“This may come as a surprise to generations of Irish pupils, but the Irish language wasn’t invented just to infuriate people forced to learn it at school. It was invented to do the same job as every other language, to bring people together so they could build villages and share food and have sex with each other, and shout “Oh no, the Vikings are coming!” when the Vikings appeared and all the other basic things that languages are invented to do.” – Darach Ó Séaghdha
“Tá siad ansin ó bhí an diabhal ina pháiste.” They’re there since the devil was a child; a phrase indicating things that have been around a very long time. Irish is full of such phrases, one of my favorites is, “Bhí a inchinn sa leathcheann aige.” His brain was tilted to one side of his head, used to describe someone who had a drop or two too many!
It was (and still is), the poetry of the language that drew me in. The phrase used for thank you, go raibh maith agat, translates to, may there be good at you, or go mo leithsceal: accept my half story, when excuse me would be appropriate in English.
Some of the best examples of this poetic aspect of Irish can be found in nouns. One of the many names for a puddle is lochán uisce; loch is the word for lake, lochán is a small lake or pond and uisce is water, so lochán uisce is a little lake of water.
Tree Dogs, Banshee Fingers and Other Irish Words for Nature
In his new book, “Tree Dogs, Banshee Fingers and Other Irish Words for Nature,” writer and documentary maker Manchán Magan gives us a further glimpse of this lyrical facet as it pertains to nature. In the introduction, he says that Irish words are often more child friendly than their English counterparts when describing animals or things “with the open curiosity of a young person rather than with the categorizing instincts of a neologist.”
The book is not a dictionary, but more of an introduction. Each word is translated and is followed by a brief essay containing alternate words used in naming the thing, along with some interesting information. My favorite passages are the ones concerning animals, where the use of the Irish word for dog, madra, is used.
A tree dog, madra crainn, is one of the names for a squirrel, crann being the name for tree. A cat crainn or tree cat is a pine marten, an example of Irish words describing the appearance of things. Madra rua, or red dog, is one of the names for a fox. Madra allta, wild dog, is a wolf, also called mac tíre, son of the land. Madra uisce is a water dog, sometimes called dobharchú or water hound; in English, an otter.
Magan’s book is full of information but is presented is such a concise and fun way, that even if your interest in the language is very casual, you can’t help but enjoy it. An earlier book by Magan, “Thirty-Two Words for Field,” I also recommend for any lover of nature or Irish language enthusiast.
A History of Ireland in 100 Words
“A History of Ireland in 100 Words,” I included in my Top Ten Books of 2021. The authors, Sharon Arbuthnot, Máire Ní Mhaonaigh and Gregory Toner, took one hundred words from the Irish language and wrote a page or two on each one.
Last month, I spoke briefly about the lack of a word for yes or no in Irish. In Irish, the positive or negative version of the verb used in posing a question must be used in the response to answer correctly. In the final entry in their book, the old Irish word tó is discussed.
Tó was used as a universal positive response to any question. Náthó was used as a negative response, or refusal to something. These words have not survived in modern Irish, but some other stategies are offered to deal with questions.
Interjections, such as abair é, indeed, or gan amhras, without doubt, can be used as positive responses. Is ea or sea (iss-shah or shah) are derived from an early phrase, is ed ón, meaning that it is, and can be used for positive responses.
The entire book is a wealth of information of Irish history, geography, culture and of course, language. This is a great book for anyone interested in learning more about the Irish language and their heritage.
The final book I want to share with you, has been one of my favorites and I revisit it often. The writer, Darach Ó Séaghdha has a style reminiscent of Bill Bryson or Dave Barry, a dry humor and a lot of personal experience with life and the Irish language.
“Motherfhoclóir, Dispatches From a Not so Dead Language,” is a completely different approach to sharing the love of the Irish language the author has with others. He calls the book, “ a playground of language,” as he talks about the origins of words, their meaning and what, to beginning students of the language, appear to be strange spellings. There are chapters on place names, lost words, seanfhocail, and words that sound or remind us of something else.
He starts the book with a favorite quote of mine by David Bowie. “Don’t you love the dictionary? When I first read it, I thought it was a really, really long poem about everything.” I can’t say enough about this book, so instead, I’ll share the opening lines of the foreword.
“This may come as a surprise to generations of Irish pupils, but the Irish language wasn’t invented just to infuriate people forced to learn it at school. It was invented to do the same job as every other language, to bring people together so they could build villages and share food and have sex with each other, and shout “Oh no, the Vikings are coming!” when the Vikings appeared and all the other basic things that languages are invented to do.”
These books can be enjoyed by all. All of them were refered to me by word of mouth, I’d love for you to share some of your favorite books concerning the language with me so I can pass them on as well.
Tóg go bog é agus foghlaim Gaeilge!
*Bob Carney is a student of Irish history and language and teaches the Speak Irish Cleveland class held every Tuesday at PJ McIntyre’s. He is also active in the Irish Wolfhound and Irish dogs organizations in and around Cleveland. Wife Mary, hounds Rían and Ashling and terrier Doolin keep the house jumping. He can be reached at email@example.com