The Curious Case of a Nationality Without a Name

Whilst working on Gaelscéal on Tuesday last I realized that I did not know the correct Irish term for ‘Northern Irish,’ so I quickly checked, the ‘National Terminology Database’ for Irish.

That was a fruitless journey for they had no such term, I requested they provide one.

The term was one I have strangely never needed in Irish and I have never thought about it to date.

On the day, we simply used the English term in single speech marks.

That night I heard two terms used on TG4, ‘Tuaisceart-Éireannaigh’, agus ‘Éireannaigh Thuaisceartacha’, both translating into English as  ‘Northern Irish’ but with a subtle difference in meaning in Irish which the English doesn’t capture.

One implies a mere geographical distinction, the other, perhaps, a clear political distinction.

A meaningless distinction for most but one could argue that constitutional  future of the Northern Ireland state rests on this distinction, whether the Northern Irish are ‘Tuaisceart-Éireannaigh’ or ‘Éireannaigh Thuaisceartacha’ at the end of the day.

Anyway, I received an email from on Thursday morning, recommending ‘Tuaisceartóir’ as the Irish for ‘Northern Irish’.

No trace of ‘Irishness’ survives in the term ‘Tuaisceartóir’, which would translate into English as ‘Northerner’.

But here’s the rub, the word ‘Tuaisceartach’ would also translate into English as ‘Northerner’, but that would be a mere geographical description.

‘Tuaisceartóir’ however, suggests a certain activity, a motion, a deliberate act.




Freelance journalist, working mostly in Irish.

Have my own independent news website – – which is in constant need of material.

I am the former editor of the newspaper Gaelscéal,

  • Mick Fealty

    Sé Chondaeach?

  • Nordie Northsider

    Of course ‘tuaisceartach’ has its negative connotations too. This is Ó Dónaill’s definition: 1. ‘Northern. 2. Awkward to deal with; surly, rude.’
    And this is Dineen’s: Northern, sinister, awkward; rude, uncivilised; malluighthe t. vicious and troublesome (of a horse); neg. neamh-th., urbane, neat.

    Do they mean us?

  • “The Curious Case of a Nationality Without a Name”

    NI has been around for over 90 years and the Northern Irish label has been around for quite a time yet a lazy, dozy shower somewhere in Dublin(?) has failed to produce an Irish form!

  • Alanbrooke

    Nordie Northsider

    “Northern, sinister, awkward; rude”

    welcome to the North, were even the Catholics are Calvinists 😉

  • Mick Fealty

    I love Dineen. Got to be one of the most poetic dictionaries in the world.. Duine na dTuaisceart Éireann? Or why not just have done with it and go for Ultach?

  • Trapattoni

    Níl aon ainm ann mar naíl aon tír ann.

  • Nordie Northsider

    Nevin, as a member of the Coiste Téarmaíochta, I suppose that I am one of that lazy dozy shower. My only defence is that there isn’t really any problem in expressing this concept in Irish e.g. a Northern Irish person / duine de bhunadh Thuaisceart Éireann etc.
    Mick may have been half-joking with ‘Sé Chondaeach’ but ‘Sé Chontae’ is indeed by far the most common expression used in Irish to refer to the Northern state, and not just by card-carrying party members either.

  • A friend of mine, with a love of Old Irish, uses the term Daor-Ghaeil (Daorghaeil?) when venting about whatever particular event has raised her ire. She gives the meaning “Unfree Irish”. Though that is definitely a political statement.

    Tuaisceart-Éireannach and Tuaisceartach are the words I’m familiar with.

    Tuaisceartóir then has overtones of identity as opposed to mere geography?

    I love Ó Duinnín’s two dictionaries (short and long) and have used them many times. The shorter is free to view or download online in several places. Including in the Sean-Chló font.

  • Mick Fealty

    SeanChlo was want we were first taught in Primary, but it was gone by first year… I have a copy somewhere of a Chesterton Father Brown story in it, but it make head trying to read it…

  • Nordie Northsider, I give the Dublin cage a rattle from time to time 🙂

    Just recently I criticised the Irish government for excluding NI from The Gathering 2013 and I see that belated efforts are being made to be more inclusive. Tourism Ireland is funded by Dublin and Belfast in the ratio 2:1 yet when you look at the map on this page NI airports have been excluded. Presumably these problems flow from Dublin’s hi-jacking of ‘Ireland’ for the name of the state.

    Irish forms have had to be constructed on a regular basis but ninety years for me indicates a lack of willingness to deliver a simple term.

