Wednesday, 27 June 2012

On the Names of Ireland

The current protest by Republican dissidents on Black Mountain has set the Blether Region thinking about names used for Ireland — not sobriquets such as Emerald Isle, mind, but actual names.

In case you've been away, the demonstration in question has taken the form of a huge tricolour and banner proclaiming "Ériu is our Queen". Many of those less versed in the history of the language and looking squint-eyed up at the hills will no doubt have taken it to be the anglicised Erin, but that is far from the case.

Ériu is the original Old Irish word from which the modern Éire (genitive Éireann, dative Éirinn) derives — the latter two forms having provided us with Erin. Ériu, which also survives as an element in the English word "Ireland", is a term morphologically comparable to Danu, which exhibits a similar consonantal stem in the well-known name Tuatha Dé Danann, the People of the Goddess Danu (tuath being cognate with German deutsch). The modern form of Danu is Dana, best known as the name of the former Eurovision star and social conservative Dana Rosemary Scallon.

In fact, both Danu and Éiru are goddesses, and Éire is not the only goddess associated with Ireland and still used as a name for the island: there are also Banbha and Fódhla, the latter used as a domain name in certain Government IT systems in the Republic.

If that's not complicated enough, there is also Fál, apparently a back formation from Lia Fáil, the Stone of Destiny (as some would have it, the Stone of Scone).

So, what, if anything, does the dissidents' choice say about them? Well, first one would have to point out why certain terms are unsuitable. Fódhla might be too little used and Banbha too redolent of paganism, while Éire is, particularly among Protestants, indistinguishable from the modern Irish Republic and its constitutional predecessors. In much of Irish poetry and song in English, the poetic name for Ireland is Erin, true also of works by the mainly Presbyterian and often Republican Ulster-Scots poets of the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries. It also figures in pre-partition Orange songs and slogans such as "Erin's Orange Lily". One argument against using it is its association with the less successful, more maudlin products of just such nineteenth-century culture.

The term is of course also not wholly native, being an English word derived from Irish rather than an Irish word per se. Ériu, on the other hand, while easy to associate with Éire, is not contemporary Gaelic but Old Irish. Demographically speaking, it would be best known among those born into an Irish ethnic tradition and who have subsequently made a conscious decision to explore that tradition. It is not nearly as down-to-earth — yet still oddly emotive — a term as "Erin", and consequently easier for working-class Loyalists to reject. It is recherché, the property of an élite — rather like the self-defining élite of the dissidents.

Nevertheless, for many Irish-speakers, the tug at the heartstrings will be very real.

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