Archive for the History Category

Old Blue Eyes

Posted in History, Television with tags , , , , , , on April 19, 2021 by telescoper

Yesterday I watched the concluding episode of a fascinating two-part documentary series called The Burren: Heart of Stone, an extraordinary region of glaciated limestone klarst in County Clare. The landscape has a distinctly other-worldly look to it, yet humans have lived and farmed on it for at least 8,000 years.

Episode 1 was largely about the geology and ecology of the Burren which explained how the motion of glaciers across the area scraped away upper layers and revealed the limestone deposits formed by the bones and shells of ancient marine creatures who lived there tens of millions of years ago. The present-day Burren is windswept and rainy but is home to a rich ecosystem of plants, insects, birds and animals. Despite the heavy rainfall there are no rivers to be seen, but water flows underground through a complex network of tunnels and caves.

The first programme was interesting enough but Episode 2 was about the history of human habitation in the Burren, incorporating recent genetic discoveries, and that was absolutely fascinating.

The oldest population for which DNA sequencing has been possible were the mesolithic hunter- gatherers who lived in Ireland at least 8,000 years ago. Studies of the available remains show that these people had dark skin and blue eyes.

I only found out recently that the genetic mutation required for blue eyes arose in a single individual about 10,000 years ago; before that happened no humans had blue eyes. Having blue eyes myself, and in light of a recent discovery that I have a different mutation that arose more recently, I find that very intriguing.

Being hunter-gatherers these folk lived on the margins of the forests that covered most of Ireland, fishing and hunting animals as well as gathering nuts and berries. Their settlements were primarily impermanent affairs made of wood, so these people did not leave lasting impression on the landscape. Ireland probably couldn’t sustain a large population of these folk either, but the next people to arrive were the neolithic people who were the first farmers in Ireland. Their genetic profiles suggest they originated somewhere around modern-day Turkey and were also somewhat dark-skinned. They cleared the forests and set up permanent habitations involving stone structures, including the famous megalithic sites such as the tomb at Poulnabrone, which is at least 6,000 years old:

The Burren could have been popular with these people because, with its thin topsoil, it was much easier for them to get rid of the trees and start farming. They built stone walls to divide fields, and it is said that the walls which criss-cross the present-day Burren follow the line of these prehistoric structures.

Genetics reveal that these neolithic people and the mesolithic people intermingled and interbred, though the circumstances that led to this are of course unknown. It is hard to believe that a huge influx of people chopping down trees and clearing the land for farming would have caused no friction with the previous inhabitants. There may well have been violent struggles.

The neolithic culture survived and flourished in relative isolation until the arrival of Bronze Age settlers somewhere around 4000 years ago. These came originally from the Steppes of Russia, who took over many of the neolithic sites and adapted them for their own use before they were eventually abandoned. Evidence from the Burren suggests that the massive deforestation, combined with a climate downturn, led to catastrophic soil erosion; farming became impossible and the culture collapsed.

Incidentally, DNA studies of the Bronze Age people of Ireland are heavily mixed with neolithic genes but show no relic of the mesolithic population. Presumably these were diluted too much, as the neolithic culture sustained a much bigger population, probably around 200,000 in number.

All this was centuries before any Celtic people arrived in these shores, which was around 500 BC.

A fascinating programme, well worth watching if you can get to see it. There was a twist in the tail too: recent discoveries of apparent human activity on animal bones dated back to around 30,000 years ago, show evidence of a population of people in Ireland before the most recent Ice Age began.

Fascinating stuff!

Yesterday was nearly Easter

Posted in History, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on March 29, 2021 by telescoper

As as Astronomist I am often asked “How do they calculate the date of Easter?”, to which my answer is usually “Look it up on Wikipedia!“.

The simple answer is that Easter Sunday is on the first Sunday after the first full Moon on or after the Vernal equinox. The Vernal Equinox took place this year on March 20th and the more observant among you will have noticed that yesterday was (a) Sunday and (b) a Full Moon. Yesterday was not Easter Sunday because the rule says Easter is on the first Sunday after the first full Moon on or after the Vernal equinox, which does not include a Full Moon on the first Sunday on or after the vernal equinox. Accordingly Easter 2021 is next Sunday 4th April. If the Full Moon had happened on Saturday, yesterday would have been Easter Sunday.

