“Top o’ the Morning:” Myth and Reality

Irish sunriseFew dialect myths rankle more people than the purported Irish phrase, “top o’ the morning.”  Any Irish person will inform you that they have never, ever heard even one of their countrymen utter these words. So where did the greeting come from, and why is it so ubiquitous in popular culture?

Like many such terms, “top o’ the morning” appears to be more archaic than outright apochryphal. Snooping around some old threads at the Daltai forum, commenters provide fascinating examples of the greeting in literature. For example, this poem from Henry Newbolt, written during World War I (emph. mine):

So I laughed, and felt quite well disposed to the youngster,
And shouted out “the top of the morning” to him,
And wished him “Good sport!”—and then I remembered
My rank, and his, and what I ought to be doing:
And I rode nearer, and added, “I can only suppose
You have not seen the Commander-in-Chief’s order
Forbidding English officers to annoy their Allies
By hunting and shooting.”

From the context of the poem, you may notice that Newbolt is English, rather than Irish. This would suggest that “top o’ the morning” was heard in various parts of the British Isles. Regardless of how widespread the phrase once was, it doesn’t seem exclusive to Hiberno-English.

Then there’s this quote, from the oddly-titled novel Knocknagow – The Homes of Tipperary, written by Irish author Charles J. Kickham in 1879:

They were met by the “man of the house” before they reached the kitchen door, and as he gave a hand to each, Father Hannigan’s hearty “Good-morrow, Maurice,” struck Mr. Lowe as being admirably in keeping with his appearance. And the words —”The top of the morning to you, Miss Grace,” suggested the idea that Father Hannigan affected the phraseology of the peasantry.

So it appears “top o’ the morning” was indeed spoken in  the Victorian era (at the latest), although Kickham suggests that the phrase was already something of an affectation.  While I can’t put a date on when “TotM” started to recede, a rough guess might put its extinction at some point in the early 20th-Century. Just how widespread the phrase was (if ever) is unclear to me.

To be honest, though, I’m not terribly interested in when “top o’ the morning” disappeared from Irish English so much as how this phrase entered the American consciousness. What in popular culture gave us the idea that “top o’ the morning” is the standard Irish “hello?”

One popular theory blames the famous Lucky Charms Leprechaun from American television ads. But the evidence is shaky. It doesn’t seem that anyone Irish was involved in the original ad campaign (the man who voiced the Leprechaun wasn’t even of Irish descent).  When the campaign first ran, in the early 1960’s, it’s likely that Americans already associated “top o’ the morning” with Irishness.

I’d guess, then, that the myth originates with an earlier source, perhaps a film for which the screenwriter had an unusually nuanced understanding of Hiberno-English. The Quiet Man might be a candidate, as it was co-written by an actual Irishman, Maurice Walsh. That being said, I haven’t seen the film in years and can’t say if the phrase is even anywhere in the script.

Does anyone know how “top o’ the morning” entered the lexicon of semi-mythical dialect phrases?

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About Ben

Ben Trawick-Smith launched his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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15 Responses to “Top o’ the Morning:” Myth and Reality

  1. Amy Stoller says:

    The expression seems to have originated in England; its use is recorded as far back as the 18th century, and shows up in a number of English novels (including Treasure Island) of the 19th century. My guess (and it’s only a guess) is that it was introduced into Ireland via colonialism. It’s unquestionably obsolete in Ireland now, and why popular American culture fastened on it as a “typical” Irish expression is anyone’s guess.

    OED
    13. Of time: The earliest part of a period; the beginning.

    c1440 Pallad. on Husb. III. 1000 In thende of Octob’r, or in the toppe [orig. inicio] Of Novemb’r. 1669 WORLIDGE Syst. Agric. (1681) 98 A mellifluous Army of Bees, from the top of the morning, till the cool and dark evening. 1825 HONE Every-day Bk. I. 403/1 The dawn is awakened by a cry in the streets of ‘Hot-cross-buns; one-a-penny buns..!’ This proceeds from some little ‘peep-o’-day boy’, willing to take the ‘top of the morning’ before the rest of his compeers.

    17. a. The best or choicest part; the cream, flower, pick. Now esp. in the top of the morning, as an Irish morning greeting (cf. 13).

    1663 BP. PATRICK Parab. Pilgr. xiv. (1687) 96 A conjunction of the very top and flower of the mind with the beginning and original of all good. 1668 BP. HOPKINS Serm., Vanity (1685) 99 The soul, next to angels, is the very top and cream of the whole creation. 1757 W. THOMPSON R.N. Advoc. 44 Which their..Friends, the top of the Physical Faculty can verify. 1815 SCOTT Guy M. iv, The top of the morning to you, sir. 1843 LEVER J. Hinton lviii, Captain, my darling, the top of the morning to you! 1894 Westm. Gaz. 10 Apr. 2/3 A ‘top of the basket’ young lady, like Lady Anne, would have been married long before the curtain rises.

    Don’t get me started on Lucky Charms. Or Irish Springs.

  2. Amy Stoller says:

    Sorry, I should have written 19th century, not 18th. Although I did see a reference somewhere to its use in the late 18th, but I can’t find it now. As a descriptive term, rather than a greeting, you see it dating at least to 1681 (as per OED, above).

    • trawicks says:

      Oh yeah, it’s atrocious. It’s unfortunate that many Americans’ only reference point for Irish English is an American actor putting on a ridiculous “leprechaun” voice.

  3. boynamedsue says:

    The American Thespian Hibernian accent seems today to be dying out, any quality programme will now take the trouble to get a little closer to the real thing. Perhaps its last hurrah was the Village of the Stereotypes on Startrek NG, which was forgivable as it was a holosuite programme rather than a real representation of Ireland.

