Language Visual Arts Irish Word of the Week

Irish Word of the Week

The Irish in Irish mythology

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Overview

Chapter 3
Starts October 12 

Series curator Darach Ó Séaghdha and artists Selkies and Eoin Whelehan take us into the world of Irish mythology for the next 12 Irish Words of the Week, with guest curator Fadilah Salawu popping in for a spell.


January 18-31
Intermission


January 11-17

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Snaidhm seirce: love knot 

Snaidhm (pronounced snyme) means a knot or a bond.
Seirce (pronounced sure-kah) is a grammatical form of searc (pronounced similarly to shark), meaning darling or beloved. 

Tying the knot—a euphemism for getting married—alludes to the old Irish and Scottish tradition of handfasting. Some Irish couples still observe handfasting today, tying a knot in a rope upon wedding and adding a new knot for every child to join the family. Shakespeare even refers to the ritual in Romeo and Juliet

A love knot of a kind also features in Roscommon’s own tragic tale of Úna Bhán (Fair Úna) and Tomás Láidir (Strong Tom). Though burly, handsome and charming, Tomás Láidir is penniless, so when he wins the heart of Úna Bhán—the daughter of a local chieftain—her father opposes the match, banishing Tomás from the kingdom and locking up his daughter in an island tower. When Tomás attempts to reach her, he's tricked into believing she wants nothing more to do with him, while she dies of a broken heart. Every night thereafter Tomás flouts the banishment order and swims to the island to be at her graveside. Eventually catching and succumbing to pneumonia, his dying wish is to be buried next to his beloved, a request her grieving father cannot deny. 

It is said that years later, two trees grow from these graves, their branches entwined in a love knot. 

This cheerful story reminds us of the terrible consequences of the misuse of power and the folly of standing in the way of true love.

Illustration by Eoin Whelehan, who adds a Rapunzel-esque twist to the story of Úna Bhán and Tomás Láidir: Úna's flowing hair forms a knot beneath the lovers in a fleeting reprieve from their fate.


January 4-10

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Illustration by Eoin Whelehan

January 6 is the feast day of Nollaig na mBan—Women’s Christmas, traditionally when women in Ireland, exhausted after the events of Christmastime, get to put their feet up and be waited upon by the men and boys of the family. While such respite is welcome, it is unfortunately born from the belief that certain household labor is determined by gender. But were gender roles, and the idea of gender itself, always so fixed in Irish society? 

The curious tale of the abbot of Drimnagh tells of an Easter evening back in the mists of time, when the abbot in question falls asleep by a hillside after a long walk. Upon waking, he finds himself transformed into a woman. She, on her way home, crosses paths with a handsome man—a senior monk at the abbey in Crumlin—and the couple later wed and have children.

The word used in the original text to describe the abbot's transition—aitherrach—literally means "a new springtime." The modern spelling is athrach.

For pronunciations, visit abair.tcd.ie/ga.


December 21-27

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Illustration by Eoin Whelehan

Many Irish schoolchildren are taught that the púca (poo-ka) is of the same species as the common white-sheet ghost—but its true identity is far more interesting and complex. 

Described as shape-shifters who can take the form of horses, dogs, hares and other animals, púcaí (plural) are commonly understood to be goblins or demons, feared for bringing ill fortune to those who come across them—although good púcaí are said to exist, too. These mischievous creatures are known to scare and confuse humans, especially with their gift of human speech, which they use to spin long tales that entrance the listener. 

Another trope of the púca is, when in the shape of a horse, their taking humans on wild and terrifying rides in the dead of night, often when the rider is drunk. 

The place name Poulaphouca, meaning “the hole (or den) of the púca,” was historically given to many areas of Ireland said to house the creatures. 

The púca is common across various Celtic traditions, with Welsh, Cornish and Celtic French lore having similarly-described creatures, albeit with regional variations.

Guest-curated by Fadilah Salawu.


December 14-20

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The mythical “Land of the Young” is the setting of one of the most well-known and classic Irish folktales: the story of Oisín and Niamh Chinn Óir (literally “blonde/golden-headed” Niamh). 

