Saturday, March 31, 2018

On researching my Irish patronyms

This blogpost evolved in response to some comments on a Facebook West Cork Genealogy site. One woman insisted that the variations in patronym spelling, was because everyone was illiterate and only went to school a few days of their lives, because they had to work on the farm—back in the day. Another poster assumed the clerks were just too lazy to add those pesky apostrophes. Not necessarily so.

So, in answering the unasked questions, I discovered I had the makings of a blogpost. I never know where my next bit of writing will come from. I took on the second poster first: The apostrophe was not part of the patronym until recently, so when you see O Sullivan (with no apostrophe), it's an earlier Anglicised Irish spelling. It comes from: Ó Súilleabháin (from Uí Shúilleabháin, from Uí Súilleabán.)
O was not in fashion during the turn of the century. See also: Sullivan, O'Sullivan, O Sullivan, Soolivan.
 In the Irish language the word Ó (originally ua, then "Ua") signifies 'descendant of' or 'grandson' and is found in many Irish surnames. It has been anglicised as O'. When placed before the genitive form of Súileabhán, which is Súileabháin, it can be translated as grandson of. While the use of an apostrophe is a common convention in English, the apostrophe is never used in the original Irish language version of the name.Wiki

Some of those perceived misspellings are directly from the Irish spelling of a name which genetivizes, or changes, the spelling. For example, the feminine spelling of Uí Shúilleabháin, the Uí changes the S to Sh-, and the Sh- renders the S silent, and the genitive ending becomes -áin. 

Mac and Ó, or Ua have slightly different grammatical rules than the feminine Níc, and Ní. And if there's no prefix, the second name still changes spelling too—especially when there are two vowels in a row: Brian Ó Brian becomes O'Brien, Niall Ó Naill, becomes Ó Néill, or Ua Néill. One noun modifies the other in order to show ownership. Possessor and possessed. In English we use 's (and we clearly don't understand how to use 's in English).

H is a modern mark of aspiration, H is not a letter in the Irish alphabet: nor are j k q v w x y z). No apostrophe was ever used on Irish Medieval names. Period. Or those Haiches either! My granny said H was a ladder to the sky.

People paid no attention to how names were spelled. It had nothing to do with illiteracy. Even Shakespeare spelled his name several ways. There's a tombstone in Ireland with the surname for one family spelled as McEneaney, McAneany, McAneny, McEnaney, McEneany, and a mistranslation, Bird! Even though the model was clearly at hand, it was still spelled differently each time. Just because.

How did these Anglicized names come to be? A 14th c. law required the landed Norman English gentry who were busily becoming "more Irish than the Irish themselves," to have an English sounding name. So, it became fashionable for the Irish to drop the O or the Mac prefix of their names as well (for political reasons). Nothing to do with laziness.

In the 1600s, the prefixes O and Mac were largely dropped because it was impossible to find work if one had an Irish name. In the 1800s, many Irish families re-adopted the O and Mac prefixes. Sometimes the wrong ones. Or none at all. Like Guinness. But that G is a fossilized Mac, or Mag. It was MagAonghusa.... There is no difference between Mag, Mac and Mc. And Mc is merely a contraction. Sometimes Mc was underlined to show the contraction. Ó and Ua are synonymous. And the prefix for women is Níc, for
Mhic, and Ní, for Uí, or Ó.derives from Iníon Uí

I have Sullivans and O Sullivans in Bantry, and am related to both, but they are from different families. It can be so confusing! Especially when they married each other... I once "fixed" my tree, only to find that the two branches were unrelated Sullivans (well, unrelated enough to get married...)

To make matters worse, my granny's uncle, Daniel Sullivan (who came from a family of 8) from Gortnascreena (Gort-na-Screena) farm, had 12 children, who had as many children.... One Sullivan married an O Sullivan. And, not knowing any better, I merged the two lines. Yiiii!

But when searching genealogical records, typing in OSullivan as one word, no apostrophe, no space, is a great clue.

As to that first woman who commented the Irish were unschooled, and therefore, illiterate, for the record, nothing could be further from the truth. "The rate of illiteracy in Ireland was 8.3% in 1911." and the "Irish literacy rates on the eve of the First World War were among the highest in Europe." Shakespeare often spelled words many different ways, one would not describe him as illiterate...

