A Cautionary Tale, or What to Buy Your Celtic-Loving Loved Ones for Christmas

Or for Hanukkah. Or for Yule. Or just because. Because friends don’t let friends get bad tattoos!

Once Upon a Time…

Once upon a time, a young man decided to honor his heritage by getting a tattoo in the language of his people…

Alas, he put his faith in the internet and the results were, shall we say, less than optimal.

I really wish this were a fairy tale!

Truth in Advertising

The video above may be an advertisement (in fact, it’s a promotional video by my publisher, Bradan Press, filmed in a real tattoo studio and at a Nova Scotia kitchen party) but the situation it portrays is all too real.

There is a significant interest in tattoos, engravings, cards, and other such things in the languages of the Celtic lands. In the nearly 15 years that I’ve been learning Irish, I’ve seen literally thousands of requests for tattoo translations, and almost as many requests for translations for artwork, cards, T-shirts, etc.

And that’s just in Irish. Heaven knows how may translation requests go out every day for Scottish Gaelic, Welsh, Cornish, or Breton.

What’s really frightening, though, is that for every person who has requested a translation, whether from a forum, from a professional translator, or from an individual, there are many more who just do an internet search, or make the mistake of relying on Google “Translate.” And many of those translations, though hideously bad, end up permanently inked on someone’s skin.

(Not to mention in my blog. Here are just a few tattoo travesties I’ve written about in recent years: It’s A Long Life With A Bad TattooThe Great Soulmate DebateBig Sister’s Big Mistake: Four Mistakes in Two Words).

It doesn’t have to be this way.

The Celtic Tattoo Handbook Series

Two years ago I was approached by Celtic-themed Canadian publisher Bradan Press about writing The Irish Gaelic Tattoo Handbook as a companion to The Scottish Gaelic Tattoo Handbook, which had been published the previous year.

It was exciting, working with friends who are native speakers, as well as two professional Irish-language editors, to come up with the best, most authentic, translations for the most commonly requested tattoo words and phrases.

It was even more exciting to have the opportunity to educate people a bit about the language and about the translation process, which is much less simple than you might imagine! Sometimes I look at the book, open it and read the first chapters, and hope that it’s encouraged people to learn more about this language that I love.

Not Just for Tattoos

Although both books target tattoo seekers, both are also valuable for people who use, or would like to use, these languages in their artwork, as well as for such things as family reunion T-shirts, grave markers, and other such purposes (Fun Fact: After tattoos, inscriptions for grave markers/tombstones are the most commonly sought after Irish translations!).

Beyond these, both books are great for people who have an interest in or are learning these languages, as they supply not only common phrases, but also basic facts about the languages and the people who speak them (yes, both are living languages).

If you have friends or family members who are interested in the Celtic languages, or in tattoos, or in both, these books make great stocking stuffers!

Act Now!

I’ve always wanted to say that! (I think I was a infomercial narrator in a previous life!)

But seriously…don’t delay. Both books will increase in price in 2019, so if you want them, or know someone who would like to (or should) have them, now’s the time to buy!

And There’s More! Here’s to a Happy New Year!

I did mention that this is a series, right? Well, it takes more than two to make a series, and I’m happy to announce that the next two books in the series will be available in spring, 2019!

The Welsh Tattoo Handbook is one of the books that will be coming out next year. Welsh, a Celtic language that is spoken in Wales and in parts of Argentina, is a member of a different branch of the Celtic language family: The Brythonic Branch.

The Scots Tattoo Handbook is the first of the series to address a language that is spoken in a Celtic country, but is not itself a Celtic language. Scots is a Germanic language spoken in the Scottish lowlands and in Northern Ireland (If you’ve ever sung “Auld Lang Syne,” or read any poem by Robert Burns, you’re familiar with it). While some may argue whether Scots is a language distinct from English or a dialect of English, it is distinctive enough to merit its own book, and should interest anyone who has a love for Scotland!

Nollaig Mhaith, agus Athbhliain Faoi Mhaise Daoibh!

Whatever holiday you celebrate, and whatever language you speak (or want to speak), I wish all my readers and your families and friends happy holidays and a lovely and blessed New Year! See you in 2019! (My New Year’s resolution is to write more!)

