Secret language of Irish Stonemasons and Tinkers
Not long ago I ran across a paper from 1909 that appeared in Vol. XXII of the Journal of American Folklore that discusses a semi-secret language, or dialect used by Irish stonemasons. The author says it “is a secret language spoken only by stone-masons, they all claim.” I call it “semi-secret” because the author suggests it is closely related to “Shelta” the dialect of old Irish used by the tinkers or traveler people of Ireland. He cites one scholar:
“There is, or was, spoken within the memory of men now living, a Gaelic idiom in Ireland, called ‘bearla lagair,’ or ‘bearla lagair na saor,’ an artificial or technical cant, jargon, or gibberish used by masons and pedlers, beggars, etc.” (-Kuno Meyer, Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society, January, 1891, vol. 2, No. 5).
The author interviewed a number of older Irish stonemasons in the area of Boston, Massachusetts and found that they could speak this dialect they called “Bearla lagair na saor.” The folklore surrounding it claimed that it was a jargon or “cant” that was orginally invented by Goban Saor, the legendary Irish stonemason and bard that I discussed in February 2019. He said that over a dozen of the stonemasons he spoke to told the same related folktales with the same details and that “a large number of other old Irishmen knew there was such a mason’s talk called ” Bearla lagair,” and many of these same traditions and folk-tales. It is clear that such was common knowledge among large numbers in Ireland.”
Something that should be of interest to Freemasons is that learning this “secret” language seemed to go along with becoming an apprentice, journeyman and eventually a master stonemason in Ireland.
“Apprentices obtained from a master-mason first papers, second papers, and finally a third paper, called an “indenture,” and an increase of wages with each paper. No apprentice was entitled to his indenture until he could speak the “Bearla lagair.” They were forbidden to teach it to any one not a mason, even to a member of their own family. No stone-mason would work on any job except with members of the order. This language identified them.”
He goes on…
“They also had secret signs, methods of handling their trowels, squares, and other tools, ways of pointing, and laying and smoothing mortar, which indicated a member, without a word being spoken. Meetings were held, from which strangers were excluded by posted sentinels. Any member who had broken a rule of the craft could be tried and punished. Some of these rules were designed to protect the health; and the tradition is, that in olden times masons had the right to, and did, punish occasionally with the death penalty. They were a powerful order, and at that time contained a large class of the most intelligent men of the time. The mason’s trade was perhaps the most important craft.”
Although it seems that it was not all that “secret”: “The hedge schoolmasters, some horse-trainers, the professional match-makers, sieve-makers, hacklers, bag-pipers, story-tellers, itinerant knife-grinders, and other classes who always have wandered about in Ireland, living largely upon the well-known hospitality and open houses of the Irish farmers, often speak the mason’s talk.” -Or it overlapped enough with “Shelta” that they understood one another?
The author says more than once that the tinker’s jargon, or Shelta, is an “artificial” language based partially on old Irish, sometimes with extra syllables prefixed or inserted into a word. It also seems to have included some “back slang” -words are spoken as though they were spelled backward (e.g., redraw for warder ). The Bearla lagair, or mason’s talk seems to be related to Shelta, but the masons seem to have used a much larger proportion of undisguised Old-Irish words as well as archaic words which had dropped out of use.
The Irish-American stonemasons he met who learned their trade in the U.S. did not know Bearla lagair and some had not even heard of it. But he was informed there were small gangs of stonemasons who used it every day among themselves who were working on large building projects from Massachusetts to Maine. It would be interesting to learn if any of it is still used among Irish stonemasons today, and if any of it may have filtered into the traditions of Irish Freemasonry.