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The Irish For: The word deatach, meaning smoke, also refers to the family huddled together around the fire

As one of the first human inventions fire is often used as a metaphor for human civilisation and its downsides, 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.

THE NORWEGIANS HAVE a word ‘ildsjel’ which translates literally as fire-soul. It describes a person who is a passionate volunteer in numerous local charities, groups or activities, the kind of person who makes communities better.

It’s a word that crosses my mind as we enter this season of lights on trees, candles at windows and jolly old men sliding down chimneys; December remind us constantly of the human obsession with fire.

As one of the first human inventions fire is often used as a metaphor for human civilisation and its downsides. This is common across multiple languages, including Irish.

Deatach: Smoke

‘Níl aon tinteán mar do thinteán féin’ is arguably the most famous seanfhocal of all. It means ‘there is no hearth like your own hearth’ – the implication being that the fireplace is the heart of the home.

This idea traces back to earlier Irish history when the smoke rising from a fire was the indication of a human settlement. It’s telling that the word deatach, meaning smoke is also used to refer to the family grouping who would be huddled together around that fire.

Níor loisc seanchat é féin riamh: An old cat never scorches itself.

This is certainly true of fireplaces and candles, where the aforementioned seanchat can apply their life experience to avoid a nasty burn.

It is possibly less true of situations such as a falscaí, where heather or gorse is torched and the whole side of a mountain is set alight. An old cat might not be able to blag their way out of that one.

Caisirnín: Can mean a wrinkle in the forehead, a kink in a rope or a twisting wisp of smoke rising from a fire or flame.

Corrchoigilt: As well as meaning the bewitching glow of embers in a fire, this can also mean a mischievous, impish person.

Tine an mhadra rua: Speaking of impish people, this term translates literally as fox’s fire and is one of the Irish names for will-o’-the-wisp.

Loisc tú do ghual is ní dhearna tú do ghoradh: This handy phrase literally means, “you burned out your charcoal but didn’t fire your metal”.

In other words, you made a total mess of a fairly straightforward problem and the point at which you could have asked for help or hoped to save face has passed. You made a hames of things. Go home, and on your way back have a think about the choices you have made.

Smolchaite: An individual smól is a burning coal or ember. Smolchaite is an adjective to describe a low smoulder on a fire, or clothes that are shabby or threadbare, nearing the end of their useful life. A threadbare fire, so to speak.

Tine bhuaráin: A different kind of tine and a strong contender to be the Irish for a hot mess, this means a fire that is prepared using dried dung as kindling.

Dúlasair: The perfect name for a mischievous black cat, this word means a dark, smoky flame.

It’s a compound of dubh (black) and lasair (flame) – the silent bh evidently got lost somewhere over the centuries. It is also the name of a collection of poetry by poet Doireann Ní Ghríofa.

Laomlasair: This word means a leaping flame. 

It’s a favourite of mine as my daughter’s name is Lasairíona and I think of it every time she launches herself from a couch, bed or other raised surface which is every day.

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.

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Darach Ó Séaghdha

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