Language Visual Arts Irish Word of the Week

Irish Word of the Week

The Irish in Irish mythology

Contact

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Overview

Irish Word of the Week
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.



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.



Irish Word of the Week
Chapter 2
July 20-October 11

Are Irish names so hard to pronounce? Only if you don’t know how. For most of the world, Irish names are the only interaction with the Gaeilge they’ll ever have, and are therefore the language’s best opportunity to make a good first impression. In part two of our Irish Word of the Week series, which runs from July 20 through October 5, curator Darach Ó Séaghdha of @theirishfor uses popular Irish names to explain how different features of Irish spelling and pronunciation work. 

The first six will be illustrated by the artist Fatti Burke, and the last six by Una Gildea.



October 5-11

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Collage by Una Gildea. For a closer view, click the photo top left of page and scroll right.

The English word “queueing” has five vowels in a row. Are they all necessary? Could the same sound be produced with fewer letters? What clues are there to tell a reader that a new syllable starts at the letter “i”? It can be very confusing. 

Silent consonant combinations in Irish might appear confusing at first glance, but they do give readers clues to where syllable changes happen, and break up long runs of vowels. The triple vowel combination “aoi” sounds like “ee” in English; when it follows a consonant, there is a short “w” sound before it. 

Faoi   under   fwee
Caoineadh   crying   kween-ah
Gaoithe   wind    gwee-hah 

Aoife, meaning beauty, has been one of the top 20 Irish girl names for more than thirty years. It was the name of the princess who married Strongbow (the subject of one of Ireland’s most famous paintings) as well as stepmother to the Children of Lir. 

Modern day Aoifes include singer Aoife Scott, writer and illustrator Aoife Dooley, and English footballer Aoife Mannion.



September 21-October 4

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Collage by Una Gildea. For a closer view, click the photo top left of page and scroll right.

For an island roughly the size of South Carolina, Ireland has significant accent diversity: it is not unusual for locals to speak in four distinctly different accents an hour’s drive in each direction from any given point. This accent variety is present in the Irish language too, with different pronunciation norms in Ulster, Connacht, and Munster. 

One of the differences between Ulster Irish and the other canúintí is that, in the middle or at the end of a word, “ch” is softened to an “h” sound. On the rest of the island, it sounds much like the “ch” in “Christmas” or “chorus.”

For example:
Luch (mouse): looh (Ulster Irish), luch (Connacht Irish)
Dúchas (heritage): doo-hass (Ulster Irish), doo-chas (Connacht Irish)
Fiachat (wild cat): fee-ah-hat (Ulster Irish), fee-chut (Connacht Irish) 

Fiachra is the name of one of the children of Lir (who were turned to swans in a well-loved tale from Irish mythology) and means raven. Modern day Fiachras include journalist Fiachra Ó Cionnaith, Galway footballer Fiachra Breathnach, and musician Fiachra Trench.



September 21-27

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Collage by Una Gildea. For a closer view, click the photo top left of page and scroll right.

In English, the name “Pacific Ocean” has three “c”s, each pronounced differently. There are no clues to the reader as to how—it is assumed you already know. This is a common frustration with those who study English as a second or additional language. 

In Irish, every “c” is reassuringly hard, but the pronunciation of “s” depends on the vowel that comes after it. If it’s followed by a slender vowel like i/e, it sounds like “sh” (such as in Seán or Sinéad). If it’s followed by a broad vowel like a/o/u, it is a classic sibilant “ess” (like Sadbh). The name Saoirse has one of each kind of “s” and can help you remember this rule. 

Examples of “s” in Irish:
Sabhaircín   primrose   saw-vark-een
Seanbhean   old woman   shan-van
Siamsa   entertainment   shee-am-sa
Socair   calm   sucker
Súil   eye   soole 

Saoirse, meaning freedom, is an especially popular Irish name in the 21st century. Famous Saoirses include Oscar nominee Saoirse Ronan, environmentalist Saoirse McHugh, and Derry Girls star Saoirse Monica Jackson.



September 14-20

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Collage by Una Gildea. For a closer view, click the photo top left of page and scroll right.

