Word of the Week

DOIRE

DOIRE is the Irish name for places known to English-speakers as ‘Derry’. It is used of a city and county in the north of Ireland and of townlands in Cavan, Clare, Mayo and elsewhere. In origin, the word is a common noun that is often translated ‘oak-grove’, but even in medieval times DOIRE could refer also to alder trees and apple trees. Indeed, it would seem that DOIRE came to be distinguished not by the particular type of tree but by the density of the grove. The word is sometimes applied metaphorically to weapons in battle and so we find statements such as ‘doiri dia n-armaibh uasa cennuibh’, which means literally ‘a “grove” of their weapons over their heads’ (L.Lives 3250).

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06/12/2019
BRETAIN

BRETAIN is the early spelling of the word that appears in Modern Irish as BREATAIN ‘Britain’. Today, AN BHREATAIN MHÓR is usually understood as ‘Great Britain’, while AN BHREATAIN BHEAG (‘little Britain’) refers to Wales. In the seventeenth century, however, Geoffrey Keating used BREATAIN to mean ‘Wales’ and AN BHREATAIN BHEAG to refer to Brittany … which he also called BREATAIN NA FRAINGCE ‘Britain in France’!

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24/11/2019
CEÓL

CEÓL is often translated as ‘music’, but the Irish word originally referred to a musical instrument and in the Middle Ages it was used in the plural also to refer to individual pieces of music. In the past, as today, the term covered naturally produced sounds, like singing and bird-song, as well as the sounds made by instruments. In the latter sense, it is found in a remarkable Middle-Irish poem in which a father mourns his dead son, describing him as ‘in chuslend cride … cuit mo bél … mo chruit ciúil’ (pulse of my heart … the food in my mouth … my harp of music; LL 18578).

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08/11/2019
ADARC

ADARC generally refers to the horn of an animal or to a vessel or implement made from animal-horn. Seventeenth-century Munster poet Dáibhidh Ó Bruadair, however, left us the extraordinary phrase ADHARCA BRUIC, which seems to mean ‘badger’s horns’. The full line of verse in which the phrase appears is: úirlis uí Dhubhda gan adharca bruic ‘Ó Dubhda’s tools have no badger’s horns’ (Ó Bruad. i 76). It seems possible, then, that the poet is saying that Ó Dubhda’s tools are authentic and practical, and ‘badger’s horns’ is a convenient means of referring to unnecessary or useless things.

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05/11/2019
FÁILTE

FÁILTE is probably the best-known Irish word throughout the world today. FÁILTE IRELAND is the name of the National Tourism Development Authority of Ireland, and CÉAD MÍLE FÁILTE is familiar to many as a greeting which is often translated into English as ‘a hundred thousand welcomes’. The original meaning of FÁILTE, though, was ‘joy’ or ‘happiness’, and the word passed into the sense ‘welcome’ from the joy that is felt and expressed in encountering old friends and new acquaintances.

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25/10/2019
SLÍAB

SLÍAB ‘mountain’ is the Old Irish form of the first part of Sliabh Mis, which survives as the name of the Slieve Mish Mountains in County Kerry and also of Slemish Mountain, Co. Antrim. The second part of the name is less clear, however. Medieval Irish scholars themselves speculated that MIS came from MEIS, a word for a supernatural being, and that the name referred to a time when Banba conjured up supernatural beings to fight the Sons of Míl in the Kerry Mountains.

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18/10/2019
SLAETÁN

SLAETÁN is the early Irish word that lies behind Modern Irish SLAODÁN (often written as SLAGHDÁN) ‘a head-cold’. According to the Annals of Ulster, in the year 1328 all of Ireland was affected by this illness and everyone was on the verge of death for 3 or 4 days. The word occurs also in the phrase SLAETÁN TROMGALAIR. TROMGALAR means ‘serious illness’ and ‘Acallam na Senórach’ tells how a young man was looked at with envy and died of this illness nine days later. From the context it is clear that he was a victim of what is sometimes known as ‘the evil eye’.

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12/10/2019
CÁERTHANN

CÁERTHANN ‘a rowan-tree’ (Modern Irish CAORTHANN) comes from the word CÁER ‘a berry’. In Irish tradition, the rowan has long been associated with otherworldly interventions. The dog which Cú Chulainn is enticed to eat was cooked on rowan-spits (for beraib cairthind) and the mother of Munster saint Senán mac Geircinn gave birth with a rowan stick (uaitne caerthuinn) in her hand.

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06/10/2019