Language Visual Arts

Irish Word of the Week

Sail (willow tree)



Chapter 4

Series curator Darach Ó Séaghdha (@theirishfor), guest curator Kerri ní Dochartaigh, artist Katie Holten, and artists Shannon Castor, A.S. Dutton and Aisling Jelinski—recent MFA graduates of the Burren College of Art's programs in studio art and art & ecology—explore the natural world.

For pronunciations, visit

October 11–17


Artwork by Katie Holten

The Irish for a willow, sail, leans close to the tree’s Latin name: salix. This is why it's sometimes called the sally.

The early W.B. Yeats poem “Down By the Sally Gardens” tells of young lovers meeting among the willows, the girl cautioning the boy “to take love (and life) easy,” knowing that he would not. Weeping willow trees are often found growing in doomed love stories—anyone who's studied Hamlet in school will remember “a willow grows aslant a brook that shows his hoar-leaves in the glassy stream.” However, the best-known willow story in Irish folklore is not about love, but hairdressing. 

Once upon a time there was a high king called Labraid Loingsech, who had horse’s ears that he tried to conceal from everyone. Whenever he needed to cut his hair, he would sentence the barber who performed the work—and saw his secret—to death. When one young barber was chosen for the deed, his mother begged the king to let her son live. Labraid grudgingly accepted, so long as the barber swore never to tell another person. The shock of seeing horse’s ears on the king was too much to bear, however, and the young man went into the woods and whispered the revelation to a willow tree. Some time later, that willow was cut down and turned into a harp, and when the harp was played in the king’s hall, it sang out the words, “King Labraid has the ears of a horse.” 

Willow is rarely used to make harps nowadays—this story may very well have been a warning to craftsmen to use a different timber. What willow was popular for was basket-making, with its branches twined together to make a container for turf or potatoes. 

Places in Ireland named for willow trees include Clonsilla in Dublin (Cluain Saileach, "Meadow of the Willows"), Illaunsillagh in Kerry (Oileán Saileach, "Island of Willows"), and Derryhillagh (Doire Shaileach, "Wood of the Willows") in Fermanagh.

October 4–10



Artwork by Katie Holten

In J.M. Synge’s Playboy of the Western World, Christy Mahon memorably recalls his father “going out in the yard as naked as an ash-tree in the moon of May." Synge could have easily picked another tree, but the hard wood and claw-like branches of a leafless ash hint at the menacing nature of Mahon’s father better than others would. 

Ash trees were often used for hangings in Ireland in times past, and folklore tells of them sprouting from the graves of bad men, like landlords and informants. Nowadays, the Irish have a much more positive opinion of the tree, whose wood is used to make hurleys (hurling is often referred to as “the clash of the ash”). Sadly, Irish ash has become quite rare and 90% of the hurleys used to play the sport in Ireland these days are made from imported wood. 

The common name for the ash tree is fuinseog, which is found in place names across Ireland: Oileán na Fuinseoige (Ash Island) in Kerry, An Fhuinseog (the River Funshog) in Louth, and Áth na Fuinseoige (Ashford) in Wicklow. There is another name for it—nion. This is the one associated with the Bríatharogam, the ogham tree alphabet. 

As mentioned when discussing the whitethorn, the links between trees and corresponding ogham letters were made centuries after ogham was used, and not by just one person. This means that lines got crossed over the years and certain trees were associated with different letters in different texts. Such is the case with nion, commonly listed as "n" but also often as "o."

September 27–October 3


Artwork by Katie Holten

At one point in history, Ireland was covered with oak trees. This is evident from all the oak-based place names found scattered throughout the island: Cill Dara (Kildare) in the east, Doire (Derry) in the north, Baile an Doire (Ballinderry) in the west, Áth Dara (Adare) in the south, and Darú (Durrow) in the middle.

Due to its waterproof timber, oak—"dair" in Irish—was highly prized in the ship-building process and during the rapid expansion of the Royal Navy in the eighteenth century, many Irish oaks were chopped down for this purpose. During this time, a narrative formed that the tree was sacred even to ancient Britons (ex.: the Charles Dibdin songs “England’s Tree of Liberty” and “Hearts of Oak”), although much of this mythology appears to have been retrofitted.

While Irish oaks are no longer used for warships, oak wood has found a much friendlier use in the aging of Irish whiskey. Long may this tradition continue. 

