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The Irish For: Toss a Word to Your Witcher, O'Language of Plenty

Viewers of Netflix’s ‘The Witcher’ will recognise some Gaeilge, writes Darach Ó Séaghdha.

Darach Ó Séaghdha Writer

IT HAS ONLY been a few months, but Game of Thrones fans have moved on, promising themselves that this time will be different.

The new object of their affections is Netflix’s ‘The Witcher’, an action caper based on a series of fantasy novels by Andrzej Sapkowski, which have already generated spin-off video and tabletop role playing games.

I’m reliably informed that the books and stories, written in Poland from the late ‘80s onwards, remark allegorically on the last days of communism and the social displacement caused by the rapid embrace of free market ideas… but I’ve been assured that this doesn’t interfere with anyone who just wants to watch lots of sword fights, magic, riding and one-liners.

Irish viewers of the show will have noticed how that certain place names and character names sound familiar. Éist Tuirseach, for example – doesn’t this look like listen, tired in Irish? There’s also the Skellige Isles (sceilg, a steep rock), the An Craites (cráite, tortured or haunted) and a greeting of céadmíl (céad mile fáilte).

The Witcher is not alone in the fantasy and gaming genres in how it draws from Irish language and mythology (among other traditions) in its world-building, and many Irish fans enjoy how it has been represented. For example, myths associated with the Sceilg Mhicíl have informed storylines about Skellige in the Witcher games.

This is not always the case when Irish turns up in fantasy, however.

How would you feel about a wizard cast a spell by saying “léigh anois go cúramach, ar do scrúdpháipéar”? Or a Templar and his hobbit sidekick being sent on a mystical quest to retrieve the sacred cupán tae from the mysterious land of Maigh Eo?

Last year, writer Orla Ni Dhúill wrote a widely shared blogpost about how some American writers were treating Gaeilge as a kind of public domain elvish, rather than a living modern language.

While mythology-inspired literature can ignite the imagination and encourage readers to find out more about Ireland and Irish – and many adult learners have told me this was what started their interest – careless, lazy use of Irish in the genre is motivated by a writer finding its obscurity charming.

In this sense they are impressed not by what the words mean, but by the impression that they can mean whatever they want them to mean. Hence Dublin bus press releases have been used as magical texts in Buffy, Warhammer 40K has had a race of space elves who speak entirely in seanfhocail and a character in Teen Wolf translates Darach – the name of that show’s villainous killer druid – as “evil oak”.

It’s actually just the genitive case of oak (although lots of people consider an tuiseal ginideach to be quite evil).

One of the most alarming – and telling – examples is in the Shadowrun series of role playing games and books. In this series, the island of Ireland is reunited in 2034 under the name Tír na nÓg by elf terrorists after a sex scandal. Mixing a sensitive political issue with a careless understanding of a country’s culture – what could possibly go wrong?

Happily, we are not short of Irish writers who draw upon our language, history and mythology to create thrilling and insightful new stories which speak to Ireland as it is and deserve a wider readership: Deirdre Sullivan, Sarah Maria Griffin and Sarah Davis-Goff, among others.

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About the author:

Darach Ó Séaghdha  / Writer

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