Recently I had a party. It was a pretty fun party, at least from my point of view; people drank beer, smoked on my fire escape, and congregated by the window air conditioning unit in my bedroom. I invited some new friends and old friends and they seemed to get along and I didn’t get in trouble with my landlord or my upstairs neighbor. As the party wound down late but at what in New York seems to be considered a reasonable hour (1:30 am) a friend came over and said to me, confidentially, “I’m going to make an Irish exit.” I was a little confused but nodded encouragingly. Then she turned to the two people I was talking to and said, “I’m making an Irish exit! See you soon!” She continued down the hallway, saying goodbye to at least three more people and, presumably, touting her imminent Irish exit.
Now, as should be obvious, this was not an Irish exit. An Irish exit is when you silently walk into the night. An Irish exit is when you say, “Let me grab another drink,” and then disappear, never to be seen again, at least until the following Saturday. An Irish exit is what my parents used to do when they hosted parties; if it got too late, one of them would turn to the other and say, “I’m going to go get a sweater.” Then the sweater retriever would go to bed while the guests continued to drink their beer and wine, and the other would eventually join. (Once, a houseguest got so annoyed at being abandoned with my parents’ tenacious party guests that she went into their bedroom and turned on the light, demanding that at least one host come downstairs immediately to deal with the ongoing revelry.)
My friend, on the other hand, said goodbye to at least six people, probably more, before making a normal exit from a party that was nearing its conclusion. Yet she felt compelled to say that her goodbye was surreptitious. I discussed this with some other friends a few nights later, and one of them told me that her friend frequently throws up her hands as she leaves a party and announces, “I’m making an Irish exit!” This is in fact an anti-Irish exit, actively calling attention to one’s own departure by making an announcement. Another friend said that a friend had recently left a part without warning, successfully Irish exiting, only to return guiltily a few minutes later to say goodbye.
The point of an artful Irish exit is obvious: it avoids pain and awkwardness on the part of a person doing the leaving. Etiquette manuals maintain that leaving unannounced is rude; in case you are still consulting your Emily Post, it has even been updated to condemn ghosting, the much-maligned digital equivalent of an Irish goodbye. Meanwhile, there are a whole host of articles on the internet positing that this is actually the best way to leave a large gathering, because to say goodbye in the middle is only to drag the momentum down. I am personally of the opinion that you should leave a party more or less however you want to.
As it turns out, there is nothing specifically Irish about an Irish exit, or at the very least, many cultures have been blamed for making off in poor taste. It is also sometimes called the “French leave” — though in France, there is the concept of filer à l’anglaise, or “to leave like the English.” “The Dutch goodbye” and “the Swedish exit” are also in circulation, according to Urban Dictionary. All of these play to various ethno-cultural stereotypes to describe what is essentially a pretty common practice around the world. In England and America, the preferred framework for describing this phenomenon is through the lens of Irishness — both “Irish goodbye” and “Irish exit” are common. One theory is that it’s a joke about Irish drunkenness-- as in, Patrick got too wasted to remember to say goodbye! He nodded off at the dinner table early in the evening! A much darker theory, and a less popular one, is that it has its origins in the Potato Famine, when many Irish people, some of my ancestors among them, left the country never to return, often with few means of communicating with relatives. One writer, describing this period of emigration, wrote, “The departure was sudden and absolute.”
I have been thinking about that line. It succinctly summarizes an exit that my great-great grandfather made when he was a young child, a dramatic schism about which he had no choice. Arguably this sentence also pinpoints the most basic and terrifying fact of life, which is that we are all moving toward an exit that is both sudden and absolute. There is nothing to be done about this.
Are all goodbyes rehearsals for this final one? It would be too dramatic to insist on this, but I do think there’s a shade of deep fear embedded in many of our goodbyes. There is an anxiety about when, and even whether, we will see one another again. How can we honor this moment of leave-taking appropriately, the moment when we go from present to absent? To commit to the Irish Goodbye is to insist on being remembered at your best — telling a joke on the balcony, mixing a good cocktail at the bar — rather than at the always-awkward departure, rummaging through a great pile of coats before struggling into your own. But it is also to forgo all possible entreaties to stay a bit longer, have one more drink, tell one more joke. There is something enviable about this certainty and singularity. Perhaps this is why someone might insist loudly that they are Irish exiting, pretending to leave without saying goodbye even as this constitutes its own kind of farewell.
The fact is that there are rarely good goodbyes, or graceful ones. Even the other night, as I was leaving the bar where friends and I were talking about poorly executed Irish exits, we spent far too long saying our goodbyes. We all live in more or less the same neighborhood, though some of us will be in and out of town for a while. So we lingered at the bar, saying protracted farewells before it became clear that many of us were actually walking in the same direction. We continued on, sheepish and awkward, before repeating our routine. I thought enviously in that moment of another friend who had been at my party. “Hey, can you hold my beer?” he said to our other friend. “Be right back,” he said to me.” Then he walked out into the night and did not return.
Sophie Haigney is a journalist and critic.