Irish Language Blog

Will The Real Lúnasa / Lughnasa / Lughnasadh Please Stand Up? Posted by on Aug 1, 2010 in Irish Language

(le Róislín)

We’ll take a break here from pronunciation notes, to address the holiday at hand, currently called “Lá Lúnasa” (August 1).  The entire month of August also derives its name from this holiday, mí Lúnasa, or simply, Lúnasa.

And while there’s a book’s worth of information on how this festival was traditionally celebrated, we’ll start by looking at the name itself and if there’s any space left, we’ll discuss some of the gníomhaíochtaí traidisiúnta that were practiced on this day.  In case we don’t get to that, I’ll at least note that it was a harvest festival, the time to welcome in the new potatoes, following the “Hungry Month” of July.

The three versions of the name are, in historical order, from oldest to newest, Lughnasadh, Lughnasa, and Lúnasa.

The first part of the word, “Lugh” is fairly straightforward – it’s the name of a god, who eventually became a character in legend, with no recognition of his divine origin.  A lot has been written about him, but the main points for our purposes are that he had supernatural powers, especially in spear-throwing and that his name is probably connected to the Latin word “lux” (light) and its many derivatives.  Since Irish is an Indo-European language, it’s not at all surprising for some of its oldest words to share similar roots, spellings, and meanings as words in other languages of the same heritage (like Latin and Sanskrit).

Many of the Celtic deities show up this way in legend, not acknowledged as gods or goddesses, but possessing special attributes reflecting their original divinity.  His name was spelled “Lug” in Old Irish and “Lugh” is simply a more recent spelling that shows that the pronunciation of the end of the word was softened or lenited.  During the Irish spelling reform of the 1950s, many silent consonants were dropped (though not all), so now his name is simply alluded to in the modern form, “Lúnasa.”

As for the second part, “-nasadh,” later shortened to “-nasa,” it means “a commemorative assembly” or “a funeral feast.”  But it’s not used much in Modern Irish.  All the references I find to it were archaic by the early 20th century and mostly refer to medieval history, or earlier.

Today, if you wanted to say “assembly,” the most likely word would be “tionól,” used for many groups, gatherings, and events, such as Tionól Thuaisceart Éireann, Tionól Gaeltachta, teach tionóil Chumann na gCarad, and the St. Louis Tionól, to name just a few.  Commemorative would be indicated by “comórtha” or “cuimhneacháin,” or some such word.  “Feast” could be “féasta,” “fleá (fleadh),” “féile,” or “coirm,” and “funeral,” as an adjective, would be “sochraide.”

So, as you can see, just because “nasadh” once meant “commemorative assembly” or “funeral feast” doesn’t mean that you’d use it to express those concepts today.  In other words, the “-nasa” part of “Lúnasa” is quite obscure from today’s perspective.

Outside the Irish-speaking world, probably the greatest recognition this day has is through Brian Friel’s Tony-award-winning play, Dancing at Lughnasa, later made into a movie with Meryl Streep.  Sticking strictly to the linguistic discussion, I’ll just note here that Brian Friel probably picked up much of his Irish in the 1930s and 40s, prior to the spelling reform, so his title reflects the spelling of the day.  Since the play is set in 1936, we could also say that he used the spelling that would have been known to his characters.

It doesn’t necessarily add more emphasis to the Lugh connection, although a literary criticism approach might be tempted to say so.

Whether Friel really weighed the question, “Should I spell this as “Lughnasa” or “Lúnasa” if I’m writing in English?” remains unknown.  But, as a language teacher, the spelling issue jumps out at me.  Friel’s play was first produced in 1990, by which time the spelling reform was well entrenched, even if not everyone is satisfied with it.  Today, you won’t even find “Lughnasa” as such in many modern Irish dictionaries, only “Lúnasa.”

If there were more time and space here, I could easily wax poetic about this play, in both its stage and film versions, since it’s one of my all-times favorites.  Ach sin scéal eile.  Or should I say,” Sin rosc eile.”  But that would imply that previous blogs were roscach, which might be a little andóchasach, though I do try, at least, to make them beomhar.

So to get back to our original question, all three versions of the name are correct, it just depends what decade or century is involved.  For most modern purposes, aside from discussing Friel’s play, I recommend “Lúnasa.”

On that note, I might continue the Lúnasa discussion for another blag nó dhó, or leap back into pronunciation notes.  More than enough fodar cainteSGF — Róislín

Gluais: andóchasach, presumptuous; beomhar [ByOH-wur], lively; gníomhaíochtaí [GNEEV-ee-ukh-tee], activities; roscach, rousing, rhetorical, often but not necessarily connected with battle cries; sochraide [SOKH-ridj-eh] of a funeral; Tionól Thuaisceart Éireann [TCHON-ohl HOO-ish-kyart AYRzh-un] the Northern Ireland Assembly, teach tionóil Chumann na gCarad [tchakh TCHON-oh-il KHUM-un nuh GAH-rud], Quaker meeting house

Pronunciation note: from the modern perspective, Lúnasa, Lughnasa, and Lughnasadh are all pronounced the same [LOO-nuss-uh].  The stress is on the first syllable.  The “gh” and “dh” are effectively silent, as in the words we just discussed a couple of blogs ago, “foghlaim” and “fadhb.”

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  1. Deirdre McFarland:

    Iontach ar fad!


    The new spelling came out around the time I started learning the Irish at school. Aspects of the innovation I agreed,with; all those “d seimhithí” (dh)-and “g seimhithí (gh’s) could be intimidating. And although the old script was beautiful it was not that practical. But I think they should have kept the “seimhe” -‘a simple dot above a consanant to soften it) rTher thN all those cluttered “h”s. I also feel the new spelling discriminates against the Canúint Ulaidh (Ulster diLect) “Aeridheacht” (0pen air festival) is perfect rendition of Ulster pronunciation whereas “aeríocht” renders the Munster and Connacht pronunciation. And Condae an Lughaidh (Co. Louth) is perfect Irish whereas Co an Lú is to me a gross distortion.

    • róislín:

      @BRIAN PATTERSON. Pointí suimiúla, a Bhriain, agus aontaím leat. TBO gur chaill mé an seans freagra a sheoladh duit ag an am a scríobh tú.

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