IT’S said that every language offers a unique window on the world and that the combined wisdom and life experiences of the people who developed that language over thousands of years are encoded within it.
And how the Irish named the incredible biosphere they lived among is very different from their English equivalents, which are often categorised like someone was writing a checklist.
The Irish seem more child-friendly, describing the animal or phenomenon with an open curiosity of a young person. A bat in Irish is sciathán leathair – leather wing – while the now-rare corn bunting is gealóg bhuachair – little bright one of the cowpat!
Dúlra’s favourite was always the beautiful wee bird that now feeds in a mini-flock in his back garden, the goldfinch. Its evocative Irish name reflects the fact that in times past it would have been a forest bird – lasair coille, flame of the woods. We kept the name, but lost the forests.
A new book this Christmas about the names of our plants and animals – and even sunsets – celebrates the “poetry, wisdom, devilment and insight contained within our glorious old tongue”.
Author Manchán Magan says that Gaeilge gives us insights too into the climate patterns, moon cycles, ocean currents and the otherworldly dimensions of our island home.
It’s a heritage that is often hard to reach when you live in the city. Our deep family connections with the countryside were severed when our ancestors moved to Belfast for work from the surrounding areas. For Dúlra, that was his grandparents, but that link with our rural relatives fades with each passing year.
For thousands of years, we depended on the natural resources of this island for our survival, developing our own ways of describing the wild and domesticated animals we shared it with, as well as the plants that covered the land and seabed.
And so we get cat crainn – the tree cat or pine marten – and its prey the squirrel, which, besides its official name iora, is often called the ‘tree dog’, the madadh crainn. The wolf – the last one believed killed on the Belfast Hills 300 years ago – is the mac tíre, the son of the land, which refers to the belief that they occasionally turned into humans. Because they were so feared – howling in the dark woods outside as families tried to sleep in their homes, they were thought to have supernatural abilities.
The common foxglove is lus na mban sí, the plant of the banshee, a reference to the fairy woman who is connected to death just like this beautiful but poisonous plant. The cuteness of the hedgehog was lost on our ancestors who called it gráinneog, ‘ugly wee one’.
But the delicate fawn, the baby deer, was given the magical name of oisín, because Fionn Mac Cumhaill’s son was called Oisín after his mother was turned into a deer by a druid. Fionn only found his son playing naked on Benbulbin at the age of seven.
Manchán’s book – Tree Dogs, Banshee Fingers and other Irish Words for Nature, will surely be wrapped up under the Christmas tree in Dúlra’s house in time for the big day, won’t it?
• Paula in Riverdale is proof that if you want to see birds of prey, get yourself some hens. But this huge visitor (above) wasn’t a wild native hawk, in fact it was even more impressive – a giant Harris’s hawk that had escaped from an aviary. This bird is usually found in the skies over Chile and Argentina, many miles from from Riverdale. But it appeared on her garden fence last week and Paula says that her husband finally chased it away after several attempts. “It wasn’t a bit bothered and so it took some effort to frighten it away,” she said. “All the hens were intact but were clearly in shock. We were told later that it had escaped from its aviary during the storm and was returned home later on.”
• If you’ve seen or photographed anything interesting, or have any nature questions, you can text Dúlra on 07801 414804. Sean in north Belfast asks why the usual influx of fieldfares and redwings hasn't arrived yet. It's just that it isn't yet cold enough. But don't worry Sean - winter never lets us down!