Colour words and archaisms in rural Donegal

Red hair is strongly associated with Irish people on account of how common it is here. Less well known, at least outside the island, is that the Irish language has one word, rua, for the red of red hair and another word, dearg, for more prototypically red hues.*

Robert Bernen - Tales from the Blue Stacks - Poolbeg Press book coverEvery language carves up the colour spectrum differently, and it can take children a while to figure it all out in the culture they happen to be raised in. Even as an adult I still discover nuances, one of which appears in Robert Bernen’s story ‘The Yellow Dog’ in his collection Tales from the Blue Stacks (1978).

The narrator is visiting a local farmer with a view to getting a sheep dog:

‘Is this the dog?, I asked.

His fur was that light rust or orange colour we talk of as red hair, and so often associate with Ireland. At home, in America, I would have called him a brown dog. Here in the Donegal hills, I found out later, he was a yellow dog. As I watched him squirming towards me, his belly so low to the ground it seemed as if he was almost afraid to stand at his real height, with that look in his eyes of hope filled with fear, I thought to myself, ‘At least he’ll be friendly.’

‘Will he make a good sheep dog?’ I asked.

‘The best,’ Mickey Paddy answered.

Whether this yellow–red distinction is still current in Donegal or in parts of it or elsewhere, I don’t know. Another story in the same book, ‘Joe’s Return’, contains an interesting dialect note. Joe, a neighbour, has spent 40 years working in an unspecified English city before returning to his Donegal homeland to finish his days on the old farm:

When he came back home he deliberately kept the marks of that other experience that set him off a little, raised him above the people he was born with. I thought of it as his ‘education’. Yet though Joe was conscious of the difference he never showed it in words. In fact he began using the oddest old pieces of the Donegal vocabulary, long discarded by all but the oldest people of the hills. ‘Forenenst,’ meaning ‘across from,’ was one he particularly liked. But when he had been around for a while his speech returned to normal.

Sadly, forenenst is the only ‘odd old piece’ of Donegalese mentioned. It’s a spelling variant not recorded in the OED, which has fornent and fornenst, citing their occasional use in Scotland and north England since the 16thC. Its fore- is the familiar prefix meaning ‘before’, joined to anenst, i.e. anent, meaning ‘in line with’ or ‘in front of’.

‘Danny’s Debts’, finally, has an example of be’s marking habitual aspect in Irish English, Spring be’s a long way off, while in ‘Brock’, a story from another collection, Bernen wrote a lovely passage about how every part of every hill in the landscape had a name in Irish.

Bernen was a New Yorker who taught classics at Harvard but in 1970 moved with his wife to rural Ireland to run a sheep farm in the hills of Donegal. Our national broadcaster RTÉ made a radio documentary about him which you can listen to here. The Blue Stacks in his book are the Cruacha Gorma mountains of Donegal, previously mentioned here.


* See Foras na Gaeilge’s New English-Irish Dictionary for pronunciation and more.


19 Responses to Colour words and archaisms in rural Donegal

  1. Chips Mackinolty says:

    Thanks for this post, but more, perhaps, on the words “red” and “blue”. In Australia we have a breed of cattle dogs called “heelers“, which come in both “red” and “blue” by their colouring. They are wonderful dogs, and both varieties have owned me at various stages.

    The Australian slang puzzle, though, is why red-haired people in Australia are as often as not called “bluey”. There are various theories, none particularly satisfactory, as to why this came about: but it is what it is. There’s no evidence for it, but I’ve always supposed that it was an antipodean Irish person who perversely coined this oddity!

    • We had a Blue Heeler called Comet once … until he bit me on the face late one night. He was always overly protective of his favourite human, my sister, although that doesn’t explain why he attacked me. Probably just spooked. They’re definitely a breed with some temperament issues, overprotectiveness in particular.

  2. Mixed Messages says:

    Using Irish and English, and the oddities of placename translation, one can propose that:

    Blue = Black = Yellow = Orange

    ‘Gorm’ translates as blue and ‘Dubh’ translates as black but ‘Fear Dubh’ is the devil – Black man is translated as ‘Fear gorm’

    In Limerick ‘Blackboy Road’ is translated on the street sign as ‘Bealach Buí’, (possibly writing in English the sound in Irish). ‘Bealach Buí’ translates as the ‘Yellow Way’

    ‘Buí’ is yellow except that an member of the Orange Order is actually Fear Buí (yellowman)

  3. The colour red has a chequered history in the English language, up until the introduction of the colour ‘orange’; anything on the red/orange spectrum was just called red.

    Note the Robin Red Breast – any modern English speaker who looked at just the colour of the breast feathers, would say the feathers were orange. But the name of the bird dates back to a version of English that didn’t include the shade of orange.