There are more than six spellings of Caoilfhionn, meaning “slim and blonde,” doing the rounds in Ireland. It’s a compound of caol (meaning narrow) and fionn (meaning fair-haired). When these two words are stuck together to make a new one, an “h” is added to the "f" for grammar reasons, which quietens it—the resulting name is pronounced keelin

Other words with a silent "fh" include: 

Aisfhreagra   a back-answer   ash rag a ra
Carnfholt  a mass of wavy hair  car nalt
Dofhaighte  extremely rare  doh eye tcha 

Famous Caoilfhionns include actor Caoilfhionn Dunne, international human rights lawyer Caoilfhionn  Gallagher, and journalist Keelin Shanley.



September 7-13

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Collage by Una Gildea. For a closer view, click the photo top left of page and scroll right.

In English, the letters “gh” tend to be silent—think bough, through, doughnut. So it goes with Irish, where a “gh” in the middle or end of a word is generally not pronounced. Even though this phenomenon is common to both languages, Irish people with a “gh” in their names—the Bronaghs, Clodaghs, Fionnghualas, and Maghnuses—often report that this part of their name gets mispronounced at home and abroad. 

Maghnus, meaning “great,” is a name that came to Ireland with the Vikings and is widespread—with a hard, un-lenited “g” in the middle—in Scandinavian countries. While it was a popular name with Irish royalty in the twelve and thirteenth centuries—hyacinth-eyed Maghnus Mág Samhradháin of Tullyhaw and Maghnus Ó Conchobair of Connacht—it is nowadays more commonly seen in the surname McManus (“grandson of Maghnus”). 

Other examples of the silent “gh” in Irish include: 

Bánaigh   dawning or brightening   baw-nee
Beoigh    animate   bee-oh



August 31-September 6

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Collage by Una Gildea. For a closer view, click the photo top left of page and scroll right.

There was a sharp rise in the popularity of Irish names from the mid-sixties onwards. This was thanks partly to an increase in national self-confidence, and some of it was also down to the work of the Second Vatican Council, which led to a less strict attitude on which names were appropriate for the baptismal font. (Previously only saints’ names were deemed acceptable in many parishes.)

Coincidentally, the surge happened right after the publication of a major dictionary in 1959 in which Irish spelling was modernized, with letters like “v” and “x” included for the first time. A consequence of this modernization is that if an Irish name was popular before 1959, multiple acceptable spellings would now exist, reflecting old and new conventions. This was the case with Medhbh (or Medb, or Maeve, meaning "she who intoxicates") and Sadb (or Sadhbh, or Sive), names where the “bh” indicates a “v” sound. 

Other examples of “bh” pronounced as “v” in Irish include: 

Bhí   was   vee
Aoibhinn   delightful   even (or ay-veen, ee-veen)
Gábh   danger   gawve 

Famous Medhbhs include Queen Medb, the formidable ruler of Connacht in the Táin; Maeve Binchy, one of Ireland’s best loved novelists; and poet Medbh McGuckian.



August 24-30

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

Like Fiadh, this is a name that became significantly more popular in the 21st century than the 20th: three Caoimhes were born in 1966; 363 arrived in 2016. “Caoimhe” has been consistently more popular than the anglicized spelling, “Keeva.” How did this happen when so many other Irish names appeared to make concessions to English spelling norms? 

While Medb/Maeve, Sadhbh/Sive, Seán/Shawn and other names were popular at a time when the Irish language and pride in Irish identity was against the ropes, Caoimhe and Fiadh are names that rose in the ranks when Ireland was swaggering culturally and commercially. It was also a time when Irish language television and schools were making strides. 

Caoimhe is one of the names given by parents to the first generation of daughters not expected to emigrate, who would grow up surrounded by people who would know that the “mh” sounds like a “v” in the middle or at the end of a word. Other examples of “mh” in Irish are: 

Comhrá   conversation   coe-ra
Lámh   hand   law-ve
Claíomh   sword   kly-ive

Caoimhe means “noble” or “graceful,” but a caoimheachán is an entertainer. Famous Caoimhes include Caoimhe Buttlerly, a human rights activist, and the actor Caoimhe O’Malley.



