A History of Ireland in 100 Words: Engaging, informative and illuminating

Book review: The authors traverse the multi-faceted history of Ireland through language

One of the striking features of the early literature is the relationship to the natural world and the shaping of the Irish landscape.

One of the striking features of the early literature is the relationship to the natural world and the shaping of the Irish landscape.

The late Ciaran Carson cheekily entitled one of his collections, The Irish for No. The joke was that in modern Irish there is no word for no. Nor for that matter, is there a word for yes. The Tá that appeared on button badges worn by supporters of a yes vote in the marriage equality referendum does not mean Yes but ‘it is”. But now this fascinating new volume reveals that there was indeed historically an Irish word for no, Náthó and an Irish word for yes, Tó (confusingly no relation to Tá). Three leading Celtic Studies scholars, Sharon Arbuthnot, Máire Ní Mhaonaigh and Gregory Toner have combined to produce a word hoard that through an English-language commentary on 100 Irish-language words deftly takes in the many faceted history of life on the island of Ireland. They are assisted in this task by the impish, illustrative bravura of Joseph McLaren. Their approach to culture is anthropological in the broad sense, taking in all aspects of a lived life, rather than culture in the narrower, aesthetic sense. There are words relaying to science and technology, food and feasting, trade and social status, health and the body.

The modern Irish word for computer, for example, ríomhaire relates to rímaire, a person rather than a thing, who was responsible for observing the movements of the heavens and who was skilled in the new science of computistics brought by Christian missionaries to medieval Ireland. The word has a contemporary application but the echo-chamber of etymology leads us back over a thousand years to the educational formation of a young scholar. The simple task of daily ablutions was both more specific and complex in early Irish with up to 14 words for different kinds of washing, the washing of hair (folcaid) was not the same as the washing of hands or feet (indlaid) which was different from the more general word (nigid) which could refer to washing any part of the body or washing clothes.

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