Is mise, le meas,

The Geeky Gaeilgeoir


In addition to being “The Geeky Gaeilgeoir,” Audrey Nickel is the author of  The Irish Gaelic Tattoo Handbook,” published by Bradan Press, Nova Scotia, Canada.  For information about the book, including where to buy it, please visit http://www.bradanpress.com/irish-tattoo-handbook/

Clannad (Not the Anime) Abú!

I received the new Clannad CD today, and the word that keeps running through my head is “wow!”

Wow. Just wow.

I received the new Clannad CD set, Turas 1980, today, and the only word I can think of (the word that’s been running through my head since the first notes of the first track) is “wow!”

It’s exciting enough when a group of Clannad’s stature and longevity (almost 50 musical years!) releases a new album, but when it’s an album as good as this one, you want to shout it from the rooftops!

(I’m afraid of heights, though, so I figured I’d just blog about it instead)

Beyond all expectations

I do have to say that, when I first heard about this CD, after the initial excitement, I was a little disappointed. This is a release of songs and tunes Clannad performed on stage in Bremen, Germany in 1980, and live albums typically aren’t my thing. They rarely live up to expectations, and these are almost 40 year old recordings…I mean, seriously?

Seriously? Seriously! Go deimhin! These tracks are GOOD! Not just Clannad good (which is pretty damned amazing by any standard), but “where has this been all my life” good. So often a live show recording is poorly miked, overcome by background noise, unbalanced…you know how it is.

This collection, however, is about as perfect as it gets. It has all the freshness of a live performance with the richness and quality of a studio recording.

The old made new

If you think you’ve heard everything Clannad has to offer, think again. Several  of these songs/tunes are ones that Clannad hasn’t released on CD before, but even those that have been released on other albums  are fresh and new here because of the difference in harmonies and instrumentation. I’ve been driving around belting out Cuach Mo Londubh Buí with a big grin on my face, as if I’d never heard/sung it before!

That’s another thing I’m in love with about this album. There are  A LOT of songs in the mix — most of them in Irish. Many Irish trad CDs are more balanced toward instrumental tunes, but this one is balanced more toward singing, which pleases me, and more toward Irish than English, which pleases me greatly!

Those of you who have followed my blogs over the years know that I’m a huge advocate of learning by singing, and this is a great album to sing along with. Most of the songs are standards in the Irish trad repertoire, so if you’re a music lover who is also learning Irish, you’ll eventually hear these elsewhere, and it will be nice for you to have some familiarity with them.

Details, details

They say the devil is in the details. Well, there’s plenty of attention to detail here.

One of the reasons I’m not normally a fan of live albums is that there tends to be a lot of talking at the beginning of each track. Typically there’s no option to just listen to the song without going through the between-track patter first.

I listen to music while I’m driving to and from work. My time is limited. It can be annoying to have to listen to the same introduction over and over again just to hear the song I want.

The funny thing is, I’d never really thought about this until now. What they did here is so simple it took me a while to realize what it was, yet so effective that it completely changed the experience of listening to a live album for me. It’s a small detail, but an important one:

Instead of putting the patter at the beginning of a track, they put it at the end of the preceding track.

So, for example, the first track is Turas Ó Carolan and the second is An Cruiscín Lán. They put the spoken introduction to An Cruiscín Lán at the END of the Turas Ó Carolan track. So if I want to listen to it, I can, but if I just want to skip to the beginning of An Cruiscín Lán, I can do that.

Simple, right? Simple, but brilliant! I don’t know why this isn’t universal, but it totally should be! Let’s be honest here…while a bit of talking between songs in a concert is useful and expected, it’s not what most of us buy albums for.

Just one minor quibble

I do have one little issue with this album, and it’s one that I have with a lot of Irish collections. There’s no lyric sheet.

I’m not quite sure why this is. Perhaps the musicians think that people are unlikely to want to or be able to read the Irish lyrics, or perhaps it saves some money in production. I don’t know.

News flash, lads…the Irish learners among your listeners would madly, passionately LOVE the lyrics (and the non-Irish-learners would at least get a kick out of thinking “How do you make THIS sound like THAT?”).