August 17-23

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

Almost unknown as a name until a quarter of a century ago, Fiadh has become the fastest-rising girl’s name of the 2010s in Ireland, reaching third place in 2019 and showing no signs of slowing down. A large part of its popularity may stem from the poetic ambiguity in its meaning: fiadh can mean a deer, wildness in nature, or respect. 

Pronounced "fee-a," the “dh” at the end of Fiadh is silent—the letter “h” next to a consonant in Irish generally advises the reader that the preceding consonant has been softened, or lenited. If the “dh” is at the start of a word or syllable, it can sound like a "y." Other examples of the silent “dh” in Irish include: 

Luaidhe   lead (the element)   louie
Gadhrach   fond of dogs   gah-rach
Dúdhearg   dark red   do-yar-egg 

There are no famous Fiadhs yet (that we know of) because its popularity has been so recent, but you can expect to hear from them soon.



August 10-16

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

The perception that some Irish names are hard to pronounce is compounded by many having multiple accepted spellings (although bearers of those names are fiercely loyal to their own). Órla is an abbreviation of Órfhlaith, a compound of the word for gold (ór) and nobility (flaith). As this name was already popular prior to both widespread literacy and the spelling modernizations introduced in the 1950s, there was plenty of time for different spellings to take root in different communities. 

Teachers warning their students of the importance of a fada will often point out that without the accent, Orla (‘uhr-lah’) would mean “vomit” rather than “golden princess.” However, Órlas have to live with this indignity in an online world where many websites won’t accept non-standard characters. 

Pronunciation: with a fada, “Ó” sounds like ‘oh’ in English—just as the “Ó” at the start of many Irish surnames sounds. Other examples include: 

   cow   boh
Rón   seal   roh-n
Fiaclóir   dentist   fee-ack-lore 

Famous Órlas/Orlas/Órfhlaiths include journalist Orla Guerin, designer Orla Kiely, Northern Irish MP Órfhlaith Begley, and actor Orla Brady.



August 3-9

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

One of the fastest-growing boy names of the 21st century in Ireland, Oisín is well-known to Irish schoolchildren of all ages due to its place in a famous legend. In the story of Tír na nÓg, Oisín, a human, meets Niamh, a beautiful princess from the land of eternal youth. She invites him to join her there, but if he does—he can never come back.

The literal meaning of the name is fawn, which is especially interesting because in a less well-known legend, Oisín’s mother is turned into a deer for a period of time. 

Oisín is pronounced ush-een. The “i” carries a fada, just like Tír in Tír na nÓg, which makes the letter sound like “ee.” Generally, the -ín suffix is more common in girl names, such as:

Róisín    Little rose   Roe-sheen
Réiltín    Little star   Ray-ill-teen
Bláithín   Little flower   Blah-heen



July 27-August 2

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

Éamonn, or Éamon, is often translated as “rich protector,” although modern Irish doesn't use it as a word to mean that. The rise and fall of this name’s popularity hews closely to the popularity of Éamon De Valera, the leader who dominated 20th century Irish politics.

Some confusion with Irish name pronunciation occurs when one grows so common that people begin to drop the fadas that might otherwise direct the pronouncer. This is true of Éamonn and of Sinéad (De Valera’s wife’s name, incidentally), whose “e” have accents, advising that they should sound like “ay” in English.

From the artist:
"Éamonn means 'rich protector', and although I'm not a religious person, the name made me think of an almighty protector of our land, sea and air. With a nod to Michaelangelo's The Creation of Adam, I like the idea of a flower-crowned king protecting our most vulnerable and most valuable asset; nature itself! It's also a bonus that Éamonn sounds a lot like Amen." — Fatti Burke



July 20-26

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

Gráinne is sometimes anglicized as Grace, although the names have little in common other than beginning with the same two letters. “Gráinne” means precious or beloved thing, related to the Irish for love, grá. Older dictionaries also define it as a seed—something small with great potential. The Irish for a hedgehog is gráinneog, although it’s unclear whether the creature or the person’s name came first. 