As with any folktale, there are many versions of the story, but the general series of events is this: Oisín, a strong, charming and respected warrior of the Fianna tribe, is visited one day by the mysterious, beautiful, and regal Niamh (a spéirbhean) on horseback, who asks him to marry her. She tells him about the Land of the Young and proposes he move there with her, to live forever in the bliss of eternal youth. He agrees, bidding farewell to his tribesmen to start a new life in Tír na nÓg. 

(In some versions, he slays a few monsters and saves a damsel in distress along the way.) 

Tír na nÓg turns out to be as wonderful as he’d imagined, a paradise full of health, riches, beauty and peace, and initially he is pleased with his life there with Niamh and the children they have. Eventually, however, he begins to miss Ireland and the Fianna, and decides to pay a visit home. Niamh agrees to this trip and gives him a horse, but not without the warning that although he hadn’t aged in Tír na nÓg, time in the ordinary realm had continued to pass, and should he set foot on ground, his human age would reflect immediately and his youth would be lost. 

When Oisín arrives back in Ireland, he learns that the Fianna are long dead, much to his disbelief, and finds in their place a group of young men trying to move a large boulder. In helping them in their effort, Oísin falls off his horse and, upon hitting the ground, becomes a weak, blind old man. 

Depending on the version, he either dies at this point or becomes an acquaintance of St. Patrick’s, with whom he travels to spread the word of Christianity.

Illustration, by Eoin Whelehan, is representative of Iron Age imagery. The horseshoe represents Oisín, which in turn represents the boat of Manannán mac Lir (“son of the sea”). The design also incorporates sections of W.B. Yeats’ “The Wanderings of Oisin”—the silver apples of the moon, the land of milk and honey, and the setting sun.

Guest-curated by Fadilah Salawu.


December 7-13

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Illustration by Eoin Whelehan

Many loud noises (and children) are often compared to the mythical banshee, from the Irish bean sí ("woman of the mounds"), which refers to the hills () of the Irish countryside in which banshees are said to reside.

Also translated as "woman of the fairies" due to her other-worldliness, and commonly known as a wailing spirit, the banshee appears in many forms, ranging from a sweet young woman to a haggard old lady described as  long-haired, pale and ghostly with eyes red from crying, wearing long robes and a sorrowful countenance.

She is known for wailing and shrieking in mourning for a dead family member, and is also sighted by those soon to pass as an omen of death. In some instances, her appearances signify a warning to avoid a fatal situation.

Banshees wander not only through the countryside at night, but through the folklore of different cultures. They appear similarly in the Welsh and Scottish traditions, and as far away as Mexico, where the tale of "La Llorona" shares the theme of a wailing woman in mourning, albeit for different reasons. The English word "keening" comes from the Irish caoineadh, which means to weep or wail, which is why a banshee is also known as a bean chaointe, or weeping woman.

Guest-curated by Fadilah Salawu.


November 30-December 6

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Illustration by Eoin Whelehan, inspired by figures on the west face of the South Cross, a 9th century monument in County Meath.

A recurring theme in mythologies around the world is the ability of a good king to solve an impossible riddle—revealing truth by asking questions that hit at the heart of the matter. 

One such example found in Irish lore is the story of Niall Frossach, recalled in the Book of Leinster. A young mother comes to King Niall's court and asks if he can determine the father of her infant son, explaining that she has not had relations with a man in some time. (Intriguingly, she refers to such relations as “guilt.”) Pondering the matter, the king asks if she has enjoyed lanamnas rebartha ("playful mating") with a woman in the time before her son's birth. When she confirms that indeed she had, the king concludes: her woman lover had recently been with a man, and his seed—still on her body during the playful mating (which he also refers to as “tumbling”)—was transferred to the young mother. Upon this judgment, a priest who'd been trapped in the sky by demons falls safely to the ground—the power of truth in Niall's words freed him from his curse. He compliments the king on an excellent verdict. 

This tale gives a fascinating insight into how same-sex relations were viewed in Ireland in the 12th century, especially with regard to how an encounter between a woman and a man is referred to as "guilt," but an encounter between two women is "tumbling" or "playful mating." 

