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The Irish For: What does old Irish tell us about life in ancient Ireland?

Did the knights of the Fianna use their frithbacáin (handbrake) to do doughnuts, and other boy racer tricks, in the medieval equivalent of an industrial estate? wonders 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.

LIKE MANY JUNIOR Cert students, I got a bit of a land when my teacher told us that Shakespeare, with all his ‘wherefores’ and his ‘thous’ and his ‘liefs’, was considered to be modern English.

It certainly seemed ancient to us and I wondered how much different proper Old English could be. I was unlucky enough to find this out for myself a few years later as I struggled through Beowulf and the Dream of the Rood in UCD.

English has been stretched and re-tailored through centuries of use since these tales were written and, given how much language has changed in the past 20 years, it shouldn’t be such a surprise to find that the English of five or six hundred years ago is quite different indeed.

The Irish language has also gone through waves of changes that reflect periods of social and political upheaval, and as with Shakespeare’s modern English, some modern Irish could appear old to the casual reader.

For those curious to find out more about older forms of Irish, the Royal Irish Academy’s Dictionary of the Irish Language (DIL) is a great place to start. First published in 1913, the DIL is currently being digitalised and a concise version for mainstream readers has recently made available

If you take a peek, you might see slight similarities between some of the entries and some Irish words you already know.

Some of my favourite entries include:

Deilethorc: A two-year-old male pig. A torc is used in modern Irish to mean a wild boar.

By the way, the pub Turk’s Head in Temple Bar refers to a boar’s head rather than a decapitated Istanbulite.

Amrígan: This shady entry means a woman who is not a queen.

Fíachairecht: Raven lore (as opposed to dreänacht, which is wren-lore). A person who is well-versed in raven lore would be a fiachaire.

Alchaing: Meaning a rack for holding weapons and can refer figuratively to a warrior’s hands or a woman’s bosom.

If the idea of comparing a woman’s chest to a place to put weapons alarms you, you might be interested to know Cuchulainn’s legendary chat-up line to his future wife Emer: “ba dheas mo shleá a leagan idir do sciatha” – I would like to rest my spear between your shields.

Frithbacán: A handbrake of sorts, this was a hook used to secure a chariot when not in use.

Did the knights of the Fianna used their frithbacáin to do doughnuts and other boy racer tricks in the medieval equivalent of an industrial estate?

I’m  certain the answer is yes and that a charioteer rode off with all the evidence proving this.

Íarannta: Swift as a squirrel. The modern Irish word for a squirrel is iora, not to be confused with the similarly-named paramilitary organisation.

Hopefully, the person being described as íarannta here is faster than Queen Medb’s squirrel, who was beheaded by Cuchulainn following a disagreement.

Corpchar: This means fond of slaughter… not to be confused with armchar, which means fond of weapons.

Cétmuinter: If a man has multiple wives, the cétmuinter is the most important of them. She is usually, but not always, the first one. However, a cétmuinter can also mean husband.

If polygamy and family law in old Ireland are of interest to you, I’ll be writing about Brehon Law next week.

Darach’s new book Craic Baby is the follow-up to his acclaimed Motherfoclóir and has just been published  under the Head of Zeus imprint.

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

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Darach Ó Séaghdha

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