Animal names in Irish are interesting things.
While many of them come from obvious Indo-European roots, with a clear similarity to such names in other languages (for example: capall (horse), asal (donkey/ass), and bó (cow)), others are rather interestingly descriptive.
Names for wild animals, including some bugs and insects, can be particularly descriptive. Some are wonderfully apt; others will have you scratching your head and asking “how in the heck did they come up with THAT?”
Some of the names, as you’ll see in a bit, are quite simply descriptive. Others may have roots in Irish myths and legends.
Some others may have come about because the animals themselves were creatures that people found frightening or considered to be dangerous. Calling the animal by an innocuous “nickname,” if you will, diffused some of that fear, and (perhaps!) made the dangerous creature more kindly disposed toward you!
Without further ado, here are a few of my favorites:
I can’t begin to tell you how delighted I was when I first learned the Irish term for the jellyfish. It’s just so perfect:
Smugairle Róin (SMUG-er-lyeh ROH-in): “Seal Snot.”
If you’ve ever been in a boat on the bay, looking down at a host of jellyfish, you’ll have no trouble picturing where this name came from! They are very beautiful in an aquarium, with the right lighting, but from the bow of a curach, they definitely look like…well…snot!
I have to admit, this one has baffled me for a very long time. The Irish for “spider” is:
Damhán Alla (DOW-ahn ALL-uh): “Little Wild Ox.”
I’ve been unable to find the origin for this one, but the image of some poor farmer trying to throw a yoke on a wolf spider has haunted my nightmares for at least nine years!
(Sorry…no picture of a spider. They freak me out. And that’s OK).
Here’s another beautifully descriptive one:
Sciathán Leathair (SHKEE-uh-hawn LA-hur): Leather wing.
Always makes me start humming this great old song (with thanks to Tommy Makem):
This is another of those head scratchers. It’s hard to guess why anyone would name the prettiest little member of the beetle family…
Bóín Dé (BOH-een jay): God’s Little Cow
Hard enough to guess how this little critter got it’s name…and harder still to imagine anyone trying to milk one!
The otter goes by at least two different names in Irish. One is…
Madra Uisce (MAD-ruh ISH-keh): Water Dog.
The other is…
Dobharchú (DOH-wur-khoo): River/estuary hound
My dog can’t quite see it, but I think there’s some resemblence, don’t you?
The fox does have his own name in Irish — sionnach (SHUN-ukh) — but he’s also known as…
Madra Rua (MAD-ruh ROO-uh): Red Dog.
Not hard to guess where that came from!
And my personal favorite: the wolf
I’ve always been fascinated by wolves (in fact, on on-line forums I often go by “Redwolf,” though technically anymore that should probably be “Greywolf”!)
Sadly, there are no longer any wolves in Ireland outside of zoos. The wolf figures hugely in Irish lore, however (after all, the Irish did develop an amazing breed of dog — the Irish Wolfhound…the largest breed in the world — whose job, among other things, was to hunt down and guard against wolves).
Wolves go by several names in Irish, but one of the most intriguing is…
Mac Tíre (Mock CHEER-uh): Son of the Land
(By the way, even female wolves are called “mac tire.” We’re all sons in this menagerie.)
Another name for the wolf in Irish is…
Faolchú (FWEEL-khoo): A compound word made of the literary word for “wolf” (faol) and the word for “hound” (cú) — often loosely translated as “wolf dog” or “wild dog.”
By contrast, the Irish Wolfhound is Cú Faoil (Koo fweel): “Wolfhound” using the more typical genitive construction.
Names are fascinating things!
The way animals are named is a fascinating look into Gaelic culture, as is the Irish language itself.
There are few better windows into the mind and heart a culture than the way it describes the world around it in its native tongue.
Yet another reason to give learning Irish a try!
5 thoughts on “What’s in a Name? Interesting Animal Names in Irish”
Maidin mhaith, Tess is ainm dom. Is maith liom an damhán alla… (is that last bit correct??) I am an arachnophile & might have some insight. When a spider is bothered they go into a threatening stance in which they raise their bodies slightly & raise their 2 front legs above their head. Sometimes they wiggle them, other times they are just held there until the threat passes. So I think that the old Celts thought of horns! & domestic cows have horns of course but spiders can’t be domesticated so the name contains ‘wild’.
Thank you for commenting.
Yes, it is correct, meaning “I like the spider”. You probably meant “Is maith liom damháin alla”, which would be “I like spiders”.
Dia dhuit. Is mise John.
I’ve started, on my own, to try to learn the native language of my ancestors. Long story short I was adopted, and for a long time felt lost. Everywhere I’ve traveled I’ve come across the Irish culture. And little by little I learned more and more. I come to appreciate the struggles and turmoil the Irish people have endored. The strength that’s come from their trials and tribulations, for me have lifted my spirits time and time again. The Irish are a strong breed of people. I’ve gotten a strong sense of pride learning my true name and heratige. It’s hard to learn your language when no one around speaks it. The pronunciation of words I think is the hardest. I’m not sure if I say things right.
Eoin, you so far, have been my only tutor. I’m not wealthy I have 3 sons to feed so learning, working, and just being a dad is exhausting. Sorry the reason I write is CAT you don’t have the word for the most common American house hold pet. If you could sir, could you share this knowledge with me. I was excited to learn how to say wolf. Also lady bug and fox for some reason probably because they are common to my area. Jellyfish made me laugh….seal snot that’s a riot.
Sorry John, Irish for cat is cat which Must be a let down! It’s just pronounced more like “cot”.
Go raibh an-suimiúil.