It is the oldest vernacular language in Europe; it is “unique,” “complex,” and “primal.” Those are some of the words author Manchán Magan uses to describe the Irish language. Throughout the month of March, Trasna is featuring Irish language writers. We begin with Manchán Magan and his recent 2020 publication, “Thirty-Two Words for Field: Lost words of the Irish landscape.” Trasna is pleased to share Chapter 1 of this important work, as well as an introduction to the Irish language by the author himself.
Thirty-Two Words for Field: An Introduction for Trasna Readers
by Manchán Magan
As the oldest vernacular language in Europe, Irish is a unique and strange phenomenon. It has somehow managed to build up layers over eons; much like the infinitely complex interrelations of a forest eco-system, or the myriad non-coding DNA sequences within a genome. This island is one of the few developed Western communities to have maintained a truly primal tongue, wherein certain sounds still possess a latent power and sanctity. As a concept it can seem strange to us now, but was common in ancient languages, where mantras, charms and invocations were believed to have the ability to manifest reality.
In an effort to highlight some of the many provocative and illuminating words, phrases, and concepts preserved in the language I’ve been compiling examples of how the language offers access to facets of existence that can be profound and even revelatory – allowing us to see new aspects of nature, new slants on our interior life, and new ways of experiencing being in the world.
By way of example, let’s take the word léaspáin, which means the dancing coloured lights that appear before your eyes at times when you drift a little too far towards other dimensions. It’s not a word that one hears much anymore; nor is it a concept that we are all that familiar with these days, but it still exists; resting patiently in dictionaries, between léaspach, meaning, inclined to lash out or a rousing strong fire, and léaspaire, a person of sparkling wit. It’s waiting there, ready to steer us back towards a more expanded and all-encompassing take on reality if we chose to engage with it. Like so many other words it offers the potential of a different way of seeing things.
The word léas is at the root of léaspáin, léaspach and léaspaire; and léas means a ray of light or energy, but also a bright spot and a streak of reason, or a ray of insight, as in the term léas léargais. Before Christianity convinced us to give our power away to an omnipotent male god, it was believed we could seek insight from within ourselves, or from other dimensions by means of a léas. The word can also refer to an incomplete rainbow, a blush, a luminance in the sky indicating bad weather, an ear of corn, a pimple, a welt or a quantity of corn equal to 32 grains.
There are, of course, many equally rich and interesting words in English, but they have not risen directly from the landscape, the consciousness and life experience of our forefathers and the patch of earth that we currently inhabit. It is the fact that Irish is indigenous, that it has evolved on this island over thousands of years that is so evocative and primal. By immersing oneself fully in a word like léas one ends up with new and rather challenging perspectives on life. It leads you to a word like sclimpíní which refer to supernatural lights that dance before one’s eyes. This is connected to sclimpireacht, sparkling, glancing, or a form of joyous dancing, as in the phrase chuirfeadh sé na smóilíní ag sclimpireacht i do chroí – it would set the baby thrushes dancing in your heart.
Since we’re talking about light we should mention iomas gréine, which means “sun inspiration” and refers to blisters caused by the sun on the leaves of certain herbs which when eaten give the gift of poetry. Or corrchogailt which are green and blue light figures that are observed on the hearth when raking the fire at night. They resemble glow-worms and are said to predict the chances of frost or rain in the following days. They remind me of the word aingeal which means angel, but also a burnt out cinder taken from the fire and given as protection to children going out at night. A reminder that the threat from Otherwordly beings was common until quite recently and the lines between reality and fantasy were still blurred. This was, after all, a culture in which dreag could mean either a sling to help carry an awkward load or a star-like light that followed the course of a coffin to the graveyard, or the path of a drowned body from sea to shore.
Irish seems to see light everywhere: from méarnáil (the phosphorescent luminance arising from the land) to barraighis (phosphorescence at sea), and even tine thanaí which is a phosphorescent light seen on the teats and udders of cows in wet weather. The various illuminations of a fire were differentiated too; with brúid being smouldering ashes, as opposed to luaith, dead ashes. These were different from aibhleoga (cinders) and gríosacha (burning embers).