Pronounced graw-in-yah. The fada on the “a” lengthens the vowel. Other words with an "á" include: 

   it is   taw
Máthair   mother   maw-her
Arán   bread   Ah-rawn 

Famous Gráinnes from history include the princess in mythology who was engaged to Fionn McCool but ran away with his one of his warriors, and Ireland’s pirate queen, Gráinne Mhaol ("Bald Gráinne”), who ruled the Irish coastline in the 16th century. In current day, the name is often associated with the popular broadcaster and businesswoman Gráinne Seoige.


From the artist
"Gráinne, meaning precious thing, makes me think of a woman who's adored and valuable in her aesthetic and contributions. I gave a nod to Gustav Klimt's The Kiss in this illustration, as it's an artwork that evokes both opulence and overwhelming love in my mind. Gráinne, as a precious person, is seen being embraced and draped in sparkles—covered in grá." — Fatti Burke



Irish Word of the Week
Chapter 1
April 20-July 19

Inspired by this era of connectivity, this commissioned series featured words in Irish that sometimes sound teasingly like fairly similar words in another language, curated by Darach Ó Séaghdha of the popular @theirishfor Twitter account and Motherfoclóir Irish language podcast. The thesis is not that these words share an etymological or historical root—only that they bumped into each other and smiled, which is far more interesting. 

Beginning with word seven and on through word 12, visual artist Dannielle Tegeder responds with a new work featuring found images and illustration.



July 13-19

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Found image with overlay by Dannielle Tegeder. For a closer view, click the photo top left of page and scroll right.

In one of the 19th century Irish dictionaries, the entry for the word “frog” states that the amphibian was "not found in Ireland before the reign of William III of England, whose Dutch troops first introduced it amongst us.” Is this the only thing the Dutch gave Ireland? 

One of the Hiberno-English words that surprises American visitors to Ireland is “gas”—that's gas, he's a gas man, and so on—meaning fun, unpredictable, and spirited. There are multiple theories about how this word caught on, one of which is based on the fact gas entered English through Dutch as a local pronunciation of the Greek word khaos—better known to Anglophones as chaos. 

Maybe a "gas man” is chaotic, but are they cunning? If they were, that’d be the same in both Irish and Dutch—slim

You might find more stories about frogs, gas men and other things on duchas.ie—this is UCD's National Folklore Collection Digitisation Project, meaning you can easily search for stories preserved from Ireland's oral tradition, in English and in Irish, using a single term that interests you.



July 6-12

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Found image with overlay by Dannielle Tegeder. For a closer view, click the photo top left of page and scroll right.

One of the most famous pubs in Dublin's Temple Bar is the Turk's Head. However, this is not a reference to a citizen of Turkey: there is a wood carving in the shape of a boar's head above the door. How come? In Irish, a wild boar is a torc (pronounced "turk"), and this has trickled into place names (Kanturk in Cork) as well as Hiberno-English.

A celebratory point of Irish-Turkish friendship is the gift by Sultan Abdülmecid of £1,000 to Irish famine relief efforts in the 1840s. The story goes that he wanted to give more but did not want to cause a diplomatic incident by contributing a higher amount than Queen Victoria. 

Given how much the Irish and the Turkish people cherish their languages, it's nice to know that the word for "dear" or "beloved" is the same as the Turkish for "language" or "tongue."

Since we mention Kanturk, the websites logainm.ie and placenamesni.org have searchable databases of Irish towns and villages and what the true meaning of their name is. For example, Stranmillis in Belfast means An Sruthán Milis (an sroohan millish): "the sweet stream."



June 29-July 5

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Found image with overlay by Dannielle Tegeder. For a closer view, click the photo top left of page and scroll right.

If Ireland is the answer, what is the question? These opposite terms are awfully close in Swedish and in Irish: fråga is a question and freagra is an answer. 

Ireland remains the all time champion of the Eurovision Song Contest, with more and bigger wins than any other competing country. However, the past two decades have seen a nosedive in Irish fortunes in this event, and it's inevitable that we will be overtaken in the next decade barring a musical miracle. Overtaken by whom? By Sweden. 

While Sweden is in second place, it has won the Eurovision three times this century (while Ireland has not won since 1996). During this period, Swedish songwriter Max Martin has written more number one singles than anyone except John Lennon and Paul MCCartney. 

