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The Irish For... What do Irish political names tell us about their roles?

Gaeilgóir Darach O Séaghdha talks us through what the Irish for everything from Taoiseach to TD means – and what we can learn from it.

Darach Ó Séaghdha

This is the first dispatch from our new columnist Darach Ó Séaghdha, author of the award-winning and bestselling Motherfoclóir. Every Sunday morning, Darach will be regaling (re-Gaeling?) us with insights on what the Irish language says about Ireland, our society, our past and our present. Enjoy.

2018 HAS, LIKE a shy cat dropping a dead bird on your carpet and waiting for approval, delivered us a presidential election, the rarest of Irish electoral events.

As a 40-year-old citizen, I’ve been invited to vote in two presidential elections so far – as many times as I have been invited to vote on the Lisbon Treaty.

While our expectations of this role have changed dramatically during my lifetime, one thing hasn’t – people remarking on the similarity between the Irish words for president (uachtarán) and for cream (uachtar).

Do our presidential candidates represent the cream of Irish society?

Uachtarán: More precisely, uachtar means top or upper, and cream gets its name from being on the top of milk. The president’s role in the Irish constitution puts him or her on top.

Leasrí: The function of the president, as well as their place of residence, is similar to the role that the presidency replaced – the Viceroy of Ireland (aka Lord Deputy aka Chief Secretary of Ireland). Leasrí is a compound of leas (deputy or step-) and rí (monarch), which seems pretty on the nose. However, leas has a secondary meaning – manure or fertiliser. A coincidence, I’m sure.

Taoiseach/Príomh-Aire: The Irish for the job of Prime Minster is Príomh-Aire; the title of that role here is Taoiseach. This is an old term for chieftain and has been used on Nuacht on occasions when a tribal chief is in the news, such as Taoiseach Buthelezi. In Father Dinneen’s dictionary, first published before this title was proposed for Irish heads of government, Taoiseach An Bháis (Chieftain of Death) is one of the names listed for the devil.

Aire: This is the Irish word for a government minister. You won’t forget how to pronounce it if you remember the start of the sentence “arrah, sure it’ll do”.

Tánaiste: Successive coalition governments since the early 1990s have seen this role evolve from a succession-related technicality to something more substantial, distinct from deputy PM roles in other jurisdictions (Leslie Nielsen’s brother was the “tánaiste” of Canada in the 1980s).

Shakespeare fans might notice that the Scots title Thane in Macbeth shares a root with tánaiste. As well as the job, tánaiste can also mean the third finger on your hand (no, not the middle one).

Could it be a coincidence that the Irish word for mayor, méara, is spelled the same as the word for fingers?

TD/FPE: A MP (I always say “an MP” but technically that’s wrong) in Ireland is a Teachta Dála. Before independence, dáil could include occasions such as a matchmaking session as well as a decision-making assembly.

As with the title of Taoiseach, members of other parliaments aren’t called TDs, and this includes Irish MEPs… or should I say FPEs? The name Feisire de Pharlaimint na hEorpa invites us to speculate on the significance of the difference between teachta (messenger, envoy) and feisire (someone in a feis, such as an Ard-Fheis).

If you think this is a comment on the constituency-led nature of Irish politics, consider that the word for (Northern Irish) MLA is comhalta – the same as is used for a university fellow.

Darach’s new book Craic Baby is the follow-up to his acclaimed Motherfoclóir and has just been published  under the Head of Zeus imprint. He runs @theirishfor Twitter account and the @motherfocloir podcast.

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Darach Ó Séaghdha

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