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Thirty-Two Words for Field: A plea to keep our grá for the Irish language or end up lost for words

Language: Thirty-Two Words for Field

Manchán Magan 

Gill Books, 386 pages, hardcover €19.99


'Bounty of knowledge': Manchán Magan. Photo by Michael Keegan Dolan.

'Bounty of knowledge': Manchán Magan. Photo by Michael Keegan Dolan.

Thirty-Two Words for Field by Manchán Magan

Thirty-Two Words for Field by Manchán Magan


'Bounty of knowledge': Manchán Magan. Photo by Michael Keegan Dolan.

Manchán Magan's Walden-esque lifestyle goes before him. As well as building his own home from sustainable materials in Co Westmeath, we are told that the author and documentarian lives with "bees, hens and veg". At the risk of sounding cynical, it's almost as if the message is that with Magan, you are buying into a certain type of voice, one earthy and conscientious and slightly untethered from the shrill digital mania the rest of us sometimes feel tied to. Let him show you things you've missed, it says.

The thing about all this is that it's largely accurate. One only needs to wade a few pages into this rich and absorbing work to see that perhaps we could do with a lot more characters like him dotted about this world.

Thirty-Two Words For Field is a labour of love by a passionate intellectual within a tradition we more recently associate with Tim Robinson and Robert Macfarlane. While having little of either man's literary flourish, the conviction to commit to print the things that are slipping away from us is the same.

Macfarlane's Landmarks (2015) and The Lost Words (2017) are about how the very words in our language that make our landscapes speak to us are the ones that are vanishing from use and being dropped from dictionary reprints. Magan mines a similar furrow but goes one further in making the Irish language and all the wonderful, thorny baggage that comes with it the star of the show.

Like all language, these words are fundamental to how we once interpreted the world around us. Just because you didn't see elements of the spirit world didn't mean they weren't there, just as moving molecules in a sedentary object cannot be seen in today's scientific paradigm. "Irish," Magan puts it, "is a language that developed before human-kind decided to limit reality to the parameters of the rational mind…"

This is less a journey into the unknown than a lecture, a reflection perhaps of the speaking tours with which Magan had until now presented much of this research. Between unspooling passages where the abundance of synonyms and variations are listed off, he finds ways to tie things back to his family holidays in the Kerry Gaeltacht, trekking in the Himalayas, or visiting a Neolithic site. This bounty of knowledge has been drawn from places as well as pages.

The specificity of Irish becomes striking as we trace a loose thread of chapter categories, as does our removal from it today. Everything gets drawn in by the lexicon, from light and magic, to sexual politics, to wildlife and environmentalism. Umpteen words for the breeding conditions of different livestock, the life stages of salmon, or, in one eyebrow-raising part, the male member ("After three chapters focused on the feminine, let us turn to the penis," he begins).

We learn that bróis is "whiskey for a horseman at a wedding", while iarmhaireacht is "the loneliness you feel at cockcrow, when you are the only person awake and experience that existential pang of disconnection, of not belonging".

This theme of rediscovering connections runs throughout - between words and how we see our surroundings, between Irish and Arabic or Sanskrit (fascinating stuff, this), between us and our ancestors, and how even our local place names can position us more stoutly to a physical environment. Only the hardiest of cynics - and we have our fair share of teanga-haters - would decry Magan's efforts to illuminate and archive what we have on our doorstep before it is gone for good.

Indo Review