Then, there were also the many forms of pre-dawn light: from the initial hint of dawn, breacadh an lae (daybreak); to the gradual brightening of the pre-dawn sky, bánú an lae (the whitening of the day); to fáinne geal an lae (the first bright ring of daylight), and, finally, éirí na gréine, the sunrise itself.
Had I space here I could digress to list words that reveal the effect of light on other people, or words that convey the direction that light had travelled from, but these can all be found safely packed up in a new book I’ve written Thirty-two Words for Field. It includes 14 words for salmon, 45 words for stones, 54 words for penis, 4,300 words to describe people’s character and 70,000 placenames, but I want to leave you with one final word that I’d love to see kept alive for at least one further generation. It is airdeogaí and it refers to being under the spell of fairies (by means of sorcery or from drinking poteen or eating beacáin chontúirteacha, hallucinogenic mushrooms). The state of being under airdeogaí is disorientating, but it can also offer clarity and potential solutions to complex problems, and it can convince you of your ability to do almost anything, including flying.
Ultimately, what all of these words aim to do is to reveal the underlying connections that our ancestors saw between all things; from fields and flowers to hawks and waves. Separately they may seem outdated, and awkward to pronounce and spell, but together they make clear how ancestral languages can steer us back to what truly matters; allowing us to make sense of an increasingly chaotic world by reintroducing us to the mysterious glories of the natural world and the subterranean existence to all things.
Thirty-Two Words for Field:
Lost Words of the Irish Landscape
Chapter 1. Kaleidoscope
It was my grandmother, Sighle Humphreys, who taught me Irish and when I asked her one day what the word for a hole was she replied “Do you mean one dug into the ground by an animal? That’s an uachas. Or one made by fish in a sandy riverbed for spawning? That’s a saothar, or if it’s been hollowed out by the hoofs of beasts and then filled with rain it’s a plobán, or if a lobster is hiding in it it’s a fach, or if it has been created as a hideaway by a wild beast it’s a puathais.”
Author’s grandmother, Sighle Humphreys, with author second from right
It was the moment I realised that the two languages I spoke required not just different forms of grammar and syntax, but different ways of seeing the world. I had already noticed that when giving directions I had to orient very differently, depending on the language. In Irish I had to take account of the position of the sun. I couldn’t say I was heading “up the road,” or “back to someone’s house,”or “in to town.” Instead I would first situate myself in relation to the planet: I’m heading siar ó dheas “south-west” along the road, or aduaidh “to the north” or soir abhaile “eastwards home.” Even when something or someone was just a little way off, like a cow in the next field, I would say tá an bó thoir sa pháirc, “the cow is in the field to the east”.
Later on, I learnt that there were many other words for holes, such as one dug into a bog, which is a criathar, and one made by an auger, which is a tarathar and a cup-like hole in a rock, which is a ballán. Log is a water-filled hole in the landscape, cró a hole in the eye of a needle, and spail is a hole at the stern of a boat. Breifne, a tiny hole made by an insect or a needle, has its direct opposite in duibheachán, a hole so big it can be classed as an abyss. Pluais, séib, sloc, cluais and logán, are all other possibilities, some more specific than others.
Each can be translated with the English word “hole,” and, perhaps, it’s more efficient to do so, but I always wondered what subtlety and nuance got lost; whether the richness of reality would wane.
Our landscape now looks like an increasingly anonymous expanse of indistinguishable fields; yet seen through Irish each field has its own word, depending on its characteristics and function: geamhar, bánóg, biorach, machaire, buaile, ingealtas, domasach, póicín, fásach, mainnear, cathairín, réidh, cuibhreann, réidhleán, cluain, mín, tamhnach, buadán, tuar, branar, plás, raon, lóiste, cúilín, réalóg, cabhán, achadh, mothar, plásóg, loscán, páirc and magh.
