Irish Language Blog

Beirt Naomh Mhí na Feabhra: Naomh Bríd agus San Vailintín Posted by on Feb 3, 2014 in Irish Language

(le Róislín)

Irish has two words for “saint.”  I wonder if any other language is similar in this regard, but for now, we’ll just look at the two Irish words, “naomh” and “san.”  For most purposes, they are not interchangeable.  February celebrates both “Naomh Bríd” and “San Vailintín,” so let’s look at why they have two different words for titles.

Let’s start with “san” [sahn] since, ultimately there are fewer forms and specifications connected to this word.  The key thing is that, in Irish, “San” is only used as a title.  In Modern Irish, at least, it’s not a generic word for “saint.”  The word “naomh” serves that purpose.

At least according to all the recent Modern Irish sources I’ve been able to double-check, the word “san” currently has no plural, no gender, and no possessive ending.  It’s only used as a title, primarily for non-Irish saints.  Note that the pronunciation (“sahn”) is not like another Irish word spelled “san” and pronounced like English “sun.”  That “san” (short for “ins” + “an“) means “in the,” as in “san uisce,” in the water.  Here are some examples of “San” for saints:

San Vailintín (hmm, I wonder why that example sprung to mind at this time of year?)

San Doiminic

San Caitríona

San Seoirse (“San” used to change to “Sain” before slender consonants, like the “s-” of “Seoirse,” but I haven’t seen any signs of this in recent years).  BTW, both “s’s” in “Seoirse” are slender, but only the first one really concerns us here.

San Tomás a Beicit and San Tomás

San Seán (as in Oíche Fhéile San Seáin, St. John’s Eve; a related term in early 20th-century Irish, Féile Shain Seain [sic], shows us that at one time, “san” did change form slightly according to the grammatical context.)

San Nioclás (aka Daidí na Nollag and Athair na Nollag, except, I suppose, when one is specifically referring to the 4th-centuary St. Nicholas of Smyrna, separate from all the Christmas trappings.

Geographically speaking, we have:

San Héilin

San Críostóir-Nimheas

But some other locations retain the actual word “saint,” as in “Comhroinn Thar Lear Saint-Pierre-et-Miquelon.”

As for the St. Bernard dog, there are at least three ways to refer to that breed in Irish:

an tAilpíneach, pl: na hAilpínigh, lit. the “Alpine”

Madra Bearnáin, pl: Madraí Bearnáin, lit. dog of Bearnán (Bernard)

Madra San Bearnard, pl: Madraí San Bearnard

Irish or non-Irish, when we want to refer to saints in general, the word is “naomh” [neev OR nayv].  This word has the usual complement of forms, and is grammatically masculine.  It’s used even if the saint being referred to is female (Naomh Bríd, whose feast day has just passed).

an naomh, the saint

an naoimh, of the saint; ainm an naoimh, the name of the saint

na naoimh, the saints

na naomh, of the saints, as in “Féile na Naomh Uile” (lit. the feast of all the saints)

In addition to “Naomh Pádraig” (aka Pádraig Naofa), we have “Naomh Ciarán,” “Naomh Colm Cille,” srl. 

Some related words are “naomhluan,” a “halo” and “naomhsheanchas” [NEEV-HAN-uh-khuss OR NAYV-HAN-uh-khuss], which means “hagiography.”

As for expressions like “Saints alive!,” I think the closest Irish equivalents would be “A Thiarcais!” (Oh my!, etc.) or “Muise!” ([MWISH-uh], Indeed!, often anglicized as “Musha!”), with no reference to saints at all.  But perhaps some readers know some other saint-related exclamations in Irish? SGF – Róislín

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