The modern spelling of "playful" is reabhradh.


November 16-22

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Illustration by Selkies. For a closer view, click the photo top left of page and scroll right.

It’s been said that the tale of Icarus, with its emphasis on invention and cautions about the limits and perils of technology, is the first ever science fiction story. Around the same time of its genesis (give or take a century or two), the first tellers of Irish myths were also using the narrative techniques science fiction writers would employ in our time—flying saucers, robot arms, and weapons of such power that their safe keeping became a bigger problem than the external enemies they are supposed to protect against. 

Take Balor. Balor was an evil giant who lived on Tory Island, a cliffy promontory off the coast of Donegal that was the edge of the known world as far as these first storytellers were concerned. Balor had the drochshúil—evil eye—that fired poisonous laser beams at his enemies, like something out of science fiction. After hearing a prophecy that he would be killed by his grandson, he arranged for his daughter to be locked in a tower. This scheme did not work (does it ever?): years later, the demigod Lúgh (pronounced "Looh") slayed Balor with a slingshot and used his severed head as a weapon by manipulating the eyelid manually. 

Droch: evil or bad
Súil: eye 

With its own evil-eyed monster (like the Cyclops) and the phenomenon of using severed heads as weapons (see: Medusa), it seems Irish mythology arrived at a similar moment to the mythology of Ancient Greece, even though developed a world away. 

More recently, the figure of Balor, or versions of him, have turned up in Dungeons & Dragons, computer games, comics, and even wrestling (Finn Balor).

To hear how drochshúil is pronounced, visit abair.tcd.ie/ga.


November 9-15

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Illustration by Selkies. For a closer view, click the photo top left of page and scroll right.

In Brehon Law, a woman slave (cumhal) was valued at three cows or three ounces of silver, according to Fergus Kelly, author of the most definitive book on the subject. But what happens when the cumal (pronounced "cuh-well") is actually a princess in disguise? 

The Icelandic saga Landnámabok is not well known in Ireland, though it speaks to the historical connection shared by the two islands. A number of place names in Iceland hint at an Irish link—Kjaransvik (Ciaran’s Bay), Irafellsbunga (Mountain of the Irish) and Vestmannaeyjar (the Westman Islands, "west men" being a Norse name for the Irish)—indicate a significant amount of migration. But were these migrants travelling of their own will? 

The capture of Irish women and girls by Icelandic slavers has a legacy in genetics: up to 70% of mitochondrial DNA (carried on the mother’s side) in Iceland can be traced back to Ireland. The phenomenon is noted in Icelandic mythology, too. 

In the story of Melkorka, an Irish princess carried to Iceland as a slave, Melkorka refused to speak to her captors, leading them to assume she was mute. She broke her silence when she bore her son, Olaf, speaking to him in Irish, and encouraging him to journey widely and be the author of his own destiny, rather than to do what his father told him. 

Years later, when travelling to Ireland as a merchant, Olaf impressed the hostile locals—and saved the lives of his fellow sailors—by speaking to them in perfect Irish. When he was brought to meet the local high king, the king recognized the ring Olaf bore—a ring given to him by his mother, who had received it from her father—and realized his grandson was before him.


November 2-8

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Illustration by Selkies. For a closer view, click the photo top left of page and scroll right.

Spéirbhean (pronounced spare-van) translates literally as “sky woman,” or “woman of the heavens.” 

The best-known genre of poetry in the Irish language is the aisling: a vision within a dream, in which the narrator falls asleep and a beautiful woman appears to them. For example, in the poem “Ceo Draíochta” (“The Magic Mist”), the spéirbhean is described as síorshileadh (ever-weeping) and righinrosc (languid-eyed), with hair that is buí-chasta (literally “yellow-twisting”: long, blonde curls tied in a fabulously stylish way). 

She laments the predicament in which Ireland finds itself (this style of poetry was most popular in the aftermath of Cromwell’s invasion), and the conclusion is a plea for—or a prediction of—a significant athrú réimis (change in regime). 