Given that many people these days are more likely to download the music than to buy a CD set, even an official on-line site with the lyrics would suffice. There are lyrics out there from various sites, but they’re not always accurately transcribed.

And you know the old saying: There are two versions of every story, and 12 versions of every song!

A must-have

Minor quibble aside, this album is a must-have. If like Irish music, and/or you’re learning Irish, this album belongs in your collection.

About that anime

Maybe this won’t be a surprise to you, but it was to me: Apparently there’s quite a well-known (and, by all accounts, quite good) manga and anime out there by the name of “Clannad.”

It seems that the artist co-opted the name under the mistaken impression that “Clannad” means “family” in Irish.

Mini Irish lesson here: It doesn’t. (If nothing else, for you tattoo seekers out there, this underscores the fact that good research is your friend).

The word clann in Irish (which is the origin of the English word “clan”) typically is used to refer to the children of a family, or to a group of siblings. This isn’t universal, however, and in parts of Donegal, you’ll hear clann used simply to mean “family.”

But that’s clann. Where did “Clannad” come from?

As it happens, when the group first got its start, they had to come up with a name on the fly, and they went with Clann as Dobhar: “Family from Dore.” “Clann a. d” eventually was shortened to “Clannad.” And the rest, as they say, is history.

If you wandered in here seeking information about the anime, however,  fáilte! (welcome!). Stick around! We love to share our language, and you’re welcome to join us! It’s a small world, and the Irish-speaking world is even smaller. Bígí linn! (Join us!).

Le meas,

GG


In addition to being “The Geeky Gaeilgeoir,” Audrey Nickel is the author of  The Irish Gaelic Tattoo Handbook,” published by Bradan Press, Nova Scotia, Canada.  For information about the book, including where to buy it, please visit http://www.bradanpress.com/irish-tattoo-handbook/

 

An Modh Coinníollach, or The Monster of What May (or May Not) Be

Don’t be afraid of the dark…or of the modh coinníollach!

Dá mbeinn chomh saibhir is a bhí mé anuraidh
Thógfainn tigh mór ar an chnoc údai thall,
Fíon agus ór ‘siad a bhéarfainn do mo stór,
Is bheinn ag gabháil ceoil le mo chailín rua.

The Monster in the Living Room

I just have to say it. Ever since I started learning Irish, I’ve heard people speak with dread and loathing of the modh coinníollach (pronounced, roughly “mohg kun-EE-lukh”).

“It’s too difficult!” “I’ll NEVER get it!” “Why do we have to have this in the language?” “Can’t we just get rid of it?” (this latter group usually wants to do away with the tuiseal ginideach — the genitive case — as well).

As I’m sure you can imagine, by the time I was an advanced student, I’d built the modh coinníollach up into a terrible monster in my mind!

And I wasn’t alone! I’ve even seen an entire class of advanced students turn white as sheets when the teacher suggested doing a drill on the modh coinníollach. I swear, you’d have thought he’d asked us to rappel down Sliabh Liag using dental floss!

Irish-American comedian Des Bishop had a similar experience:

Des Bishop on An Modh Coinníollach

Meet the Monster

So what is this terrible thing that has been terrorizing Irish students for generations? Well, if you listened to the above video (And you should. Des Bishop is hilarious!), you already know: It’s simply the conditional mode of a verb. 

Furthermore, if you’re a student of Irish, it’s likely that you’ve been using the modh coinníollach from some of your earliest lessons.  Does any of this sound familiar?

Cad é ba mhaith leat?: What would you like?

Ar mhaith leat cupán tae?: Would you like a cup of tea?

Ba mhaith.:  Yes (“I would”)

Níor mhaith: No (“I wouldn’t”) 

Ba, ar, and níor are, in this case, conditional forms of the copula is.

In my case, I’d unknowingly encountered the modh coinníollach even before I started seriously studying Irish, in one of my favorite songs: An Cailín Rua (“The Red-Haired Girl”), the last verse of which is at the beginning of this post:

If I were (dá mbeinn) as wealthy as I was last year,

I would build (thógfainn) a big house on the hill over yonder,

Wine and gold I would give (bhéarfainn) to my love,

And I would be (bheinn) making music with my red-haired girl.

