Clontarf in a Multilingual World.

Máire Ní Mhaonaigh writes for the British Academy blog about a 12th-century text that reveals “a multilingual medieval world”:

Extensive networks and international communications are often thought of as modern phenomena […] but contacts and connections with a wider world have been a defining aspect of past communities as well. For the Viking period, this is evident in archaeological finds bearing witness to dynamic exchange from Dublin, via Scandinavia, to Baghdad and beyond. Along such extended trade routes, ideas as well as objects were interchanged. Functional multilingualism facilitated such transactions. Widespread use in certain circles of the medieval equivalents of global English – Latin, Greek, Arabic – enabled intense interaction and discussion and transference of knowledge and views.

Traces found along the earlier Silk Road, as part of a Viking hub, or in a medieval monastery, for example, provide the means by which a map of earlier interconnections can be sketched. Intricate layers of interaction are evident when examining early texts. Each source tells its own complex story, its content, language and history revealing influences and moulds. They form microcosmic strands in an overarching complex web, providing concrete evidence for specific contacts in a given time and space.

Research supported by the British Academy allowed me to study one such source, a 12th-century narrative from medieval Ireland. It chronicles Viking attacks on various parts of the country and the resistance to them provided by one southern dynasty under their king, Brian Boru (ancestors to the O’Briens). Presented as a strategic, skilful hero, he is depicted as continually opposing a ferocious Scandinavian foe, ultimately losing his life in a final encounter against them at the battle of Clontarf, a historical event fought in 1014. The title of this lengthy literary account, ‘The War of the Irish (Gael) against Foreigner (Gall)’ (Cogadh Gáedhel re Gallaibh), as well as its bombastic tone sets it out as a stereotypical story of ‘us v. them’. What can such a text then tell us about actual contacts between Norse and Irish at the time of its composition?

By the early 12th century, when the narrative was written, Scandinavians had long since settled in Ireland and formed an important, integrated part of medieval Irish political and cultural life. This is conveniently set aside in the biased literary account, intent on presenting Brian Boru – and hence his successors – in the best possible light. Dublin was an important political centre and one which Brian’s descendants sought to control. Among the many recipients of the text’s unsubtle message may have been Dublin’s Norse elite, some of whom were trilingual in Latin, Irish and Norse. The story of Clontarf also circulated in the Isle of Man, where Brian Boru’s grandson and great-grandson had considerable interests. It was there that an Old Norse story of the battle was written, which was later adapted and incorporated into 13th-century Icelandic sagas such as that of Burnt Njáll (Njáls saga).

Norse and Irish versions of the battle of Clontarf encapsulate ongoing learned contacts between Ireland and the Isle of Man and from there to Iceland. Moreover, evidence for Irish sources at the court of King Hákon IV of Norway around the same time suggest that these channels of communication encompassed Norway, too. The material to which Hákon had access included much material in Latin. Furthermore, writing more than a century earlier, the author of the Irish Clontarf narrative drew on classical material, alluding to the story of Troy on various occasions and so suggesting a parallel between that foundational encounter and the conflict celebrated in his own account. These texts point to multilingual, learned scholars who formed part of a vibrant, extensive intellectual world.

That interconnected cultural world is often vividly portrayed in the very words they employ. Thus, medical terms are often derived from Latin (as Sharon Arbuthnot and others have discussed), sometimes in the form of literal translations such as máthair chruaidh, ‘a hard mother’: the exact equivalent of the dura mater, the term used in English for the outer membrane around the brain and spinal chord. How words evolve can also elucidate relationships. Bérla was the medieval Irish word for language or speech (and related to the word for mouth, bél). Among the 72 languages heard at the Tower of Babel – and allegedly the best of them – was ‘Ireland’s language’ (bérla Érenn), Irish, according to an eighth-century poetic manual, Auraicept na nÉces (The Poets’ Primer). When coupled with the adjective ‘white’, bérla bán signified the language of the scriptures, Latin. As contacts with English increased from the late 12th and 13th centuries, the meaning of bérla gradually narrowed and was applied to the English language alone. Changing words thus reveal changing worlds.