    The same with many shade of red hair. Most would be called orange but we still have the habit of using red as a descriptor.

  4. Stan Carey says:

    Chips: They look like lovely dogs all right, and that’s interesting about their coat. I can’t explain the blue(y) ‘red-haired person’ use, but Chambers Slang Dictionary tells me it dates from the late 19thC.

    Mixed Messages: Nicely done. Buíboy also shows up in Boherboy, Cork (Bóthar buí), Ballyboy, Offaly (Baile Átha Buí), Owenboy, Cork (Abhann Bhuí), and presumably others.

    theepowerofgood: Yes, and colour perception itself is a curious corner of cognition. Guy Deutscher’s book Through the Language Glass has a good treatment of the psycholinguistic side of things. Orange to refer to the colour of course came from the name of the fruit rather than the other way around.

  5. Warren Maguire says:

    Fornenst is still used by older folk in Tyrone.

    Also, my wife (from England) always finds it strange that farmers in Tyrone (my dad included) refer to grey-coated cats, dogs and cattle as ‘blue’.

    • Stan Carey says:

      That’s good to know, Warren. I’m guessing the word was imported from Britain rather than the other way around. And that’s interesting about blue. I love colour-name disparities, and imagine one could spend a lifetime studying them!

  6. ucronin says:

    In Spanish there are many words for the varying hues of black or dark brown hair.
    moreno/a – dark haired
    negro azabache – jet black
    negro azulado – blue-black
    negro violín – purple-black
    castaño – brown, chestnut
    castaño claro – light brown
    castaño cenizo – ash brown
    castaño dorado – honey blonde, golden brown
    castaño oscuro – dark brown
    castaño rojizo – reddish-brown
    castaño rubio – honey blonde
    morocho/a – dark (complexion or hair), brunette
    retinto – dark brown
    rojizo – red, auburn, reddish

    Also, I remember my father using foreninsht mostly as a joke, but the word was in use in Ennis, Co. Clare when he was a kid, as were words like gine (go in), gup (go up) and gout (go out), forenunder, and forenout!

  7. Mixed Messages says:

    Walking last night with a fluent Irish speaker, I mentioned your comments and my learning that orange was a newer word and received more wisdom and theories on colours including:

    There are other words for Orange in Irish including Flannbhuí (Blood Yellow) and Ómra ( more towards and from amber).

    The usual word fro green is ‘glas’ but there is also ‘uaine’ and the difference used to be that things ‘glas’ grew (Glasraí = vegetables) whereas things ‘uaine’ were man-made ( e.g. paint)

    Then the theory that the word orange came from the pronunciation of ‘a naranja’

  8. Stan Carey says:

    Ultan: Thanks for the Spanish list – an interesting set. And I love those phrases your father used! I must try to use forenunder in context now.

    Mixed Messages: That derivation of orange is generally accepted, though there are considerable complications in the etymology. Etymonline summarises it. Orange in Ireland can also have political implications (PDF), of course.

    Jim Daly on Twitter says he’s reminded of ‘when the signs first went up on the Red Cow Roundabout. One said “an bó dearg”, another “an bó donn.”‘ And Omniglot has an attractive summary of colour words in Irish. There’s enough material for an entire book on the subject.

  9. wisewebwoman says:

    Catching up with you Stan. I remember talking this rua and dearg business over with my 3rd class teacher who was an Irish fanatic as
    she had insisted “rua” was just for people with red hair. I presented her with the old song Maidrin Rua with a ha-ha look on my face and she put me standing in the corner for my cheek.
    Great post!

    • Stan Carey says:

      At least you can laugh about it now, WWW! Obviously she didn’t appreciate having her authority undermined. Funny how people get ideas stuck in their heads and become unwilling to modify them with new information.
      I must catch up on The Other Side of Sixty soon; being short of time lately I’ve been slack on my blog-reading.

  10. John Cowan says:

    In the Prankquean episode of Finnegans Wake we are told that “the prankquean pulled a rosy one and made her wit foreninst the dour”, meaning peed in front of it, I suppose.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Probably, John. At least, that’s how I would interpret it too. Incidentally, I mentioned the word to my father since and he was familiar with it.

  11. […] just makes me want to keep it going a bit. I saw a similar one in Robert Bernen’s book Tales from the Blue Stacks, set in northwest […]

  12. Edward Barrett says:

    I lived in Japan for a while, where the sun is described as red – I’d previously perceived it as yellow or orange, but began to see it as red after a while.

  13. Edward Barrett says:

    I was going to post something about the ancient Greeks considering the sky to be bronze-coloured, but then I read this:

    • Stan Carey says:

      This makes me want to reread Guy Deutscher’s book Through the Language Glass, which I recall having a very good discussion of the ‘no blue in Homer’ problem.

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