Are you seeing a pattern here?

A Matter of Condition

I suspect one reason the modh coinníollach worries people is that they’re not sure how or when to use it.

Formal grammar terminology can be intimidating if you’re not familiar with it (and sometimes even if you are!). And modh coinníollach” certainly is a mouthful, even in English (“conditional mode/mood”).

But it’s really not all that bad. Let’s break it down:

Modh = “Mode” or “Mood”:  A distinctive form, or set of forms, of a verb.

Coinníollach = “Conditional”: Something that is dependent on certain conditions.

So, put reasonably simply (or hilariously, if you listen to Des Bishop’s monologue), the modh coinníollach is a verb form you use when you’re talking about something that might or might not happen, depending on other factors (“conditions”):

“If I were rich, I would buy a Ferrari.”

“If I had the time, I would write more blog posts.”

“If it weren’t raining, I would go for a walk.”

The first part of the sentences above tells you what would need to happen (more money, more time, no rain) to make the second part happen (buying a Ferrari, writing more blog posts, going for a walk).

Of course, you can also flip such conditional sentences around:

“I would buy a Ferrari, if I were rich.”

“I would write more blog posts, if I had the time.”

“I would go for a walk, if it weren’t raining.”

Shoulda, Woulda, Coulda

Another way to keep track of when to use the modh coinníollach, at least if English is your first language, is to link it in your mind with certain English words:

Should

Would

Could

Were (Not as in the past tense — “the boys were playing” — but in the subjunctive — “If I were rich.”).

Don’t be intimidated!

But perhaps the issue isn’t so much knowing when to use the modh coinníollach as knowing how to form it.

The thing is, it really isn’t difficult. It’s certainly no more difficult than other Irish verb forms (which, because of the relative lack of irregular verbs in Irish – there are only 11 – aren’t all that difficult at all).

If you can learn the future and past tenses, you can learn the modh coinníollach, and I’m going to give you some basics to get you started.

Days of future past

With a nod to The Moody Blues*, then, let’s get started.

(*And yes…I know the name of the CD is actually “Days of Future Passed.” But this always pops into my head when I think about the modh coinníollach – you’ll see why in a moment – so I think the band will allow me a little leeway).

If you know how to form the past tense and the future tense of regular Irish verbs, you’re more than halfway to knowing how to form verbs in the conditional mode.

First, change the beginning

For independent verb forms* in the modh coinníollach, the beginning of the word is the same as it is in the past tense. Let’s review those:

1. If it begins with a lenitable consonant, lenite it. Shín sí: “She stretched.”

2. If it begins with an unlenitable consonant, leave it alone: Lean sé: “He followed.

3. If it begins with a vowel, put “d’” in front of it. D’éirigh siad: “They arose/got up.”

4. If it begins with “f,” first you lenite it and then, because “fh” is silent, you also put “d’” in front of it. D’fhan sé: “He stayed.”

* Independent verb forms are those that don’t “depend” on a particle: “an,” “ar,” “nach,” etc. 

Next, broaden your future

The future tense of the verbs above are as follows:

Sínfidh

Leanfaidh

Éireoidh

Fanfaidh

To form the conditional mode, after you change the beginning, if necessary, you make those slender endings (i.e., “i” or “e”) broad:

Shínfeadh sí: She would stretch

Leanfadh sé: He would follow

D’éireodh siad: They would arise/get up

D’fhanfadh sé: He would stay.

Not too bad, is it?

Exceptions, Exceptions

One way in which the conditional mode differs from other verb forms is that the first- and second-person singular  are formed a little differently.

The first- and second-person singular forms in the modh coinníollach always incorporate the pronoun into the verb itself (if you speak a dialect that uses táim and táimid instead of tá mé and tá muid, you’re already familiar with this concept). Technically, these are referred to as “synthetic” verb forms.

For first-person singular, that means that the verb ends in “-inn” (Yeah, I know that seems a little odd.  If it helps you to remember, just pretend that “nn” is an “m.” It kind of looks like an “m” in sans serif fonts anyway.)

