Books

Did you know the Irish language has at least 20 words for 'hole'?

Manchán Magan reflects on the Irish language – and the nuances of a way of life that is disappearing

Illustration: Claudine O'Sullivan

It was my grandmother, Sighle Humphreys, who taught me Irish and when I asked her one day what the word for a hole was, she replied, “Do you mean one dug into the ground by an animal? That’s an uachas. Or one made by fish in a sandy riverbed for spawning? That’s a saothar. Or if it’s been hollowed out by the hoofs of beasts and then filled with rain it’s a plobán. Or if a lobster is hiding in one it’s a fach. Or if it’s been created as a hideaway by a wild beast it’s a puathais.” 

Perhaps it was then that I first noticed that the two languages I spoke, Irish and English, required not just different forms of grammar and syntax but different ways of interpreting reality. It wasn’t just that the sun rose in five distinct stages in Irish, but that if I needed to give directions to someone I had to orientate myself in relation to the sun quite specifically.

I would be heading siar ó dheas (south-west) along the road or aduaidh (to the north) or soir abhaile (eastwards home). Even when someone or something was just a little way off, such as a cow in the next field, I would say, “Tá an bhó thoir sa pháirc” (“The cow is in the field to the east”). 

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Later on I learned that there were many other words for holes, such as one dug into a bog, a criathar, and one made by an auger, a tarathar, and a cup-like hole in a rock, a ballán. Each can be translated into the English word hole, and perhaps it’s efficient to do so, but I have always wondered what subtlety and nuance is lost and whether the richness of the reality the Irish words describe would wane. 

Our landscape now looks like an anonymous expanse of indistinguishable fields, yet seen through the Irish language each field has its own word, depending on its characteristics and function. There are well over 32 different words for field in Irish.

To a city dweller these patches of land may all look the same, and in English each would probably be just referred to as a field, yet to someone whose ancestors have been cultivating the ground, growing grain and tending cattle for over 4,000 years, and who has built up the soil over centuries by hauling seaweed from the shore and burning limestone to add alkalinity, they look very different. 

Geamhar is a field of corn grass, biorrach is a marshy field, buaile is a field for keeping cattle before milking. There is a word for a tilled field worked in partnership with a neighbour, a fallow field, a night field for cattle, a meadow field between two woods, an arable field in an arid area, a field for games or dancing, a level field for spreading flax or hay, a sheltered field in which a mare would foal, an upland field, a low-lying open field, an enclosed field, a level field, a neat, well-arranged field, a smooth fine field and an unenclosed field in the middle of a créig (a stonier area of limestone). 

Each of these words summons particular swathes of our landscape and the activities that happen on them. Some words even refer to fields in which something occasionally happened but no longer does, such as bánóg, a patch of ground levelled out by years of dancing, among other things, or buadán, a hillside that once had gorse growing on it but has since been cut with a scythe or hook, leaving only stumps. A hillside on which the gorse has been removed not by cutting but by burning has a different word. 

Having lived on the island for so long, we have perhaps inevitably become rooted quite deeply in it, becoming entangled in its complex network of clay, sand, stone, weeds, worms, mycobacteria, flora, pollinators and mycelium. But I hadn’t realised how far back this connection stretched until my grandmother taught me a seanfhocal (a proverb, literally ‘old word’) that shook my sense of time and space so much that I am contending with it to this day. 

“Saol trí mhíol mhór saol iomaire amháin, saol trí iomaire saol an domhain.” It translates as “Three times the life of a whale is the lifespan of a ridge, and three times the life of a ridge is the lifespan of the world.” For me, it encapsulates just how far back the knowledge contained within the language stretches on this island. A whale was thought to live for 1,000 years (although they live for about a century), so it was believed that some of the cultivation ridges that we see in the fields around us could be up to 3,000 years old.

Archaeologists agree that there are indeed ridges of that age still visible in such places as the Céide Fields in Co. Mayo and Slievemore on Achill Island. The span of three cultivation ridges would amount to 9,000 years, which takes us back to the time when archaeologists believe significant numbers of humans first settled here. That our ancestors appear to have kept a count of how long we have been here – and that they encoded it in our language – is precious.

Thirty-Two Words for Field: Lost Words of the Irish Landscape by Manchán Magan is out now (Bonnier Books, £16.99). You can buy it from The Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops.
This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy!
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