  • JR

    My copy of Dineen is one of my most treasured posessions. It has been in the Family for over 80 years.

    a Chiarán, Cha raibh mé in ann Gaelsceal a cheanacht le trí nó ceithre seachtain anuas i gCamloch.

  • JR

    I would probably use “muintir na sé chontae” in speech.

  • RegisterForThisSite

    Nevin, TBF finding a term in Irish for an English one is not like Ulster-Scots ie you can’t just say the English one with a Ballymena accent.

  • Droch_Bhuachaill

    “Or why not just have done with it and go for Ultach?”

    That would be fine for men, I suppose, but for the fairer sex ‘Bean Ultach’ means ‘witch’ 🙂

  • Mick Fealty

    Ouch, shades of Dineen again…

  • weidm7

    Every language has a term for every concept, both existing and yet to exist, so there has always been a term for Northern Irish, even in 1915, if you had asked a native speaker with full complement of the language they would have come up with one if he was fully explained the concept, just as ‘Northern Irish’ didn’t exist at one point, but was come up with by native speakers of English to describe a certain concept. Just because doesn’t have it listed doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, just like the verb ‘to tweet’ exists despite not being in any dictionary. The fact that most people believe a word needs to be in the dictionary to exist just shows what a god awful haimes na Bráithre and others made of teaching Irish.

  • weidm7


    the Irish government does not own the Irish language, nor does Foras na Gaeilge or any other body, there is no obligation on them to ‘provide a term’, that is not how languages work. They are organic, people encounter concepts in their daily lives and they invent terms for them, if there are various terms for a concept, over time one or a few get used and they are settled on by the majority of speakers. As I mentioned above, a native speaker will always have a term for everything, because that is the purpose of language, to describe things and communicate to others.

  • mollymooly

    From a certain point of view, speaking French involves pretending to be French. From this point of view, speaking Irish once involved pretending to be a Catholic nationalist GAA fan. If an atheist says “Dia dhuit”, a Protestant can reply “Dia is Muire dhuit”. “Peil” is just “football”, but in national schools the no-hands game governed by Cumann Peile na hÉireann is called “sacar”.

    Many of the people who speak Irish are those who, when speaking English, would never say “Northern Irish”. While the blinkered vision of officials has never prevented dissidents from coining whatever terms they liked, it might in the past have slowed the process of agreeing a standard term. But now that the state calls the place “Northern Ireland”, I’m sure the overworked officials in the Department of the Gaeltacht and Miscellaneous Other Stuff are unblinkered and ploughing through the terminological backlog.

  • Alanbrooke

    With Polish being the second language wouldn’t “Północny Irlandzki ” make more sense ?

  • between the bridges

    tá mé ag Tuaisceart-Éireannaigh, má meas a bheith agat mo chultúr, beidh meas a bheith agam do chultúr…

    apologies if i haven’t got it right?

  • My translator says thuaidh na hÉireann

  • JR

    Not too bad.

    A nice myth but factually inaccurate. Irish by far the second most common language here. read the census.

  • “TBF finding a term in Irish for an English one is not like Ulster-Scots”

    RFTS, I’ll indulge your attempted diversion briefly. Scotch tongue is not a disease in cattle; you’ll find its expression in the Dictionary of the Scotch [OOPs] Scots Language 😉 has Curmainsis [Northern Kurdish] and Coirdis [Kurdish] so there’s really no excuse for the absence of a simple term for Northern Irish.

  • My apologies, weidm7, I should have included you in that reply to RFTS.

  • Does my translator pass muster? thuaidh na hÉireann

  • Youknowho

    I note for the record that while the original kingdom of Ulster consisted of what is now Antrim, Armagh, Down, and Louth, there was another kingdom further west called In Tuisceairt (The North).

  • between the bridges

    JR cheers! starting an Irish course in the new year! in the mean time how do you say ‘give us back our fleg’?!!

  • JR

    Good man, good luck with the Irish and remember to enjoy it. I have every Irish language learner resource you could imagine on my computer so if there is anything you need let me know.

    I would translate that as.

    “An té nach dtuigeann do chás, ná déan do ghearán leis”

  • Alanbrooke


    According to census table 207 language.

    Polish is the main spoken language by 17731 residents , then Lithuanian 6250, then Irish 4164.

    table 209 states 184898 residents claim some level of proficiency in Irish. frankly I’m surprised it’s that low I’d not be surprised to find the number of people claiming proficiency in French is higher if the question was asked.