It took Dr. Samuel Johnson eight years to compile a dictionary in 1755, in order to codify the spelling of words. But not everyone agreed. In 1908, the Simplified Spelling Society was formed; George Bernard Shaw (Pygmalion) left a large bequest to revamp English spelling.

This astounding literacy fluency in Ireland was partially due to the rise of the hedgerow schools (scoil chois claí) from the 16th c. to the end of the 19th c., where, in addition to Irish, both Latin and Greek were also taught. Under the Penal laws (1723 to 1782), Catholic schools were forbidden, there was a resurgence of hedge schools—especially for the impoverished Irish Catholics who could not attend the Anglican schools.
William Makepeace Thackeray's Irish Sketch Books contain various references to hedge schools. William Carleton, who got his own early education in hedge schools, wrote many comedic accounts of them for the English audience, including The Hedge School. Brian Friel's play Translations is set in a hedge school, and its subject is the defence of Irish culture against a dominant and aggressive colonisation.—Wiki
My name, Maureen, is sometimes spelled Maírín, Moreen, or Mórín,. Ya don't even wanna know the variations of my last name. But Hurley (Ó hUirthile), a conglomerate of several unrelated Irish names, including O'Herlihy ( Ó hIarlatha), also morphed into Murley ("O'Muirthile") through mistransliteration. Ó hUirthile is from the Dál gCais tribal group, in Clare and North Tipperary; but my Hurley family is from Co. Cork.

My cousins in Tralee picked up an E on the end of their name in the 1890s, so their name is now Walshe, while the rest of my family in Bantry,
is Walsh. Who added the E? Not my family. Not my great-uncle Frank. Probably the end result of a clerk's hurried flourish. 

My great uncle Frank was not illiterate by any means. He signed his name Walsh in letters to my grandmother, his sister, but his children continue to use the Walshe spelling. And my second cousins have no clue as to why they spell their last name differently than their cousins. I was the one to break the news to them. 

Now it's codified. Set in stone, chiseled on Great-uncle Frank, and Bridie's tombstones is the name Walshe. The misspelling was probably due to the fault of a parish priest in a hurry, in this case, or a scribal error. Or just bad handwriting.

I have a copy of my grandmother's baptismal record, with her name misspelled, and even her birthdate is wrong on her birth certificate, because a clerk couldn't read a scribe's archaic handwriting. It happens. 

Needless to say, I couldn't use the documents to apply for Irish citizenship because I couldn't prove my Irish identity due to scribal errors. According to those typo, I didn't exist. Poof! Gone, just like that. I tried several times to get my passport but I could never get past the paperwork.

One of my favorite ethnic names gone awry stories, was when my Irish teacher, Joe Nugent from Mullingar, was returning to California to teach, US Customs wouldn't
let him in, because his first name, Seosamh, was spelled in Irish on his Irish passport. (There's no J in Irish.) A good thing he didn't use the original de Nogents for Nugent.

I am planning on applying for an Irish passport. And now, most of the documents are digitalized, or online. So those misspellings on my granny's papers are no longer an issue. It looks like I have a choice of two last names: Maírín Ní hUirthile, or hIarlatha. Here's hoping they spell it right. Foggedabout pronouncing it right. If I were to marry my partner I would become Maírín Bean Uí Néill. Easier to pronounce, but I think I'll pass on that one.

Good Friday translation rant, aka an odd insomnia cure

I awoke 4 AM, with a blinding headache, from pulling recalcitrant honeysuckle vines from the engulfed Meyer lemon tree. I was in dire pain and the Advil hadn't yet kicked in, so there I was, with full-on insomnia, resurrecting my rusty Irish translation skills on a Facebook genealogy site. Perfect thing to do on the aftermath of Good Friday, no?

It's almost impossible to resurrect the meaning of Irish placenames as they've been Englishified and phoneticized to death. The English attempt to destroy a language. With no small thanks to the Royal Engineers and the 1833 Ordnance Survey. Irish playwright Brian Friel's play,Translations, tackles the systematic disembowelment of the Irish language by the English hellbent on cultural imperialism. But sometime enough of the original ghost Irish remains behind to see the meaning behind a placename.

One Facebook poster, Amanda Sullivan, was looking for long lost relatives at Gorteenasowna, also spelled Gortnasowney. I began to play with the possibilities of translation. Not quite like translating the Irish epics. But a challenge, nonetheless.

