The Hundreds of Irish Words for Sea and Marine Life


Why did the Irish starve to death during the famine when surrounded by such an abundance of seafood, seafood and seafood? This question is often asked in a tone that seems to cast doubt on the abilities and even the intelligence of those who have suffered.

In The Broken Harp, Tomás Mac Síomóin quotes the descendant of a survivor of a coffin ship in New York: ), were so inefficient, that when the potato harvest failed, well, poor hapless devils, they couldn’t even learn to fish.

It is a classic trait of post-colonial oppression to blame yourself for the injustices inflicted on you by others. Our colonized minds were programmed to believe that we were somehow at fault, rather than acknowledging the fact that our ancestors did not have access to this coastal bounty, because the ruling classes controlled the ports and fishing licenses, and years of poverty meant the boats had been sold.

Crom’ubhán is a long stick with a hook used to lure crabs out of their holes in the rock underwater at very low tide

If it was necessary to prove how broad, deep and nuanced our ancestors’ understanding of the resources along our coastline was, take a look at our language. The abundance of words to describe every imaginable element of marine life is astounding. There are literally dozens of terms for different types of waves, winds, algae, crustaceans, and fishing conditions. The specificity of some, like the bouilgeadán, a young black fish about five inches long, or the luiseag, the back of a hook that is caught to remove the hook from a fish’s mouth, is disconcerting for us who are now dissociated from this great storehouse of accumulated wisdom.

The fact was most clearly reminded to me on a trip I took last year along the west coast of Donegal, Mayo, Sligo and Galway, bringing together marine words and coastal terms from fishermen and of local folklorists. The phrases and terminology given to me made it clear how deep our understanding of coastal ecosystems and knowledge of the sea has become, after millennia of knowledge accumulation and sharing within communities.

In every county, and even on isolated headlands, peninsulas and islands within counties, I was offered an abundance of very specific words that revealed particular aspects of marine ecosystems, weather conditions, fishing practices. and navigation techniques in these regions – as well as of course, such as emphasizing the diverse beauty of the natural world.

For example, Crom’ubhán is a long stick with a hook that is used to lure crabs out of their underwater holes in the rock at very low tide, while leamhadóir refers to a man watching for signs of where to go. found the herrings and who would then light a piece of paper and throw it over the water so that his crew could make a ring around the shoal with their nets. Muirleadh describes the act of chewing on small green crabs and spitting them into the sea as bait to attract fish to the boat, while buailteog is a tree, or ray of light, on the wrong side of the sun which is considered a sign of bad weather approaching.

Manchán Magan collects sound

Hunger during famine

Words like these make it clear how attentive our ancestors were to the diversity of foods and resources along the coastline. Hunger during the famine years was not the result of ignorance or laziness. In fact, there are accounts of ribs being plucked without all kinds of seaweed by the starving victims who were denied access to the large stocks of grains, butter and other foods that were produced in the country for the export at the time.

In every coastal region, people have pointed out to me the local bráití, areas of deep ocean where wrasses tend to congregate under the kelp. Long before the invention of eco-sounders, the ancients knew the location of each of these rich fishing grounds and were able to manage them in a sustainable manner, so that if one boat fished on a specific pitch, others would fall. would move to another.

But what to do with all those little-known words now? Certainly, the ideas and timeless perspectives contained in some of them will come in handy as we tackle coastal erosion and climate change, and begin to rely more on local species of fish and algae rather than on import them from Southeast Asia and South America. As an interim measure, I recorded 250 of these words on a website ( as part of a Galway2020 project called Sea Tamagotchi. Each word is accompanied by a picture and an audio explanation by the fishermen who shared them. There are also 15 short videos that convey the meaning behind the words, and a handmade book by Redfoxpress that illustrates 38 of the words. As part of the St. Patrick’s Day Festival, the words will be projected on walls across Dublin City during St. Patrick’s Day, and COLLECTIVE Films has made a short documentary about some of the fishermen and folklorists that I visited, which will be broadcast on the TG4 educational program. canal, Foghlaim.

These are really only symbolic gestures that hint at the vast resources available. Ultimately, what happens to this vast and deep legacy that was built and passed on by our ancestors is in our hands. It is our birthright; and whether we pass it on as a precious heirloom or let it dissipate and die, that is for us to decide.

Collecting seaweed with Dorothy Cross in Connemara

Collecting seaweed with Dorothy Cross in Connemara

Stopóg (Stup-owg)
Shallow rocky seabed beyond where small algae grow. Rockfish and lobsters thrive here. Also a strain of cabbage. A neglected woman.

Scian Coirlí (Skee-yen Kore-lee)
A three-bladed knife on a 16-foot-long pole, used in conjunction with the pike to scoop up kelp. Neither has been used for 80 years, but their memory lives on.

Leachta (lyak-thuh)
Slabs stacked on the shore long ago used to support a boat while loading it with algae. Also graves, tumuli and pavements.

Strapa ballachai (Strop-eh Bollokey)
A ring of rope with up to thirty napoleons threaded through their mouths on it. One way to bring home the catch of the day.

Tápholl (Taow-ful)
Calm between two ebbs and flows changes. Unstable water when currents meet and are about to change direction.

Coinnic (Kun-nick)
A dangerous and agitated whirlwind between two strong currents. The sea can descend to 3 meters at these places.

Súitú (Suet-two)
The sucking noise of the shore at night. Often heard in the spring when large waves pull pebbles from the shore and then roll them back.

Caileantóireacht (Kalee-en-torakt)
Predict the weather by observing natural phenomena.

Stranach (Stron-ekh)
The hissing or murmuring of the sea in a cove as water rushes in and then comes out again.


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