I have been thinking that I should make my Christmas message a bit different this year. Usually, I post a message warning people not to give the gift of lies and ignorance by bestowing Cassidy’s ludicrous and offensive piece of cultural appropriation, How The Irish Invented Slang, on their friends and family. I still stand by that, of course. Cassidy’s book is utterly and completely worthless, as you can see by reading the material on this blog. All you are saying when you give this book as a gift is ‘I am an idiot’.
However, this year, I thought I would mention a few books that you can give to people of Irish descent or with Irish links without feeling totally ashamed of yourself, books that will actually inform them about their cultural history. While it may be a little late (we’re already past Black Friday), this year is a little different from the usual and who knows, perhaps some people will be delaying their present-giving until they actually get to meet up again. And then, there are always birthdays and other celebrations where a gift like this might be appropriate. So here are a few suggestions.
The best one I’ve read recently was this:
A history of Ireland in 100 words: Amazon.co.uk: Arbuthnot, Sharon, Maire Ni Mhaonaigh, Toner, Gregory, McLaren, Joe: 9781911479185: Books
This is a beautifully produced and very interesting book on key words in the Irish language. It is full of interesting material. I agree with almost everything in it. (The only thing I’m still very unsure about is the supposed connection between leipreachán/leprechaun and Lupercus. I still haven’t seen any evidence for this and I find it unlikely but who knows, perhaps I’m wrong!) It is based on the Word of the Week section on Electronic Dictionary of the Irish Language and it is wonderful.
Another book which is quite similar is Manchán Magan’s Thirty-Two Words for Field. This is also extremely attractively-produced and it contains some interesting stuff. It is not as rigorous or scholarly (by any means) as the history of Ireland In 100 Words, but it is worth reading. Magan is a bit of a romantic and I would take bits of it with a pinch of salt but I really enjoyed it. You can find it here:
Thirty-Two Words for Field: Amazon.co.uk: Manchan Magan: 9780717187973: Books
Another pair of books I’ve mentioned before are Motherfoclóir and Craic Baby. As regular readers of this blog will remember, I have misgivings about some of the material in these books (especially anything to do with etymology) but I do think they are worth reading and I would recommend them.
Motherfoclóir: Dispatches from @theirishfor: Dispatches from a not so dead language: Amazon.co.uk: Darach O’Séaghdha: 9781786691866: Books
Craic Baby: Dispatches from a Rising Language: Amazon.co.uk: Darach O’Séaghdha: 9781788545259: Books
A Ghost in the Throat by Doireann Ní Ghríofa is a fantastic book about the famous lament for Art Ó Laoghaire (written in the 18th century by Eibhlin Dhubh, a relative of Daniel O’Connell and of James Joyce) by a bilingual poet who has had a long-standing interest in the lament.
A Ghost in the Throat: Amazon.co.uk: Doireann Ní Ghríofa: 9781916434264: Books
This is a very interesting book on the history of the language:
A History of the Irish Language: From the Norman Invasion to Independence (Oxford Linguistics): Amazon.co.uk: Doyle, Aidan: 9780198724766: Books
And this is another lovely book written by a journalist about his re-engagement with his Irish heritage. Again, a lovely book and well worth reading:
Coming Home: One man’s return to the Irish Language eBook: McCaughan, Michael: Amazon.co.uk: Kindle Store
Finally, if you can afford it, and if you are very interested in the Irish language, why not invest in a copy of the new Irish dictionary? This is a monumental work of scholarship but it is also very unstuffy and full of the language of the people. If you can’t afford it, then don’t worry, because it is available on line and has already proven its worth as a resource for the Irish-speaking community.
Concise English-Irish Dictionary (focloir.ie)
I hope you will have a wonderful Christmas and that you decide to learn some Irish in 2021.
Nollaig Shona agus Bliain Úr Faoi Mhaise Daoibh!
Merry Christmas and Glædelig Jul to you, John. And best wishes for 2021.
Same to you, Jeremy. Let’s hope it’s a lot better than 2020!
I have a question for you as I said might happen!
I am making a copper photo-etching of the Poulnabrone portal tomb & looking into the meaning of name I found this –
the site is known as Poll na Brón, which means ‘Hole of the Quernstone’. It is sometimes translated as ‘Hole of the Sorrows’, which certainly sounds more romantic, and appeals to our sentimentality regarding the dearly departed. In that case, though, the Irish would be Poll na mBrón
What do you think ?
Nollaig Shona Daoibh
Go raibh maith agat
Hi Chris, It’s funny, people always cite knowledge of place names as one of the great reasons for learning Irish but a lot of place names are quite obscure and hard to understand, even for those who are fluent in the language. In English, of course, we can understand Newmarket and Northfield but not Birmingham or Ely or Boston. One problem that I always have with Irish place names is that even when I can understand the words, it’s hard to put yourself in the shoes of the people a thousand years ago and work out why they gave a place a particular name. Droim beag means little ridge but in a landscape full of ridges, why did they single out that particular ridge for its smallness? Or why is Glenroe redder than all other glens?
