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The Irish For...The role of dogs in legends, proverbs and the Brehon laws

Dogs took centre stage in Irish mythology, stories and proverbs, just like they dominate our social media feeds today, writes Darach Ó Séaghdha

This 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. 

Paul Howard, the creator of Ross O’Carroll Kelly, once remarked that “the social contract between humans and dogs might be the best bit of business we have ever done”.  I find it hard to disagree.

While cats briefly ruled social media in the early 2010s with a strong run of viral videos and memes, dogs have reclaimed their prime position since 2016. Some people attribute this to the simple goodness of dogs as being a welcome antidote to the avalanche of bad news which descended during that year.

Others point out that September 2016 was the moment @dog_rates dropped its legendary “they’re good dogs Brent” tweet, a tipping point after which doggos, puppers, good boys and 11s out of 10 entered common speech.

Dogs have a special place in Ireland too and this is expressed in Irish myths, proverbs and words.

Madra Uisce: This isn’t the only Irish term for an otter, there’s also dobharchú, a flood hound but it’s a good example of a pattern seen in naming Irish mammals as a “something-dog”.

For example, a madra rua (red dog) is a fox, a madra crainn (tree dog) means squirrel and a madra mara (sea dog) means seal. Each of these animals have non-dog names too: sionnach, iora and rón.

Cáis: What does the Irish word for cheese have to do with dogs? Well, Dinneen’s dictionary includes an exquisite expression for someone with an awkward run – rith madra an dá cháis (the run of the dog with two cheeses).

Cú: A more elegant runner would be the cú. This is the Irish word for a hound, including a greyhound.

Cú Chulainn is the legendary figure from Irish mythology who arrived late to a party and killed the host’s guard dog while trying, and failing spectacularly, to slink in unnoticed.

He then had to take up the duties of the dog he had killed and so he became known as Cú Chulainn – the hound of Chulainn (the name of the host). 

Tairseach: Ag cur madraí i bhfuinneoga is an expression for bamboozling someone. It literally means “putting dogs in windows”.

There are proverbs for dogs at different house entry points too: is teann gach madra ar a thairseach féin means every dog is bold on their own doorstep.

Coin-reacht: This is an older term, meaning dog law. In Brehon Law if a person’s dog defecated on their neighbour’s property, the owner would have to clean the mess up and provide their neighbour with an amount of butter, dough or curds equal in weight to the offending defecation.

Brocaire: The Irish word for a terrier is derived from broc (a badger), the creature they were once expected to hunt and fight. A brocaire gorm (blue terrier) is a Kerry Blue, which is one of the nine dog breeds native to Ireland.

Sí-abhabha: Chihuahua - While the Kerry Blue is a native Irish breed, occasions present themselves for international breeds of dog to be referred to, as Gaeilge.

Sometimes the literal meaning of the name is translated; for example, the Xoloitzcuintli is Madra Meicsiceach Gan Fionnadh, literally a Mexican hairless dog.

But in other cases the sound of the name is replicated in Irish, as such Sí-abhabha is the Irish for Chihuahua; the prefix sí (fairy) almost implies that the small dog has supernatural qualities.

Darach’s new book, Craic Baby: Dispatches From A Rising Language, is published by Head of Zeus and available in bookshops now.

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