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The Irish For: Cuddly mammals and furry predators

The Irish language has many names for different creatures in the wild.

Darach Ó Séaghdha Writer

THE ESTEEM IN which wolves were once held in Ireland is indicated by one of their names in Irish: mac tire, son of the country.

The value of natural predators to the ecosystem is better understood now, especially in the context of wider concern for the environment and ecology.

For example, the idea of reintroducing wolves to the Irish countryside once seemed ludicrous, but is actually gathering steam on the foot of successes in other countries.

The Irish language features multiple names for various furry predators and other cuddly mammals, some of whom are sadly not seen as often in their native habitat anymore.

Sionnach - Fox

There are a number of names for a fox in Irish, but this one is the most common. Madra rua is also popular, but then what would you call a red setter or other auburn canine?

Our cunning friends have another, more obscure name which warrants attention: loisinnán, meaning the white-tipped one.

Iora rua - Red squirrel

If you find madra rua imprecise or misleading, perhaps you’ll find this name for a red squirrel less so. Or perhaps not – it does look awfully like the word for Norway (An Iorua).

There is another word for squirrel which is ainle, coming from the verb ainligh (to hold steady against strong winds).

Eas/Nessa - Stoat

A possible source of linguistic confusion, the word eas can mean a stoat or a
waterfall. This is now thought to be the result of an ancient clerical error too long-established to be corrected, where the stoat’s name should have been recorded as “i nes” rather than “in es”.

The girl’s name Nessa is thought to come from this nes. The stoat has another title which has also found its way into Irish naming – bláthnaid.

Dallóg Fhéir - Dormouse

No doubt the stoat name bláthnaid comes from the likelihood of seeing that creature hiding among flowers. This thought process is also evident in this name for the dormouse, which translates literally as little blind creature of the grass.

Like all these other mammals, they have an additional name: luch chodlamáin, a sleepy mouse.

Béar - Bear

This word for bear looks a lot like its English counterpart and is pronounced more or less the same. Some people prefer their Irish words as different from the béarla version as possible and they will be delighted to know that other options exist.

Old Irish has the name art, which can also mean a hero. There is also mathúin, which is awfully similar to maghouin, the Manx Gaelic for a bear.

Broc – Badger

I’m guessing that you know this one from school. Adharca bhruic (badger horns) was a phrase in old Irish to refer to something imaginary or non-existent, not unlike a red herring.

Given that these creatures are widespread enough on these islands for a cull to be planned, it might surprise you that badgers are the only creature on this list with a single name, one which is identical in Manx and Scots Gaelic and even turns up in Old English.

Coileán - Puppy, cub or baby mammal

A litter of these cubs would be a cuain coileán. The word cuan can also mean a harbour or port and while there’s no direct link between these words, it’s nice to think of a litter of warm, furry, baby animals all gathered together like boats safe in a harbour.

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About the author:

Darach Ó Séaghdha  / Writer

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