If you are interested in both pop music and the Irish language, then Raidio Na Life, Dublin's volunteer-run Irish language station, might be right for you. There's a range of accessible shows which can be enjoyed live or through podcast at raidionalife.ie.



June 22-28

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Found image with overlay by Dannielle Tegeder. For a closer view, click the photo top left of page and scroll right.

The Hindi word for a star, tara, is a popular name for girls in Ireland, being the name of the capital of Gaelic Ireland in the days of high kings. But tara is not an Irish word but the anglicisation of teamhair, meaning a hill or higher land. Even so, you’ll still see an Irish woman called Tara with a star tattoo sometimes. 

Speaking of land, it is sadly poetic that the Irish word for "country" sounds like the English for what is shed when you are sad, as the pursuit of land and conflicts between countries has led to many tears. BUT tír sounds like words in other languages as well, including the Hindi for "shore" or "coastline."

The Indo-European heritage shared by the Irish and Hindi languages goes so far back in time that few links or similarities from that period remain. However, there have been plenty of connections more recent than that—the only statue in St. Stephen’s Green of a person from outside Ireland is of Rabindranath Tagore, Nobel laureate and composer of the Indian national anthem. 

If stars, planets, and heavenly bodies interest you, you will enjoy this series of illustrations by the Irish artist Ciaran Duffy.



June 15-21

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Found image with overlay by Dannielle Tegeder. For a closer view, click the photo top left of page and scroll right.

Sometimes an acronym or an initialism catches on to the point that what the words actually stand for can be widely forgotten, like UNICEF, RADAR, or GIF. This is certainly true of laser, which stands for “light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation.” When translating such acronyms, do we follow the sound of the word everyone knows, or do we create a new one with the starting letters of the constituent words in the new language? 

As it happens, the Irish for a flame, lasair, sounds a lot like the English word laser (which was coined many centuries later). In the introduction of the Irish science fiction anthology A Brilliant Void, Jack Fennell writes about how Irish mythology contained many elements that anticipated sci-fi, such as Balor’s being able to shoot a fiery beam of energy from his evil eye. Was this beam a lasair or a laser? 

A source of bilingual content that is suitable for learners without being explicitly educational in tone is Zín Two Tongues by Clodagh McGinley. Each issue includes a bilingual interview, an Irish language interview, poetry or short fiction, and a glossary.



June 8-14
Intermission



June 1-7

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Found image with overlay by Dannielle Tegeder. For a closer view, click the photo top left of page and scroll right.

Once upon a time, the only connection between Ireland and Eastern Europe was the novel Dracula. But since the expansion of the European Union in 2004, Ireland welcomed significant migration from the eastern accession states, making an immediate contribution to Irish life. The Estonian community in Ireland is one of the smallest of these communities, numbering around 3,000. 

Estonian is not part of the Indo-European family of languages, and has an entirely different history to Irish. So the fact that the Irish for “other,” eile, is spelled like the Estonian for “yesterday” is just a curiosity for programmers working on language recognition software* to worry about. 

We are now halfway through our Irish Words of the Week with @theirishfor and from now until the end of the series, will be sharing each new word with a visual response from the artist Dannielle Tegeder. Here is her found image of the Gweedore, Co. Donegal of yesterday, with overlay.

*Speaking of software, programming languages based on Irish are becoming available to people who are so interested, including Setanta and Aireamhan.



May 25-31

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Every spring, the Scottish Poetry Library publishes its Best Scottish Poems anthology for the previous year. Its 2019 edition, released last week, is the first to include works in Scotland’s three language—English Lowland Scots (the tongue of its greatest bard, Robert Burns) and Scots Gaelic.

Scots Gaelic is the closest language to Irish in the world, with thousands of words shared or mutually intelligible between them. But there are little differences. The most obvious one is that the fadas point in different directions; Irish fadas rise to the right, Scots Gaelic ones towards the left. Another difference is that some words have evolved over time to have different meanings. An example of this is ùrlar (Scots Gaelic) and urlár (Irish). Both of these words mean a lower horizontal surface but the Irish one more typically refers specifically the floor of a structure; the Scots Gaelic term also means the soil or outdoor ground (ùir means earth or soil).