For second-person singular, that means the verb ends in “-fá.” I have no mnemonic for you for this one. It’s just one you’ll have to learn. But it’s unusual enough that it’s actually pretty easy to remember.

So, for the verbs we’ve been talking about:

Shínfinn: I would stretch.
Shínfeá: You would stretch.

Leanfainn: I would follow
Leanfá: You would follow

D’eireoinn: I would rise/get up
D’éireofá: You would rise/get up

D’fhanainn: I would stay
D’fhanfá

See how easy it is? Just follow the pattern!

It’s a bit of a struggle at first to remember not to add a pronoun after the word (for example, it’s just shínfinn, not shínfinn mé, because the pronoun is already incorporated into the ending), but it’s just a bit of practice…nothing insurmountable.

First- and third-person plural

First- and third-person plurals are also different, and require a little bit of memorization. The ending for first-person plural is “-mis.” For third-person plural, it’s “-dís.

Shínfimis: We would stretch
Shínfidís: They would stretch

Leanfaimis: We would follow
Leanfaidís: They would follow

D’éireoimis: We would arise/get up
D’éireoidís: They would arise/get up

D’fhanfaimis: We would stay
D’fhanfaidís: They  would stay

Again, these are synthetic verb forms, so don’t stick a pronoun on the end…it’s already there.

Is that all? Of course not!

Next week we’ll explore the negative and dependent forms of the conditional mode. In the meantime, spend some time practicing what I’ve given you here.

Really, the point of this post is not to make you an overnight expert, but to minimize the angst that seems to surround what really is a very basic and simple verb form.

Don’t shy away from it! It really is no more difficult than any other verb form. Why it’s developed its fearsome reputation I have no idea, but you’re doing yourself a disservice if you avoid it.

You would be much happier, and you could find yourself much more comfortable with conversational Irish, if only you would let go of your fear!

An modh coinníollach abú!

The featured picture at the top of this post was taken on midsummer eve in Ballyvaughan, Co. Clare. The cottage is in a little holiday village where I and some friends stayed for a week, making music and seeing the sights. © 2008, by Audrey Nickel.


In addition to being “The Geeky Gaeilgeoir,” Audrey Nickel is the author of  The Irish Gaelic Tattoo Handbook,” published by Bradan Press, Nova Scotia, Canada.  For information about the book, including where to buy it, please visit http://www.bradanpress.com/irish-tattoo-handbook/

 

A Song for St. Patrick

I get it. I really do. But could you please tone it down a little?

On March 17, people throughout the world, Irish or not, will celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. There will be green beer, green bagels, shamrocks everywhere (or sometimes, mistakenly, four-leafed clovers. Take note, folks…the shamrock only has three leaves!).

Some people will don t-shirts with stereotypical and offensive slogans and images on them, get pissing drunk, sing maudlin American music hall songs, scarf down corned beef and cabbage (an American tradition, by the way, not an Irish one), and somehow persuade themselves that they are celebrating Irish culture.

I get it

I get it. I really do. Cultural festivals are fun. One of the nice things about our multicultural society is that we can learn about and enjoy aspects of other cultures.

So if you want to wear green on March 17, lift a glass of Guinness or two, or even if you just have to slake your passionate craving for corned beef and cabbage, by all means, do so! Fun is fun, after all!

But please…do tone it down a bit! Stereotypes are never OK.

St. Patrick’s Day in Ireland

Except for in some of the big cities, Irish observance of St. Patrick’s Day is very different from what you’ll find here in the U.S. There may be a parade. Perhaps a few more people will drop into the pub. The religious folks will go to Mass. But green fountains? Nah. Green beer? Certainly not! (how can you even drink that?)

St. Patrick was, after all, a bishop. He is known as the apostle of Ireland. While bishops weren’t quite as rigid back in the day, I doubt he would have been terribly impressed by some of the celebrations that go on in his name today.

My favorite St. Patrick’s Day song

There’s a hymn to St. Patrick that is a particular favorite of mine. We sing it every year at the Irish Mass in Mountain View, California, on the Sunday before St. Patrick’s Day.