Nearly 20 years ago, I did an entire year of Old Irish at UC Berkeley. I'd get up at 6 am, translate a couple of hours, go to classes, come home and translate again until midnight. I was a terrible student, and I was more often wrong, than right. But I loved every minute of it, unlocking that impossible text, discovering meaning behind those impossible letter combinations that represented a lost epic from the Early Middle Ages. The unknown scribe's hand to my brain across the annals of time. 

When I translated: the enemy of your enemy is my friend, from an ancient manuscript, I got the chills. Someone walking on my grave. It's supposedly from a Sanskrit treatise on statecraft, the Arthashastra, ca. the 4th c. BC, but clearly, the Irish monks transcribing the tales, were intimately familiar with it. The proverb, made famous by Churchill, didn't even enter into English until 1884, and the Irish had been using the phrase since at least the 6th c.  

Using Google to back-translate, I got: Is é an namhaid do namhaid mo chara, which is close enough to the original, sans those Haiches.

So I began my task: first word was easy: Gort is a field; and gorteen (gortin) is a small field. 
And na is an article.
But I was flummoxed by -sowney, or sowna, it really stumped me. I played with possible spellings. Somh_ne__? Sobh_ne__?
Suibhne? Sweeney's field?
Or is it Owen's field?
Or a field near the cave? 
I knew that Uaimh is pronounced owney as in Uaimh na gCat, or Owenygat because I wrote a poem about it.

But there's an S to contend with. What did it stand for? What eclipsed, or subsumed word once resided there? No idea. Irish is a bit like plate tectonics, entire words are consumed by subduction, and what survives are lone consonants, like rocky outcroppings by which to moor meaning to.
There is no W or Y in Irish. And W is usually an M or a B (with an added H as a lenition mark) which makes a Y sound, often spelled as: mh, gh or dh.... and, for what it's worth, H is not even a letter in Irish.
Amanda offered another clue, it was in the township of Dunmanway, located in the the geographical center of West Cork, at the confluence of two tributaries, and the River Bandon. Dunman-way. Dang! Those pesky Ws again. 

Dunmanway has been a rallying point since the Bronze Age, there's a late Bronze Age war trumpet in the British Museum collection. During the Irish War of Independence, 18 British Auxiliary Division troops were killed by the IRA at the Kilmichael Ambush, near Dunmanway. The British retaliated by sacking all towns and nearby farmsteads, as well as Cork City. The film, The Wind That Shakes The Barley is based on the Kilmichael Ambush.

OK, Dun is fort. There were two variations in the "original" spelling which, unfortunately, was still a few letters short of a phrase. So I tried:

Dún m aon mhuí
Dún Mánmhaí

Wiki said: "There is disagreement over the meaning and origin of the town's name "the castle of the yellow river," "the castle on the little plain," "the fort of the gables (or pinnacle
s)," and "the fort of the yellow women."
Yep, none of them are right. For starters, the loanword, castle, would be spelled caisleán, and yellow river would be abhainn buí. Gables is another English loanword: cáblaí, so that's out. And the castle on the little plain would be an caisleán ar an magh beag. Not even close to Dunmanway, no matter how many vowels were swallowed in the process.

The fort of the yellow women would be something like Dún mna nbhuí, or
Dún na mban buí. So that's out as well.

Mán m haí Mán mBuí?
No idea Mán, but, it has a fada (accent), as in Mánannan? The sea god?
Or is it maon mhuí = mBuí

Buí, or buídhe is yellow (and mBuí would go to a H, or a Y sound), but yellow is often transcribed as -boy as in clann-na-boy (the yellow clan) so the phonetic sound bite isn't working either.

OK, we can agree that the ending is yellow, but what is maon? I have no idea.
Then I found maoin, which could be a grammatical form of: aon » maon.

Dún m- aon mbuí The Fort of (the) One/Big/Only Yellow? Aon has a million other meanings besides counting. Then there's that M: m-aon doesn't seem to exist. haon, t-aon, yes. So it's safe to say yellow was somehow involved.

Then I found this oddity which may unlock the meaning of the name of the town: "The Irish plant Buí Mór produced a colorfast saffron yellow" (which was a very big deal, BTW, in the Middle Ages.) And it sounds like Dunmanway was a flax, or linen textile center.... hmmm.

