Speak Irish: New – Old Vocabulary


Speak Irish:  Tenalach
by Bob Carney

 The Relationship One Has With The Land, The Air, The Water,

A Deep Connection That Makes You One With Nature

As little as forty years ago, the English spoken in rural Ireland had enough Irish words mixed in with it, that it sometimes sounded like another language entirely. As Ireland becomes more “global” and less rural, many of these words are being lost, even as a language revival takes place.

The language used to describe landscape, farming and nature could also be very localized and not readily understood ten or twenty miles removed. The danger in losing this very descriptive vocabulary is that it can narrow our ability to “see” what it represents.

In Robert Macfarlane’s book, “Landmarks,” he relates the story of a proposed wind-farm on The Brindled Moor on an island off the coast of Scotland. It would have become the largest wind-farm in Europe, with two-hundred and thirty-four wind turbines. Each one would be anchored into 700cu. meters of concrete or approximately 2300 cu. ft..

To transport the power off the island, 210 pylons and overhead wire would be required, 104 miles of roads would be built for service access, and nine electrical sub-stations would be needed. Five new rock quarries would be opened and four concrete batching plants would be established. Around 5 million cubic meters of rock and 2.5 million cubic meters of peat would be evacuated and displaced.

The engineering company, AMEC, along with British Energy, by their own accounts in their application, determined that the effect on the landscape, resources and character would be major, and long term. Eighty percent of the poulation of the island opposed the project and a long debate over the future of the moor ensued. It centered over the perceived value and nature of the moor.

Re-enchant The Moor
Those for the development dismissed the island’s interior as a bog or wasteland. Those against established a “home ground” approach, using the language of the region to document and describe the beauty and life they knew intimately. They were able to re-enchant the moor with their detailed accounts.

One booklet in particular by Anne Campbell entitled, “A-mach an Gleann,” (translates from Scots-Gaelic to “A Known Wilderness”) was able to accurately portray the moor as a wild place, yet demonstrate it’s long term connection with human culture. Other islanders did similar things, gathering folk songs, stories and poetry. They were able to bring awareness to the importance of conservation in the moor and after three and a half years and almost twelve-thousand letters of objection, the Scottish Executive ruled against the proposal.

We’ve talked before of incorporating Irish words and phrases into our English conversations. Here is some “new-old” vocabulary used to describe various aspects of rural and natural life. Irish place names are also very descriptive, and I’ve included a few examples.

bacbram – very heavy rain – lit. boisterous behavior

bánóg – a patch of level grass, often used for dancing

brais – sudden heavy shower

bóithrin – country lane – lit. cow path – English boreen

bogach – somewhere between solid and liquid, soft, origin of the english word, bog

clochán – stepping stones

congár – a short cut

cróinin – the first run of a small autumn salmon

cloigeann – head or skull, promontories streching out into the ocean like giant skulls

copóg – a dock

cluain – meadow

caonach – moss

collop – conveys a piece of land by it’s grazing ability rather than it’s dimensions

cupánach – a piglet taken from a sow and reared on cow’s milk which is drunk from a cup rather than a bottle

draighneán bán – quickthorn

dulán – two handfuls of oats

eanach – a narrow path through a marsh

fraoch – heather

fuairceas – a cloth placed under the fire crane to help lift a hot pot

sceach geal – hawthorn

turlach – land-lake, floods from underground during heavy rain

ard – height

Ard Mhacha – Macha’s height -Armagh

Cluain Ard – high meadow – Cloonard

baile – town

Baile an Aird – Stormanstown

Baile Átha Cliath – town of the hurdled ford – Dublin (dublin loosely translates to black pool)

dair – oak

Béal Átha Darach – Beldaragh

Cill Dara – oak church- Kildare

dún – fort

Dún na nGall – fortress of the foriegners – Donegal

gort – field

Fiogart – Figart

madra – dog

Móin an Mhadra Rua – turf of the red dog – Monavadaroe

Binn  an Iolar – a reference to eagles soaring above- Beenaniller Head in Kerry

And finally my favorite

Muiceanach idir Dhá Sháile – pig-marsh between two saltwaters – Muckanaghederdauhaulia Co. Galway

Irish Place Names and Their Meanings
For more on Irish place names and their meanings go to

If you wish to read more “home ground” nature works, I’ve enjoyed these books:

“Landmarks” by Robert Macfarlane – includes a great deal of vocabulary, some Irish but mostly Scots-Gaelic

“The Wild Places”by Robert Macfarlane – wild places through out Ireland and the British Isles

“Connemara” by Tim Robinson – nature writing at it’s best

“The Living Mountain” by Nan Shepherd

“Pilgrim at Tinker Creek” by Anne Dillard

“The Wilderness World of John Muir” ed. by Edwin Wayteale

“Home Ground” ed. by Barry Lopez and Debra Gwartney – a collection of vocabulary to describe the American landscape, so we don’t lose these words here in our home

Slán go Fóill!

*Bob Carney is a student of Irish history and language and teaches the Speak Irish Cleveland class held every Tuesday@PJ McIntyre’s. He is also active in the Irish Wolfhounds and Irish dog orginizations in and around Cleveland. Wife Mary, hound Morrighán and terrier Doolin keep the house jumping. He can be contacted at [email protected].


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