Irish Language Blog

Dreoilíní, Boscaí, agus Dea-thoil (26 Mí na Nollag 2013) Posted by on Dec 26, 2013 in Irish Language

(le Róislín)

So what do “wrens,” “boxes,” and “goodwill” have in common?  All pertain in one way or another to a day celebrated as a holiday under various names in Ireland, Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and some Commonwealth countries.  An 26ú lá de mhí na Nollag atá i gceist.

Dreoilíní (7) agus Ceolaire (1)

Dreoilíní (7) agus Ceolaire (1)

For the benefit of American readers, I’ll simply point out that December 26th is not an official holiday in the U.S.  For many, it is “lá mór siopadóireachta,” and some institutions also have the day off (schools, usually as part of a winter vacation of 10 or so days, some offices and small businesses).  There is no official name for the December 26th holiday in the U.S.  It’s mostly just referred to as “the day after Christmas.”   If you want to refer to it in Irish, it would be “an lá i ndiaidh na Nollag” or “an lá tar éis na Nollag” (note the “-ag” ending).    

But in the above-mentioned countries, December 26th is an official holiday, with a variety of names.

In Ireland, it is known as either “Wren Day” or “St. Stephen’s Day” in English and as “Lá an Dreoilín” or “Lá Fhéile Stiofáin” in Irish.

“Wren Day” has been discussed in previous blogs (, 26 Mí na Nollag 2011, and, in passing,, 1 Eanáir 2012.

But just as a refresher, this is the day of a traditional procession through a town or rural community after the “Hunting of the Wren.”  It mostly used to be young men and boys who participated, but these days, often as a revival performance, the activity is much more inclusive.   The troop would sing “The Wren Song” (“The wren, the wren, the king of the birds, on St. Stephen’s day, was caught in the furze,” etc.) and gather money or snacks from house to house, displaying the wren.

There are versions of the song in both English and Irish, but even the English versions usually include the word “droleen” (the anglicized version of “dreoilín,” wren).  “Dreoilín” can also mean “small creature” in general, as in “an dreoilín bocht” (the poor little thing).

The alleged explanation for hunting the wren was that it supposedly chirped and revealed the hiding place of St. Stephen.

The name “St. Stephen’s Day” refers to that saint’s death by stoning, in approximately 34 or 35 A.D., on December 26 in the Western calendar and, as I understand it, December 27, in the Eastern calendar.  Recognizing this event gives us one more vocabulary phrase to consider, although I sincerely hope that readers will have little practical reason to use the following:

bás a imirt ar dhuine le clocha, to stone someone to death

Unpleasant as the meaning of the phrase is, it is worth noting its literal translation and how prepositions are used in it, which are quite different from the English:

to inflict death upon someone with stones

The verb isn’t actually “to stone” — it’s “to inflict”.  “Imirt,” of course, can also mean “to play,” but that’s in a very different context.  So if we wanted to describe St. Stephen’s fate, we could say: D’imir siad bás ar Stiofán le clocha.

Even stoning in general involves different prepositions than English would use:

Chaith siad clocha le Seán.  They stoned Seán, lit. They threw stones “with” (i.e. “at”) Seán.  Note that the preposition is “le” (with) while English would say “they threw stones at Seán.”  This could open up an enormous discussion of prepositions in Irish, which are frequently quite different from English.  Perhaps a couple of additional examples will suffice for now.  In one case, “le” translates to “to”: Dhíol mé an carr le Seán (I sold the car to Seán), which again uses “le” (with) in a very different manner from English.   And if you’re throwing something with the intention that it be caught, like a bone (cnámh) to a dog, “chuig” is used: Chaith Timmy cnámh chuig Lassie.

In a more benign realm, “to stone fruit” is “clocha a bhaint as torthaí,” lit. “to hit the stones out of fruit.”  Once again, the verb isn’t “to stone,” as such, but “baint” (to hit, strike, reap, etc.).  In the phrase “baint as,” the meaning is “to remove” or “to take from.”

In Britain and countries with connections to the former Empire or to the Commonwealth, December 26th is usually referred to as “Boxing Day” — hence the “boscaí” of the title of this blog.  This refers to the annual Christmas “box” or gift given to servants and employees, especially in the era of the “Big House” (à la Downton Abbey or Brideshead).  Often it was money, with no actual “box” involved.  I should clarify, though, that “boscaí” is just given here for general vocabulary.  “Boxing Day” isn’t usually literally translated into Irish.  The “translation” offered is usually “ Fhéile Stiofáin,” bringing us back to “St. Stephen’s Day” — it’s more giving an equivalent than “translating.”

