Irish seafaring and the names of the North Atlantic islands
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- August 11, 2012 at 12:00 am #2945AnonymousGuest
I have been interested in maritime history for many years, particularly where it concerns my own country. I suppose that many would be familiar with Irish skin boats – the ‘curachs’ – which probably reach back to the earliest humans in the country, who came shortly after, indeed if not during, the last Ice Age. Curachs reflect an aspect of our palaeolithic Ice-age, and / or Arctic heritage.
Incidentally, in the Irish language, we have two words which look very similar, but have very different meanings :
Curach (one ‘r’) : this is the word for the boat.
Currach (two ‘r’s) : this is a word for a level, low-lying area, which sometimes may be wet.
In 2011 the Hon. Eitor of the Mariner’s Mirror kindly published a note from me about the Irish name for Iceland, namely ‘Inis Tuile’, recorded as far back as the 2nd. Century by Ptolomy of Alexandria as ‘Thule’.
There are further Irish names scattered over the North Atlantic :
‘Rockall’ is derived from ‘Roc Ail’, meaning ‘Ray Rock’. We have an expression : ‘Na trí rudaí is tapúla sa bhfarraige : Roc, rón agus ronnach.’ – ‘The three fastest things in the sea : a ray, a seal and a mackerel.’ I doubt if this is actually true, but such is tradition.
Anyhow ‘Rockall’ was obviously named from its shape and colour. Viewed from a certain quarter, it actually looks like a sea-ray.
St. Brendan in his navigations named one set of islands as the ‘Islands of Sheep’, due to the fact that he saw ‘sheep as big as calves’ there.
Is it possible that the Faroe Islands still had a population of Musk oxen in the 6th. Century? Early explorers in the Arctic stated that Musk oxen were not to be found anywhere near human habitations. So, the earliest settlements in Faroe, either Irish or Scandinavian, must have wiped them out very quickly, leaving only the name as a reminder os their presence.
I have already mentioned Iceland / Inis Thuile / Thule. Further west is another raw, grey land. The Irish word for something that is raw and grey is ‘Glas’. However ‘glas’ is also used to refer to something that is green. Did Eirik the Red get some information from his Irish slaves? Did
they have a name for this land, such as ‘An Glas Thír’, [which] may be translated as ‘The Raw, Grey / Green Land’, of which Eirik choose to emphasise the latter!
Proceeding further, we ultimately reach ‘Vin Land’, of which there is endless controversy. Is the element ‘Vin’ long or short? Is it Scandanavian or Germanic?
I think I can clearly state that it is neither. It is Irish. And it is long.
‘An Mhín Tír’ may be pronounced (roughly) as ‘Un Veen Teer’. It is the usual Irish for ‘The Main Land’.
Cian Ó Sé
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