When Christopher Hitchens debated Bill Donohue on Hardball the discussion got heated and for lack of moderation they often talked over each other. Donohue (presumably Irish-American) said first that

An Englishman has to be quiet when an Irishman talks

and then a bit later when the same situation arose he said similarly that

as an Englishman, again, you have to be quiet when an Irishman... I'm an Irishman.

But what is the story behind this expression?

When I went looking for an explanation I noticed that even native English speakers who'd blogged about this debate seemed perplexed.

  • Perhaps I should say that the assumption that it is an expression is mine; it just seems a little bit too condescending and aggressive not to be, especially since Donohue is an Irish-American and Hitchens is an actual brit. – user77220 Feb 14 '15 at 9:28
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    Christopher Hitchens was a Brit (he died recently) and if I'm not mistaken he became an American citizen. – Mari-Lou A Feb 14 '15 at 9:32
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    In New York City, it is not (or only very slightly) rude to interrupt when another person is talking. In England, at least among the upper classes, I believe it is quite rude. I don't know the etiquette in Ireland. But I expect Donohue is generalizing from New York City Irish etiquette to general Irish etiquette. – Peter Shor Feb 14 '15 at 17:09
  • I can’t seem to get past the paragraph immediately preceding your actual question. Neither can I move on without comment. You may have a legitimate question here, or you may be merely fomenting divisiveness, I can’t tell yet. What I do know is that you’ve included some unnecessary generalizations which are not germane to your putative question. Care to clarify? – user98990 Feb 15 '15 at 1:01
  • I appreciate your willingness to adapt. Have you heard about the trouble the news anchor Brian Williams has created for himself? Otherwise honorable people get on these TV shows and strict truth gets lost in the glare of the cameras. Thank you, Pickett. Now I can +1 your question. – user98990 Feb 15 '15 at 1:54

You are right. The expression "an Englishman has to be quiet when an Irishman talks" has no origin or history.It seems that it is Mr. Donohue's neologism, probably coined at that moment to rebuke Christopher Hitchens.

In my area we have a similar saying with a different meaning---" when a mad person speaks the listener should exercise discretion!"

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    When Mr. Donohue speaks, it is more as a madman than an Irishman. I think your saying fits the context perfectly, – Rache Feb 15 '15 at 1:50

I cannot find a direct reference to this saying outside the televised conversation. However, I did find an oblique reference in George Bernard Shaw's play John Bull's Other Island:

DOYLE (the Irishman): But what's the use of talking to you? Three verses of twaddle about the Irish emigrant "sitting on the stile, Mary," or three hours of Irish patriotism in Bermondsey or the Scotland Division of Liverpool, go further with you than all the facts that stare you in the face. Why, man alive, look at me! You know the way I nag, and worry, and carp, and cavil, and disparage, and am never satisfied and never quiet, and try the patience of my best friends.

BROADBENT (the Englishman): Oh, come, Larry! do yourself justice. You're very amusing and agreeable to strangers.

DOYLE. Yes, to strangers. Perhaps if I was a bit stiffer to strangers, and a bit easier at home, like an Englishman, I'd be better company for you.

Whether Mr. Donohue was referring to some misremembered Shaw or expressing some phraseological neologism with a pugilistic flourish remains a question best put to himself.


The thing with "Irish stuff" is that most of it (as Shaw liked to show) is just made up. The world is full of alleged Irish sayings, songs, words, gibberish that just isn't Irish at all. Some of it might be a mistranslation of a mistranslation of an anglo-irish saying, but some are just made up. Such as "power to your elbow" and "top o' the morning" and such. If you go to certain areas of Ireland you will probably hear many harsh comments on brits. Might be Donohue picked it up from a grandparent.

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