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.*
Every 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.