But about those women of Dunmanway: dyeing was women’s magic craft, and there was a taboo on dyeing fabric in the presence of men. In the Book of Lismore, St. Ciaran’s mother bade him leave the house, because it was unlucky. He didn't take the boot kindly and cursed the cloth she was dying, which came out streaked. Linen was difficult to dye. And the secret formula: they needed rich yellow piss to set it.
Then I found an Irish seanfhocal —Chomh buí leis an mBuí Mór.
There is little/pale yellow and big/great yellow. 
There is yellow and there is SCREAMING YELLOW! 
(Or, saffron—as it's referring to royal colors, or to the Otherworld, or even to Christ. There are many references to yellow and green silk in the Irish epics.) The saffron color extracted from weld (Reseda luteola), a member of the cabbage family (order: Brassicales), yields a bright yellow:
...the old English saffron does not mean crocus but any yellow colour, and generally distinguishes the weld, still retained in many parts of England and the very plant the Irish call Buídhe Mór, or Great Yellow. With this they dye their linen and fine woolen stuffs with different degrees of colour and fix the colour with urine. The yellow thus obtained is bright and lasting. (J. C. Walker, Materials used by the Ancient Irish, quoted in Brid Mahon, p. 118-119)
Buí Mór, or weld, prefers to grow in wastelands, it grows best on dry, rocky, sandy soils, and when weld is mixed with woad (Isatis tinctoria) it produces bright greens. There you have it, the colors of Ireland.

Insomnia strikes again. Enough nonsense. I needs must sleep. I am reminded of one of Flan O'Brien's line, What was the color of the wind on the day of your birth?  In
The Third Policeman, the ghost of old Mathers explains to his murderer the colors of the four winds, and eight sub-winds:
“The wind from the east is a deep purple, from the south a fine shining silver. The north wind is a hard black and the west is amber."
But Brian/Myles/Flan lifted that idea from a Middle Irish sacred history canto by Óengus Céile Dé, Saltair na Rann, which mentions a 12-point wind color wheel, as a cosmic map of Ireland. The colors of the wind change to black as one grows towards one's death. The north wind is always black, while the yellow winds are from the south-east—the direction of Wales.

The direction of Dunmanway, which is near Drimoleague, near my family's first farm, Coomanore. Comb-an-nÓr, or The Hill of Gold. Drimoleague (Droim Dhá Liag, or ridge of two stones, has two Standing Stones at Clodagh) and is halfway between Dunmanway and Bantry.

The Top of the Rock, Drimoleague, is where in the 6th c., St. Finbarr “admonished the people to return to Christ, then went on his way to Gougane Barra” (near Bantry). St. Finbarr's feast day, September, 25th, became a two-day pilgrimage route, over three mountain and valley systems: The Ilen, Mealagh and Ouvane, to the oratory in Gougane Barra.

Well, I never did solve the riddle of the meaning of Gortnasowney, I don't know what all this means. But I got a window onto the history of the town of Dunmanway, which led curiously and circuituously back to my own family's farm.

The golden dawn approacheth, tapping at my windowpanes. Perhaps I will dream of amber  colored winds sailing between two rivers, and a dry rocky outcrop covered in yellow flowers facing the onslaught of the sun. At least my headache's gone.

Translations is a play by Irish playwright Brian Friel.

Friday, March 30, 2018


Well, Doctor, I don't know where the eggs come from,
and I have no idea why I feel a compulsion to hide them.
And this year, some April fools are yelling White Rabbit!
I'm not sure how I feel about that. Go ask Alice, he said.
And no, I am not sleeping with the chickens.


Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Updating old technology for tax season: The horror! The horror!

I'm about to upgrade to El Capitán/High Sierra, as my trusty Mac OS companion of 8.5 years, Snow Leopard, is no longer long of tooth, but bereft of any pearly whites whatsoever. The latest discovery that the Intel chip has a back door, much to the delight of Hackers Anon, means every technological agency is tightening up bootstraps in order to stick their big toes (and cocks—whatever is largest) to shoal up the wall of data vulnerability.

