The word ‘knacker’ was not really part of my vocabulary before I moved to study abroad in Ireland. Back then it meant something to do with horses and glue, because, for some reason, somehow, I think of glue in connection to dead horses, to their carcasses. Apparently, that’s what a ‘knacker’ is or at least was, considering that there isn’t much of a demand for someone who is in the business of horse carcass disposal. That’s all industrial these days. A dictionary, in this case the Oxford English Dictionary, tells us that a knacker (OED, s.v. “knacker”, n.3) is:
“A harness-maker; a saddler.”
Or (OED, s.v. “knacker”, n.3):
“One whose trade it is to buy worn out, diseased, or useless horses, and slaughter them for their hides and hoofs, and for making dog’s-meat, etc.; a horse-slaughterer. knacker’s yard[.]”
And, by extension (OED, s.v. “knacker”, n.3):
“One who buys old houses, ships, etc., for the sake of their materials, or what can be made of them.”
You can also say that you are ‘knackered’ to indicate that you are very tired, exhausted or fatigued, kind of like worn out. That said, that’s not how it is (or at least was) used in Ireland.
In the Irish context, it’s been used to refer to Irish travelers, albeit I never heard it used that way when I was living in Ireland. I assume the connection comes from dealing with horses, in the first sense, as it would make sense that nomads know how to make everything related to horses. That said, it’s generally considered a pejorative. My guess is that it’s because it conjures images of people whose livelihoods depend on carcasses. The point is that the trade of selling horse carcasses for scrap comes across as generally disreputable, even though that was a job that someone had to do back in the day. Dead horses needed to be disposed and someone was willing to do that.
To be clear, someone still has to take care of dead animals, just as someone needs to take care of dead people. There are people who specialize in cleaning up after dead bodies (in the most general sense of the word) or what’s left of them anyway, possibly partially decomposed, in conditions that make your stomach turn, but we simply don’t really talk about them and if we do talk about them, for some reason, we don’t think of them as disreputable. Sure, it’s not pretty, but someone has to do it. I don’t think there’s a lot of people who want to specialize in dealing with biohazards.
I’d say this is also the case with people in waste disposal. I remember it being considered a disreputable job, but, well, I don’t think it as viewed in that way. Judging by the average salary per month calculation, it sure doesn’t look that way either. You make better money doing that than you do by doing a doctorate, regardless of whether you are salaried or on grant money.
Anyway, be as it may, horses or no horses, travelers or not, the word ‘knacker’ was typically used as a pejorative in Ireland and I assume that it still is used in that way. So, what or who did the locals call ‘knackers’? In my experience it was used in reference to any dodgy, shady or questionable character. That was the general sense of it. But it was also used in reference to people from the lower socio-economic classes. That was the specific sense of it. I’d say that’s still too broad, not to mention discriminatory. My sense of it was that it combined those two. I reckon it was used in reference to any dodgy, shady or questionable character from the lower socio-economic classes. There was also something showy and bold about such characters. I’m tempted to say that a ‘knacker’ is someone who wears brand sneakers and track suits, accessorized by shiny jewelry, and sport short, neatly trimmed haircuts, but, then again, in my experience a lot of people wear sports clothing in Ireland. I was also told that brand sports clothing was typically seen as a sign of affluence, so no, I don’t think it was just that. I’d say a ‘knacker’ also had to be someone rowdy. There was something very masculine about it. It had that ‘machismo’ to it, if you know what I mean. I can’t say that I’d associate it with women, but that’s, perhaps, because women tend to be, well, kept at home, so that you won’t encounter them that much, which is why I think of men when that word is used.
Unless I’m mistaken, what people meant by a ‘knacker’ was more or less what others call a ‘chav’ in the English context or a ‘gopnik’ in the Russian context. The problem is, of course, that not everyone who looks like what people typically associate with those words cause any problems. They are sort of sloppy shorthands for people you’ve been taught to disapprove. I remember being on train, sitting next to two guys who matched that description. To be honest, it was strange at first, but that was only because we, the foreign students, had been told not to associate with such people and there I was sitting next to them for, what, two hours. But, as the time passed, it was clear to me that it was just a label that people were in the habit of using to distance themselves from people from the lower socio-economic classes, to be sure that they themselves are not labeled as such. Those guys were probably in their late twenties or early thirties. They enthusiastically talked about their trip to England, how they went to see their favorite football team, I believe it was Liverpool, play against some other team, which I believe was Manchester United. There was nothing odd, nor hostile about that encounter. The only odd or hostile thing was my prejudice.
