Word of the Week

CÚ 'dog, hound' is often found as a personal name; well-known examples include Cú Chulainn and Cú Roí. An unidentified individual, called simply Cú, turns up in the saying 'doringnis Cú ┐ Cethen dím' (You have made me into Cú and Cethen). According to the explanation found in the Book of Leinster, this Cú killed Cethen, a server in the house of Cormac mac Airt, and was himself killed immediately. It may be, then, that the saying means roughly 'you have placed me in a situation where there is no good outcome'.

View Entry »

21/07/2017
CLÍATH

CLÍATH is a hurdle, a framework of branches woven together and used to make fences, gates, walls, doors, and so on. A particular sense pertains to the phrase CLÍATHA FIS 'hurdles of knowledge'. A number of (notably late) sources suggest that CLÍATHA FIS were beds on which druids would lie in order to access supernatural knowledge. One text imagines the process as follows: luidhset na druidh fora cliathaib fis ┐ rothoghairmset demhna ┐dei aerdha na n-docum 'the druids went on their "hurdles of knowledge", and summoned to them demons and aerial gods' (Marco P. 32).

View Entry »

14/07/2017
CEPP

CEPP is a tree-stump and also a cut log or block. In the latter sense, it refers to the block on which an anvil sits. In the medieval period, a wooden log was often buried several feet into the ground to provide a sturdy base so that the anvil would not move when struck with a hammer. This provided medieval Irish poets with a metaphor for a stable place in which to live one's life. In an Old-Irish verse put into the mouth of Saint Ailbe, of Emly in Munster, resolving to remain in a monastery until death is likened to 'striking your anvil into a block' (t'indéin do béimim i cepp; Ériu iii 108).

View Entry »

07/07/2017
LÁR

LÁR is often seen in Ireland today on signposts and buses, where the phrase AN LÁR indicates the town or city centre. The word, however, originally meant 'floor'. As medieval houses were usually round, crossing the floor meant going through the middle of the house, and this seems to explain why LÁR came to mean 'centre'. The latter is certainly the meaning when Jerusalem is described as 'lár na cruinne' (the centre of the world) and Carrickfergus deemed the centre of Uí Néill territory (lár a fhlaithemhnais)

View Entry »

30/06/2017
BÉL

BÉL survives in Modern Irish as BÉAL 'mouth', but the original sense was 'lip' and the plural was used to mean 'mouth'. It is the plural which occurs in the medieval Irish legal phrase DERGMÍR I MBÉLAIB. Meaning literally 'a red morsel in the mouth', this phrase seems to have referred to property acquired illegally. One of the examples cited has to do with a church seizing the property of a monk who died there but who belonged to another church. The Laws state that the church in which he dies is entitled only to his burial-clothes, seven cakes and a funeral-feast (étach reilge ┐secht bairgen ┐fleg crólige, Laws v 432). Anything else would be considered a 'red morsel'.

View Entry »

23/06/2017
CORRGUINECHT

CORRGUINECHT is associated with satire, divination and other supernatural acts. It is associated also with an unusual physical stance. O'Davoren's Glossary defines CORRGUINECHT as 'being on one foot, one hand and one eye' while satirising. In the tale of Bruiden Da Choca also, a woman utters a prophecy while standing on one foot with one eye closed. And Togail Bruidne Da Derga describes how a seer woman chants thirty-two different names 'on one foot and in one breath'. Because of the emphasis on standing on one foot, scholars have sometimes wondered whether the first part of the word CORRGUINECHT might be CORR 'heron, stork'!

View Entry »

16/06/2017
NECHTAR

NECHTAR means 'one of two, either'. NEMNECHTAR does not seem to occur in the early language, but NEMNECHTARDAE is found as an adjective meaning 'belonging to neither'. It is used to refer to the neuter gender in the Old-Irish glossary Sanas Cormaic (i.e. not belonging to either masculine or feminine), and it turns up again in Early Modern medical texts to describe old people (who are neither completely well nor ill) and people recovering from illness.

View Entry »

09/06/2017
CONGANCHNES

CONGANCHNES means 'horn-skin'. It is so closely associated with the impenetrable layer of armour worn by Cú Chulainn's foster-brother, Fer Diad, that he is sometimes known as In Conganchnes (The Horn-Skin). In the Irish account of the destruction of Troy, though, Hector uses the word to refer to himself. Ultimately, of course, Cú Chulainn stabs Fer Diad in the heart 'dar brollach in chonganchnis' (over the chestpiece of the horn-skin) before finally killing him in what is perhaps the most tragic episode of early Irish literature.

View Entry »

02/06/2017
SMIR

SMIR and SMÚAS seem to be early Irish words for components of bone marrow. They work together in well-attested expressions referring to inseparable things. In a verse attached to Amra Choluim Chille, for example, 'dedail smera ri smúais' (the separating of SMIR from SMÚAS) is mentioned along with the parting of a physician from his medical bag to convey a sense of the devastastion suffered by the people of Ireland and Scotland after the death of Colum Cille (Mann. & Cust. iii, 251; LU p. 22).