The aisling genre became a victim of its own success and was satirized in later works like the “Cúirt an Mhéan Oíche,” in which the spéirbhean is a terrifying giant.


October 26-November 1

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Illustration by Selkies. For a closer view, click the photo top left of page and scroll right.

“Tóraíocht Diarmuid agus Gráinne” is a tale of two runaways: Gráinne is engaged to be wed to the much older Fionn MacCool; Diarmuid is his loyal, young lieutenant whom she falls for and runs away with. They are chased around Ireland by Fionn (tóraíocht means pursuit), a hero in other Irish legends but very much the villain here. Ireland’s map is studded with what are said to have been temporary resting places for the fleeing couple. 

In the early 1900s, this story was turned into a play by Lady Gregory, despite warnings from friends that the endeavor might be too revealing: Gregory herself was to marry a much older man—Lord Gregory, a Tory politician—but truly in love with the young poet, adventurer, and political radical Wilfred Scawen Blunt. 

(Curiously, the British Conservative party nickname, the Tories, comes from the Irish word tóraí, meaning a bandit or outlaw, which itself is derived from tóraíocht. This could be translated to: the Tories are involved in an illicit pursuit, or are themselves being pursued.) 

Since then, “Tóraíocht Diarmuid agus Gráinne” has gone on to be one of Ireland’s best-loved myths (though perhaps not by the teenagers made to study it in school), and both Diarmuid and Gráinne are enduringly popular children’s names.


October 19-25

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Illustration by Selkies. For a closer view, click the photo top left of page and scroll right.

A tochmarc (modern spelling: tochmharc) is a tale of courtship from Irish mythology, recounting how the path of true love never runs smoothly, even among the supernaturally gifted. It is a combination of the Old Irish words tocraid (modern spelling togair, meaning “desire”) and marc (“target”). 

These tales are similar in some ways to Arthurian romances, in how they illustrate the seemingly impossible hurdles faced by those in pursuit of love. The “Tochmarc Etaine” tells how the most beautiful woman in Ireland, Etain, is pursued by Eochu, a high king. However, she is the reincarnation of the woman who Midir (a supernatural prince, one of the Tuatha Dé Danaan) had been in love with, and who is still intent on pursuing her. To complicate matters, Eochu’s own brother is also in love with her. 

Another story, “Tochmarc Emire,” tells the story of how Cúchulainn and his wife Emer got together. After initially meeting and flirting by exchanging double-meanings, they fall in love. However, Emer’s father, Forgall, disapproves of the match. He proposes that Cúchulainn go to Scotland to train as a soldier under the tutelage of the legendary woman warrior Scathach, assuming he won’t survive this test. Meanwhile, he tries to arrange a marriage for Emer to someone else. Of course, this plan backfires horribly—Cúchulainn comes back more skilled and dangerous than ever, and storms Forgall’s palace to rescue his love.


October 12-18

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Illustration by Selkies. For a closer view, click the photo top left of page and scroll right.

The idea of transformation is a recurring one in world mythology: it presents as a fear, a wish, or a combination of both. This theme is present throughout the Irish epic the Táin, particularly with regard to Cúchulainn, who would enter warp spasms—referred to as ríastrad in the original text—in battle. 

Ríastáil can mean "turning sods of turf" (revealing their other side), but can also refer to severe laceration. Both meanings are apt in the context of Cúchulainn’s body’s violent contortions. 

In the Táin we are told he “made a terrible, many-shaped, wonderful, unheard of thing of himself”: his hair became spikes, his jaw extended, and his limbs contorted until he was a fierce creature. The idea of Cúchulainn’s becoming a battle monster echoes the story of how he got his name—literally, the Hound of Culann—when he promised to become Culann the Smith’s guard dog. 

Some academics have argued that this transformation makes Cúchulainn a forerunner of modern superheroes; others claim that by leaving his human state in battle, the original storyteller is explaining why the codes of behavior expected of an Irish warrior at the time do not apply to him. 

There are several English translations of the Táin, including versions by well-known poets like Ciaran Carson and Thomas Kinsella.


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