As for acorns (dearcán), the fruit of the oak tree, their value can be summed up by an old Irish riddle: Cid as méithi saill tuircc mesa? Miscais do·berar íar serc. (“What is fatter than the bacon of an acorn-fed boar? Hatred that comes after love.”) 

The letter "D" in the Bríatharogam (ogham tree alphabet) is associated with the oak tree.

September 20–26



Artwork by Katie Holten

The rowan tree—luis—is considered magical by pagans, and farmers believed rowan berries/garlands would protect cows from the fairy folk, who might otherwise sour their milk. 

Ireland is world-famous for the quality of its butter, a result of its cattle grazing on grass that grows in the rich soil over limestone rock. But Irish dairy farmers have never taken these natural advantages for granted. The lucht sí, or fairy folk (yes, them again), had a reputation for stealing milk from cows, but farmers could protect their herd with branches and berries from the rowan tree. 

It was said that the berries, when tied to a cow’s tail, or the branches, when hung over a cow’s head (or over the cowshed entrance), would deter the fairies from their roguery. Butter churns were also often decorated with rowan branches for this reason. 

The red rowan berries are called caor in Irish; Dinneen notes that this also means “a red blaze, a flash, a firebrand, a flame; fire, thunderbolt." While the quotidian name for the rowan in Irish, caorthann, is rooted in the berry, the poetic name, luis, is used for the tree in the Bríatharogam (ogham alphabet), where the rowan stands for the letter "L."

September 13–19


Artwork by Katie Holten

The whitethorn—uath—was historically considered to be a holy tree in Ireland and other European countries: the thorns in the crown of Jesus were said to be from the whitethorn. As unlikely as this is, whitethorns are often found near the site of holy wells in Ireland, so cause and effect may have gotten mixed up at some point. It is inappropriate for someone to even carry a whitethorn walking stick. 

Unlike other trees, the uath, even though it is found throughout Ireland, rarely turns up in Irish place names. Perhaps it is so commonplace as to be too unremarkable for the honor? Uath is also the name for the letter "H" in ogham, the ancient alphabet of Ireland that is read vertically rather than horizontally. For the most part, the ogham that has survived is carved in stone; it is hard to say if the practice was also common using less enduring substances like wood. 

The practice of naming ogham letters after trees is not as old as the ogham itself, with several trees assigned to symbols centuries later. This is the case with uath, which is consistent with the outsider status of "H" in the Irish language. Other trees have had their assigned symbols change over time, as we shall see in the coming weeks.

September 6–12


Artwork by Katie Holten

Starting this week, series curator Darach returns with the next six words of our chapter on nature:

I went out to the hazel wood,
Because a fire was in my head 

So begins "The Song of Wandering Aengus" by W.B. Yeats, the well-loved poem in which the protagonist puts a berry on a hazel wand and catches a fish that turns into a “glimmering girl.” Hazel trees turn up frequently in Irish folklore and mythology—some translations of the legend of the Salmon of Knowledge suggest that it obtained its wisdom from eating magic hazelnuts—as well as in native crafts, like basket-weaving. In fact, a hazelnut in Irish is a cnó gaelach ("Irish nut"), which speaks to how close the tree is to Irish hearts. 

The hazel tree is coll in Irish—very close to coill ("wooded area"). A hazel wood would be coll choille

There are stories from different parts of Ireland suggesting that hazel branches can give protection against ghosts and the fairy folk. Petticoat Loose, an especially vindictive witch or revenant from Munster folklore, was said to not be able to attack travelling men who carried a hazel stick (and so she often tricked them into dropping it). 

Next week we will talk about how the letters of the ogham alphabet are named after native Irish trees; the letter "c" in ogham is named for the hazel.

August 30–September 5



Artwork by Shannon Castor

By guest curator Kerri ní Dochartaigh:

