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The Irish For: Forget the January blues - let's talk about birds

The fact that the Irish words for duck and lake sound similar gives an alliterative flourish to a seanfhocal about not sweating the small stuff: Ní troimide an loch an lacha – the lake is not heavier for having a duck on it, writes Darach Ó Séaghdha.

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.

YOU MAY HAVE noticed that January has arrived. Some people think of it as the hungover morning of the year – dreadful to endure, but a low point from which things can and will get better.

Others see it as the Coldplay of months – full of angst, earnestness and public declarations of piety and healthfulness, a month one cannot be seen to enjoy in fashionable circles. But we won’t be hunting such easy targets today.

January in Irish is a month where a misplaced fada can cause chaos: Eanáir is the first month of the year, but Éanaire would be someone with an interest in ornithology. So rather than dwell on detox diets and payday blues, today we’re going to talk all about birds.

Eitilt: Most of you will remember from school that an aeroplane is eitleán. An eitleog is not a young aeroplane, but rather a person or creature that’s a bit flighty. Eitilt means flight: the dream of man and flightless bird alike. It can also refer to the flickering of a flame or a light, things that appear to be in flight in the dark.

Lasair Choille: It doesn’t sound very safe to me, but a goldfinch is literally a forest flame as Gaeilge.

Normally when we think of flame birds, we think of the phoenix. There is no connection between this mythological bird and Phoenix Park, whose name comes from fionn-uisce (fair water) in Irish.

Garrfhiach: Phoenix Park is the home of Dublin zoo, which contains a variety of birds which are not native to these shores: the two fada variety such as the túcán (toucan), the single-fada kind like lasairéan (flamingo) as well as the fada-less, flightless piongain (penguin).

Another fada-less bird is the garrfhiach, a vulture. This translates literally as filth-raven.

Scréachóg reilige: Speaking of dramatic literal translations, this is one of the names for an owl in Irish; that means “shrill graveyard bird” when you break it down. The go-to word for owl is ulchabhán, which means white beard.

Leathéan:  Different world cultures throughout history have been touched by the lifelong loyalty certain species of birds show to their partners – love birds, turtle doves, swans in Europe, for example, as well as ducks and swallows in China.

Leathéan: Means one of a pair of birds (leath meaning a half-part, éan meaning bird). Figuratively, it can also mean a singleton.

Ealach: This is an adjective that describes a place with many swans; “swan-haunted” is how it is defined in older dictionaries.

Swans (ealaí) feature prominently in one of the best-loved tales from Irish mythology, the Children of Lir. This story has tormented research students for years with its tantalising yet unprovable similarities to other European folk tales such as those recorded by the brothers Grimm (Twelve Brothers), Hans Christian Anderson (Wild Swans) and the original tale of King Lear.

Lachín: A famous story involving a swan with a happier ending is the ugly duckling, which is An Lachín Ghránna in Irish.

The fact that the Irish words for duck and lake sound similar gives an alliterative flourish to a seanfhocal about not sweating the small stuff: ní troimide an loch an lacha  – the lake is not heavier for having a duck on it.

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

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

About the author:

Darach Ó Séaghdha

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