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This is a guest post from Seimi!

Int én bec

Int én bec
ro·léic feit
do rind guip
fo·ceird faíd
ós Loch Laíg
lon do craíb

The Blackbird of Belfast Lough

The little bird
lets a whistle go
from the point of a beak,
bright yellow:
throws out a cry
above Loch Laíg,
a blackbird from branch
(a cairn of yellow).

This Gaelic poem, dating from the 9th Century, contains one of the earliest references to the area in which Belfast is situated. Loch Laíg or Loch Lao, to give it its modern Irish name, is Belfast Lough. The name means ‘the Lough of the Calf’. Cattle feature quite a lot in Irish place names. The Boyne and Bush rivers both take their names from cattle terms – is the Irish for cow.

Irish surrounds us here in NI, and Belfast is no exception. I remember, many years ago, working on a building site as a young apprentice joiner, sitting in the tearoom and listening, in shock, as one of the site electricians confidently told the assembled workers, that Belfast was named after King William of Orange’s horse. She was called ‘Belle’, and she was very fast. Can you see what he did there?

This is, of course, incorrect. Béal Feirste means ‘Mouth of/approach to the Farset’, the Farset being one small tributary of the River Lagan (Lagán is a low-lying marshy hollow). Farset, or Fearsaid, means Sandy Ford, so Belfast, far from having an equine connection, means ‘the Mouth of/approach to the Sandy Ford’.

Search though you might, you will not find a single waterfall anywhere on the Falls Road. The name comes from Bóthar na bhFál, which means ‘the Road of the Hedgerows’. The Shankill Road comes from Bóthar na Sean Chille, ‘the Road of the Old Church’. The Crumlin Road (and the town itself) are named after an Chrom Ghlinn, or ‘the Crooked Glen’ (Here’s one for all those fans of Islam here. Crumlin Glen is also the site of Ireland’s smallest mosque. It’s now called the Cockle House, but was apparently built by the landlord as a place for a favoured Muslim manservant to pray in peace). The neighbouring town of Glenavy gets its name from ‘Lann Abhaigh’, the Church of the Dwarf. Glen in this case is a corruption of the old Irish word ‘Lann‘, meaning ‘church’. Knocknagoney comes from ‘Cnoc na gCoiníní’ – the Hill of the Rabbits. Stranmillis means ‘the Sweet Stream’, an Sruthán Milis. Ballyhackamore is a strange one. It comes from Baile an Chaca Móir, which literally translates as ‘the Townland of the Big Shit’, and probably is a description of the area after one of the large cattle markets held there. I hope so anyway!

Hopping the border briefly, and, similar to the lack of waterfalls on the Falls Road, Leopardstown in Dublin is completely devoid of leopards. The name comes from ‘Baile na Lobhair’, or ‘The Town of the Lepers’. The last few census results failed to record the current number of lepers residing there.

Just sticking with Dublin for a moment. The name comes from ‘Dubh Linn’ – Black Pool, though Dublin’s proper name is Baile Átha Cliath – Town of the Hurdled Fort.

The English we speak is filled with Gaelic words. Smashing, as in very good, comes from Is maith sin. Galore means ‘enough’, from go leor. The book and film ‘Whisky Galore’ is an Anglicisation of Uisce go leor – Enough (or plenty of) water. Whiskey, often called the water of life, is called Uisce Beatha in Irish – Water of Life, like Aqua Vitae.

Smithereens is smidiríní, ‘little pieces’. In Belfast, when someone says, ‘Shut your gob’, the gob they refer to is the Irish word for beak, which is probably where the vernacular ‘bake’ for face comes from.  A shebeen is a síbín, meaning a little dwelling (or hovel). When you visit a shebeen, you might be on a drinking spree. Spree comes from the Irish ‘spraoi‘, to have fun or a drinking bout.

As a parting note, here is a little Irish lesson, a simple tongue-twister. Repeat after me:

Ná bac le mac an bhacaigh is ní bhacfaidh mac an bhacaigh leat.


Na bac le mac a wacky is nee wacky mac a wacky lat

This means ‘Don’t bother with the son of the beggar and the son of the beggar won’t bother you’, or, ‘let sleeping dogs lie’.

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13 thoughts on “Int en bec – The blackbird of Belfast Lough

  1. Very nice post.

    I notice in Sean Chille and Lann Abhaigh that both ‘Chille’ and ‘Lann’ mean church? Can you explain the difference?

    I quite enjoyed that absurd piece of revisionism about Billy’s horse too. Goes right up there with the lopped-off hand chucked from a boat!

  2. Really great post, Seimi. Nothing like reading a well researched piece.
    “Dun-” must be the most productive Irish morpheme in placenames.

    There are also many Scandinavian place names in Ireland, usually along the east and south coasts, which is where the Vikings established settlements. Carlingford, Lambay, Howth, Leixlip, Wicklow, Wexford, Waterford, etc.

    Interesting too what you write about Irish words in English. As far as I’m aware, the only structure from Celtic languages surviving into English is the “a- …ing” – as in “a-fussing and a-fighting”, which is “ag –” in Irish. Perhaps actually English got its distinction between the present continuous and present simple (the bane of all Eng. language learners) from ist Celtic roots.

    But I can’t let this topic go without posting, yet again, what is surely the best statement ever on the placenames of Ulster, or anywhere else, by one of its greatest poets. Hope you don’t mind me quoting it in full; it can’t be read often enough:

    ULSTER NAMES by John Hewitt

    I take my stand by the Ulster names,
    each clean hard name like a weathered stone;
    Tyrella, Rostrevor, are flickering flames:
    the names I mean are the Moy, Malone,
    Strabane, Slieve Gullion and Portglenone.