    I have a feeling that ATH actually has a lot in common with Brito-American Thespian Pirate. It probably began as a faithful(ish) representation by New York and Boston actors of how 19th century Irish immigrants spoke. Given the fact Hiberno-English has changed greatly since the foundation of the Republic, and many immigrants at this time were actually Irish monolinguals who never learned HE, it is not surprising that the accent they came up with was different from how Irish people in Ireland spoke in 1900, never mind today.

    By the 1930’s this representation theatrical dialect had become institutionalised, and while the people who originally spoke like this had by now changed to more American pronunciations, and new arrivals spoke with more modern Irish accents, actors still used the accent that actors had always used to represent the stereotype of an Irishman. The arrival of talkies and sound cartoons further entrenched this dialect, and meant that actors had an easy reference to what they thought was an Irish accent.

    That’s how I think it happened anyway. It could just be that actors used to be crap at accents 🙂

    • trawicks says:

      “The American Thespian Hibernian accent seems today to be dying out, any quality programme will now take the trouble to get a little closer to the real thing.”

      Yes and no. As a drama student a mere 10 years ago, this is basically what I learned. It was perhaps not as extreme as the full-on “leprechaun” accent, but it was still an odd pastiche of features that didn’t add up to anything authentic! Thankfully, however, I believe “stage accents” are on the wane.

  4. Jerome Rainey says:

    One theory is that the phrase is a corruption of the Irish (Gaeilge) word an bhainne (of the cream) as an maidne (of the morning). I don’t know if this is substantiated anywhere.

    Here’s a discussion of it on an Irish language listserv.

  5. MaryM says:

    I’m Irish and many oldish fellas here in Ireland used to day that on an early morning in the 60s ,70s and 80s. I left Ireland in the early 80s.
    The people you listed too on the forums are probably teenieboppers who wouldn’t know.

  6. Kathleen Flaherty says:

    Being a Flaherty doesn’t really make me Irish, but my husband’s “folks” used the expression as far back as I can remember and they WERE IRISH as far back as just about anyone can remember; and that’s good enough for me!

  7. Peter thornley says:

    The Exile’s Return — a poem by John Locke of Callan Co Kilkenny who lived in the 19th century.(quoted by President Ronald Reagan when he visited Ireland)

    ” Tanam chun Dia! but there it is:
    The dawn on the hills of Ireland!
    God’s angels lifting the night’s black veil
    From the fair sweet face of my sireland!
    Oh Ireland, isnt it grand you look
    Like a bride in her rich adornin’!
    With all the pent-up love of my heart
    I bid you the top o’ the morning!

  8. E.P.D. Gaffney says:

    From ‘English as we Speak it in Ireland’, by P.W. Joyce, 1910:
    To the ordinary salutation, ‘Good-morrow,’ which is heard everywhere, the usual response is ‘Good-morrow kindly.’ ‘Morrow Wat,’ said Mr. Lloyd. ‘Morrow kindly,’ replied Wat. (‘Knocknagow.’) ‘The top of the morning to you’ is used everywhere, North and South.

    Irish emigrants brought the phrase to America, where it continued to be used by future generations and then became commercialised. (A tiny bit of that may be my own conjecture that solidified in my head some years back, but I’m certain most of it’s true.) The phrase was dying out in the 20th century, but you could still hear it in the 1970s from older folks. I doubt it’s said now by anyone, and I think some of that is quite related to its association with what commercialisation has led much of the world to believe represents Irish culture (leprechauns and Irish folk music and shillelahs and all that), from which more and more people have been distancing themselves. Young urban people have been known to shun even the music, and that is some fine music so it is.

  9. DOES ANYONE KNOW THE FULL GREETING VERSE OF–TOP O THE MORNIN–AS I CAN’T FIND THE FULL VERSE..THANK YOU..BAZ.

    • E.P.D. Gaffney says:

      I’ve always heard ‘And the rest of the day to you’, but in older texts I’ve often seen ‘Top o’ the morning’ said back to the first person, as well as a number of clever responses which I expect were composed for the text and were not in general use. There’s an English one I like which is, ‘And the bottom of the Thames to you.’ But I expect that as well was composed for the text and not a common expression.

  10. Sean says:

    I’m a Kiwi and we use the phrase over here… especially the older folks. We don’t use it ironically or anything, we just always have according to my grandfather. The newer generations don’t say it that much anymore, though.

  11. Margaret Squires says:

    The phrase certainly pre-dates the Lucky Charms leprechaun. My grandfather (born in the late 1800’s, died about 1963), and my father (b. 1907, d. 2000) used to greet us kids on St. Patrick’s Day morning with the following mysterious phrases:
    “The top o’ the marnin’ to ya; and the top to O’Casey too.
    The pigs ran over th’ garden, a-tearin’ up the turnips and a-frightenin’ the children,
    crying “whuff, whuff, whuff!’ ”

    Where they got this little set piece, I don’t know. We have Scots-Irish background but I don’t recall hearing tale of any family directly from Ireland. I would love to know the origin not only of the phrase “Top o’ the morning to you”, but also the rest of this traditional family nonsense saying.

  12. Deb says:

    This was used in Theodore Cyphon, or, The benevolent Jew: a novel, Volume 3 by George Walker, published in 1796. The protagonist is greeted not long after landing on the shore of Essex: “Halloo ! you teney” cried one, ” the top of the morning to you. Have you seen pass a tall chap, in a light blue coat, with striped trowsers.” That takes it back to the 18th century. George Walker was an English Novelist. 1771 – 1847.