One of my many other interests, apart from Irish, is ethnoastronomy/archaeoastronomy. These two similar subjects are the study of how current and previous cultures understood astronomical phenomenon and related to them.

Part of understanding this connection with the sky, is to understand the words and terms associated with it. How do cultures name the stars, constellations, comets? These words, in other languages but especially in Irish, are quickly falling out of use as people move more and more towards urbanization and as light pollution starts to drown them out. This blog post is a collection of some I have found in my studies of Irish; please, if you know of more, send them to me. I welcome this from any culture as well, not just Ireland and Irish.

First, I must say that Ireland has long been influenced by Greco-Roman thought and naming, thus quite a few of their astronomical terms and constellations are a borrowing; this is especially common among modern terms, but holds true even for terms in the past. However, it’s likely these terms were only used among the educated group, and thus the uneducated, more rural groups, would likely have their own names, with fewer borrowings. Unfortunately, most of these words seem to have been lost to time.

A quick word before beginning that will make things clearer — while réalta is the general word for ‘star’ with réaltaí being the plural, in Connemara you hear réalt in the singular with réalta as the plural. Take that into account when reading the selections below.

The first set of star names and star terms I have for Galway is from Cashel. While this area is not in the Gaeltacht, Irish names were collected in the Schools’ Collection. The informant was one Seán Ó Cúláin, a mariner who spent a good portion of his life in a boat. Here are the words he gave

An Réalt Thuaidh = Pole Star

Buaire na mBodach = an cnuasacht de réaltanna is lugha a chidhtear

An tslat agus an bhannga = ceithre réalta i líne dhíreach

Bealach Sheán Uí Mhilleáin = The Milky way

Réalta na scuaibe = comet

The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0010, Page 131

A few of these make sense on their own, but some need further elaboration. Buaire na mBodach, which seems like it should be buaile na mBodach, going by de Bhaldraithe’s Foirisiún Focal as Gaillimh (33), which is an alternative form of buaile an Bhodaigh, which refers to the nebula in Orion according to Teanglann. An tslat agus an bhannga is a reference to Orion’s Belt and Orion’s Sword, respectively.

The next two selections come from Ó Máill’es wonderful book An Béal Beo. It has several pages worth of stuff relating to the moon and stars, but the focus here will be on the stars and constellations.

Thugaidís rionn, reanna ar mhealltracha soilseamhla na spéire, idir phláinéid agus réalta, e.g. Rí na Reann .i. Dia. Rétglus a bhí sa tSean-Gh. ar réalta. Réaltóg a tugtar go hiondamhail ar cheann aonraic, sin, nó réalt; réalta bhí ar chnasac acu agus *réaltradh ar an saoghal deiridh seo. “A réalta thríd an gceo” adubhairt an file a’ trácht ar dhuine a thubhradh treoir dhó.

Bealach (nó bothar) na bó finne a tugtar ar an bhfáinne mór réálta atá ar an spéir a bhfuil na milte milliún réaltóg ann agus a bhfuil an ghrian mar cheann acu. Buaile an Bhodaigh atá ar réalt eile acu. Atá annsin an tslat agus an bhanlámh; séárd atá innti trí réalt ar gach aon bhealach agus is fuide an tslat ná an bhanlámh. Tá ceann eile an streoillín a bhfuil go leor réaltóg beag inti i gcosamhlacht. Na mionnáin, ceann eile. féach, arís, l. 196

An Réalt ó thuaidh atá ar an réalta atá ar aghaidh an mhuil ó thuiadh, nó i ngar dhó. An cham-chéachta nó an cam-chéachtach a tseasbáineas an bealach go dtí é. Tá sí sin ar dhéanamh céachta: seacht réaltóga atá innt. Deir daoine go bhfuil dhá cham-chéachta ann — ceann ar aghaidh an chinn eile. Réalta an mhól (?) ceann eile. Maidir leis an gcaoir adtuaidh sin é an solus a thagas i n-áiteacha san oídhche ón tuaisceart .i. aurora borealis.