You won’t mix up Irish and Scots Gaelic if you sign up for Dublin City University’s online Irish course, which is free and pitched at beginners. You can find out more here.



May 18-24

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Genome-sequencing research on remains found in Bronze Age burial sites in Ireland has added evidence to the theory that ancient Ireland experienced significant inward migration from the Middle East. Could this movement of people have led to a transfer of words and ideas that have survived millennia? If this is true, one contender for a link could be the similar words for “knife” in Arabic and Irish, words that are distinct from the equivalent terms in these languages’ immediate neighbors (“knife” in English and “couteau” in French, for example).

If you enjoy Instagram and want to find some Irish-language content there, @muinteoirmeg (Meg the Teacher) shares short clips in which the vocabulary she uses (and its translation into English) pops up onscreen as she discusses fashion, food, and much more.



May 11-17

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Irish visitors to Vietnam get a surprise when they see that the Vietnamese word for beef is the same as the Irish word for a cow. It’s likely that both of these came from the French word boeuf (meaning beef or an ox) at different times: into Irish via the Normans in the twelfth century and into Vietnamese during the “Indochine Française” colonial era in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

When languages carry different words for an animal and the meat that it produces, it generally reflects the social differences between those who prepare the food and those who get to eat it. This is the case in English (sheep vs. mutton, deer vs. venison) and in Irish ( is a cow, mairteoil is beef).

If you are reading a piece of online text in Irish and want to know how it is pronounced, you can copy it into abair.tcd.ie/ga. This website, run by the School of Linguistic, Speech and Communication Sciences at Trinity College Dublin, will then read the text aloud in the dialect you prefer.



May 4-10

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This is pronounced “shun-noch.” Sometimes in Ireland a fox is also called a madra rua, which means a red-haired dog. This can leave red setters and silver foxes feeling very excluded, and possibly Russian puppies, too. The Russian and Irish words for “four,” ceathair and cethire, also sound similar.

While the Russian and Irish languages are very different, the modernization of Irish spelling and alphabet in the mid-20th century was influenced by the success of such changes in the Russian language in 1918. However, if you are a fan of the older Irish script with the ponc séimhithe and elegant lowercase “s,” you can still see that in Dinneen’s Dictionary. Every home should have one, but there’s an online version here.



April 27-May 3

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This rhymes with "hole" and is the verb in Irish to describe the act of drinking. And what might one drink? Whatever you’re having yourself, but it just so happens that the Swedish word for beer sounds the same.

Ireland experienced Viking invasions from the eighth century onwards, founding towns such as Dublin and Waterford. This period led to the Irish language acquiring many loan words from Norse, including pingin (a penny), cnaipe (a button) and ispín (a sausage).

If you are interested in older forms of Irish you can learn more at dil.ie/concise. This is the Royal Irish Academy’s Dictionary of Old and Middle Irish, and the concise version of the entry above is aimed at general readers.



April 20-26

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Pronounced "dee-nah," it's the Irish word for people—any kind of people at all. In the Navajo language, it means the Navajo people specifically. While it is unlikely that the word transferred from one community to the other, it's nice to know that ideas can rhyme, even when thousands of miles apart.

You can discover more Irish words—with audio clips on how to pronounce them in the three major dialects—on focloir.ie, an online English to Irish dictionary. The letters CMU are beside thousands of entries—just click on C for how it sounds in Connacht Irish, M for Munster Irish and U for Ulster Irish.

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Irish Arts Center programs are supported, in part, by government, foundation, and corporate partners including Culture Ireland, the agency for the promotion of Irish arts worldwide; public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, in partnership with the Mayor’s Office and the New York City Council; the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature; the National Endowment for the Arts; Howard Gilman Foundation; Jerome L. Greene Foundation; the Charina Endowment Fund; The Shubert Foundation, Inc.; M&T Bank; The Ireland Funds; Northern Ireland Bureau; the Department of Foreign Affairs and the Consulate of Ireland in New York; Tourism Ireland; CIE Tours; Delta; and thousands of generous donors like you.

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