I’m not suggesting you go to Mass (well, unless you want to!), and you may not be terribly religious (If at all. You don’t have to be religious, or Christian, to enjoy St. Patrick’s Day), but I hope you enjoy this particular aspect of cultural appreciation. Never miss the opportunity to sing in Irish…that’s my motto!

I’ll leave you with the words, a translation, and a recording. And, of course, a happy St. Patrick’s Day! Lá ‘le Pádraig sona daoibh go léir!

Véarsa 1:

Dóchas linn Naomh Pádraig, aspal mór na hÉireann.

Ainm oirdhearc gléigeal, solas mór an tsaoil é.

D’fhill le soiscéal grá dúinn, ainneoin blianta ‘ngéibheann,

Grá mór Mhac na Páirte d’fuascail cách ón daorbhroid.

 

Véarsa 2:

Sléibhte, gleannta, maighe, ‘s bailte mór na hÉireann,

Ghlán sé iad go deo dúinn, míle glóir dár naomh dhil.

Iarr’mid ort, a Phádraig, guí orainn na Gaela,

Dia linn lá ‘gus oíche, ‘s Pádraig aspal Éireann.

 

Verse 1:

Our hope is St. Patrick, great apostle of Ireland.

A renowned and pure/bright name; a great light to the world.

He returned to us with the gospel of love, despite years of bondage.

The great love of God’s beloved son that freed all from slavery.

 

Verse 2:

Mountains, glens, plains, and great cities of Ireland,

He purified them for us forever; great glory to our dear saint.

We implore you, O Patrick, to pray for us, the Gael.

God with us day and night, and Patrick Ireland’s apostle.

(Note: Verse 1 repeats at the end in the recording above)

Éire go Brách!


In addition to being “The Geeky Gaeilgeoir,” Audrey Nickel is the author of  The Irish Gaelic Tattoo Handbook,” published by Bradan Press, Nova Scotia, Canada.  For information about the book, including where to buy it, please visit http://www.bradanpress.com/irish-tattoo-handbook/

Welcome Springtime!

So you think “the first day of spring” is on the vernal equinox? Think again!

Lá fhéile Bríde sona daoibh! Happy St. Brighid’s Day to you all!

I had hoped to write a completely new post for this special day, but time got away from me. Maybe next year!

So in celebration of the REAL first day of spring (Think the “first day of spring” is on the vernal equinox? Think again!), here’s a link to a post I wrote for Lá Fhéile Bríde  for Bitesize Irish Gaelic in 2013.

It includes some background on the woman (or women?) whom Christians know as a saint and Pagans know as a goddess, as well as some things you can do to celebrate her feast day.

St. Brighid’s Day: Comes the Irish Springtime

And, thanks to the wonderful Irish singer Pádraigín Ní Uallacháin, here is a beautiful hymn to Brighid to brighten your day:

Gabhaim Molta Bríde

Wherever you are in this beautiful world, have a wonderful day! Bainigí sult as, agus Brat Bríde oraibh go léir! (Enjoy, and may Bríd’s cloak shelter you!)

GG.

 

The Great Soulmate Debate

This tattoo doesn’t say “My Soulmate.” It says “I was grossly misled.”

I must admit, before I started learning Irish, I didn’t think much about the word “soulmate.”

Other than the occasional romantic reference, the only time I ever gave the concept much thought was in my junior-year college philosophy class (thank you, Whitworth University!), when I encountered it during a unit on Plato.

In “Symposium,” Plato’s Aristophanes envisions human beings as originally having four arms, four legs, two faces, etc. They were extremely powerful, and posed a threat to the gods, so  Zeus, (who, in addition to being a god, was also a bit of a jerk), decided to divide them in half.

Even after their bleeding halves were patched up by a sympathetic Apollo, humans continued to mourn for, and ever search for, their missing halves: their “soulmates.”

(I always knew that philosophy class would come in handy some day, just like my high school algebra! Oh, wait…).

Love is in the Air

Over the years, the term “soulmate” has taken on something of a romantic connotation, particularly in the U.S.  — A sense of “fated lover” that is quite different from the way Europeans tend to interpret it (usually, in Europe, it has more of a “really-close-friends-separated-at-birth” connotation).

