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The Irish For: An astronaut is a star-sailor, a comet is a paintbrush star

The calling to travel beyond the Earth owes itself to mythology as well as science, writes Darach Ó Séaghdha.

Image: Shutterstock/Triff

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.

“I OFTEN LOOKED up at the sky an’ assed meself the question – what is the stars, what is the stars?”Juno and the Paycock, Sean O’Casey

This week marks the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, one of the defining moments of the 20th century. For millennia before this, humans had looked up into the night skies and wondered, and suddenly a man was standing on the moon, looking back.

The moon landing is rightly seen as a triumph of scientific endeavour. Now, 50 years later, science is often discussed – especially by non-scientists, parents, and politicians – only in the context of lucrative career opportunities and presented as being diametrically opposed to the humanities.

But the calling to travel beyond the earth’s atmosphere (particularly the early work that made the Space Race seem like a viable project to invest billions in) tells a different story – one of research for its own sake, inspired by the imagination and driven by something finer than job security.

Scientific discovery starts with a leap of faith and those early aerospace engineers and astrophysicists, who were smart enough to do something that paid better, had their curiosity piqued by mythology and science fiction.

The Apollo Programme was named after the Greek god associated with both science and poetry.

The Irish for…

Spás – the idea of space as the vast emptiness between planets and stars, as distinct from the night sky perceived from earth, is a relatively recent one, which may go some way as to explaining the similarities between the English and Irish words.

While this usage of “space” had entered common usage in English by the 1890s, its earliest use is debated; experts note an incidence in 1723 but some argue that John Milton used space in this context in Paradise Lost.

Spásaire – the Irish for an astronaut (or a cosmonaut, depending on your alliances) gets right to the point: a space-person.

Astronaut itself is a Latin-based word formation which literally means star-sailor; if the Irish translation had followed this literally it would have been mairnéalach na réaltaí.

Réalta na Scuaibe – this is one of the names of a comet. A scuaib is a brush, so this means a paintbrush star, one that leaves a streak of light behind it.

Domhantarraingt – this is the Irish for gravity which translates literally as earth-pull.

Úránus – Anglophone schoolchildren (and adults who should know better) have had a great giggle at the name of the planet Uranus for generations. This double entendre does not work in translation into Irish, though. However, if astronomical toilet humour is your thing, don’t be too disappointed: the rings of Saturn are fáinní Shatairn.

Domhan – the Irish for planet Earth is awfully similar to domhian, which means evil desire. Cruel and greedy impulses have been a driving force for human activity on the planet for too many thousands of years.

The year after the moon landing, a nun in Zambia wrote to the Dr Ernst Stuhlinger in NASA, asking how space exploration could be justified when there are so many starving children on this planet.

His reply is one of the best things I’ve ever read. A part that sticks out for me is his observation that “efficient relief from hunger, I am afraid, will not come before the boundaries between nations have become less divisive than they are today” and that space travel and photographs of a borderless planet were already leading to unprecedented cooperation.

Sadly, 1969 was also the year of Operation Banner and the building of the Peace Lines in Northern Ireland. Man-made problems continue to be harder to resolve than the mysteries of the stars.

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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