The Sanas of the Irish Art of the Lick

Daniel Cassidy DanCas1 at AOL.COM
Thu Dec 16 16:16:56 UTC 2004

The Irish Art of the "Lick"   

Lick:  To beat. To vanquish. To defeat. To overcome.
Leag, v.t., i. (vn. ~an, pp.  ~tha). Knock down. Demolish. Throw down (as a 
pull down, bring down. Destroy; fell; raze.   (O'Donaill, p.  759, Dineen, p. 
640 Dwelly, p. 574)
Leagan, Vn., demolishing, knocking down, destroying, etc. 

The American Barnhart etymological dictionary oddly relates the "lick"  of 
the tongue, from Old English liccian,  to the "lick" of  defeating, beating and 
demolishing.  "The sense of beat or thrash is  first recorded in 1535, the 
extended sense of overcome or defeat is found in  1800. -- licking, n., beating 
or thrashing (1756)." (Barnhart, p.  593).   

CHUCK: (puts his drink on the bar and clenches his  fists)  “Yeah! Wanta make 
sometin’ of it? (Jeeringly) Don’t  make me laugh! I can lick ten of youse 
wid one  mit!”  (O'Neill, The Iceman Cometh, p. 671)

ANNA: “Don’t you see I’m licked? Why do you  want to go on kicking me.” 
(O'Neill, Anna Christy, p. 72)
YANK: “Home was a licking for me dat’s all. But you  can bet your shoit no 
one’s ever licked me since. Wanter  try it any of youse?”     (O'Neill, The 
Hairy Ape,  p. 211).
LEAG AS ‘LICK’ -- Leagan as Lickin' (knocking down,  demolishing)

Irish-born Heavyweight champion, John "Old Smoke" Morrissey, Tammany Big  
"Shot" (Seod, pron, shod, big chief, a warrior,  fig. a wealthy man)  
congressman, Faro banker, casino  magnate, and owner of the world-famous Saratoga 
racetrack, said it as succinctly  as anyone, when he first appeared in New York City 
in 1849, fresh from the  riverside Irish slum (saol luim, world of poverty) 
neighborhoods of  Troy, NY. 

"I can lick (leag) any man here." 

Morrissey could take his licks, too.  NYC Nativist paramilitary leader  and 
Catholic-hating fanatic, Butcher Bill Poole, bragged (bréag, to lie or  
exaggerate) that he had once "licked Morrissey" in a fight on a downtown NYC  pier 
late one night in 1853. In 1855, "Butcher Bill" himself was licked  (leagtha, 
pp. (pron lag-ha, knocked  down) permanently by one of John Morrissey's cronies 
(comh-róghna,  pron. cuh-rony, fellow-favorites) in the Stanwyck Hotel with a 
.44  caliber slug. 
Under the new dispensation, being handy with a gun trumped  dukin'  
(tuairgín, pron duarkeen, hammering: pounding,  smashing) it out  wit' ya' dukes ( 
Sixty tears later, around the same time Hickey returned to Harry Hope's  
saloon,  Owney "The Killer" Madden would "gun" his way to the leadership of  the 
Hell's Kitchen Gopher (Comhbhá bhfir, pron. Cowha-vir,  Alliance of Men) Gang 
and transform a collection of small Irish street  gangs and local bootleggers 
(búidealaí gar: local bottlers) into a Hell's  Kitchen-based multinational 
bootlegging empire. Today Madden would be a  CEO or an Ambassador. Back then, he 
was the duke of the West  Side.
Like Morrissey, Madden could take a leag (lick), too. Only the licks Madden  
took, like the licks he laid down, were lead. Owney Madden carried five or six 
 "Hudson Duster" slugs in his body until his death in the 1960s in Hot  
Springs, Arkansas. When he died, Owney still owned a big  piece of Hialeah 
Racetrack in Florida,  mirroring  his predecessor, Heavyweight Champion John Morrisey, 
and his financial  stake in Saratoga Racetrack during the Gilded Age. Two 
men, two  similar investment porfolios; two different approaches to the Irish 
American art  of the "leag." 
In the wildly popular Mulligan Guard musical  comedies of the 1880 and 90s, 
leag as "lick" takes first place as the most  frequently used American-Irish 
dialect word. The characters are constantly  threatening to "lick" one another. 
Men "lick" political rivals, wives "lick"  husbands, and kids "lick" each 
other. The play is also filled with comedic  "licks" and musical "licks" laid down 
(leag, to lay down) by the foundational  Irish American team of  Harrigan and 
Dan Mulligan  [Aside ] "Tommy, I'll  lick him after the ball!"    (Edward 
Harrigan,  The Mulligan Guard, 1878, no pg.) 
In another Gaelic-American dialect classic, The Adventures of  Huckleberry 
Finn, written by Twain at the same time Harrigan  wrote the Mulligan Guard 
plays, "lick" also takes top honors as the  most frequently used Irish and 
Scots-Gaelic dialect word.  
"[Pap] told me to mind about that school, because he was going to lay for  me 
and lick me if I didn't drop that."     (Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, p. 
Today leag is mainly a "lickin' on a child's behind" or a  musician's lick  
(leag, to lay down), laid down in  a rhythmic or musical riff.  That's my leag. 
Daniel Cassidy
The Irish Studies Program
New College of California
San Francisco
12.16. 04

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