I started to learn Irish the day after I read a piece in the Guardian newspaper summarising the devastating impact of climate crisis on the flora and fauna of this island. I bought my first Irish dictionary in a charity shop that raised funds for homeless members of my community and the man who sold it to me—a native speaker—taught me how to say ‘thank you’. I’ll remember that day always. I started to spend my lunchtimes in Cultúrlann Uí Chanáin, the Irish language centre in Derry. On my coat I had a moth pinned to the lapel. The barista in the café commented on it and we got talking about moths and butterflies. She shared with me that in the part of the Gaeltacht where I’d watched butterflies in summer dancing above a famine bridge—Cloughaneely—where Irish was, and may still be, spoken with strength, butterflies have a different name. She didn’t know what the name was but she was certain it was specific to that area. I researched for weeks, eventually finding the name. The Donegal bog word for butterfly is dealan-dé. It has roots in the word ‘fireflaught’ and speaks of the phenomenon observed by shirling a stick lighted at the end: a flash of lightning that comes to you from somewhere closer than the sky. The Donegal Gaeltacht word for butterfly, I discover, is the same word as for the aurora borealis: the lights that dance so magically in that liminal place between here and there, then and now, this world and the other. Like the marsh fritillary—a gorgeous butterfly finally making its way back from the brink of extinction—my ancestors watched the northern lights dance above the vast, wild surface of the earth, imagining that the bog itself had birthed both of these breathtakingly beautiful wonders. What we conserve when we speak of these wonders in our native language is more than can be put into words.

August 23–29



Artwork by Shannon Castor

By guest curator Kerri ní Dochartaigh:

This word is so dear to me and means ‘brightness’. It is how our ancestors referred to the moon, naming it in honour of its exquisite light. The ancient people of Ireland counted their days as starting from the moment the sun set, meaning their day started with the night, not the morning. This resulted in a form of circular time as opposed to the linear pattern we have become accustomed to. They counted the year by thirteen lunar cycles, rather than twelve months, as we do today. This corresponds with the thirteen menstrual cycles many of us experience in a year. The moon was of great importance to them and represented fertility, creativity and much more. In fact, the ancestors did not see the face of a man in the moon, as folk do today, but they saw the shape of a wild hare, and hares and rabbits were seen as signs of good fortune and fertility. Another association with the moon is the figure of Aengus. He is a god from mythology—one of the Tuatha Dé Danann—and his home was just a few miles from mine in an underground palace on the banks of the River Boyne. The god of love, youth and poetry, he is associated with the colour pink. His beloved animal is the swan and his instrument is the golden harp. 

I first heard of this Irish god in William Butler Yeats’ beautiful poem ‘The Song of Wandering Aengus’—a piece which has lived inside me for over half of my life since studying it at school. The year my first bábóg came along, white moths flitted under moth-like stars and each month the moon felt more like the epitome of brightness than ever before. He was born under a full pink moon, the first of the spring, and the last creature I saw as I walked through the fields carrying him inside me was a wild hare so the only name for him could be Aengus Ruadh. Born with a full pink moon in a land so full of song, poetry, love and brightness. 

I hope all our children on this island learn the wonder of the world through this language of the soil beneath their feet and above their heads.

August 16–22



Artwork by Aisling Jelinski

By guest curator Kerri ní Dochartaigh:

Dúluachair: “midwinter, the depth of winter”, traditionally referring to the period between Christmas and St. Brigid’s day (February 1). The word derives from luachair (“light, frost”). The winter solstice is celebrated around the world by a variety of cultures. It marks the longest night, the moment when the sun is at its lowest on the horizon. This usually occurs around December 21-22 in the Northern Hemisphere. From then on, the days continue to grow longer until Midsummer in June. In Celtic countries, the winter solstice was seen as a time of rebirth and renewal, as signified by the return of the light.

In our Celtic landscapes, the winter solstice is an ancient seasonal rite of passage that is of deep importance and meaning. We do know not when our ancestors first stood together on a frosty winter’s morning and paused in harmony at midwinter. Some sacred sites are aligned to the morning’s rising sun. They tell us a story of the winter solstice as being important enough, over 5,000 years ago, to build a temple in its honour. In Irish, the winter solstice is An Grianstad, literally translating as “the stopping of the sun”. These days around winter solstice time are precious, the pinnacle of a darkening that calls us to rest, to be still, to heal and to hope. The dark has been painted — over much time — as being a negative thing, a part of existence to be wary of, a bringer of fear and things best not to be thought of. Yet nature tells us a different story. The earth tells us, over and over, as each year turns the circle of itself around, that it is in the dark where beginnings are found. Life first is dreamed, birthed and shaped in the absence of light. The seeds sown in autumn germinate underground through winter before appearing as shoots in spring. Our ancestors intuitively understood this phenomenon and held the time between Samhain and the dark-full winter solstice as the biggest gift of life: the safe place in which it all begins. In many traditions, winter solstice, the midwinter, is a time for ritual and celebrations. In a sense, this was a turning point in the battle of dark and light in the world. On the island of Ireland, our ancestors did not see winter solstice as a sad, sorrowful time, but a cusp moment in which the reverence of the equally vital energies of darkness and lightness are understood and honoured. 