Now, of course, just because I happened to encounter a couple of nice guys doesn’t mean that everyone who share their background is a nice guy. Obviously not. The point I’m making is that you’ll run into all kinds of people, regardless of whether they wear a tracksuit or a suit.
Elaine Vaughan and Máiréad Moriarty address this issue, what people in Ireland call ‘knackers’, in their 2018 book chapter ‘Voicing the ‘Knacker’: Analysing the Comedy of the Rubberbandits’. They (14) summarize what I just covered:
“These social orders themselves are based on normative understandings of certain accents, registers and other behaviours indexing, for example, criminal behaviour or particular social groups.”
Indeed, what counts as a ‘knacker’ to people is based on certain normativity. Particular social group, in this case certain deprived socio-economic group, forms this basis, mixed with certain behavior that is deemed anti-social, if not criminal, as exhibited by some, but not all members of that group.
I also agree with Vaughan and Moriarty (13-14) that the Rubberbandits, a Limerick based duo, does an excellent job at appropriating and adapting “artefacts from other urban communities’, which, in this case, happens to center around the “‘Limerick knacker’”. They lampoon and glorify it in a way that, nonetheless, isn’t really offensive, as Vaughan and Moriarty (13-14) point out. It’s an interesting thing really. You can’t take them seriously, yet there is something serious about it. They wear supermarket plastic bags over their heads, which is funny in itself. They do that to remain anonymous, but I’d say they also do that because it’s an act, a performance. The serious part has to do with how they deal with serious issues. But why look at serious issues linked to the ‘Limerick knacker’ through humor? Isn’t it bound to come across as disrespectful and offensive? Well, this is a tough one. Sure, what they do or have done can come across as such, at least to some people. Then again, the humor of their performance allows them to avoid glorying the ‘Limerick knacker’, ignoring the negative aspects, while it also allows them to avoid reveling in those negative aspects, from doing poverty porn, from presenting people like curiosities to be ogled at, like in some sort of a circus or a human zoo. I think this is particularly important when doing something that is seen as comedic or entertaining, because there’s the risk of coming across as glorifying something like street violence or substance abuse, taking it for granted, or as profiting from people’s misery.
Now, I won’t get into details about the background of the duo. You can look that up yourself. Vaughan and Moriarty also cover that for their academic audience, but you can just look them up and get the gist. Okay, you might not get their humor, but you should be able to get the gist of their performance. Oh, and yes, it is for sure their performance. They are performers, artists, so no, don’t go thinking they spend their days wearing plastic bags over their heads. It’s part of their act, not their life. Also, keep in mind that what they did ten years ago was what they did ten years ago, as a performance. They might not, no longer do some of the stuff they did back then. While they are an act, a performance, even that act or performance evolves, morphs into something else.
I was there, in Limerick, in 2010 and 2011 when their single ‘Horse Outside’ became a hit. I remember being told by other foreign students about it. It got played a few times. I was like okay. It was more of a thing for my friends who had attended some introductory course to Irish language (Gaeilge) and history. I don’t know who ran the course, but I remember them saying that whoever it was knew the Rubberbandits and, I think, they also said he had been on the ‘Horse Outside’ music video. Anyway, I wasn’t there, on that course, so I can’t be sure. It’s just hearsay. Anyway, be as it may, I got hooked on their performances, the ‘Guide to …’ stuff they did for RTÉ, for the Irish national broadcaster.
As a quick recap, the gist of the song and the video is that ‘knackers’ have horses. Cars are only cars, but horses are always horses. Oh, and yes, that’s not made up. Some people in Limerick do keep horses. If you ventured close to certain areas where we were told not to go, you could spot a horse or two.
