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The Irish For Bank holidays and Lú, the god of August

In Irish, August is Lúnasa, named in honour of the ancient god Lú, writes Darach Ó Séaghdha.

This is the latest dispatch from our 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.

Happy August Bank Holiday Weekend! The Irish for a bank holiday is lá saoire bainc.

While charity calendars will often stick shamrocks and tricolours on their March page, there is an argument to be made that August is the most Irish month of the year. There’s the All-Irelands (unless a replay of a semi-final is required, and sure that never happens), the Rose of Tralee, the Galway Races, and our national obsession with the Leaving Cert results and the points race.

In Irish, August is Lúnasa, named in honour of the ancient god Lú (sometimes spelled with a silent gh, Lúgh). 

What kind of character was Lú? Fittingly for an August god, he is closely identified with ball games and horse racing. But there is more to him than that.

Lú (Louth) – The god of August turns up in a number of Irish place names, most obviously the wee county. 

Ficheall (chess) - Lú is thought to have invented the game of chess, or at least an ancient game along the lines of chess. The Irish word for chess translates literally as wood intelligence fiodh (wood) + ciall (sense, reason). Political buffs might be interested to know that one of the dictionary entries for the pieces in a strategy board game is fianna fáil.

Daideo (grandad) - Never one to be trifled with, Lú killed his grandfather with a slingshot. If this sounds a bit inconsiderate, I should probably point out that his grandfather was Balor, an evil greedy giant with an evil eye on the back of his head that shot a kind of poisonous, burning laser at people. Balor lived on a fortress on Tory Island: interpret that as you will.

Lámh (hand/arm) - Lú had a long arm, which came in handy in battle. This accounts for his nickname Lamhfada (long arm). As a young soldier he fought with the high king Nuada who was also known as Airgeadlámh (silver arm), which was either a reference to his stylish armour or the fact that he lost an arm in battle and got a metal prosthetic. 

Faigh (to fetch, among other things) - We all love dogs, and aspire to deserve the loyalty and affection they give us so freely when our human peers are mean, annoyed at us or “too busy”. However, washing a dog is a disgusting chore. Not so for Lú – his hound, called Fáil Inis, was a magical dog who could turn the water that he was washed with into wine. Lú’s symbolic connection to dogs doesn’t end there as he is also the father of Cú Chulainn.

Freagra (answer) - Lú was very busy and didn’t have time to listen to tall tales or have people plamásing him. Fortunately he inherited a magic sword called Freagarthach (the answerer). If you held this sword to someone’s throat, they were unable to tell a lie.

Capall (horse) - Lú had an especially fine horse, Aonbharr of the Flowing Mane, who could travel on land or sea with equal speed. The idea of horses riding over water recurs in the Irish language with crested waves charging towards the shore referred to as capaill bhána (white horses).

Darach’s new book Craic Baby is the follow-up to his acclaimed Motherfoclóir and is out now under the Head of Zeus imprint.

He runs @theirishfor Twitter account and the @motherfocloir podcast.

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