The Irish language and the sea
I recently came across a project which is documenting words in the Irish language that are specific to coastal communities. The project is titled Sea Tamagotchi
and executed by an Irish writer and documentary film maker, Manchán Mangan. As I listened to the stories of the people who have kept these words alive, my own memories of the waterscapes I grew up with along the coast of County Cork crept to the surface of my mind, igniting a feeling of my own, now somewhat distant, connection to the sea.
The stench of seaweed rises in my nostrils reading the description of racálach. This word refers to the seaweed that would wash up on the beach in a large tide. The smell of seaweed is a familiar one, along with the feeling of slimy strands under my feet as we waded into the water to board the boat for fishing trips. In older times, the racálach would be collected for fertiliser on the fields, a practice only conducted by a small few in present day Ireland.
Upon boarding the boat, the next challenge was to get out into the deeper harbor where the fish were plentiful. If you looked out to sea and saw white breaking waves it was going to be a rough one – we called these white horses. Unbeknownst to me these were referred to as bláth bán ar gharraí iascaire, directly translated to white flowers on the fisherman’s garden, a beautiful image for something so intimidating.
The sound of creaking wood rings in my ears as I imagine being out in rough weather. The boat always stood up to the test and we avoided teilgean na dtairní, directly translated to cast of the nails. This would happen when the nails or rivets holding the boat together would pop out due to the pressure, the last sight you want to see when out amongst the waves.
Coming back into shore we were always happy to find shelter in the crompán – a small cove or inlet. For me, this was Drakes Pool in Crosshaven County Cork, an inlet made named after Sir Francis Drake who used it to hide from a Spanish fleet in 1589. Collecting the bucket of mackerel caught from the trip and rowing to shore we were lucky not to hear any caibleadh – spirit voices heard on calm evenings.
This collection of words is only a small few of what Mangan has come across in his travels along the coast of Ireland, and there will always be more to be uncovered. These words re-connect me to the seas I am familiar with and the memories I have of them. If you have an ancient language near you, seek it out and it may bring up something buried deep in your memory.