The new black – Frank McNally on the unsuspected colour of the season
Whatever about its name for the month, Irish is not short of words prefixed by ‘dubh’
Mitchells GAA club in Magheracloone won the Ulster Intermediate Football championship last week. They lost their pitch last year when a dubhagán opened up in the middle of it. Photograph: Pat Byrne
As someone joked on Twitter, December seems to mark a key difference in the worldview of those otherwise closely related Celts, the Irish and Scots.
In the mother tongue of the former, cheerfully, this month is mí na Nollag, an excuse to start the Christmas party season early. No such frivolity for speakers of Scots Gaelic, who call December An Dùbhlachd: “the Blackness”.
This sort of thing is usually blamed on Presbyterians – and it was on Twitter. But in fairness, they do have longer winter nights in Scotland. And whatever about its name for the month, Irish is not short of words prefixed by “dubh”, either.
Dinneen’s dictionary has nearly a whole page of them, including dubhachas (“sadness, sorrow, melancholy”), dubhagán (“the deep, a bottomless pit”, dubhlaidheacht (“hard or severe part of the winter”),and dubhluachair (“the worst part, the refuse [. . .] the depth of winter”).
Dinneen also gives a colourful example of how one of these nouns might be used, ie “Léim caorach i ndubhaigéan”, which he translates as “the jump of a sheep into the ocean, a rash act”). I’m not sure where that happens, but after reading Dinneen’s “dubh” section, you wouldn’t blame the sheep.
If the Irish and Scots are both winter depressives, mind you, the classic poetic account of Seasonal Affective Disorder may have been written by an Englishman. John Donne was suffering from both bereavement and sunlight deficiency when he wrote A Nocturnal Upon St Lucy’s Day, so no matter how cheerless life around him seemed, he was sure his was even bleaker:
“The whole world’s sap is sunk:/The general balm the hydroptic earth hath drunk,/Whither, as to the bird’s feet, life is shrunk,/Dead and interred; yet all these seem to laugh,/Compared with me, who am their epitaph.”
Poor Donne. He could have done with one of those therapeutic light boxes you can buy now. Indeed, the St Lucy’s Day he was marking (December 13th, the year’s shortest day in the old calendar) is celebrated as a festival of light in some European countries.
So although An Dubhlachd is undoubtedly poetic, I appreciate the wisdom of our ancestors in opting for something more cheerful. Calling December mí na Nollag must be the linguistic equivalent of putting up the decorations.
Speaking of things cheerful, there were great celebrations in my maternal homeland of Magheracloone at the weekend when the local Mitchells GAA club won the Ulster Intermediate Football championship.
They lost their pitch last year when a dubhagán (see above) opened up in the middle of it, the result of decades of gypsum mining below. But at least the team’s foundations were secure. Defying homelessness, they are enjoying one of their greatest ever seasons.
Occupying the southern fringe of Ulster, Magheracloone may or may not constitute what used to be called the “Black North”. But the club plays in black. And there’s a running theme here.
Last month, another Monaghan side, Blackhill Emeralds, won their provincial title, at Junior level, amid great excitement. The club is a little to the north of Patrick Kavanagh country. Even so, with poetic licence, it could be included in the opening lines of Shancoduff, Kavanagh’s lament for bad land: “My black hills have never seen the sun rising/Eternally they look north towards Armagh.”
Except that now, Blackhill Emeralds have seen the sun rising. And this week, they’re looking south towards London, and an All-Ireland Quarter final with the British champions, next Sunday.
Blackhill wear black too. As do the winners of the only Ulster men’s title to have escaped Monaghan this year – Kilcoo, from Co Down, who clinched the senior championship at the weekend.
Thus, in Ulster club football as in Scotland generally, this December is all about the blackness. And as a Monaghan supporter, I’m just sorry another of our teams, Doohamlet, missed out on the trend. They were even playing senior this year, same as Kilcoo, so in theory could have completed the hat-trick.
Doohamlet is an anglicisation that accidentally makes the place sound more cheerful. The “dubh” is part silent, crucially. But according to Shirley’s History of Monaghan, the original Irish means “Black Plague Grave”, which would be a hard sell for tourism. Not that this should have affected the GAA team (who play in black and blue). In the event, alas, they were relegated.