  • socaire

    Mr Joe, thuaidh is an adjective so translator is astray. What about terms for eastern,western and southern irish when you’re at it? What about ‘na daoine tréigthe’?

  • Northern is an adjective!

  • Clanky

    ‘Tuaisceart-Éireannaigh’, agus ‘Éireannaigh Thuaisceartacha’, both translating into English as ‘Northern Irish’ but with a subtle difference in meaning in Irish which the English doesn’t capture.

    English may not capture the nuances of the two phrases in terms of nationality, but surely they are akin to the difference between those of us who consider ourselves to be from the north of Ireland and those who consider ourselves to be from Northern Ireland.

  • Alias

    What’s the Irish word for partitionist? The Northern Irish nation is one created by partition, which created the Northern Ireland state. To accept the legitimacy of Northern Irish as a nationality is to accept the legitimacy of partition.

    While 45% of NI’s population is Catholic, only 25% is Irish. With 21% of NI’s population being Northern Irish that makes a huge chunk of those formerly Irish who have now been converted into bone fide partitionists.

    That’s hardly suprising given that most of them signed up to a constituional arrangement that endorsed partition.

    So whatever the Irish word for partitionist is, use that. 😉

  • Fascinating stuff: I just lurve word games.

    However, there is an official declaration on this, courtesy of Vicipaedia:

    Hibernia Septentrionalis[1], quondam (H)ultonia[2][3] (Anglice: Northern Ireland, Hibernice: Tuaisceart Éireann) est provincia in Hibernia et Regno Britanniarum. Caput est Belfastium et dux gubernationis est Petrus Robinson; ille est dux factionis civilis qui appellatur Factio Unionistarum Democratica. Successit Reverendum Ioannem Paisley, qui abdicavit in Iunio 2008. Proconsul est Martinus McGuinness. Ille est membrum factionis civilis Sinn Fein (Latine: Nos Ipsi), olim dux Exercitus Republicani Hibernici.

    That, however, may not take us much further than Ciarán Dunbar’s original point.

    Off-topic: my ex-TCD Latin, from a long way back is very rusty — but one tries to keep in practice. So an occasional delight is Latinitas recens. For example: Daiailama–ae, m: magister Buddhistarum Tibetanorum, an addition to the very short list of first-declension masculine nouns. Not to mention (and this one officially approved, I figure): Darviniana doctrine, (Darwinism!). And urinator is a scuba-diver (huh?).

    Oh, c’mon! Petrus Robinson of Factio Unionistarum Democratica. That provides the acronym FUD, which seems strangely appropriate.

  • My apologies for the intervention of the automatic spelling corrector: Darviniana doctrina. But you all got that one.

    As for the proconsul

  • Scáth Shéamais

    Some variation on Mick’s original proposal would seem to be the best option.

  • between the bridges

    JR my translator suggests you may be taking the me hall? methinks that if i get that printed on a UJ for the next protest i may look a tad silly…

  • As a matter of triviality, between the bridges @ 1:36 pm, I had a faint whiff of extracted urine when I saw Ciarán Dunbar‘s headline here.

    it is a curious echo of a nice 2001 study by Patrick Griffin, the full title of which is The People with No Name: Ireland’s Ulster Scots, America’s Scots Irish, and the Creation of a British Atlantic World, 1689-1764.

    As I’m suggesting elsewhere, if you weren’t confused about identity, you may well be after reading just the first paragraph.

  • between the bridges

    MF, i quite enjoyed your blog piece, but i wouldn’t stroke your ego too much (you never know what could happen) 30 years on my Latin coped. knowing the situation i think most could fill in the blanks, the only bit that threw me was olim dux… old duke? old leader of IRA?

    Ceterum censeo Exercitus Republicanus Hibernicus delendam esse…

  • between the bridges:

    olim: “formerly”, or “once upon a time”, if you prefer fairy tale beginnings. Ahem!

  • “As a matter of triviality”

    Malcolm, you’ve been having a little bit of fun with FUD but missed out on fuddy-duddy – and duddy-fuddiel, a ragged (red) fellow 😉

    Wee stuffy, stumpy, dumpie laddie,
    Thou urchin elfin, bare an’ duddy,
    Thy plumpit kite an’ cheek sae ruddy
    Are fairly baggit,
    Although the breekums on thy fuddy
    Are e’en right raggit.

    Check out the Dictionary of the Scots Language for the Scandinavian fud – buttocks. cf rabbit’s fud.

  • Thank you, Nevin, for that uplifting contribution. And, oh, I do so like Slugger for providing opportunities such as this.