Perhaps it’s unnecessary to mention that “Boxing Day” has nothing to do with “boxing,” as such, but it might interest Irish language learners to know the term for the sport: “dornálaíocht.”  It’s based on the word “dorn,” which usually means “fist” but which can sometimes mean “a punch” (a logical sequitur!) or “a fistful.”  This word has an interesting array of cognates in other Celtic languages: dwrn (Welsh: fist), dorn (Cornish: hand, fist), and dorn (Breton: hand).   Two of these languages also have a word related to Irish “lámh” (hand), with “llaw” in Welsh and “leuv,” in Cornish.  The Gerlyvrik Kernewek-Sowsnek (p.  72) adds the intriguing comment that Cornish “dorn” means “hand,” when it is “used as an instrument” — an interesting distinction!  Does one “speak” to the “dorn” or to the “leuv” in Cornish?  As for Breton, several sources I’ve checked just list “dorn” for hand in general, without a comparable word in the lámh/llaw/ leuv family; it wouldn’t surprise me though if there’s some obscure or archaic cognate.

The Scottish Gaelic and Manx equivalents are shoo-ins for cognate connections, since the languages share such a similar heritage to Irish.  Manx has “doarn” (fist).   Scottish Gaelic has “dorn” (fist, a blow, a handle), which also contributes phrases like “dorn-chur” (sword-hilt) and “dorn-fhùar,” the intriguing archaic custom of twisting off a cow’s foot without breaking the skin, done as a display of strength.  Regarding the latter, one (but only one) source I’ve read on it specifies that the cow is already dead when this feat is attempted.

The word “dorn” also gives us the surname “Durnin” and the original Irish “Ó Doirnín” (as in “Peadar Ó Doirnín,” the 18th-century South Ulster poet).  For more on Ó Doirnín, the poet, you might want to check out “The Poets’ Trail” ( or read his most famous poem/song, “Úrchnoc Chéin Mhic Cáinte,” which is set near Dún Dealgan (Dundalk), Co. Louth.   You can hear it sung by Aoife Ní Fhearraigh, of Gaoth Dobhair (Co. Donegal) at

So now we’ve discussed dreoilíní, Naomh Stiofán, boscaí, and, in passing, doirn agus an Doirníneach.   How does “goodwill,” the third element of today’s blog title, fit into all of this, other than in the general spirit of the season (“Peace on the earth, goodwill to men”).   And what’s the Irish for “goodwill”?

In 1994, the year Nelson Mandela became president of South Africa, December 26th was declared “Day of Goodwill” there, replacing the traditional name “Boxing Day.”  I haven’t yet found any specific discussion of the South African “Day of Goodwill” in Irish, but we can at least look at the relevant vocabulary.  There are three main choices for “goodwill”:

dea-thoil [dja-hil], goodwill; also used in the phrase “le do dhea-thoil” (with your goodwill / kind consent)

dea-mhéin [dja-vayn], goodwill; also used in phrases like “le dea-mhéin” (with kind regards) and “le dea-mhéin an údair” (with the author’s compliments)

dea-rún, goodwill, good intention, as in “le dea-rún” (with good intent); this one seems a little less ethereal to me than the others, having more to do with people-to-people interaction.

I’d suggest “dea-thoil” for the phrase “Day of Goodwill.”  It becomes “dea-thola” for “of goodwill,” giving us “Lá na Dea-Thola.”

The prefix “dea-” is used in a  wide variety of ways, including “dea-bhéasaíocht” (mannerliness), “dea-chroíoch [DJA-KHREE-ukh]” (good-hearted), and in the Irish for “a happy death” (dea-bhás [dja-wawss]).  “Happiness” and “death” may seem to be at odds with each other but the idea is death i staid na ngrást (in the state of grace). This concept is reinforced in the saying “Dea-bhás agus dea-lá chun na cille” (a happy death and a good day [for going] to the cemetery), part of a traditional blessing.

As for the inescapable “Good Will Hunting” (the 1997 film with Robin Williams, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck), I’ve always remained a bit intrigued about the title.  If we’re simply saying that “Will Hunting” (the protagonist) is “good,” in Irish we’d say “Will Hunting Maith” or perhaps “Will Hunting, An Dea-Fhear OR An Fear Maith).  But if we’re hunting for goodwill, it could be “Ar Lorg Dea-Thola” (the possessive form of “dea-thoil“).  If both ideas are implied, as I suspect, I don’t think that Irish can convey quite the same concise word play as the English, in this case, although we could ponder “Will Hunting ar Lorg Dea-Thola.”  Food for thought, at any rate.  And, on that note, le dea-thoil daoibh go léir, SGF — ó Róislín

Nóta:  Gerlyvrik Kernewek-Sowsnek, by Ken George, is one of the smallest books I own, measuring 2.1 x 1.9 x 0.6 inches.  But “bíonn blas ar an mbeagán” and the book contains about 8000 words or translations  ( or

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