To Speak of the Sea in Irish
A new dictionary project aims to safeguard coastal Irish words and the unique perspectives they provide.
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Sitting amid the bric-a-brac of generations of seafarers before him, fisherman and museum curator John Bhaba Jeaic Ó Confhaola of Galway, Ireland, tried to describe a word to interviewer Manchán Magan. The word, in the Irish language, was for a three-bladed knife on a long pole, used by generations of Galway fishermen to harvest kelp. Ó Confhaola dredged it from his memory: a scian coirlí.
“I don’t think I’ve said that word out loud for 50 years,” he told Magan.
It was a sentiment that Magan would hear again and again along Ireland’s west coast. This is a place shaped by proximity to the ocean: nothing stands between the sea and the country’s craggy, cliff-lined shores for roughly 3,000 kilometers, leaving it open to the raw breath of the North Atlantic. Many cities and towns here have roots as fishing villages and ports, and for generations, to speak Irish in them was to speak of the sea.
A sarcastic person might be described as tá sé mar a bheadh scadán i dtóin an bharraille (like a salted herring from the bottom of a barrel). To humble a braggart was an ghaoth a bhaint as seolta duine (to take the wind out of their sails). Each community developed its own vocabulary: words for every sort of wave, every tide, and every shift in weather; for the sea’s sounds, its plants, and its creatures; and for the tools and tricks a mariner used to make a living on the ocean’s surface.
Yet this unique vocabulary is slowly disappearing. Early last year, Magan—a writer, documentary filmmaker, and connoisseur of the Irish language—began collecting coastal words from towns along the west coast, in an effort to preserve them.
“I was hearing these words from fishermen with these concepts, these connections with the other world, that were really profound—and now they’re no longer being said,” Magan explains.
Supported by funding linked to Galway’s designation as a European Capital of Culture for 2020, Magan spent February and part of September recording stories and sayings in Ireland’s Atlantic communities. The recordings make up the Foclóir Farraige, or Sea Dictionary: an online database of recordings and definitions sorted by their regional origin. Magan also recently published a selection of words in an illustrated book.
Some of the words of the Foclóir Farraige are functional. They describe tools that mariners once needed, like the scian coirlí, or the strapa ballachaí, a Galway word for rope strung through the mouths of up to 30 wrasse and formed into a loop, to carry the catch home.
Yet the words are often much more than utilitarian. They carry a sense of poetry, and a perspective on nature. There is the town of Donegal’s mada doininne, a particular type of dark cloud lining the horizon that foretells bad weather. The word, literally translated, means “hounds of the storm.” Or bláth bán ar gharraí an iascaire, a description of choppy sea from the county of Galway that means “white flowers on the fisherman’s garden.”
Magan gave his dictionary an alternative name: Sea Tamagotchi, for a game popular in the late 1990s that challenged users to keep digital pets alive. It’s a reference to Magan’s hope that the dictionary might inspire people to adopt and nurture some of these largely forgotten words.
Linguists and historians consider Irish to have been in decline since 1603, when English colonialists defeated Ireland’s last chiefs. Yet the events that truly reshaped Ireland’s coastal vernacular didn’t take place until 1973, when the country joined the ranks of the European Union (EU).
At the time, the country was struggling. Poverty and unemployment ran rampant. Use of Irish had already dwindled to a few small pockets, primarily along the west coast, known as the Gaeltacht regions. After the Great Famine of the mid-1800s, the language had become associated with poverty, trauma, and backwardness. English opened doors to better work, including jobs abroad: “you needed English to get out,” Magan says.
With its entry into the EU, Ireland agreed to a shared fisheries policy, giving EU member states equal access to Irish waters. The resulting quotas were largely responsible for driving much of the Irish fishing industry out of business. And as the fishing industry waned, so did its terminology. “What happens is, if you don’t maintain the economy of fishing, or farming, or peat cutting, then the words connected to them die with it,” Magan says.
Old fishers and mariners became the only remaining keepers of a vocabulary with limited use, and one which is no longer passed down. To some Irish speakers and observers, this is a profound loss.
“Languages are your window on the world,” says Brenda Ní Shúilleabháin, a lecturer and PhD candidate in history at Ireland’s University of Limerick, who has documented Irish life through books and film. While some Irish sensibility might translate into English, the loss of many words and the common use of the Irish language itself means people “now view [the world] through a somewhat different medium,” she says.
Today, however, the tide may be changing. The 21st century has seen a resurgence of interest in the Irish language. In Ireland and beyond, Magan recognizes a hunger for cultural connection that the Foclóir Farraige could fill. It’s a thesis he’s tested before: in past exhibitions of his work, Magan gifted visitors with other disappearing Irish words for protection. Over the years, he learned that recipients carried their words in their wallets, bestowed them on pets and beers, or in a couple of cases, had them tattooed on their bodies.
“All around the world, we feel uncertainty and want to connect with what roots us to heritage, to the past, something that has meaning,” he says.
The Irish language reflects a deep relationship between humans and the natural world, a sensibility shared with many Indigenous languages—from those belonging to First Nations of British Columbia, to the Ainu of Japan. Irish largely does not demarcate between the human world and nature, nor between this world and the next.
A coastal Irish speaker, walking the beach at night, might have equally expected to hear stranach (the murmuring of water rushing from shore), or the whisper of caibleadh (distant spirit voices drifting in over the waves). They knew the ceist an taibhse (the question for the ghost)—a riddle used to determine if someone they met along the way was human or supernatural. Many words describe ways of predicting the weather, or fishing fortunes, by paying attention to birds or wind direction; to the sea’s sounds; or to the colors in a fire.
To Donnchadh Ó Baoill, a Foclóir Farraige contributor, this everyday magic has its place in modern life.
“We live in a very fast world, where we often give things a very quick glance,” says Ó Baoill, a former language and culture officer for the Gaeltacht region of Donegal. The Irish language helps speakers see details they’d otherwise miss, he says. “That detail enriches our lives. And the landscape becomes alive.”
Few people, including Magan, expect that the words of the Foclóir Farraige will return to everyday use. As Ní Shúilleabháin puts it: “I’m a realist; every language changes.” Yet she also sees the urgency in Magan’s work, as dominant languages subsume smaller tongues around the world.
“In an increasingly homogenous world … I think it’s very important to maintain cultural intimacies,” she says.
Ó Baoill and Magan both point out that preserving Ireland’s traditional coastal vocabulary is especially important in the face of climate change and biodiversity loss. Take a word like borráite, from Carraroe village, which describes a rocky offshore reef found in the area. Kelp once grew on these reefs in abundance, tangling with other seaweed species and providing refuge for fish. Due to climate change and overfishing, however, Magan says that a borráite today would host neither kelp nor many fish. “Contained within that word is the entire ecosystem that was in that area,” Magan says.
Words like this, he hopes, can both remind us of what we have lost and reconnect us to what we might still preserve. One doesn’t need to speak the language to understand such a message.