    I was aware of — but had to look up — Rabbie Burns using the term in Tam Samson’s Elegy, one of his mock memorials for a mate and fellow poacher:

    Rejoice, ye birring Paitricks a’; [partridges]
    Ye cootie Moorcocks, crousely craw;
    Ye Maukins, cock your fud fu’ braw [hares] (but … err … ambiguous)
    Withoutten dread;
    Your mortal Fae is now awa;
    Tam Samson’s dead!

    However, the reason I was loth to disturb the sensibilities of Sluggerdom therewith is because there is an earlier Scots-dialect usage of fud for what might be termed “lady parts”— and, as Nevin implies, directly borrowed from the Norse.

    The OED has a choice citation from Claudero [James Wilson (c.1730-1787)]. In The Hen-Peckt Carter he laments the fate of one submissive to a dominant woman, his:

    She’s handsome and witty, the flow’r of our land,
    To cross her were pity my charming Joan.
    I yield her the breeches, am no longer man,
    This favour too small for the sake of Joan…
    Each hair of her fud is the length of a span,
    What fud can compare with the fud of Joan?

    However, back to the headline topic.

    The more I muse on it, the more I become convinced the answer to Ciarán Dunbar‘s problem is … there isn’t one.

    English has the advantage of a vast vocabulary — Webster has 470,000 headwords: Dineen some 35,000. That, of course, doesn’t mean English or Irish use a particular number of words, or that many words do not have multiple (even an indefinite number) of ‘meanings’ or connotations, with or without metaphorical usages. Even so, there is a precise difference between ‘northern Irish’ and ‘Northern Irish’ . Such discrete capitalisation is a fairly recent development (since Victorian times?) even in formal English writing.

  • Malcolm, no one has produced a response to my 14 December 2012 at 9:01 pm post. Perhaps the reluctance to produce an adjective can be put down to politics.

  • latcheeco

    “That’s hardly suprising(sic) given that most of them signed up to a constituional arrangement that endorsed partition.”

    As did most everybody on the island. Give us Barabas eh? But if you’d been through what they’d been through you could probably judge them.

  • Alias

    I would think that was a function of the state-sponsored gangs: give them a few decades of low-level terror and they’ll eventually get sick of it and settle down to endorsing the status quo. Asymmetrical counterinsurgency, Protected species and all that…

  • Droch_Bhuachaill

    I think the crux lies in the identity of the ‘Northern Irish’. They are either totally independent of the old british/irish spilt or not. If they are truly Northern Irish rather than a variety of the old two, then they need an entirely independent name, not one which depends on others. ‘Tuaisceartach’ infers that they belong to the northern part of something else, as does ‘Éireannach Tuaisceartach’ or even ‘Oir-Bhreataineach’ (Eastern British). Ultach infers the whole province rather than the 6 counties. ‘Sé-Chontaeach’ would probably be the one-size-fits-all term, as it could refer to six counties of Ireland, Six British Counties, or the Six Counties of Northern Ireland.

    Or we could agree on ‘Muintir na gCríocha Gafa’ (The People of the Occupied Territories)…….

  • The first sentence of Droch_Bhuachaill @ 11:21 am says all and enough.

    As the BelTel was reporting last Wednesday:

    More than one in five people here now consider themselves Northern Irish, the latest census figures have revealed.

    Last year’s census was the first to ask a question about national identity — and revealed that while nearly half the population is Catholic, only around a quarter of people say they are Irish.

    Those who regard themselves as having any British identity now represent less than half of Northern Ireland’s population.

    Now that can we read in oh-so-many ways. I’m tending to think it’s not particularly sensational. And it does mean that the consciously-“Northern Irish” (note the capitalisation, which I maintain solves the whole problem, in both languages) amount to around 360,000. Men, women and children. About two Corks or one Bournemouth?

  • Malcolm, if an Irish form can be concocted for Northern Kurdish I see no linguistic reason why one can’t be produced for Northern Irish.

  • Nevin @ 12:19 pm::

    As I recall, when the “official” Irish-English dictionary was being produced (circa 1960?), there was a going rate for “discovered” Irish words. Someone remind me: was it ten bob for twenty?

    Most of the proceeds went over the bars in and around UCD. That’s only fitting, because that was where the “discoveries” were concocted.

    So, if you want an equivalent term for “Northern Kurdish” or (as of yesterday) “Queen Elizabeth Land”, I suggest you wait till someone is flashing real money.

    The rest of us know who we are, where we are, and what we are. But we’re a pretty disparate lot; and we may not agree with the definition next week.