    Even suppose that each name were freed
    from legend’s ivy and history’s moss,
    there’d be music still in, say, Carrick-a-rede,
    though men forget it’s the rock across
    the track of the salmon from Islay and Ross.

    The names of a land show the heart of the race;
    they move on the tongue like the lilt of a song.
    You say the name and I see the place
    Drumbo, Dungannon, or Annalong.
    Barony, townland, we cannot go wrong.

    You say Armagh, and I see the hill
    with the two tall spires or the square low tower;
    the faith of Patrick is with us still;
    his blessing falls in a moonlight hour,
    when the apple orchards are all in flower.

    You whisper Derry. Beyond the walls
    and the crashing boom and the coiling smoke.
    I follow that freedom which beckons and calls
    to Colmcille, tall in his grove of oak,
    raising his voice for the rhyming folk.

    County by county you number them over;
    Tyrone, Fermanagh …I stand by a lake,
    and the bubbling curlew, the whistling plover
    call over the whips in the chill daybreak
    as the hills and the waters the first light take.

    Let Down be famous for care-tilled earth,
    for the little green hills and the harsh grey peaks,
    the rocky bed of the Lagan’s birth,
    the white farm fat in the August weeks.
    There’s one more county my pride still seeks.

    You give it the name and my quick thoughts run
    through the narrow towns with their wheels of trade,
    to Glenballyemon, Glenaan, Glendun,
    from Trostan down to the braes of Layde,
    for there is the place where the pact was made.

    But you have as good a right as I
    to praise the place where your face is known,
    for over us all is the selfsame sky;
    the limestone’s locked in the strength of the bone,
    and who shall mock at the steadfast stone?

    So it’s Ballinamallard, it’s Crossmaglen,
    it’s Aughnacloy, it’s Donaghadee,
    it’s Magherafelt breeds the best of men,
    I’ll not deny it. But look for me
    on the moss between Orra and Slievenanee.

  3. Lann means a building or a house. Leabharlann is ‘house of books’, or a library; Otharlann is ‘house of patients’, or hospital and so on. Over many years, from very early Christian times, when monks, or holy people in general lived together in the same dwelling, the word Lann took on the meaning ‘Holy House’, and from there it came to mean ‘church’, though only in placenames. You would never hear it used like that in general conversation.

    Cill means ‘cell’, as in a monk’s cell. Over the years it to came to mean the whole church, rather than just the cell itself.

    Hope that helps!

  4. On your point about Irish words in English, Noel – There’s a strong suggestion that the Americanism ‘Can you dig it?’ comes from the Irish for either ‘Can you?’, An Dtig leat?, or ‘Do you understand?’, An dtuigeann tú? 🙂

  5. Here’s a little something for the day that’s in it – a quick translation of a verse and the chorus to ‘the Sash my Father Wore’, courtesy of the Oracle, otherwise known as my Da 🙂

    Sais m’Athar Mhóir

    Anall thar farraige tháinig mé ar cuairt
    ó Ulaidh na laoch is na sár
    ag ceol is ag damhsa liom gan bhuairt
    agus dílis go lá mo bháis
    Dhéanfainn damhsa is déarfainn amhrán daoibh
    go gasta greannmhar cóir
    is ar an dóú lá déag is ea a chaithim le haoibh
    seansais m’athar mhóir

    Óró, b’aosta ach b’álainn í
    is í daite geal ar dóigh
    nuair a caitheadh i nDoire is in Eachroim í
    Inis Ceithleann, is thart fán Bhóinn
    Chaith m’athair mór í is é ina fhear óg
    ins na leathanta geala fadó
    is ar an dóú lá déag sea a chaithim féin í
    sais m’athar mhóir

  6. I knew that the Falls Road came from the Hedgerows…did that have anything to do with hedge schools? Or did Irish schools just grow in hedges like the ones once found on the Falls?

  7. The road originally had high hedgerows, hence the name.

    Hedge school is an inaccurate name, as they suggest they were all held outside, specifically beside hedgerows. They weren’t, some were held in houses, barns etc. Although technically illegal under the Penal Laws, there is no record of Hedge school teachers being prosecuted for teaching.

  8. And what about mass rocks? Similar to Hedge Schools or were there prosecutions?

  9. and also…do you not remember a poem or song about ‘selling you O’? It would have meant anglicizing your name…selling your name for bread…???

  10. Mass rocks were a different matter. Priests could be and were arrested for practicing mass, so they held them in secret, with lookouts to warn about soldiers searching. There’s one quite near where I live, beside Colin Glen. There is a mass held there every year, as part of Féile an Phobail.

    There’s a road near us called Belle Steel Road. Belle Steel was a Protestant woman, who kept the priest’s robes and chalice etc hidden in her home. She would give them to the priest before the mass, then keep lookout for him, and ring a bell if she saw anyone coming.

    I don’t think I know that song, mairin, but I’m sure my Da does. I’ll check with him and try and find the lyrics.

    Here in the north, or in Belfast at least, there’s a jibe (or sleggin’, to give it it’s proper Belfast name) for someone who gets drunk too quickly, or can’t hold their drink in general. Such a person is called a ‘Soup-drinker’, the implication being that they should stick to drinking soup. But the term itself goes back to the Famine, when Evangelicals would offer soup to starving Catholics, in return for which they would denounce their faith and join the religion of their benefactors. You still hear some of the older people here talk disparagingly of others, saying, ‘sure their folks took the soup.’

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