Word of the Week

SÉN

SÉN is an early Irish word for an omen or portent. In medieval literature, particular significance is attached to the presence of good omens when a child is being born and there are accounts of mothers who attempt to delay birth, sometimes by sitting on a stone. It is claimed, for example, that Túathal Mael Garb, whose name means 'rough and bald', was so called from the lumps and hollows caused by the stone that his head rested against while his mother waited for a good omen before giving birth to him!

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23/05/2021
CORRBOLG

CORRBOLG is usually translated as 'crane-bag'. The term refers to a bag which Manannán mac Lir is said to have made from the skin of a crane or heron which had been in his company for 200 years. This bird was actually a transformed woman, named Aoife, and Manannán kept his most precious things in the bag, including the king of Scotland's shears, a helmet which belonged to a Norse king, the bones of Asal's pig and part of a whale.

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17/05/2021
BOLG

BOLG is a long-established Irish word used to denote bubbles, blisters and swellings of various types. Bricriu mac Carbada, who features as a troublemaker in the Ulster Cycle of tales, is pictured as having a purple swelling, as big as a man's fist, which would rise up on his forehead when he tried to keep a secret. According to one account, when this happened, Bricriu used to say MEBAIS DIN BOILGG INNOCHT 'the bubble will burst tonight'!

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08/05/2021
CÍRMAIRE

CÍRMAIRE was an early Irish word for a comb-maker. There are signs that comb-makers were not held in very high regard in medieval Ireland. In the Life of St Colmán, for example, the saint proclaims that only shoe-makers and comb-makers will descend from anyone who turns against him. That said, in describing how the CÍRMAIRE acquired materials for this craft, an early legal text has an intriguing suggestion of supernatural powers. According this source, the CÍRMAIRE is to be found ‘chanting on a dunghill so that what there is below of horns and bones comes up’ (Celtica xxi 231). https://fermanaghastoryin100objects.wordpress.com/2014/11/10/the-drumclay-bird-headed-comb/

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30/04/2021
BEL

BEL seems to have been an old Irish word for 'a path' which survives only as part of Modern Irish BEALACH 'road, track' and perhaps IMEALL 'border, edge'. BEALACH itself appears in the phrase BEALACH NA BÓ FINNE 'the path of the white cow', an Irish name for the Milky Way. In Scottish Gaelic, meanwhile, the Milky Way is known as SLIGHE CHLOINN UISNICH 'the way of the sons of Uisneach'. The three sons of Uisneach are said to have been treacherously murdered after being lured back to Ireland after a period of exile in Scotland.

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19/04/2021
AIRTEM

AIRTEM was an early Irish word for a measure of length, seemingly equivalent to a man’s fist with the thumb extended. It is often used in medieval literature to express extraordinary physical size or bodily contortion. The nose, mouth and penis of Ulster hero Fergus mac Róich, for example, are all said to have measured seven AIRTIM and, in the Irish version of the Destruction of Troy, Troilus’ eyes extend an AITEM outside his head when he comes under attack from the Myrmidons.

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13/04/2021
PATU

PATU is one of several early Irish terms for 'hare'. Others include MÍL MAIGE 'creature of the plain' and GERRFÍAD 'short wild animal'. Medieval scholars sometimes claimed that PATU derived from the word TÓ 'silent' because the hare runs silently, having as much fur on the soles of its feet as it has on the top!

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05/04/2021
CUIT

CUIT (modern CUID) meant both 'a part' and 'love', just as English PARTIAL can be both 'not whole' and 'inclined to favour one thing'. The Irish word is used in the latter sense in medieval explanations of the name of MO CHUTU, patron saint of Rahan, Co. Offaly. Because he was so loved by God and men, the name MO CHUTU is said to have been applied to him, but he was expelled from the monastery of Rahan in the year 637, perhaps because of his views over the dating of Easter.

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27/03/2021
TÁL

TÁL is a word for an adze, a tool like an axe, and CEND is the early Irish word for 'head'. Together, as TÁLCEND 'adze-head', these were used as a name for St Patrick, seemingly in reference to the shape of his tonsure. An early description of Patrick suggests also that he wore 'a cloak with a hole for the head' (BRATT TOLLCHENN), and perhaps in recognition of this and/or as a play on TÁLCEND, Patrick’s followers are sometimes known in later literature as NA TOLLCHINN, literally 'the hole-heads'!

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17/03/2021
MÍL

MÍL meant 'creature' in Old Irish and MÍL MÓR, literally 'great creature' often referred to a whale. According to the Annals of Ulster, in the year 752, a MÍL MÓR washed ashore near the Mourne Mountains. Allegedly, it had three gold teeth, each weighing fifty ounces, and one of them was put on the altar at Bangor Monastery.

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11/03/2021