influence on New Orleans was present from the moment of its  
founding. In September, 1717, the Scottish Faro gambler, financial wizard, and  con 
man, John Law,  and his Company of the West, popularly known as the  
Mississippi Company,  obtained control of the entire French province of  Louisiana by 
royal grant . Law started a land- and stock-selling campaign that  swept 
France into a frenzy of speculation; the national currency was floated,  and the “
Mississippi Bubble,” which was to bring the country to the brink of  financial 
ruin, was inflated by Law into one of the most massive swindles in  European 
history. Colonists to Louisiana were needed quickly  to create the  illusion of 
success. The French government ransacked jails and hospitals.  “Disorderly 
soldiers, black sheep of distinguished families, paupers,  prostitutes, 
political suspects, friendless strangers, unsophisticated peasants,  were all 
kidnapped, herded, and shipped under guard to fill the emptiness of  Louisiana.” 
(Louisiana, Albert Phelps, NY, 1905, pp. 601).  The  city of New Orleans was 
founded a year later in 1718. By the 1740s it had become  a prosperous port city of 
approximately 2,000 inhabitants, including three  hundred soldiers and three 
hundred African slaves. (Hennessey, p. 176). 
The French royal colony came to a sudden end in August, 1769, when  Don 
Alexander O’Reilly, an Irish soldier of Fortune and one of  the most celebrated of 
the Irish Wild Geese of Europe, landed at New Orleans  with twenty-four 
warships and three thousand soldiers, many of them members of  the Spanish Irish 
brigades, and  took possession of New Orleans in the name  of the King of 
Spain.(Hennessey, p. 176). The reign of General O”Reilly  lasted more than a decade 
and set an Irish pattern of immigration to the Big  Easy (Íomhá sámh, Image of 
Peace) that was to persist and grow for more than a  century.  In 1860 the US 
Federal Census reported that 14% of the population  of New Orleans was 
Irish-born, equaling exactly the  percentage of African  Americans (7% free, 7% 
slave) in the population. If we add in the  invisible second, third, and even 
fourth-generation Irish-Americans, whose  families  had lived in the port city 
since its birth, it is evident  that on the eve of the Civil War one-fifth to 
one-quarter of the city of New  Orleans was either of Irish or hybrid-Irish 
By the 1820s, New Orleans had become the premier gambling city in the  United 
States and The Tiger (Diagaire, divine) of the Faro (Fiaradh,  Turning) game 
was its gambling god.  From 1835 to the Civil War,  the underworld historian 
Herbert Asbury estimated that between six to eight  hundred  gamblers and 
sure-thing tricksters regularly worked the steamboats  between New Orleans and St. 
Louis. Famous Faro sharpers like Jimmy Fitzgerald,  Gib Cohern, Jim McClane, 
Tom Mackay, Charles Cassidy, Pat Herne, and Price  McGrath were all leading 
members of the loosely organized, hybrid-Irish gambling  clans of New Oreleans. 
In NYC, Big Easy Irishman Pat Herne teamed up with the  expert Faro dealer 
Henry Colton, whose moniker (alias or underworld name)  in Irish, An Rí Ghealltáin 
(pron. Henry Colton),  means “The King  of Wagers.” The man called Henry 
Colton  (An Rí Gealltáin) was the  final arbiter and settler of disputes among 
the highest echelons of New  York City’s Faro gamblers.  (Ibid, p. 235) 
By the mid-19th century the Tiger god of Faro was  prowling the prairies and 
wide open cattle towns of Texas and beyond  to San Francisco of  the Gold 
Rush.  “Faro was the mainstay of every  important gambling house north of the Rio 
Grande River...No other card game or  dice game, not even Poker or Craps, has 
ever achieved the popularity in this  country that faro once enjoyed.” Faro 
also became  the “first medium of  extensive card cheating seen in the United 
States,” and was the foundation upon  which somhaoineach (swank) casinos of 
Saratoga and NYC's world-famous brace  (breith as, pron. breyh hiss, take out or 
plundering) joints like   The Tapis Franc (Tá bís Freang, The Vice is  
Twisting) and The Bal Mabille (Ball Mabáil. Mob’s Spot or  Place) were built.
Daniel Cassidy
Professor of Irish Studies; Co-Director
The Irish Studies Program
New College of California
San Francisco

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