And in turn, data service providers are also tightening things up. This translates to my web browser Firefox being no longer upgradeable, Safari  5 is next to useless, having long since lost The Great Browser Race. I can't even load a Daily Kos petition because my browser's too old and therefore "vulnerable." I can see tighter security needed if I'm actually donating money (I'm not), but to fill out a petition? And who knew that MacWorld articles were top secret documents FYEO fergawdsakes? (For your eyes only.)

Then there's the new and improved software: take TurboTax. Ah, yes, the tax season rears its ugly head, and shoves it up yer arse looking for fool's gold. That's the litmus I use to update software. When I need to load TurboTax. That's how I updated another hard drive to Mountain Lion, and later, to Mavericks.

Suffice to say, I hated both Mountain Lion, and Mavericks, but I managed to convince TurboTax to play nicely on my MacBook, so I could file my taxes. Sort of. (BTW, TurboTax did not require such stringent hoops for Windows users during this time. And we KNOW how vulnerable Windows is. My partner has an old PC laptop with a crusty virus-ridden version of Windows that still runs TurboTax. What's with that?)

So, after I purchased this year's version of TurboTax, I read the FINE PRINT. Minuscule. Unreadable without a microscope, or #2 readers, whatever's handiest. Minimum system requirements, written in 6 point white type on grey background: such secretive minimum operating system requirement: OS 10.11. Whoa, Nellie! That's El Capitán. O Captain! My Captain! Decapitate me now.

We went from the rogue sneaker waves of Mavericks, that's OS 10.9 to you, to the heights of Machu Pucchu, I mean—that mile-high monolith, that sheer granite wall of El Capitán, AKA OS 10.11, that has challenged so many climbers—in one fell swoop? In one year? What happened to OS 10.10? Holy crappy crampons! The Krampus came late this year. Or he came back for seconds.

So, (remembering to breathe), I took a shot, and steeled my nerves. I girded my loins, and began to upgrade a hard drive to El Capitán. After more than an hour of upgrading, it worked swimmingly. Until it didn't. This I found out after I went two OS'es further down the plankety-plank road to perdition, to the holiest grail of OS of time present—High Sierra, AKA OS 10.13. Lucky 13, it wasn't. I was locked out. Epic password fail. Black screen. Spinning cursor of death. Random restarts. Complete disappearance of the Finder. Again. And again. And again.

So I spent an entire day (and most of the next day too), trying to coax two fussy operating systems to play nicely on my souped-up 2011 MacBook. I learned some things. New tricks, old dawg. I practiced deep rebuilds and even deeper cleanses. I gnashed my teeth. I invented new portmanteaus swearwords. Corrupted kext files? I found combo update fixes. Suffice to say, El Capitán is now working. Or at least, I can load it. I haven't even opened TurboTax. Too exhausted. I'm afraid to even restart High Sierra.

Ah, well, there's always next year.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Night heron, photo

 Night heron. He’s no singing canary. I told him not to give up his day job. With a voice like that, he could wind up in Sing-sing. The song of his people is somewhere between an Edgar Allen Poe inspired death rattle, and someone being vigorously strangled. Looks can be deceiving. He’s got a long neck stuffed underneath that feather ruff. Like a jack in the box. Otherwise, he’d starve to death as his beak couldn't reach the ground.

Thursday, March 1, 2018



My heart on a string
tugging the heartstrings
of the sky
but the pen no longer writes

my heart….

Archer and arrow pierces


The corona of the sun
shone like a diamond ring.
we could see the mountains
of the moon.

The moon passed in front of the sun
it was as if time stood still.

I'd never witnessed 
an eclipse like that
and when night fell
again in the morning
the birds they all
stopped singing
and so did the tide.
All was still.
Fish slept in my arms
like pale autumn leaves
their gills, small half-moons
Moon and stars, the sky
was one vast quilt of stars
and then the corona
burst into petals.
I was looking at 
vast tongues of fire licking
the sky.
It was as if…

we could see the mountains
of the moon.
The corona of the sun
shone like a diamond ring.


in the sky
and my dreams
are like thorns
in the book
of memory

the petals
they shine
like gold
in the sun

and my heart 
is like kite

cone flower
stem grows
to the earth


May the bluebird of happiness
fly fly fly
wing wing wing
fly fly fly
tail tail tail
feathers feathers feathers
delicate toes legs
delicate toes legs
up your nose
and may your nose
fly off into the sunset.

I'm not sure when these concrete poems were done, at Glenview School, possibly spring 2018.