Collops and fíbíns: The lost language of Ireland’s landscape
Take the boreen over the bawn, and beyond the esker to the cladach
Do you understand the sentence: the banbh was hiding out in the clochán from the brothall? Or how about: I took the boreen over the bawn and down the congár through the cluain beyond the esker to fetch some dillisk on the cladach.
The language we use to describe landscape, farming and the natural world in Ireland is changing so fast that a person can be aged to within a few decades by their understanding of a single sentence. Your grandfather would likely know what biolar, caonach and bundún mean; while you probably understand bawn, kesh and crubeen, but your children mightn’t understand any of these. They mightn’t even know what a gandal is, or have ever been chased by a furiously hissing one.
The English spoken in Ireland (Hiberno-English) even 40 years ago was so speckled with residual Irish words that it can appear today like another tongue. Each of us holds fond memories of words our grandparents used that are now largely meaningless. Cróinín always held a particular fondness for me – it means the first run of small autumn salmon; and branar, which refers to a stretch of broken lea. Nowadays, even the English word “lea” is understand by few: in Britain it refers to meadow or arable land, while in Ireland it normally describes land that has been ploughed, or grubbed before seeding. As to what “grubbed” means, well, that’s a whole other story.
The fact is that the language spoken in rural Ireland for much of the 20th century was more akin to a macaronic than a single definable tongue. And in the last few decades the winnowing of most Irish loan words from our vocabulary has happened at a remarkable pace. Who now remembers that a buaircín in English referred to a stick tied to the nose of a calf to keep it from the cow, or a bundún was the portion of prolapsed flesh on the undercarriage of a goose that is similar to a dewlap on cows? How many even know what a dewlap is?
Over the course of millennia, we have been developing our own idiosyncratic way of describing our surroundings. PW Joyce referred to it The Origin and History of Irish Names of Places ( 1870). He wrote: “This great name system, begun thousands of years ago by the first wave of population that reached our island, was continued unceasingly from age to age, till it embraced the minutest features of our country in its intricate network; and such as it sprang forth from the minds of our ancestors, it exists almost unchanged to this day.”
Seeing the stoic promontories stretching out into the ocean like giant skulls, they called them cloigeann, which means head or skull, and the term still survives in Hiberno-English as cleggan. In the midlands those dark black sullen realms of spongy sphagnum mire that vacillate between solid and liquid were labelled bogach, meaning soft, which gives us the modern English word “bog”; while the long ridges of post-glacial gravel that rose above the bogs they called eiscir, giving us the modern term esker today.
We also took old English words and repurposed them for our own use, such as ditch, which in Britain refers to a narrow excavated channel, while in Ireland it means a raised bank. The open drain beside the ditch is known as a sheugh, from the Irish word seoch meaning dike.
Until recently the majority of Irish people would have understood that cluain refers to a meadow or a plain between two woods, that bánóg (bawnogue) refers to a patch of level grass, often used for dancing, and that a corcach (kurkas) was an area of swamp or marsh by the sea. A cóngar is still understood in many parts of rural Ireland as a short cut around a constaic (which means a hurdle).
Depending on whether you learnt about nature from a grandparent or a schoolbook you might still refer to gorse as furze or whins… to a rowan trees as a quicken, caorthann or mountain ash… to a hawthorn as a sceach geal, quickthorn or a draighneán bán… to a dock as a copóg… to a willow as a sally… to ragworth as balcaiseán… and to heather as fraoch, as in the great example Diarmaid Ó Muirithe gives in his Dictionary of Anglo-Irish, “I had a few rolls in the fraoch with her.” (Terry Dolan of UCD is more modest in his illustrative example in A Dictionary of Hiberno-English, “Listen! Can you hear the wind through the fraoch?”)
