All Things Nature in Irish Q&A


Niall and Siobhán discussed Irish language words, phrases, and customs related to fauna, flora, and the weather.

I imagine there are some very poetic names for flowers and plants in Irish. Could you give some examples? [01:42]

There are many plant names beginning with the word lus (plant, herb) that have very evocative meanings.

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lus na mbó – cucumber (also cúcamar). Literally, the cows’ plant.

lus liath – lavender. Literally, grey plant.

lus an chodlata– opium poppy. Literally, the plant of sleep.

lus an óir – hedge mustard. Literally, the plant of gold.

lus an chromchinn – daffodil. Literally, the plant of the stooped head.

lus na gcearc – Buckwheat. Literally, the hens’ plant. This is probably due to it being a good source of protein for chickens. It’s higher in protein than almost any other grain.

Here are some other lovely names for flowers in Irish:

plúirín sneachta – snowdrop. Literally, little snow flower.

bainne bó bleachtáin – cowslip. Literally, milk of a milch cow.

coinneal oíche – evening primrose. Literally, night candle.

What’s your favourite Irish words for animals? [08:37]

Gráinneog – Hedgehog
Gráinneog trá – Sea urchin. “Beach Hedgehog”.
There are similarities between the names for both animals in Spanish (Erizo / Erizo del Mar) and in German (Igel / Seeigel).

Madra uisce – otter. . Literally, water dog. Another name for an otter is dobharchú. Literally, water hound/dog. Dobhar is an uncommon word for water. Another word containing dobhar is the Irish for hippopotamus which is dobhareach, literally, water horse. Interestingly, hippopotamus literally means river horse in Greek.

A number of names for animals are onomatopoeic, such as: bó – cow, capall – horse, muc – pig, caora – sheep.

There are two names for a blackbird in Irish, depending on if it’s a male or female blackbird. A male blackbird is called lon dubh but a female blackbird is called céirseach. As the male and female look quite different, it makes sense that they were not called by the same name, particularly since the female is not black at all! Dubh is the Irish for black.

Breac – trout. The word ‘breac’ is more common in Irish than its English counterpart which is ‘speckled’.

Fáinleog – swallow. Literally, little wondering one. Fáin is related to ag fánaíocht, wandering.

Do you have any proverbs / sayings that are linked with nature? [21:49]

Ní hé lá na báistí lá na bpáistí – The day of rain is not the day of children. The fact that this proverb is a pun makes it very memorable. You learn more at this link.

Laethanta na Bó Riabhaí (literally: The Days of the Brindled Cow / known in English as: The Old Cow’s Days) This refers to the last days of March and the first three days of April when the weather can be quite miserable and unpredictable. It comes from seanchas (folklore). There are a number of versions of the story but it basically goes that the month of March tried to kill a particular bó riabhach but failed so needed to get three days on loan from April to finish its murderous mission. So that’s why the first few days of April can be as bad as March weather can be.

Bó Riabhach, or Bridled Cow is its own breed of cattle and it’s now classified as a rare breed. It’s a redish brown colour with vertical black stripes all over its body.

Bíonn súil le muir (also Bíonn súil le farraige). It means there is hope from the sea. Either muir or farraige can be used as they’re synonyms that mean sea. There is a longer proverb which is Bíonn súil le muir ach ní bhíonn súil le huaigh (There is hope from the sea, but there is no hope from the grave.)

Here’s a descriptive way to remember the seasons in Irish!
Geimhreadh ceoch, earrach reoch, samhradh grianmhar is fómhar biamhar – Foggy winter, frosty spring, sunny summer and autumn abounding in food.

Maireann an crann ach ní maireann an lámh a chuir é – The tree lives but the hand that planted it does not.

What is the exact difference between lear, muir and farraige? [37:56]

All three of these words mean sea.
Lear is found in the phrase thar lear, which means overseas.
Muir has a more literary and poetic usage. It is found in place names and in songs and poetry.
Farraige is the common word for sea in Irish.

What are some Irish customs that incorporate nature? [46:35]

May bush: a tradition still found in some parts of the country where you’ll see hawthorn bushes outside of homes, either ones already growing in the ground or a large branch of one tied outside, and it will have colourful ribbons and clothes tied to the branches. They’re decorated on the eve of the 1st of May. The meaning behind it seems to be to celebrate the coming of summer and also, for some, it’s to keep away the fairies – different forms of fairies being a huge part of Irish superstitions

Irish poetry on the theme of nature [52:20]

Na Gaotha, which means the winds, is a traditional poem in Irish that is a great way to learn loads of weather-related vocabulary as well as the directions. Watch Siobhán’s video here.

Some poets to check out whose poetry regularly refers to nature:
Máirtín Ó Direáin. Here’s a poem of his called An tEarrach Thiar (Spring in the West)
Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill
Doireann Ní Ghríofa

P.S. What did you learn from this Q&A? Leave a comment below!

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