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I had never heard or read the term moth hour before, but am reading the American author Jan Karon's book "In the Company of Others" and she uses it several times. The book is set in Ireland, and there are entries from an old diary scattered throughout the story. Here is one excerpt:

I remember how she slit the throat of a Hedgehog which she commanded me to capture & bring to her in a sack--the creature was rolling in fat for the spring & summer had been especially wet & lush and I had often seen him outside his Burrow at the moth hour surveying the land.

I searched and found that William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) used the phrase in his poem The Ballad of Father Gilligan Here are the first two stanzas:

The old priest, Peter Gilligan,

Was weary night and day;

For half his flock were in their beds,

Or under green sods lay.

Once, while he nodded on a chair,

At the moth-hour of eve,

Another poor man sent for him,

And he began to grieve. ...

I can see from this NGram that the height of the use of the term may have coincided with the publication of Yeats' poem. But would he have coined it, or was it in general use and he borrowed it?

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I also noticed that there is a Moth Radio Hour, sometimes known as the Moth Hour, which is all about the art and craft of story-telling . See "Why The Moth?" But it's not really related to the term I'm interested in.

So, after all this, I presume that moth hour is an Irish and maybe British expression. Did Yeats coin it? Is it well known and is it still used? (Do any of you Americans use it?) I also presume it means the hours around dusk, when the moths come out. Is that so?

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Off-topic. Yeats almost certainly coined the term - certainly I can't find any earlier references. But it's not an established idiomatic usage, and most written instances probably allude to The Ballad of Father Gilligan anyway. So basically, this is Lit. Crit., not English Usage. –  FumbleFingers Apr 24 '12 at 16:42
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The term is used in the "country" part of the midwest - I know I have heard it dozens of times in my life. Those guys in their trailers must be closet-Yeats devotees. –  RyeɃreḁd Apr 8 at 6:53
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3 Answers

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Once upon a time in poor rural Ireland there were no such things as clocks. There were few ways to tell the passage of time except for a handful of naturally occurring events. One of those events, occurring nightly at dusk as the last bits of sun slipped away and each morning as the first rays of light broke out over the hills, the skies of the Irish countryside filled with hundreds if not thousands of moths. The moth-hour, while not a literal, formal unit of time, both makes reference to the time around dusk and dawn where moths filled the skies and to those who would measure their days with nature, not numbers.

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Have any source? –  jwpat7 Apr 24 '12 at 17:41
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@jwpat7 Yes. My source is WB Yeats and the fact I can read and that I've lived in the countryside, albeit not Ireland. Yeats' "The Ballad of Father Gilligan" is just about the only modern source for this phrase. In it the 'moth-hour of eve' is a time before the 'stars begin to peep' implying that the 'moth-hour' is at dusk or twilight. And well after Father Gilligan falls asleep, Yeats refers to dawn or daybreak as the 'time of sparrow chirp/When the moths come once more'. If you've ever been in the countryside at dusk or dawn you'd see why it could be called the 'moth-hour' by rural Irishmen. –  Jed Oliver Apr 24 '12 at 18:44
    
So it can be either dawn or dusk? I guess I didn't understand that dawn was included. Also, did Americans ever use this term? –  JLG Apr 28 '12 at 15:38
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@JLG The moth hour is at dawn and dusk, or daybreak and twilight, which is a bit more poetic. Americans never used this term, unless they were Irish immigrants who really liked Yeats. Also Yeats did not coin the term. While looking into the Google N-Gram I discovered that the earliest codified usage, according to Google, is an 1839 translation of [Flavius Josephus][1] which refers to the moth hour of the night. [1]: books.google.com/… –  Jed Oliver May 2 '12 at 19:45
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Another thing to keep in mind on using an Ngram is that it will only tell you if the phrase was written down and Google OCR'd it. If the rural Irish were telling time according to flying insects, they probably weren't writing a whole lot of books. But that is more conjecture than fact, so I digress. –  Jed Oliver May 2 '12 at 19:54
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The American poet Robert Penn Warren wrote the poem "I heard a voice at Moth-Hour" which uses the term to describe dusk. He also uses "dewfall" to mean early morning.

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OED gives the first usage of 'moth-hour' as by Yeats in 'Countess Kathleen' (published 1892, but evidently composed 1890 as that's the date they give.)

Yeats may of course have borrowed it from hearing it used by country folk; but OED also indicates a connection with 'moth-time' a coinage found in the poetry of John Keats:

1820 Keats Lamia i, in Lamia & Other Poems 16 'Now on the moth-time of that evening dim/He would return that way.'

The possibility exists that Yeats got it from Keats.

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