These words may seem like quaint vestiges now, but the danger is that when we cull descriptive terms for the world around us we narrow our ability to perceive its diversity. We lose touch with our surroundings, both physically and linguistically. Once the last person who understands the word salmnahaun dies, does the knowledge of what it refers to vanish? A salmnahuan or samhnachán is either a brown trout who spends its life in a tidal estuary without heading out to sea to become a sea-trout, or else a sea-trout that lingers in the estuary without coming back up through the river system to spawn. Slob trout is probably the nearest English equivalent, but there is a subtle difference, I am reliably informed.
While there are many terms we no longer need, such as crosóg, a rope used to tie a load of hay to a man’s back, or dromán, the leather back band of plough traces, it is the loss of words for the natural world for which we have no English equivalent that most dilute our appreciation of our surroundings. The countryside loses definition and specificity when a word such as fíbín is lost, which means the running of cattle caused by the sting of a gadfly.
We pay a premium for increased pixilation and high resolution in our cameras and screens, while our linguistic terminology grows increasing imprecise. We’ve jettisoned the word for a salmon after spawning, angaire, or for the degradation done by cattle in a crop field, ablach.
Reviving these words, or at least being aware of them, can help reanimate the land and our connection to it. There is value in being able to identify a cib (or keef) as a particular form of mountain sedge ideal for thatching, or a thrahneen (tráithnín) as a type of grass with a strong sharp outer-casing ideal for skewering field mushrooms together. Some words make you reassess your entire relationship with the land, such as collop or colpa which is defined in Eric Cross’ 1942 novel, The Tailor and Ansty, as “the old style of reckoning for land, before the people got too bloodyful smart and educated, and let the government or anyone else do their thinking for them.”
A collop conveys the size of a piece of land by its grazing-ability rather than its dimensions. Cross describes it as “the old count for the carrying power of land. The grazing of one cow or two yearling heifers or six sheep or twelve goats or six geese and a gander was one collop.” It manages to suggest the ecological resilience of a piece of land in a unit of measurement. In any enlightened system land value and even local property tax would be calculated in collops.
In terms of placenames, our country is almost entirely described through Irish. As PW Joyce noted in 1870: “In our island, there was scarcely any admixture of races, till the introduction of an important English element, chiefly within the last three hundred years… and accordingly, our placenames are purely Keltic [sic]”.
Still today, the land comes alive through its placenames, in a way that a non-Irish speaker cannot perceive. A resident of Tandragee, Co Armagh, who never studied the language at school will have no idea that the Irish version, Tóin re Gaoith, means Backside to the Wind, referring to its protection from the prevailing wind. Feltrim in Dublin becomes so much more redolent when one understands that it means Faoldroim (the ridge of the wolves); just as Beenaniller Head in Kerry makes reference to the eagles that once soared above it in the Irish Binn an Iolair. Tim Robinson captured this withering of geographical insight in his profound and elegant way in Connemara: Listening to the Wind (Penguin, 2006) where he writes, “Irish placenames dry out when anglicised, like twigs snapped off from the tree.” The reality of this can be experienced in the Isle of Skye where locals mispronounce placenames such as Sligachan, Galtrigill, Portnalong or Edinbane with no appreciation of what they actually mean.
Every time we open our mouths we face a choice of whether to preserve our linguistic heritage by using a word such as bohreen instead of laneway, in the knowledge that it belongs to a unique system of vocal sounds developed over millennia on this rocky island outpost to convey its myriad aspects, elements and features. There is nothing at all wrong with laneway, other than it can never convey the thousands of years of cultural insights and historic resonances contained in bohreen. But, maybe the reality is that we don’t always want to remember.
Keen to adopt an endangered Hiberno-English word? Here are a few desperately seeking new owners:
Dulán – two handfuls of oats
Foiscealach – as much meal as can be taken between two hands
Fainneal – straw pad placed under the knee by a thatcher
Cothóg – cross-piece at end of a shovel handle
Cochall – a piece of cloth placed on the head for carrying loads
Fuairceas – a cloth placed under the fire crane to help lift a hot pot
Búdán – inside of a cow’s horn
Cupánach – piglet taken from a sow and reared on cow’s milk which is drunk from a cup rather than a bottle