Céad Míle Fáilte – and welcome to this week’s Letter from Ireland. The weather here is getting wetter by the day, almost in biblical proportions – a dry day seems rarer than a hens tooth. I hear that many of our friends in North America are “enjoying” the first snowfalls of the year all of this week. I do hope you are keeping safe and comfortable wherever you are. I’m settling into a glass of water from the well – it’s particularly sweet at the moment. I do hope you’ll join me with a cup of whatever you fancy yourself – and we’ll start into today’s Letter from Ireland.
I must admit, I find English – the language of this letter – to be one of the most beautiful languages in the world. Down through the centuries it stretched in the most imaginative of directions – absorbing the beautiful lines of poets and scribes who were supported by a wealthy power and taking in the words and culture of each land that it colonised. One of these lands was Ireland – a place where the Irish language evolved over the centuries to reflect and describe the traditions and culture of our people.
Last Friday I was sitting in my car at nine in the morning. The car was not moving. Now, being stuck in a traffic jam is rarely a pleasure – but in this case I looked on in wonder as hundreds of schoolchildren made their way into a local school. It was a newly built “Gaelscoil” – a place where all subjects are taught through the language of Irish. Irish was a language that was in catastrophic decline since the 17th century – and that language is the subject of our letter today.
Irish is a language of stories, heroes, music, tradition, connection and family that has been used on this island of Ireland for thousands of years. We first became aware of Irish in it’s written form as the monks who transcribed the old Latin manuscripts wrote notes in “old Irish” on the margins of pages. This was the 6th century, and the Old Irish language absorbed many Latin words through the activity of these monks.
By the 10th century, Irish had evolved into what we call “Middle-Irish” today.This was a version that was spoken across Ireland and traveled to Scotland and the Isle of Man with the Irish of the time. Today, what we call “Scots Gaelic” is a dialect of this Middle-Irish language.
By the seventeenth century, we get the “modern Irish” that is still in use today. At that time, Irish was spoken by the majority of the people of Ireland. It was not until the time of the Great Famine (An Gorta Mór – “The Great Hunger” in Irish) that the language went into a catastrophic decline that continued until today.
However, If I look at the 1901 census records that show my great-grandfather’s household (see here), he is noted as speaking both English and Irish. This mix of languages remained common for many of our ancestors across the rural townlands of Ireland.
The Irish language is a keen observer of nature and the cycles of life and death. Much of the wisdom that was passed from generation to generation was encoded in many of the Irish proverbs and blessings we know today. These proverbs are known in Irish as “Seanfhocail” or “old words”.
Let’s explore some Irish through the medium of these proverbs – maybe you have heard of some? I’m sure you might even have a few more to add.
Is buaine port ná glór na n-éan,
Is buaine focal ná toice an tsaoil.
A tune outlasts the song of the birds,
A word outlasts the wealth of the world.
I like this proverb as it reminds me of the important things in life – but also underlines the value and power that the Irish place in music and the spoken word. In a way, it shows the priorities of an entire people through one proverb.
Is maith an scéalaí an aimsir.
Time is a great storyteller.
I think this is one to bear in mind as you dig deeper into your family ancestry! Over time, many stories and myths have come to surround (and enliven) what were once facts of the day. I also like that the word “aimsir” (pronounced “aye-m-shir”) can also mean “weather”. As we all know, the weather can be a great trickster in Ireland!
Mac an tsaoir ábhar an tuata.
The son of a craftsman may grow up ignorant of his father’s skills.
This is the timeless piece of wisdom that tells us we often don’t appreciate that which is closest. But have another look. As you know, I like to chat about Irish surnames and here you see an interesting view on a particular surname. Firstly, you see “mac” – which of course means “son” and is the prefix for many Irish and Scottish surnames.
Next, the word “tsaoir” (pronounced “teer”) comes from the Irish word for “free” which equates a craftsman with a freeman. Which he was in old Irish society. Finally, this “son of the craftsman” gives us the later surnames “MacAteer“, “Freeman” and “MacIntyre” – all anglicisations of “Mac an tSaoir”.
Like these surnames, a lot of the Irish language has survived in the form of the Irish surnames in your family. Names such as Heffernan, Murphy, Kelly, Dineen, McNamara, O’Brien, Mannion, Cleary, Byrne, Connolly, Foley, Lynch and Doherty – just a small example of surnames that started out in the Irish language at one stage. Do you know your family surnames in Irish?
An áit a bhuil do chroí is ann a thabharfas do chosa thú.
Your feet will bring you to where your heart is.
Oh, I do like this one! You can dream all you want – but you do need to take the first steps and start doing! At least, that’s the way I choose to read this one. How about you?
Is gaire cabhair Dé ná an doras.
God’s help is closer than the door.
Many Irish proverbs give reference to God, Mary and the Saints. This seems to sit well with most Irish people who have an instinctive belief in a power and grace beyond the individual.
Ar scáth a chéile a mhairimíd.
We live in the shelter of one another
Finally, one of my favourites, which you may have heard me use before. Because, it is true my friend – for people of Irish ancestry throughout the word – we share so much in our attitude and values. We truly do “live in the shelter of one another”. So, as I think back on those young schoolchildren lining up to enter the “Gaelscoil” last Friday – it delights me that this great language of ours has a chance to become an essential part of our everyday lives once again. Would you like to learn some Irish? Maybe you know a few words already?
That’s it for this week – as always, do feel free to leave a comment below to say hello, share an Irish surname in your family – or a proverb that was often in use.
Slán for now – Mike and Carina : )
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