Our mother tongue tells its own story

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IT IS said that each language offers a unique window to the world and that the combined wisdom and life experiences of the people who have developed that language over thousands of years are encoded in it.

And the way the Irish named the amazing biosphere they lived in is very different from their English counterparts, which are often classified as if someone is writing a checklist.

The Irish seem more child-friendly, describing the animal or phenomenon with the open curiosity of a youngster. A bat in Irish is sciathán leathair – leather wing – while the now rare corn bunting is gealóg bhuachair – shiny little cow dung!

Dúlra’s favorite has always been the magnificent little bird that now feeds in mini-flocks in its back garden, the goldfinch. Its evocative Irish name reflects the fact that it would once have been a forest bird – lasair coille, flame of the woods. We kept the name, but we lost the forests.

A new book this Christmas on the names of our plants and animals – and even sunsets – celebrates the “poetry, wisdom, devil and insight contained in our glorious old language.”

Author Manchán Magan says Gaeilge also gives us insight into climate patterns, lunar cycles, ocean currents, and otherworldly dimensions of our native island.

It is a heritage that is often difficult to reach when you live in the city. Our deep family ties to the countryside were severed when our ancestors moved to Belfast to work in the surrounding areas. For Dúlra, it was her grandparents, but this bond with our rural parents is fading from year to year.

For thousands of years, we have depended on this island’s natural resources for our survival, developing our own ways of describing the wild and domesticated animals we shared it with, and the plants that covered the land and the seabed.

And so we get the crainn cat – the arboreal cat or pine marten – and its prey the squirrel, which, besides its official name iora, is often called the “tree dog”, the madadh crainn. The wolf – the last one believed to have been killed in the hills of Belfast 300 years ago – is the mac tíre, the son of the earth, which refers to the belief that they sometimes turned into humans. Because they were so feared – howling in the dark woods outside as families tried to sleep in their homes, they were thought to have supernatural abilities.

Foxglove is lus na mban sí, the banshee plant, a reference to the fairy woman who is linked with death just like this beautiful but poisonous plant. The kindness of the hedgehog was lost on our ancestors who called him gráinneog, “the little ugly one”.

But the delicate fawn, the baby deer, received the magical name of bird, because Fionn Mac Cumhaill’s son was called Oisín after his mother was turned into a deer by a druid. Fionn didn’t find his son playing naked on Benbulbin until he was seven.

Manchán’s book – Tree Dogs, Banshee Fingers and other Irish words for nature will surely be wrapped under the Christmas tree in Dúlra’s house in time for the big day, right?

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• Paula in Riverdale is proof that if you want to see birds of prey, get chickens. But this huge visitor (above) was not a native wild hawk, in fact he was even more impressive – a giant Harris hawk that had escaped from an aviary. This bird is usually found in the skies of Chile and Argentina, several kilometers from Riverdale. But he appeared on his backyard fence last week, and Paula says her husband finally chased him away after several attempts. “It wasn’t a bit bothered so it took some effort to scare her,” she said. “All the hens were intact but were clearly in shock. We were later told that he escaped from his aviary during the storm and returned home later.

• If you’ve seen or photographed something of interest, or have questions about nature, you can text Dúlra on 07801 414804. Sean, in North Belfast, asks why the usual influx of pilgrims and red wings has not yet arrived. It’s just not cold enough yet. But don’t worry Sean – winter never lets us down!

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