With Valentine’s Day fast approaching then, and with romance in the air, this seems to be a good time to wrestle with this most vexing of Irish translation requests.

The Infamous “A” Word

When I first started learning Irish, I used to hang out on an internet Irish translation forum, and it wasn’t long before I realized that translation requests for “soulmate/soulmates” were a huge source of unease and indecision.

Part of the problem was that Irish simply doesn’t have a native term for the concept of “soulmate” (Which seems to surprise a lot of people, but really shouldn’t. The concept is Greek, after all…why would Irish have evolved a native term for a foreign concept?). So we had to work a bit to come up with an appropriate term for whatever the translation seeker meant by “soulmate.”

(The idea that there is a one-for-one equivalent in any given language for a term or concept from another is a fallacy, by the way. Language is an expression of a culture, not simply a code. For example, what is the English term for “Nirvana”?)

The bigger issue, though, was that some people vociferously promoted (and continue to promote) an Irish term whose meaning couldn’t possibly be further from a romantic context (or even a good buddy context)anamchara.

Anamchara means “confessor” (as in the person who hears your confession before mass) or “spiritual advisor” (as in the person who guides the spiritual formation of a young monk or priest).

Even though it’s a compound of the Irish words anam (soul) and cara (friend), which might seem to make it a reasonable candidate for “soulmate,” it’s a word with a very specific meaning in Irish that has absolutely nothing to do lovers, or even with close friends (unless your best buddy is also the priest who hears your confession!).

Its proponents were so adamant, however, that many of us cringed as soon as we saw the term “soulmate,” knowing that an argument about anamchara lay ahead. We called it “The ‘A’ Word,” and dreaded dealing with the people (few of them fluent Irish speakers, and none of them native speakers) who insisted they had the right to fundamentally change the meaning of an Irish word to suit their own interpretation.

The “A” Word was such a point of contention that one of the forum regulars, a fluent Irish speaker, had as his signature line “You and me babe! Spiritual advisors forever!” (Yes, he was being sarcastic. He was NOT in the anamchara camp!)

It Gets Worse

Irritating as the anamchara debate was (and continues to be), at least anamchara is a legitimate, grammatically sound, Irish word. It doesn’t mean what its proponents would like it to mean, alas, but at least it’s not utter nonsense.

It wasn’t long, though, before we actually began to see utter nonsense produced in the (seemingly) eternal search for an Irish term for “soulmate.” A prime example is the three words tattooed on the neck of the unfortunate person in our featured photo:

Mo Anam Cara

This is just a grammatical nightmare. There’s no other term for it. This construction simply can’t exist in the Irish language.

What makes matters even worse is the fact that this “phrase” (can you actually call three words jammed together in no logical order a phrase?) is  frequently seen on jewelry that is actually PRODUCED in Ireland (where, frankly, they should know better) and sold in Irish/Celtic shops all over the world.

So What’s Wrong With It?

What’s wrong with it? Well, where to start?

What’s happened here is someone’s taken three Irish words:  Mo (“My”), Anam (“Soul”), and Cara (“Friend”), and put them together using English syntax. I’ve said it before, but repeat after me: Languages are not codes for one another. 

You absolutely cannot take words from one language and put them together in the form of another and hope to make any sense whatsoever. Seriously.  Languages just don’t work that way. Sorry, but it’s true.

In Irish, when you use one noun (such as “soul”) to describe another (such as “mate” or “friend”), the describing noun comes AFTER the noun it describes and is in the genitive case.

For example, in English we have “traffic light,” in which the word “traffic” describes the kind of “light” we’re talking about. “Traffic” comes first, because that’s how we do things in English.”

