In the name of the fada: a much-politicised punctuation mark

An Irishman’s Diary

Returning briefly to the vexed question of how many fadas there should be in St Fechín – discussed here earlier in the week – I have now seen the error of my ways.

Despite enjoying support from Dinneen's Dictionary for my previous two-fada Féchín, I shall henceforth revert to one, thanks to re-education on the subject by David Stifter, professor of Old Irish at Maynooth University.

In answer to my query on whether Fr Patrick Dinneen could have been (gasp!) wrong on this, the professor said yes, but added generously: "I cannot blame him for it. At his time [1927, when the second, longer version of the famous dictionary was published] the subtle issues underlying the whole question were probably not fully realised yet."

I will happily take his word on the matter and surrender my two-fada Féchín to the authorities

He then gave me a 400-word outline of the history of the name, explaining why, if it is indeed a diminutive of Fiach, meaning raven, it should not have a fada on the “e”.


He also says there is a much longer and more complicated answer and that he can send me this too if I want, which sounds like a threat.

But considering that I struggle with the short explanation, I will happily take his word on the matter and surrender my two-fada Féchín to the authorities forthwith. It’s Fechín only from now on.

This has been a big week for fadas, as it happens, thanks to the Official Languages Bill announced by the Government on Thursday. Among other changes, the Bill will make it obligatory for all IT systems and keyboards used by State bodies to be able to print the síneadh fada where required.

The frequent absence of such facilities has long been a source of annoyance to Irish language campaigners, which is understandable given the importance of fadas to the meaning of names and words.

Never mind Fechín. I’m indebted to the book Motherfoclóir for a list of other examples where fadas can be crucial to meaning.

It includes feimineach which, depending on whether you use a fada or not, can mean “feminist” or “tail-chewing animal”.

Scottish Gaelic must have been an even worse minefield once. Like French, it used to have two accents: the srac gheur, which looked like the Irish fada but made the vowel “sharper”; and the srac fhada, which elongated the sound like the Irish fada, but leaned the other way. As a result of orthographic reform, however, there is now usually just one sign used for both, the reverse fada, as I call it.

This reminds me of the Boord o Ulstèr Scotch, the cross-Border body set up following the Belfast Agreement to promote the Ulster Scots language and culture.

Its name is so punctuated, although the accent has no effect in that case, as was once explained to me, with admirable candour, by a member of that body, when I asked her in all innocence what the reverse fada did to the “e” in Ulster.

“Nothing,” she admitted: “We just thought it looked good.”

Not long after that exchange, by chance I found myself in the odd situation of being quoted approvingly by DUP member and then Northern Ireland culture minister, Nelson McCausland, on another minor but vexed linguistic issue.

That was the Gaelicisation of the old Anglo-Scottish “crack” as “craic”, to which I too had objected in print a few times before realising that life was too short.

Encouraged by my stance, Mr McCausland explained on his blog: “The Irish version was simply the result of borrowing of the word into a language without the letter K. [But] there is a K in English and in Scots, so why not use it?

“There is nothing peculiarly Irish about crack. Ulsterfolk have enjoyed good crack for many a long year.”

I couldn’t disagree with him on that, even though I thought craic was a small price to pay for the centuries of anglicisation of Irish words and placenames, which frequently had the letter K forced into them painfully as in, to drag the long-suffering saint into it yet again, Termonfeckin.

Anyway, I offered my help then to Mr McCausland in working for the crack’s release from its latter-day imprisonment if he would in turn use his influence to repatriate the Irish fada that was being held against its will, and forced to lean at an unnatural angle, by the Boord o Ulstèr Scotch.

But as I now realise, that is presumably a fada of Scottish ancestry.

And so I suppose, even if it serves no purpose, it has every right to be there, and to lean whichever way it likes, as an expression of its culture.