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Inspired by a recent comment from reader Rita C., who noted that Irish has “so many choices for Irish grandmother names,” I thought this would be a good time to review some of the terms. This blogpost will deal with grandmothers, and we’ll probably have a companion piece for the grandfathers. Go raibh maith agat as scríobh isteach, a Rita!
To me, one of the most interesting things about the “grandmother” and “grandfather” terms is that they are completely different from the Irish words for “grandchild,” “granddaughter,” and “grandson.” There is no “grand-” element that’s held in common among all these words. For “grandmother” in the somewhat formal sense, there are three choices that we can add to “máthair” (mother) to create “grandmother”: sean– (as a prefix), mór, and críonna. Then there are two additional choices which are more familiar and more likely to be used by children: mamó and móraí. Neither of these two words is literally “grand-” anything.
So how do all of these words work in actual speech? Here we’ll look at the actual combinations and then at the words in direct address, if you’re actually talking to “grandmother” or “grandma.”
1) seanmháthair, grandmother, lit. old mother
“A Sheanmháthair!” in direct address
2) máthair chríonna, grandmother, lit. wise mother
“A Mháthair chríonna!” in direct address
3) máthair mhór, grandmother, lit. great or large mother. “Mór” can also be translated as “grand,” but it’s not “grand” as in the typical sense of “fine” or “elegant.” Those would be “breá” (fine) or “galánta” (elegant, stylish, genteel)
“A Mháthair mhór!” in direct address
The remaining two terms are more like saying “grandma,” or “granny,” or “nan,” or “nana.”
4) mamó [say: mahm-OH], based on “mam” (mom, mum, mother), a parallel term to “daideo” for “granddad.”
“A Mhamó!” [uh wahm-OH] in direct address
This is the term used in the charming children’s book, Bran agus a Mhamó, the Irish translation of Spot Loves his Grandma, by Eric Hill. “Bran” is a classic dog’s name in Irish and so replaces “Spot” for the puppy.
Another spelling for is word is “Maimeo,” with “A Mhaimeo” for direct address.
5) móraí [say: MORR-ee, with the “R” flapped (lightly trilled) as we also find in “Nóra” or “clocha móra.”
“A Mhóraí!” [uh WOR-ee] in direct address
If children are being raised Irish-speaking, the direct address forms would be natural. If the children are being raised English-speaking, words like “Mamó” and “Móraí” could be treated as names, and not have the “M” to “Mh” change. So we might hear:
“Seo bronntanas duit, a Mhamó!”
or its English equivalent:
“Here’s a present for you, Mamó!”
And similarly, for “Móraí”
“Nollaig shona, a Mhóraí!”
and its English equivalent:
“Merry Christmas, Móraí!” or “Happy Christmas, Móraí”
And getting back to “grandchild,” “granddaughter,” and “grandson,” the key word is “gar,” which means “near.” It also means “approximate,” although that sounds rather technical for talking about children.
Hope this was useful. Over the years, I’ve gotten lots of requests for how to say “grandmother” or “grandma” in Irish, often for Irish-American families in the United States. This is especially true when one grandmother has already appropriated “Grandma,” as such. The parents want a word which reflects their Irish heritage and yet is fairly easy to say. SGF — Róislín
PS: To read about the fate of one of folklore’s most famous grandmothers, you might like to try “Clóicín Dearg” [Little Red Riding-hood] (Cincinnati: Another Language Press, 2001, ISBN 0922852553, which typically retails for about $2.99.