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PostPosted: Mon Nov 08, 2010 4:17 pm 
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During TH White's war years in Ireland*, he spent a reasonable amount of effort on learning some Irish, although he was a bit of a dabbler by nature and never got all the way. During an expedition to some islands off the coast of Mayo, he becomes fascinated with the tale of what was allegedly an ancient, venerated stone. The Godstone was said to have the power to calm weather, speed the growth of potatos, and banish either rats or mice from its home island**.

White immediately detected, quite plausibly, a remnant pagan fertility God. In this he greatly offended the locals who were of course ostentatiously catholic. The struggle was complicated by the fact that among the last outsiders to take an interest was one Fr. O'Reilly, who had in the waning 19th century compelled the locals to throw the stone into the sea.

In response to White's queries, the locals set about denying, contradicting, and obscuring all of the hard facts, if any, that they knew, and while the story also features a smashing cameo by some pirates and a thrice-annual reclothing ceremony for the stone, these are the bulk of his findings. If you need to know more, the whole saga is in White's book The Godstone and the Blackymor.

~~

But the above was all prefatory. I was moved to post by this passage from White's notes in which he tries, futilely, to work out a derivation from the stone's Irish name.

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The Godstone's name was the Naomhóg, so far as I can catch it by ear. But naomhóg means canoe - or cot. Naom = saint or holy (adj.) and (oge = youth). Og (adj.) = young. Taking naomh as a noun (saint or holy one) and óg as a dim. suffix (young, little) you could call him The Holy Little One. On the other hand there is something interesting about the same canoe or cot. Cot? Crib?

Then there is neamh = heaven (the Little Heaven) and Néam = brightness (the Little Brightness). Again, neamh (neg. prefix) gives a contrary sense, so that neamh-óg might mean the Not-Young. Finally neamh-ad = ill-luck.



*Referred to in an earlier post to the whistle board.

**North and/or South Inishkea. Both were then uninhabited, the south abandoned as recently as 1927 after a terrible storm killed ten islanders, but they'd had a long history of habitation, having been among the monastic crags to which European civilization famously clung by the skin of its teeth, in Kenneth Clarke's lurid phrase. This was also St Brendan's home monastery. At one point in the tale, the inhabitants of South I. stole the stone from North Inishkea.

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And now there was no doubt that the trees were really moving - moving in and out through one another as if in a complicated country dance. ('And I suppose,' thought Lucy, 'when trees dance, it must be a very, very country dance indeed.')

C.S. Lewis


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PostPosted: Mon Nov 08, 2010 9:30 pm 
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He worked pretty hard to prove that "naomhóg" meant something other than what it means ("currach").

Sometimes, Mr. Whilte, a canoe is just a canoe. My guess is the thing was shaped somewhat like a currach, which is how it got its local name.

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PostPosted: Tue Nov 09, 2010 3:55 pm 
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Close, I think. After digging up my copy of Godstone & re-reading the entire chapter (I'd actually quoted that passage from Sylvia Warner's THW bio) I rediscovered that his eventual best bet was that the saints of St Coloumcille, the monastery whose remains are on North Iniskea had been in the habit of a serious amount of mortification, which included using stones for pillows.

There are several such stones preserved in a cathedral (in Dublin, iirc) from other saints in other parts. They are described as water-smoothed limestone, 1-3 ft long, slightly waisted in the middle where a head would go.

White enlisted the local schoolteacher and sponsored a contest in which the kids were be encouraged to query their grannies (the ten dead of 1927 were all fisherman, so maybe all the eldest former islanders were women) and write a composition about the stone. The child whose grandmother had been the former schoolteacher on the island replied that the stone had once been the pillow of a saint; other descriptions also tallied, physically. White eventually concluded that the stone was likely one such, and that 'pillow' wasn't far from naomhóg's other common definition of ''cot''. I'd add that even in english ("berth", f'rinstance) these (bed/boat) are very commonly linguistic associates.

You might know if naomhóg is gramatically feminine in Irish. In White's* translations of all the old ladies' accounts, the stone is very definitely feminine, in a way that is not the case in his other translations from irish. He travels to the island by currach, for instance, but the boat is an 'it' in his account. The stone's an 'it', too, when he talks about it, but in all the translated accounts from the old ladies the stone is a girl. It's not clear whether the locals use the word currach or naomhóg when they're distinguishing one from a motorboat in english to White. White says currach everywhere but in the passage I quote.

*Doubtless assisted by the schoolteacher, and his friend the local land-agent, both native speakers of Irish.

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And now there was no doubt that the trees were really moving - moving in and out through one another as if in a complicated country dance. ('And I suppose,' thought Lucy, 'when trees dance, it must be a very, very country dance indeed.')

C.S. Lewis


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PostPosted: Wed Nov 10, 2010 12:42 am 
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Naomhóg is grammatically feminine, so it would be quite the usual thing for the old grannies to use the pronoun "she" (well, actually, "sí/í") in describing it.

Grammatical gender even trumps actual gender in Irish. For example, feminine pronouns are used when speaking of stallions ("stail" is grammatically feminine). It's only really when people are being described that this practice varies ("cailín" -- "girl" -- is grammatically masculine, but I've never heard "sé/é" used when speaking of human girls).

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