To a city-dweller they may all look the same and in English each would probably be just referred to as a field; yet to someone whose ancestors have been cultivating the land, growing grain and tending cattle for over 4,000 years, and have built up the soil over centuries by hauling seaweed from the shore and burning limestone to add alkalinity, they look very different.
Geamhar is a field of corn-grass, biorach is a marshy field, branar is a fallow field. Cuibhreann is a tilled field worked in partnership with a neighbour; tuar is a night-field for cattle. Cluain is a meadow field between two woods, tamhnach, an arable field in an arid area. Réidhleán, a field for games or dancing. Plás is a level field for spreading flax or hay, plásóg, a sheltered field where a mare would foal in, raon, an upland field, machaire is a low-lying open field, while buaile is a field for keeping cattle before milking. Mainnear is an enclosed field, réidh, a level field, mín, a smooth fine field and réalóg is an unenclosed patch of good land in the middle of a créig (a more stony area of limestone). Cathairín is a field with a fairy dwelling in it. Losaid, a neat, well-arranged field, is similar to cúilín which is also neat, but smaller.
Each of these words summons specific swathes of our landscape and the activities that happen on them. Some even refer to fields where something occasionally happened but not anymore, such as bánóg, a patch of ground levelled out by years of dancing, or buadán, a hillside which once had gorse growing on it, but has since been cut with a scythe or hook and now only the stumps remain. If you had a hillside on which the gorse had been removed, not by cutting but by burning, that would be a loscán.
Having lived here for so many thousands of years, perhaps it was inevitable that we would become rooted to every aspect of this land; becoming entangled in its complex network of clay, sand, stone, weeds, worms, mycobacteria, flora, pollinators, and mycelium. But I hadn’t realised how far this connection stretched back until my granny taught me a seanfhocal (proverb, but literally meaning “old word”) that shook my sense of time and space so much that I am still trying to contend with it today.
Saol trí mhíol mhór saol iomaire amháin, saol trí iomaire saol an domhain.
“Three times the life of a whale is the lifespan of a growing ridge, and three times the life of a growing ridge is the lifespan of the world.”
These thirteen words encapsulate just how far back the knowledge contained within the language stretches on this island, as a whale was thought to live for one thousand years, (although they actually live for about a century), so it was known that the cultivation ridges we can see in the fields around us could be up to three thousand years old. Archaeologists agree that there are indeed ridges of that age still visible in places like the Céide Fields in Co Mayo or Slievemore on Achill Island. The span of three cultivation ridges would amount to 9,000 years, which brings us to the date that archaeologists believe humans first arrived here – the beginning of our world. The fact that our people appear to have somehow kept a count of how long we have been on this island and that they encoded it in our language is precious.
My grandmother often pointed out the still-visible cultivation ridges left by her great-grandparents’ generation during the Great Hunger in the 1840s. Some were more visible than others as they had been left undug – with my ancestors either too weak to dig them, or, having noticed the blight-rotted potato stems, they realised there would be nothing but a slimy mush beneath the soil. I had been struck by the longevity of such memories, but it wasn’t until I heard the proverb that I realised quite how far back these folk memories actually stretch.
It appears, at least, as though we managed to keep some wispy thread of memory intact from our Neolithic forebears, who planted, weeded and harvested along these ridges thousands of years ago. The knowledge is contained within the land, and over the years I’ve realised the best way of accessing it is through the language.
Manchán Magan has written books on his travels in Africa, India, and South America and two novels. He writes regularly for The Irish Times, presents The Almanac of Ireland on RTÉ Radio 1 and reports on travel for various radio programmes. He has presented dozens of documentaries on issues of world culture for TG4, RTÉ & Travel Channel. His book Thirty-Two Words For Field explores the insights the Irish language offers into the landscape, psyche and heritage of Ireland. www.manchan.com
Photo credits: author on Mt. Brandon by A. Rogerson; book illustrations and book cover by Steve Doogan; family photo, author’s own.