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The Irish For The weeds and wildflowers that bother and delight the countryside

Do you know your banshee thimbles from your blue hatreds?

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.

WHAT MAKES ONE plant a weed and another a flower? It’s something I think about when I see those surprisingly colourful ones blooming at the side of the motorway.

In a way, weeds are like poison in that the definition says more about our expectations of them than their true nature.

Just as poisons and medicines are often the same substances administered in different doses and with different intents, a weed is really just a plant that’s growing where it’s not supposed to. Famously, a rose-bush in a wheat field can be considered a weed.

However, the fact that weeds are able to thrive without human assistance while our lovely hanging baskets and potted herbs need careful regular tending speaks volumes. The world that we want to create and maintain needs help and it seems so easy for the bad things to thrive.   

As this decade draws to a close, I find myself thinking that viewpoints are not unlike such flora. Some opinions are like flowerpots: we put them in front of our homes, water them and pluck the deadheads, make sure that they’re perfectly pretty for everyone to see.

Other opinions are what we think but don’t say, weeds rising in the cracks of the pavement. We know they’re there but accept them as long as they’re not too visible. We can pull the root out some other time. Or we give in to them.

Before this gets too cynical there is a third space in this metaphor, one for when people quietly reveal themselves to be kind and brave in their treatment of others. These moments and the people who bring them are wildflowers, asking for nothing as they delight and surprise. 

The Irish language has some great expressions for the weeds and wildflowers that bother and delight the countryside. Here’s a small selection.

Méaracáin Na mBan Sí – One of the names in Irish for purple foxglove translates literally as banshee thimbles. Banshees also turn up in the Irish name for fairy flax – lus na mban sí (banshee plant).

Róslabhras – There has been much international praise recently for outgoing House of Commons speaker John Bercow and his enunciation of the word “order”, but when it comes to parliamentary pronunciation of words you really can’t beat a Healy-Rae saying “rhododendron”. I’m thinking of making it my ringtone. As for the plant, it was introduced to Kerry in the 19th century by landlords who wanted to make grouse and pheasant hunting a bit more challenging. It has since spread rapidly and bullied native flora close to extinction.

Deora Dé – Another flower I always associate with Kerry is fuchsia, which look like little red and purple dancers. Their Irish name translates as tears of god.

Fuath Gorm – Blue hatred is the literal meaning of the Irish for the plant bittersweet.

Lus An Dá Phingin – In English this is called creeping-jenny, in Irish it’s the twopence plant. Lus is the go-to word for a plant and turns up in other flower names – lus an chodlata (sleep plant) is the poppy, lus an chromchinn (bowed-head plant) is a daffodil.

Neantóg – This is the Irish for a nettle; if you knew someone who was a bit neantúil they’d be irritable and prickly like a nettle, and possibly a bit sweary. A friend of mine had a potty mouth when he was a smallie, much to the despair of his parents. His grandfather, a Church of Ireland rector, intervened by suggesting that the only cure for this was a bowl of nettle soup “to sting the bad words off his tongue”.

After a morning picking nettles together, my friend was terrified at the spoon of green liquid edging its way towards his mouth that afternoon – and astonished to find that it was actually delicious. That’s when his grandfather told him that even the meanest nettle in the forest was capable of goodness.

Nettle soup is an attitude to life.  

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