The Irish language is rooted in a world in which the unseen is as real as the seen. The existence of other dimensions is taken as a given, and there is an inherent understanding that both the land and everything in the natural world are bright, breathing beings. The interconnectedness of things is visible in the etymology: concepts that seem disparate are shown as delicately woven together; we see that we are not as standalone as we might have once believed. The most affecting words I have learned are a tightly knit trinity, and their closeness, for me, shows how unspoken things still dwell in the root of the Irish language, waiting to be unearthed, dissected. Dúluachair — the depths of midwinter; is perhaps my favourite word in the whole language. On the same page in my old junk-shop dictionary we find the following closely linked words: Dúlaoisc — a sea-level cave — and dúléim — a leap in the dark, a violent jump, a plunge. I see these connected with fierce, fine thread. There are stories behind these words, human voices that have known suffering. It comes to me as no shock at all that the Irish word for melancholy is dúlionn. Language is narrative. The Irish language holds stories that, once excavated, may show us the way that things are tied to others. It offers us, through the language of the everyday, a way to communicate, for example, that some days, even now at the height of summer, might be the exact shade of grey as a sea cave in the depths of midwinter. Communication — real, deep and honest connection — might help to keep us back from that place that makes us want to jump in the dark.

August 9–15



Artwork by Aisling Jelinski

A popular folk tale about the tapir claims that these shy beasts were created from the leftover bits of other animals—a rhino’s leg, an aardvark’s nose, a pig’s back, and so on. There's a similar tale in Ireland with respect to the goldfinch: as explanation for its red, yellow, black and brown plumage, it's alleged its feathers were donated by all the other birds in the sky. 

This dramatic coloring is acknowledged in the Irish word for goldfinch: lasair choille, which translates literally as "flame of the forest." 

A beautiful songbird, the lasair choille was often kept as a pet in the days before budgies and parrots became popular. Because they nest in bushes rather than trees or rooftops, their eggs could be easy targets for children, and so children were warned: if they stole a goldfinch egg, they would grow no taller from that day on.

Aug 2–8



Artwork by A.S. Dutton

The Irish verb fán means "to leave" or "to wander." "A little wanderer," which is the literal meaning of a swallow in Irish, is fáinleog, reflecting its habit of migrating before winter comes. 

As the herald of summer, the swallow is seen in Ireland as a lucky, noble, and even sacred bird. The folklore surrounding it reflects this. The swallow’s forked tail is credited to its narrowly escaping being eaten by a snake in the days before Saint Patrick (the serpent only managed to bite off a middle feather). If a swallow made a nest in a cowshed and the farmer interfered with it or stole its eggs, it was said that the cows would give blood instead of milk. And when Saint Conall sought penance after getting into a fist fight with his father, he was told that he would know he was forgiven when a swallow laid an egg in his hand. As swallows always make high nests, he realized how unlikely this was and spent the rest of his life atoning. 

The best known Irish story about these birds, however, is surely “The Happy Prince” by Oscar Wilde, in which a swallow befriends a golden statue of a prince in the middle of town and, though realizing he is leaving it too late to migrate south, agrees to distribute the statue’s gold leaf to needy people throughout the city.

Jul 26–Aug 1



Artwork by A.S. Dutton

Across the world, small places often have long placenames, and Fiddauntawnanoneen in County Mayo is no exception. An anglicization of the Irish title "Fheadán Thamhnach Nóinín," it means "the stream through the field of daisies." 

The Irish for "daisy" is nóinín (pronounced "no-neen"), a term still used in parts of the country. The nóinín's tendency to pop up overnight is well noted in folklore, with many tales of thieves burying stolen property under a daisy for safekeeping only to return the next day to find the entire field covered in blooms. They were once used as an herbal cure for toothaches, too. (The arrival of toothpaste killed off this practice.) 

Daisies are enduringly popular flowers as we associate them with carefree childhood summers making daisy chains, which have their own special name in Irish: slabhra sí ("slough-ra-shee"), literally meaning "fairy chain." Another placename that includes "nóinín" is Lackanoneen (Leaca na Nóiníní), "the hillside abounding in daisies," in County Kerry.

Click here for Chapter 1 >
Click here for Chapter 2 >
Click here for Chapter 3 >

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