The interesting thing about bérla is its metathesis — the Old Irish word was bélrae, straightforwardly derived from bél ‘mouth.’ And if you want to hear how Prof. Ní Mhaonaigh says her name, it’s right at the start of this clip. Thanks, Trevor!


  1. Does Mhaonaigh have an common simplified equivalent spelling (e.g. like Rafferty/Ó Rabhartaigh)?

  2. J.W. Brewer says

    I guess one man’s “heroic-yet-doomed resistance to ferocious invaders” is another man’s “dynamic exchange”?

  3. Does Mhaonaigh have an common simplified equivalent spelling (e.g. like Rafferty/Ó Rabhartaigh)?

    Ó MAONAIGH——O Moeny, O Mooney, (?) O Moyney, O Money, Meany, Meeny, Mooney, Moany, Money; ‘descendant of Maonach’ (wealthy); the name (1) of a Roscommon family who were anciently chiefs of Clann Murthuile; (2) of a family of the Ui Fiachrach who were seated on the southern shore of Sligo Bay, in the barony of Tireragh; and (3) of a branch of the Siol nAnmchadha, in the south-east of Co. Galway. At the end of the 16th century, the name was found in all parts of Ireland.

    maínech ‘wealthy’ (Forms: Moenach, Maonach, Moinaigh, Moenaigh, Maenaig).

  4. Ní Mhaonaigh is the feminine form of Ó Maonaigh, with the requisite initial lenition.

  5. John Cowan says

    An interesting case is Mary Robinson (president of Ireland 1990-1997), whose name was reverse engineered to Máire [Bean] Mhic Róibín ‘Mary, [woman] of the son of Robin’ or less literally
    ‘Mary, daughter-in-law of Robin’.

  6. Mary Robinson followed the usual pattern:

    male Ó Foo goes to female
    [Bean] Uí Fhoo “[Mrs/wife of] O’Foo” or
    [Iníon] Ní Fhoo [Miss/daughter of] O’Foo

    male Mac Foo goes to female
    [Bean] Mhic Fhoo “[Mrs/wife of] McFoo” or
    [Iníon] Nic Fhoo [Miss/daughter of] McFoo

    More unusual is protofeminist Máire Mhac an tSaoi, daughter of Seán Mac an tSaoi, who had “Mhac” rather than “Mhic” — does anybody know whether this was a dialect variation or a personal choice?

    As contacts with English increased from the late 12th and 13th centuries, the meaning of bérla gradually narrowed and was applied to the English language alone.

    This is perhaps misleading. My understanding is that the order of change was as follows:
    1. béarla is replaced by teanga “tongue” as the usual word for “language”
    2. suffix -bhéarla is replaced by -ís “-ish” in the names of languages, except for sacs-bhéarla ‘saxon language’ “English”
    3. sacs-bhéarla is shortened to “béarla”.

    The modern text where one finds “Sacs-Bhéarla” is the current (1937) Constitution. (The 1922 Constitution had “Béarla”)

  7. PlasticPaddy says

    I was looking for a similar Irish text but gaois does not appear to summarise “rules”.
    I would say that Máire or the family viewed (or pretended to view) Mac an tSaoi as “mackety”, hence an adjective (compare bockety). By the rule given in the link for female name + surname derived from adjective, we get Máire Mhac an tSaoi or in the Saxon tongue so beloved of her husband Conchubhar, Mary Mackety.

  8. Thanks, PP, that’s an extremely useful link!

  9. PlasticPaddy says

    Yes, it is interesting to see an tAthair Peadar (he also wrote a story called “Niamh” set in the time of Brian Boru) was consulted on this very question of when the séimhiú was applied. I am not sure anyone writes Inghean for Iníon unless this some kind of frozen or legal spelling.

  10. Peadar Ua Laoghaire (An tAthair Peadar).

  11. Father Peter’s peeving:

    Before I left Liscarrigane, I had never heard from anybody’s mouth phrases such as “tá mé”, “bhí mé”, “bhí siad”; I always used to hear “táim”, “bhíos”, “bhíodar”, etc. Little things! – but little things that come repeatedly into conversation. A taut mode of expression, as against one that is lax, makes for finish in speech; in the same manner, a lax mode of expression as against the taut, makes for speech that is deficient. Besides, the taut speech possesses a force and a vigour that cannot be contained in speech that is falling apart…The loose mode of expression is prominent in Gaelic today and English is nothing else. English has fallen apart completely.

  12. PlasticPaddy says

    Dabht, a doubt. It is ridiculous to object to words like
    dabht, robáil, etc., on account of their English appearance. They belong to the Irish language because
    the nation has adopted them and assimilated them.
    The nation has not assimilated such expressions as
    “tá sé all right.”
    From “Notes on Irish Words and Usages”
    So I think he was consistently objecting to what he saw as laziness, i.e., imprecision and wholesale incorporation of foreign words, expressions or morphology, where sufficient native resources exist.

  13. Sure, but it’s still peeving. Anyone who objects to something like “laziness” in discussions of language is ipso facto a peever. Which is fine, it’s just being human! The important thing (what linguistics teaches you) is to recognize and discount your own peevery.

  14. FWIW Máire [Mhac an tSaoi / Cruise O’Brien]’s English-language autobiography, “The Same Age as the State”, acknowledges “the unstintinting help of Máire Mhac Conghaíl”, a genealogist who seems to spell her own name “Máire Mac Conghail”.

  15. J.W. Brewer says

    Perhaps a pity there doesn’t seem to have been a “multiculturalist” faction of modern Irish nationalism seeking to revive fluency in Norse alongside fluency in Irish?

  16. per incuriam says

    An tAthair Peadar:

    Looking at the passage quoted in its original setting I think that he is not so much peeving per se as extolling the qualities of his own Munster Irish, where synthetic forms of the verb are the norm, over dialects where the analytic forms dominate.

    This in the context of the debate then ongoing as to what variety of Irish should be used in education, publishing etc.

    A propos of which, it has been muttered that the official standard ultimately settled upon is more accommodating towards an tAthair Peadar’s dialect than would perhaps be warranted on the basis of speaker numbers alone.

  17. As a student of the Connemara dialect I can’t disagree.

  18. The Welsh are surprisingly silent on this matter….

  19. “the official standard ultimately settled upon ” – it’s interesting that Aotearoa/NZ has taken a slightly more accommodating approach to dialectal differences.

    From what little I know of the situation, although there is a “Standard” Māori used in education (including Māori-medium educational institutions from pre-school to tertiary), the official orthography varies according to the dominant dialect. This is most visible with place names and road signage. The South Island variant often uses “k” where North Island variants use “ng” . Hence the official name of the country’s highest peak is Aoraki/Mt Cook not Aorangi/Mt Cook, and Stewart Island is Rakiura, not Rangiura.

    These are only orthographical differences of course, but I do know of at least one organization that maintains separate North and South Island translation teams, suggesting the differences go deeper than spelling, and that accommodating the differences is considered important. Given the similarities between Ireland and Aotearoa/NZ in both overall population and the fragile state of their indigenous languages, I’d have expected Ireland to show a similarly catholic (#tooeasy,#sorrynotsorry) approach to the variants of Irish.

  20. David Marjanović says

    The difference is that the Irish situation is older, dating to an age of nationalism that simply had a different attitude to what “a language” is.

  21. The Caighdeán is intended to supplement vernacular dialects, not replace them. Irish spelling was at least as standardised as English spelling in the 17th century. Those of the differences in dialect pronunciation which are systematic can be obtained by decoding the spelling differently; so -fidh may be /fij/ or /hij/ or /hig/. The simplification of spelling which formed part of the Caighdeán was supposed to eliminate only those distinctions extinct in all living dialects; I know of some criticisms that it did not keep to this principle.

  22. J.W. Brewer says

    By coincidence I just bumped into this collection (bilingual) of appreciations of Máire Mhac an tSaoi:

  23. Nice, thanks!

  24. David Marjanović says

    Ó MAONAIGH——O Moeny, O Mooney, (?) O Moyney, O Money, Meany, Meeny, Mooney, Moany, Money; […]

    maínech ‘wealthy’

    So O’Money is phonosemantic matching…!

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