In a Word . . . Stranger

Galway, Donegal and Gallagher’s ‘gal’ conjure up the idea of being foreign

 

Last month, RTÉ television showed a documentary about Neal MacGregor (43), an Englishman who died alone of a heart attack in 1990 inside a stone hen-house he couldn’t stand up in on the small island of Inishbofin off the Donegal coast. He left behind volumes of illustrated notebooks and diaries.

A beautifully shot film by Neasa Ní Chianáin, it was an exploration of why an educated, middle-class seemingly successful Londoner should turn his back on all that to live a life so removed and remote.

He was on the island eight years, only living in the stone house in his latter time there – without running water, electricity or heating.

Inishbofin is about 300 acres in size, with a population of about 36, no pubs, no shops and no regular ferry. MacGregor was seen there as somewhat mysterious, even suspicious. Hence the documenary title The Stranger.

It made me think. How often that word “stranger” crops up in Irish, not least in the word Donegal. From the Irish, Dún na nGall, the fort of the stranger. Another example is Galway, from the Irish Gaillimh meaning the place/town of the foreigner.

Gallowglasses

Then you have gallowglass from gall-óglaigh, meaning foreign warriors/mercenaries. They were brought to Ireland from Scotland during the Middle Ages to fight in local wars or against the Anglo-Normans.

A similar Irish surname is Gallogly, from Mac an Ghallóglaigh, gallóglach being gallowglass. Many of us with Mc or Mac in the surname are believed descended from such gallowglasses. Even, it is claimed, we McGarrys. Though my late father insisted our ancestors were High Kings of Ireland!

There is that other name, Gallagher. So very Irish. So very Donegal. It is said to be derived from gall meaning “foreign” and cabhair meaning “help”. The story behind this does not make pleasant reading for any Gallaghers out there.

If you are one, read no further!

It is claimed that the original of the Gallaghers helped the first Vikings who arrived in Ireland and whose ship was wrecked off Donegal. The original Gallagher saved them, looked after them well and they eventually left only to return soon afterwards with the first raiding party on Ireland.

Proving yet again that no good turn ever went unpunished.

Stranger, meaning outsider, foreigner, from Middle English/Middle French estrangier/estrange, from Latin extraneus, from extra “outside of”

inaword@irishtimes.com

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