Ní realt i gceart atá i réalt na maidine ach pláinéad, .i. Vénus. Nuair a éirigheas sí roimh an ngréin, sí réalt na maidine í. Nuair a theidheas sí faoi i ndiaidh na gréine, sí réalt an trathnóna í: “Chomh lasamhanta le réalt an trathnóna” a tugtar mar shamhail ar rud soillseach.

An Béal Beo (1937), T. Ó Máille, 26

Ó Máille’s notes for this section are wrong, however. He mentions that Buaile an Bhodaigh is a star, linking it to Orion’s Belt in his footnotes, when it’s actually the nebula, M42. Likewise, he links an tslat agus an bhanlámh to only Orion’s Sword, when it refers to the belt and the sword, respectively. You can see some of the differences between what Ó Máille gives and what Ó Cúláin gave, which could be dialectal or even a weakening of Irish on Ó Cúláin’s part (Cashels isn’t in the Gaeltacht, so it means it was a weakly speaking Irish area at the time), or even just Ó Máille giving more standard forms of the words.

Only two other notes here really need explaining. An streoillín refers to the Pleiades, where it is used as a time marker (i.e. when you see an streollín, it’s time to leave the neighbors house), while apparently another term, an treighdín refers to it as a constellation in and of itself. Na mionnáin refers to the star cluster Hyades.

There’s also another note stuck at the end of the book, discussing more.

Seo réalta eile: an taltún. Is mó í ná na réalta eile agus tá dhá réalta innti. An béimidín: réalt chasta í agus teasbáineann sí go leor soluis. Slat an cheannaighe: tagann sí amach ionann ‘s chomh luath le réalta an trathnóna. Réalta na gceithre bhfeirsead: tá ceithre réalta innti. Is cosmhail gach eann acu le fearsaid. Tá ceithre bharr amach uirthi mar fhearsaid. An chiarsóg: bíonn sé i n-aice an cham-chéachta.

ibid. 196

Some of these are even more obscure than the previous ones. From what I’ve learned, an chiarsóg refers to Arcturus, while an taltún refers to Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky. Slat an cheannaighe seems to be another name for Orion’s Sword, while réalta na gceithre bhfeirsead refers to the Belt. Note that while the Belt has 3 stars, this term referred to those plus one other; or, sometimes, even two stars of the belt and two others. It seems the term was never used very consistently in the surviving literature. An béimidín is one of the stars along the plough’s “handle”, though which one it is can vary.

One last thing I want to mention are some other useful and interesting threads. ILF user JayBee has collected a thread with words relating to the heavens, which includes some interesting things. I didn’t mention any of these words, as I can’t source how common they were in the Connemara region. Likewise, it seems like a lot of them are, at this point, just direct translations of English/Latin terms, something I was hoping to avoid. There are some interesting terms taken from Classical Irish, however, and even Scottish Gaelic. Overall, the thread is worth a read.

Likewise, Dr. David Stifter has released a paper on Academia titled The Stars Look Very Different Today, discussing Old Irish terms for ‘star’, and their different uses and contexts. It was an interesting read and could be used to shed some light on how people in the Old Irish period interacted and understood stars.

Updates: I’ve gotten some updates of star names from other dialects. The ones listed below come from Mayo:

  • Slat an Mhairnéalaigh — Na trí rí-réalta; clearly a reference to Orion’s Belt
  • An Ceann Síne – The Milky Way; it was suggested to me that the ‘síne’ here is an old genitive of ‘síom’, meaning ‘chain’.

Likewise, I’ve gotten at least one from Manx — trilleen (/trɪl’i:n/) — which is used to refer to the Pleiades. This led, in a discussion, to other names for that cluster from Munster and elsewhere. I am unable to pinpoint exactly where, as some of these come from FGB, others from Dinneen and still others from personal notes: an Phléadach, an tÉillín, an Streoillín, an Tréidín/Tréilín/Treighrín, an Croim-fhleiscín. All of these refer to the Pleiades.


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