They made a number of other songs, but, to my knowledge, none of them were hits. Then again, something tells me that they didn’t really care if their music was popular or not. As far as I know, they didn’t really even make money from their songs or albums, which, I know, is also the case with just about every musician these days. The singles and the albums don’t really sell nor is there any proper money to be made from streaming. It’s all about the gigs, which aren’t happening right now and no one knows when they’ll happen again.
To my knowledge, they don’t make music that much these days, as each has their own projects. I guess the Rubberbandits is a thing that they do when they feel like doing it. When it happens, it happens. Otherwise, it doesn’t. Blind Boy has that podcast which I listen to at times. I don’t know how to explain what his podcast is about. It’s a little bit of this and a little bit of that. I guess it’s about whatever happens to interest him. I’d say it’s easier to just listen to his podcast than to read what I have to say about it.
Anyway, is Limerick a ‘knacker’ city or ‘Knackeragua’? Well, it’s often assumed that it is, that’s it’s worst city in the whole country, its asshole, as I remember someone from Galway pointing out to us. Then again, I’d say no. What I liked about Limerick was that the people didn’t seem to cater to my presence, nor to anyone else’s for that matter. They weren’t trying to sell you some image of themselves or their city. They weren’t trying to sell you anything, really. In contrast, in some other cities or towns, people appeared to be interested in you, but that only lasted until you had completed the transaction. So, yeah, I never felt like I was a tourist or a customer in Limerick because there wasn’t much to see, as such, nor much to sell, except all kinds of everyday stuff that you also get elsewhere. Sure, there are some shady areas, gangland culture and that all, no doubt about it, and I believe someone got shot just down the street from where we lived, no point glossing over that, but that’s not the whole story. I had some interesting encounters with people I met in stores, pubs, at the university, to name some places. I wish I had engaged more with them, but that’s on me, not on them, really.
The local pub owner treated us well, not because we were frequent customers, which we were, but because we brought more than just money to that establishment. I’d say that we also served the locals, in some odd capacity. We kept company to the local regulars at the pub, who seemed like they were always there but in reality weren’t, they just happened to be around when we happened to be around. They had interesting stories to tell, even though, at times, we’d hear the stories they had already told us. Then again, it wasn’t about hearing one story after another, but also about the way the stories were told.
There was also that dark, wavy or curly haired student who kept saying hi to me, knowing my name, every time I passed her on campus or on my way to campus. I have no idea how she knew me, by name. I guess I should have asked.
The local students taking geography courses were also nice. They didn’t have to be. They could have just ignored me and the other foreign students, but they didn’t. Again, I probably should have engaged more with them, but I didn’t.
Anyway, my point is that I for sure didn’t feel like I was living in some hell hole. I can’t say that it was all pure bliss, because it wasn’t, but I wasn’t expecting it to be. I don’t know about others and maybe it’s an unpopular opinion, but I like places with character, even if part of that character is a bit questionable. What I don’t like is posing, giving you a great impression that only lasts as long as your money lasts.
So, it’s only fitting how Vaughan and Moriarty (35) conclude their book chapter by pointing out that “the idea of knacker, and indeed the notion of the Limerick knacker, does not exist as a person but rather as a concept, much like similar labels from other cultures” and it functions “to distance the middle class from the working class along lines of distinction and taste.” I’d say that this also applies more broadly to Limerick itself, or, rather, how it is presented by others in order to distance themselves from it, not because have something to say about the city, but because it allows them to disassociate themselves from certain socioeconomic group or groups of people in order to come across as associating with certain privileged socioeconomic group or groups of people. In short, it’s like self-elevation, putting others down in order to look like you are above them, even though you haven’t moved at all.
- Oxford English Dictionary Online (n. d.). Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.
- The Rubberbandits (2010). Horse Outside (The Rubberbandits, Wr., Pr.). Location unknown: Lovely Men.
- Vaughan, E., and M. Moriarty (2018). ‘Voicing the ‘Knacker’: Analysing the Comedy of the Rubberbandits’. In D. Villaneuva Romero, C. P. Amador-Moreno and M. Sánchez García (Eds.), Voice and Discourse in the Irish Context (pp.13–45). Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan.