Irish Language Blog

Seamus Heaney and the Irish Language (Cuid a Dó as Trí) Posted by on Sep 19, 2013 in Irish Language

(le Róislín)

In the last blog we looked at the Irish titles of two of Heaney’s poems, “Aisling” (Dream/Vision) and “Maighdean Mara” (Mermaid/Sea-maiden).  This time we’ll look at a poem which is inspired by some Irish Gaelic words but which doesn’t actually include them in the text.  So, by reading this blog, you’ll not only get a little more background on Heaney’s work and “wordscape” approach, but you’ll learn the Irish words for “goat” and “snipe,” and a few more to boot (“frost,” “strange,” “night,” “air,” etc.).

So how do “goat” and “snipe” come together?  It’s the Irish idiom.  Although there is a basic word for “snipe,” namely “naoscach,” there are also several folk expressions for the bird, especially the male.  Why the male?  Níl a fhios agam–cuir ceist ar na héaneolaithe!

gabhairín reo, male snipe, jack-snipe, literally, “little goat of (the) frost”

gabhar reo, male snipe, more or less as above, literally, “goat of the frost”

gabhar deorach, male snipe, literally, “strange goat, wandering goat” (cf. deoraí, m, a stranger, a wanderer)

gabhar oíche, jack-snipe, literally “goat of (the) night”

meannán aeir, male snipe, literally, kid of (the) air (that’s “kid” as in “young goat”)

meannán aerach, male snipe, literally, “airy, light-hearted, lively or frolicsome kid” (of course, most kids are frolicsome, or shall we say “capricious,” which derives from the Latin “caper,” a goat)

Well, that lays it out for you.  Goats and snipes intrinsically connected.

Chances are you’ll find the words for “goat” (gabhar) and “kid” (meannán) relatively more useful than “snipe,” unless you’re actually involved in “naoscaireacht,” but they’re all useful vocabulary words.   The adjective “naoscach,” in addition to its basic meaning (“abounding in snipe”), can be used to describe someone who, like the bird, is easily startled or jumpy.  So the applications possibly go far beyond the birds themselves.

And how does all this relate to Heaney?

In his “The Backward Look” (Wintering Out, 1972), Heaney refers to whirring transliterations while discussing dialects and variants.  In italics (indicating “foreign” words), he refers to  the “little goat of the air, of the evening, / little goat of the frost” but he doesn’t actually print the Irish words.  In fact, many readers might not make the connection to the bird at all, although Heaney’s reference to “a snipe’s bleat” is a clue (to hear the sound, click  In my edition of Wintering Out, part of the Collected Poems 1965-1975 anthology, there are no explanatory notes for these phrases.

And why does Heaney pick these “goat/kid” phrases to illustrate his point?  I assume it’s because they illustrate the gradual decline of the finer points of the language, as words, in disuse, disappear “… among the gleanings and leavings in the combs of a fieldworker’s archive,” as he says in the last stanza of the poem.  The more modern, streamlined approach to animal names is usually to pick a single, more “scientific” word like “naoscach.”  These forms, when they exist, are usually chosen for zoological taxonomy.  For example, the “Great Snipe” (Gallinago media) is “naoscach mhór,” not “gabhairín reo mór” (lit. “big little goat of frost”), which, admittedly, seems the more practical choice.    Similarly, while Irish has two words for “fox,” (“sionnach” and “madra rua“), only “sionnach is used for the different species names (sionnach Artach, sionnach Bheangál, etc.).  Another practical choice, since not all of these foxes are “rua” (red).  Likewise, most wolf species are based on “faolchú” (wolf, wild dog) not “mac tíre” (wolf), which, picturesquely means “son of the land.”  Examples include “faolchú Aetópach” and “faolchú na Tasmáine,” although we do see “mac tíre Eorpach” (European wolf).

And returning to the snipes themselves, yes, there is a connection between “snipe,” the bird, and “sniper,” a sharp-shooter, in Irish as well as in English.  In the wild, snipes are difficult to shoot due to their camouflage and, when airborne, their erratic pattern of flight.  “Sniper” originally meant someone who hunted snipes, a challenging target, and eventually came to mean an anti-personnel sharpshooter as well.  In Irish, a “naoscaire” can be either a military sniper or a person who hunts snipes.  A military sniper can also be a “snípéir,´ a word which simply brings us full circle–snipe (bird) sniper (hunter) snípéir (gaelicization of the English).

There’s also one aspect of this discussion that’s a little unclear to me.  While “jack” is often used for the male of a species, there is also a specific species of bird called “jack-snipe,” which presumably has males and females.  But straightening that out, distinguishing the female jack-snipe from the male jack-snipe, is a bit beyond my ken.  Fáilte roimh eolas breise ó éaneolaí ar bith ar an liosta!

And just to slightly confound the issue, in the United States, snipes are not that widely found.  In fact, children or “city-slickers” may believe they don’t really exist.  Like “brass magnets,” “cans of steam” or “sky-hooks,” at least pre-Star Wars “sky-hooks,” snipes can be used as a theme for “newbie” pranks.  It’s a typical on Scout camping trips to wake up the uninitiated in the middle of the night, say that this is best time to go on a “snipe hunt,” and then lead them, fruitlessly, on what might best be called a “wild goose chase.”  But this is straying far from Heaney’s intention in musing over snipes, goats, and language failure.  This blog is at least one small attempt to make the words he highlighted airborne once again.  SGF- Róislín

btw, I originally wrote this blog using “snipe” as the plural, as well as the singular (much like the situation with “fish” (plural) and “fishes” (plural) in English.  But the more I read about snipe(s), the more I saw the “-s” ending, so eventually I changed all the plurals in the blog to “snipes.”  But if any readers have any insight into the predominant usage, especially among actual “naoscairí,” I’d be glad to hear it and happy to change this blog back to “snipe” (singular) and “snipe” (plural).

Nóta maidir le taifeadadh na naoscaí: Thaifead Vladimir Yu. Arkhipov, éaneolaí ón Rúis, an fhuaim i Chukotka, An Rúis, agus phostáil sé i gCómhaoin Wikimedia é.  Go raibh maith agat, a Vladimir! 


Séamus Ó hÉanaí / Seamus Heaney (1939-2013)Posted by róislín on Sep 6, 2013 in Irish Language

Ag Caint faoi Heaney, a shaol agus a bhás (i nGaeilge) agus gluaisPosted by róislín on Sep 11, 2013 in Irish Language

Seamus Heaney and the Irish Language (Cuid a hAon as ‘N’Fheadar’)Posted by róislín on Sep 15, 2013 in Irish Language

Seamus Heaney and the Irish Language (Cuid a Dó as Trí)Posted by róislín on Sep 19, 2013 in Irish Language

Seamus Heaney and the Irish Language (Cuid a Trí as Trí) Posted by róislín on Sep 22, 2013 in Irish Language

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