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I’ve been following this debate in Irish circles for a good 10 or so years now, probably since the first time I wrote on the topic for my Irish language column for children in the Philadelphia-based Irish Edition newspaper (www.irishedition.com). Are we celebrating one mother or all mothers?
I should probably qualify that to say “i gciorcail Ghael-Mheiriceánacha agus Ghael-Cheanadacha” (in Irish-American and Irish-Canadian circles), since Mother’s Day as such wasn’t traditionally celebrated in Ireland, or Britain for that matter. Instead, “Mothering Sunday” was, and is, observed on the fourth Sunday of Lent (aka Laetare Sunday). Mothering Sunday was originally a religious holiday, for the purpose of visiting one’s mother church (“going a-mothering”) and typically being reunited with one’s mother for the day. Recently, however, it has become increasingly secularized and more like North American Mother’s Day. The Irish term for “Mothering Sunday” is surprisingly elusive, but “Domhnach an Mháithreachais” should do.
The consensus seems to be that the Mother’s Day concept is plural, despite the English grammatical structure, which makes it singular. These days many people leave out the apostrophe altogether, adding to the confusion, since the phrase “Mothers Day” without the apostrophe isn’t specifically singular or plural or even possessive. In English, of course, the apostrophe is currently dying a slow death, despite the valiant attempts of organizations like the Apostrophe Protection Society (www.apostrophe.org.uk) and websites like www.apostrophecatastrophes.com, as well as attention from such prominent commentators as Arianna Huffington, who wrote “The Apostrophe Crisis: When Perfectly Good Punctuation Goes Bad” (www.huffingtonpost.com/arianna-huffington/the-apostrophe-crisis-wh_b_12628.html). So, at some point in the future, we’ll just have a blur of events like “Mothers Day,” “Fathers Day,” and “St. Patricks Day.” The latter will be particularly problematic if it presumes the existence of more than one St. Patrick! Mother – Mothers, Father — Fathers — OK. But is there another St. Patrick?
Fortunately, the Irish language will never fall quite into that grammatical trap. It doesn’t use the apostrophe to show possession. So you see, those of you from Ireland, all those years of studying the tuiseal ginideach (genitive case) are of some benefit! It’s true that Irish has some complicated use of apostrophes, including indicating the real colloquial pronunciation of phrases like “fear an phoist” (the postman, pronounced fear a’ phoist). Bhuel, more on na huaschamóga (lit. “upper-commas”) and an tuiseal ginideach later but that Á.B.E. (ábhar blag eile) will have to wait.
Back to Mother’s Day itself. “Lá na Máithreacha” seems to be favored somewhat over “Lá na Máthar,” to judge by some recent online searching. As I mentioned, there’s not much precedent for either of these phrases in older Irish sources, since the day was not traditionally observed in Ireland under the name “Mother’s Day.”
Conveniently for our purposes, this topic has also introduced some of the irregularities of the word “máthair.” It’s an irregular noun, with the following forms:
máthar: of a mother (note the “i” has been dropped at the end – that shows that this form is possessive). Example: gach mac máthar, every mother’s son
na máthar: of the mother. Ex.: Sláinte na máthar, the health of the mother.
máithreacha: mothers, Ex. ár máithreacha romhainn, our mothers before us
Based on this, can you guess the forms for “athair” (father)? It’s irregular in a similar way to “máthair.” How would you suppose we’d say “Father’s Day”? Or “Grandparents Day,” which, by the way, is officially gan uaschamóg (apostrophe-less) according to its creator’s website (www.grandparents-day.com).
However you celebrate the day, bain sult as (enjoy it) – bhur mblagálaí — Róislín
P.S. nuashonrúchán: still no entry for “Mothering Sunday” in major Irish online dictionaries, but “Lá na Máithreacha” (the plural version) is official according to focloir.ie. (29 Mí na Nollag)