View Entry »

26/05/2017
SRÓN

SRÓN 'nose' occurs in medieval Irish references to taxes, which were often specified as a certain amount in gold or silver 'for every nose'. The expression seems to be linked to Old Icelandic 'nef-gildi' (nose-tax). As every individual has one nose, a 'nose-tax' was a shorthand way of referring to a tax on every person. This system of reckoning by the nose probably came to Ireland with the Norse, but the concept was ill-understood by the time Leabhar Cloinne Aodha Buidhe was being written in Sligo in the 1680s, for the text claims: uinge d'ór ar gach aontsróin ... nó an tsrón do bhuain 'an ounce of gold for every nose ... or the nose to be struck off' (97.94)!

View Entry »

19/05/2017
GRÁN

GRÁN CRUITHNECHTA 'wheat-grain' and GRÁN EÓRNA 'barley-grain' regularly occur in medieval Irish in agricultural and domestic references, but GRÁN could be used also in a military context. GRÁIN CHATHA, literally 'battle-grains', is still the accepted Modern Irish term for caltrops, the spiked devices which are strewn on the ground to slow the advance of men, horses and vehicles. In the Irish version of the 'Historia Britonum' of Nennius it is claimed that the Romans were hampered by iron caltrops (tres na grainib catha) placed in a ford in the River Thames (Todd Nenn. 60).

View Entry »

12/05/2017
BÍAIL

BÍAIL 'an axe' is mentioned in medieval Irish sources as both a tool and a weapon. It is as a weapon that the word appears in a striking phrase from the Middle-Irish tale of the Battle of Mag Tuired. This tale tells us that the Dagda, leader of the Tuatha Dé Danann, vowed that every oak tree would bear the mark of his weapon for ever and so fissures on these trees are known as LÁTHRACH BÉLA IN DAGDA 'the imprint of the Dagda's axe' (CMT2 48).

View Entry »

05/05/2017
SÉN

SÉN is an omen or portent. To judge by the abundance of attestions in a wide range of texts, concerns about good and bad omens affected almost all areas of Irish life from earliest times. Literary references attach particular importance to the presence of good omens when a child is being born and there are accounts of mothers' attempts to delay birth, sometimes by sitting on a stone. It is claimed, for example, that Túathal Mael Garb or 'rough head' was so called from the lumps and hollows (luicc ┐cnuicc) caused by the stone that his head rested against while his mother waited for a good omen before giving birth to him!

View Entry »

28/04/2017
GABUL

GABUL was used in early Irish for any structure which divided into two or more prongs or projecting parts − like a fork, the thighs of the body or a gibbet. It combined with RIND 'point' to give us GABULRIND 'a pair of compasses'. Compasses were clearly used in early Ireland to draw accurate circles in manuscripts. The effect can be seen in the the halo surrounding the head of an eagle in the 8th-century Book of Dimma (TCD MS 59) from Roscrea, Co. Tipperary. Image © The Board of Trinity College Dublin, the University of Dublin. 2015.

View Entry »

21/04/2017
SÍNED

SÍNED LÁIME, literally 'stretching of or by hand', is used in Early Modern Irish medical texts to mean 'surgery'. The phrase seems to be based on the same idea as Ancient Greek χειρουργία, roughly 'hand-work' (from which Latin 'chirurgia' and ultimately English 'surgery' derive) − that is to say, the idea that surgery was treatment by physical manipulation of the body as opposed to treatment by herbal drinks and salves.

View Entry »

06/04/2017
ORÁIT

ORÁIT means 'a prayer' and seems to have been used specifically of a ritual prayer rather than an extempore one. An interesting instance of the word can be found in the manuscript known as Lebor na hUidre. In 1359 this manuscript was paid as ransom for members of the Ó Dónaill family who had been taken prisoner by Cathal Óg Ó Conchobhair. A note on p. 37 commemorates its return to Donegal in 1470. It says: orait and so d'Aodh Ruadh... do tobach co foregnech an leabair so ar Chonnachtaib 'a prayer for Áed Rúad for rescuing this book by force from the Connachtmen' (RIA MS 23 E 25)

View Entry »

30/03/2017
FÉTH

FÉTH FÍADA is not easily translated. It occurs in various spellings and in various texts from the medieval period and might be described best as a kind of cloaking device employed by the Túatha Dé Danann to ensure that they were not seen by mortals. In the tale Altram Tige Dá Medar, for example, Manannán mac Lir urges the defeated warriors of the Túatha to divide up and make use of the FÉTH FÍADA 'tar nach faici na flaithi' (through which the chiefs were not seen, Ériu xi 207).

View Entry »

24/03/2017
CRÚACH

CRÚACH 'a stack or rick of corn' was used also of conical-shaped mountains or hills. In medieval Irish, Crúach as a proper name referred to the mountain now best known as Croagh Patrick in Co. Mayo. The association with Saint Patrick came from later traditions which held that the saint fasted there for 40 days and from there banished the snakes from Ireland. From 'rick', the English equivalent of 'crúach', the mountain acquired its common local name, The Reek.

View Entry »

17/03/2017
FÁELAD

FÁELAD 'to become or behave like a wolf' occurs in the name Laignech Fáelad. Laignech and his descendants are associated with Ossory and are said to 'go in the shapes of wolves' (no theghedh fri faeladh) and 'kill livestock in the manner of wolves' (do mharbhdaís na hindile fó bés na mac tíre). Ossory is also the location for a separate, late twelfth-century, werewolf tale recounted by Gerald of Wales in his Topographia Hibernica, so it seems there was a more wide-spread tradition of werewolf-activity in this part of Ireland.

View Entry »

10/03/2017