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

(le Róislín)

The previous two blogs in this “mionsraith” discussed Seamus Heaney’s use of Irish in writing poetry in English.  We discussed the Irish titles of some of his poems (e.g. “Aisling,” “Maighdean Mara“) and the implied Irish in “The Backward Look,” where he incorporates folk expressions for “snipe” into the body of a poem that documents the fate and future of the Irish language.   In today’s blog, still just the tip of the linguistic iceberg that represents Heaney’s intertwined language usage, we’ll look at a few Irish words that he used in their anglicized spellings.  In a few cases, the words are a bit off the beaten track, like “bullaun,” but others are quite widely known, like “lough.”  Even for the well-known words, though, there are additional forms of the words to know, especially if you really want to use them in a sentence or conversation in Irish.

Let’s start with the familar!

1. lough: the Irish spelling of this word is “loch” [lokh, with the “kh” representing the sound in words like German “Buch,” “Welsh “bach” and Yiddish/Hebrew “chutzpah.”  Heaney could hardly escape this word, growing up, as he did, near Lough Neagh (Loch nEathach).  Lough Neagh figures prominently in Heaney’s poetry, especially (and not surprisingly) in his 7-part “A Lough Neagh Sequence” (Door into the Dark, 1969).  Other uses of “lough” include “Honeymoon Flight,” “At Ardboe,” and, need I say it, “Lough Neagh. ”  Hmm, I wonder how many lakes have both a poetry sequence and a single poem, by the same author, to their credit.  Anyone want to tackle Lake Chargoggagoggmanchauggagoggchaubunagungamaugg, Massachusetts?

Here are the other forms of “loch“:

an loch, the lake

an locha, of the lake

na lochanna, the lakes; the same form means “of the lakes”

A related word is “lochán,” a small lake or pond.

2. currach (“currachs,” in Heaney’s “Shoreline,” Door into the Dark): this might look like an actual Irish spelling, but it has been slightly altered.  The usual modern spelling in Irish is “curach,” with just one “r” (talk about detail!).  But it’s the English plural ending “-s” that really shows that this is being treated as a borrowing, part of the English corpus, rather than an embedded Irish Gaelic word. This word is quite well known, since there’s no other really good word to describe these lightweight, canvas- or ox-hide-covered, wickerworkish-framed rowed boats, short of “coracle,” which usually seems to reserved for the Welsh version of the boat (or Reepicheep’s!).

“Currachs” are rarely, if ever, used for commercial fishing these days, but may be used for races or history demonstrations, and there are even currach racing clubs in the U.S.–at least one.  If you’re in the U.S., does your area have one?

The typical anglicization of this word is “curragh,” so I’m using that below, just to emphasize the distinction.

Here are the other forms of “curach“:

an churach [un KHUR-ukh]: the curragh; it’s a feminine noun so after “an” (the), the “c” changes to “ch” and the pronunciation changes.

na curaí [nuh KUR-ee]: back to the regular “c” in spelling [k-sound], and a change to the ending; “of the curragh,” gob na curaí, the prow of the curragh

na curacha [nuh KUR-uh-khuh], the curraghs

na gcurach [nuh GUR-ukh, with a hard “g” sound replacing the “c”], of the curraghs; goba na gcurach, the prows of the curraghs

Here’s how Heaney uses the word: “Listen.  Is it the Danes, / A black hawk bent on the sail?  Or the chinking Normans? / Or currachs hopping high / On to the sand?”

And now on to the (perhaps) less familiar, at least in North America:

3. rath: there’s one slight difference between this and the actual Irish spelling–our old friend, an síneadh fada (the long mark or accent).  In Irish it’s “ráth” [raw] which gives it slightly different pronunciation from a similar word, “rath” [rah].  “Ráth” means a ring-shaped earthwork fort and is usually anglicized, ever so slightly, by dropping the long mark.   In Ireland, you’ve probably seen the word in place names like “Ráth Chairn” (Rathcarran), Ráth Eanaigh [Rathenny], Ráth Eanaigh (Raheny), and An Ráth Dhubh (Rathduff).

Here are the other forms:

an ráth, the ring-shaped earthwork fort, or, as the term is used in English also, without the síneadh fada, I’ll just say, “the rath”

an rátha, of the rath (except when the word is considered feminine–dialect gender-hopping!–and it would be “na ráithe“)

na ráthanna, the raths

na ráthanna, of the raths

Heaney uses this in “A New Song,” (Wintering Out): “Like bleaching-greens resumed by grass– / A vocable, as rath and bullaun.”

And that quote brings us to the last of our four key words for today’s blog:

4. bullaun: this is most likely “ballán” (a rock with a natural cup-shaped hole for collecting rainwater used in prayers and healing practices) but it could also be “bollán” (large round stone or boulder).  Either way, it fits the flow of the poem, with its references to the landscape and to the ancient earthwork forts (as well as to the ancient language).  There are at least seven places in Ireland called “Bullaun,” with several different original Irish spellings, and more place names if one includes compounds like “Bullaunmore” (An Ballán Mór).

“Ballán” is a very straightforward first-declension noun; I’ll translate it here simply as “bullaun,” for simplicity’s sake:

an ballán, the bullaun

an bhalláin, of the bullaun

na balláin, the bullauns

na mballán, of the bullauns

As I mentioned above, this blog just offers a glaicín of words showing Heaney’s familiarity with the Irish language, ranging from words that anyone with his background would know (lough/loch) to the more specialized “bullaun/ballán.  And there are plenty more.  It would be interesting to recreate the recognition of these words among his readership as his career progressed.  Second nature to many Irish readers, but no doubt tantalizing to many of his first non-Irish readers.  And I’ll just note, before I “dander off,” as Heaney might have said, that all these words and others of their ilk deserve a “gander” at the original.  Check out his “Dawn Shoot” for that alternate to “wandering,” “meandering,” or something like that, if your vernacular includes non-anserine “gander” but not “to dander.”  SGF, Róislín

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