In Irish, however, things are reversed:

Trácht = traffic

Solas = light

But…

Solas Tráchta = traffic light (literally “light of traffic”)

If we’re speaking of a soulmate (or, more literally, a “soul friend”), the word “soul” describes the kind of “mate” or “friend” you’re talking about. So it must come AFTER the word for “friend,” and it must be in the genitive case:

Cara Anama = Friend of (a) Soul/Soul Friend/Soul Mate

Another problem is with the possessive adjective mo (“my”). When it comes before a vowel, it elides (i.e., the “o” disappears and is replaced with an apostrophe):

Anam = “Soul”

Mo = “My”

M’anam = “My soul”

In order to say “My Soul Friend/My Soul Mate” literally then, we’d have to say:

Cara m’anama

It’s Just Not Fair

I do have to have some sympathy for the tattoo seeker here.

Normally there’s a little of the “Why didn’t you do your research?” sense going through my head when looking at a tattoo disaster. I feel sorry for the person with the wrong thing tattooed on him or her, but at the end of the day, it’s up to the tattoo seeker to check sources to be sure that the translation is correct.

Given the source(s), though, I really do feel sorry for this person.

Things Aren’t Always as They Seem

A point I make frequently in my book is the importance of finding trustworthy resources for translations, especially if those translations are for something permanent such as a tattoo.

I also advise my readers not to take any Irish words or phrases they may encounter in a book, in a song, or on a piece of jewelry or artwork, as a given…even if that book, song, or jewelry comes directly from someone in Ireland.

Although Irish is a required subject in school there, very few Irish people not brought up in a Gaeltacht leave secondary school with any sort of fluency in the language. And most stop using Irish much, if at all, after graduating (kind of like me and that high school algebra!).

Of course there are both native speakers and fluent second-language speakers of the language in Ireland, as well as professional translators, but it seems that few writers, artists, or jewelry makers (or even sign makers!) bother to consult them.

I can’t really blame anyone, though, for seeing something on a piece of jewelry from Ireland, being sold in an Irish-themed shop or on an Irish-themed website, and assuming it must be correct. Knowing what I know, after so many years with the language, I would always take such a translation to people I know to have excellent Irish for verification.

But not everyone has had that kind of exposure to other languages (especially here in the U.S., where language learning lags significantly behind most other countries). It breaks my heart to see people fall victim to this kind of thing.

So What CAN I Call My Soulmate?

As I said earlier, Irish doesn’t have a native term for “soulmate.” It does, however, have many words and phrases with similar meanings that can be used as legitimate stand-ins.  Which you use depends partially on what you mean by “soulmate” and partially on your own particular tastes.

If your “soulmate” is a lover, partner, or spouse, using one of the many lovely Irish endearments would suit. For example:

Grá Mo Chroí (The Love of my Heart)

Mo Ghrá Geal (My Bright/Shining Love)

Mo Chéadsearc (My First (aka “primary”) Love)

If you want something that’s a little closer to the actual meaning of “soulmate,” a couple of options are:

Mo Bhuanghrá (My Eternal Love)

Mo Shíorghrá (also My Eternal Love)

Cara m’anama (Friend of my Soul)

If you’re speaking of a dear friend, a couple of native Irish phrases that can work include:

Cara Mo Chléibh (My Bosom Friend)

Mo Dhlúthchara (My Close/Compact Friend)

It’s Just Not That Easy

Translating from one language to another is never as easy as many people think. There are so many things to be taken into consideration: Not only word choice, spelling,  and grammar, but culture and history as well.

The take-away from this is always, ALWAYS get solid confirmation before using a word or phrase from another language. A professional translator is best, of course (and often much more reasonably priced than you might expect), but failing that, get at least three truly fluent speaker in agreement on a translation before proceeding.

Whichever You Choose…

No matter what term you use for the people you love, in English or in Irish, I wish you all a happy Valentine’s Day! Lá Fhéile Vailintín Sona Daoibh! 

P.S.: A bonus cultural note: Those leafy things on the tattooed one’s back aren’t shamrocks. The Irish shamrock has only three leaves. Four-leafed clovers are considered lucky in many cultures because of their rarity, but they don’t have any particular relevance to Ireland. 


In addition to being “The Geeky Gaeilgeoir,” Audrey Nickel is the author of  The Irish Gaelic Tattoo Handbook,” published by Bradan Press, Nova Scotia, Canada.  For information about the book, including where to buy it, please visit http://www.bradanpress.com/irish-tattoo-handbook/