Poll na brón is a famous tomb. I’ve seen pictures of it but I’ve never been there (though we have very similar structures here in the north). Poll means hole and na brón (na bró in modern standard Irish) is ‘of the quern-stone’ or ‘of the millstone’. I imagine that the flat stone on top reminded people of a flat grinding stone but that’s just a guess. I don’t know whether the hole refers to the space under the capstone or if it refers to a depression or cave or swallow-hole somewhere in the area.
Hole of the sorrows would be Poll na mbrón, as you say, but even people who don’t learn much Irish at school can say ‘Tá brón orm’ (I’m sorry), so this is almost certainly a bit of folk etymology, where someone has seen the brone bit and made assumptions based on a very slender knowledge of the language and, as you rightly say, romanticism and sentimentality. If you read ancient Irish literature, our ancestors seem to have spent most of their time chopping each other’s heads off, and their romantic sensibilities have (in my opinion) been considerably overstated!
Anyway, Nollaig Shona agus Meri Kirihimete e hoa!
Thanks for that
I agree with not knowing what was going on in someone’s head when they name something. Some ‘ experts ‘ I think just want to proclaim how clever they are by stating such & such means this rather than admitting they don’t know something.
I read the Tomb was originally surrounded by a circular mound with the capstone exposed so it would have looked like a giant grinding stone sitting on top of the earth.
I think maybe the hole part of the translation is where the bodies were buried ( at least 22 skeletons )
Needing a lot of room I guess they would have had to dig down ( and the remains were exhumed) & the logical place was beneath the stones.
Agree on the overstatement of romanticism of days gone by
Sex & Violence! more than enough for a “R” rating!
All the best for the New Year
I gather all of these dolmen-type structures had an earth covering back in the day but if the Poulnabrone one was covered in more recent times, that would explain the quernstone (as you say) and there would also have been something like an animal burrow where the chamber was, so that would fit with the poll bit.
Thanks for your comment about not pretending to know things I don’t know! That is an important thing. Some of Cassidy’s supporters have argued that in spite of the OED and the experts having all kinds of resources at their disposal, they have failed to provide explanations for words that Cassidy ‘explained’. After all, the OED experts can’t just invent sources that don’t exist (the way Cassidy invented his derivations) and as you say, sometimes, ‘I don’t know’ is the wisest answer!
Bliain Úr Faoi Mhaise agus Ngā mihi nui mo te tau hou! 🙂
I am trying to put some of my artwork explanations into Irish.
‘ Durrow Spirals ‘ is one of them
Darú meaning oak plain &
Bís meaning spiral
I am not sure of the plural for spirals
& how the 2 words in Irish would appear
( Spirals of the Durrow? )
I defer to an expert !
Thanks in advance
Hi Chris, No worries. Anything you want to know, just drop me a line!
The plural of bís is bíseanna and the name Darú is Dharú in the genitive, so as you say, it is ‘spirals of Darú’ – Bíseanna Dharú.
Let me know what other ones you need and I’ll translate them for you. All the best, a chara!
Hey Daniel ( or should I call you John? )
Thanks for the translation
The only other one at the moment is
“New Beginnings ” – plural
I have – tosaigh nua ”
but I am pretty sure it is wrong.
Thanks in advance
PS this is what I am doing at the moment
Don’t worry about the name! David Gold suggested Danielomastix, which means ‘scourge of Daniel!’
Beautiful work, as ever, Chris! I think that portrait of O’Donovan Rossa is very haunting. Are you planning on doing other portraits like that? Literary figures from Ireland always do well. I would definitely buy a Flann O’Brien in a similar style!.
In strict grammatical terms, “Tosaigh nua” or “Tosaigh úra” is correct but sometimes, things that tend to be plural in English will be singular in Irish and visa-versa. I’ve only ever heard people use expressions like this in the singular in Irish – Tosach nua, tús nua, even if lots of changes are implied.
I noticed one error in the tree of life description. Crann beatha is correct but the Irish for oak is dair or crann darach. Darach is a genitive so it can’t really stand alone.
Any other questions, don’t hesitate to ask! J
Thanks for the corrections
Yeah I have a picture of James Joyce I am working on.
The trouble I am having is finding high resolution pictures of the historical figures I want to use.
This photoetching process is very precise great for details not so good in an A4 size portrait of a low resolution photo – you can see the pixels!
I downloaded some images of Flann O’Brien I will see how they look in Gimp
ie if they are big enough to etch
I remember reading ” An Béal Bocht ”
All the best
Hey scourge of Daniel !
I found a decent image of Flann O’Brien to etch , it you are keen email me at
& I’ll send you the image
PS there is a great documentary
on Kavanagh, Behan & O’Brien on YouTube
If you have not seen it, it is called
” The Dublin Literary Renaissance ”
Hi Chris, If you etch it the way you did O’Donovan Rossa, I’ll buy one immediately! That is a promise! Maith thú, a chara! 🙂
Go raibh maith agat
I will get on to it!
here it is
shipping will be about 25 pounds
If your keen let me know and I will put up the shipping costs in my shop