That is just as well really because next weekend is when the holidays and sporting events have been arranged.

I say “simple” answer above because it isn’t quite how the date of Easter is reckoned for purposes of the liturgical calendar.

For a start the ecclesiastical calculation of the date for Easter – the computus – assumes that the Vernal Equinox is always on March 21st, while in reality it can be a day or two either side of that. This year it was on March 20th.

On top of that there’s the issue of what reference time and date to use. The equinox is a precisely timed astronomical event but it occurs at different times and possibly on different days in different time zones. Likewise the full Moon. In the ecclesiastical calculation the “full moon” does not currently correspond directly to any astronomical event, but is instead the 14th day of a lunar month, as determined from tables (see below). It may differ from the date of the actual full moon by up to two days.

There have been years (1974, for example) where the official date of Easter does not coincide with the date determined by the simple rule given above. The actual rule is a complicated business involving Golden Numbers and Metonic cycles and whatnot.

I’m grateful to Graham Pointer on Twitter for sending this excerpt from the Book of Common Prayer that sheweth how to determine the date of Easter for any year up to 2199:

I don’t care what happens after that as I’ll be retired by then. If you apply this method to 2021 you will find it is an 8C. Next year will be a 9B. Further calculations are left as an exercise to the reader.

After the Fludd…

Posted in Biographical, History on March 25, 2021 by telescoper

A friend just pointed out to me that the Wikipedia page of 16th century medic, mystic and occult figure Robert Fludd

… contains an unexpected link to my own Wikipedia page:

Shurely Shome Mishtake?

P. S. Sadly this has now been corrected.

The Vernal Equinox 2021

Posted in History, Maynooth with tags , , , , on March 20, 2021 by telescoper

It is 9.37am Local Time in Ireland on Saturday 20th March 2021 which means that the Vernal Equinox or Spring Equinox (in the Northern hemisphere) is taking place right now!

The Spring Equinox jumped back a day last year because 2020 was a leap year and now is gradually moving forward again. Of course the actual date depends on where you are in the world. The date last year was 20th March (early in the morning) in Ireland, but 19th March (late at night) in New York.

People sometimes ask me how one can define the `equinox’ so precisely when surely it just refers to a day on which day and night are of equal length, implying that it’s a day not a specific time?

The answer is that the equinox is defined by a specific event, the event in question being when the plane defined by Earth’s equator passes through the centre of the Sun’s disk (or, if you prefer, when the centre of the Sun passes through the plane defined by Earth’s equator). Day and night are not necessarily exactly equal on the equinox, but they’re the closest they get. From now until the Autumnal Equinox days in the Northern hemisphere will be longer than nights, and they’ll get longer until the Summer Solstice before beginning to shorten again.

Loughcrew (County Meath), near Newgrange, an ancient burial site and a traditional place to observe the sunrise at the Equinox

Here in Ireland we celebrated Saint Patrick’s day on March 17th, the reputed date of his death in 461 AD. Nobody really knows where St Patrick was born, though, so it would be surprising if the when were any better known.

In any case, it wasn’t until the 17th Century that Saint Patrick’s feast day was placed on the universal liturgical calendar in the Catholic Church. In the thousand years that passed any memory of the actual date was probably lost, so the Equinox was perhaps rebranded for the purpose.

The early Christian church in Ireland incorporated many pre-Christian traditions that survived until roughly the 12th century, including the ancient festival of Ēostre (or Ostara), the goddess of spring associated with the spring equinox after whom Easter is named. During this festival, eggs were used a symbol of rebirth and the beginning of new life and a hare or rabbit was the symbol of the goddess and fertility. In turn the Celtic people of Ireland probably adapted their own beliefs to absorb much older influences dating back to the stone age. St Patrick’s Day and Easter therefore probably both have their roots in prehistoric traditions around the Spring Equinox, although the direct connection has long been lost.

Lá Fhéile Pádraig sona daoibh go léir

Posted in History, Literature, Maynooth with tags , , , , , on March 17, 2021 by telescoper

Well, it’s St Patrick’s Day, which means I’m actually taking a day off and attempting not to read work emails or do work-related things for the day. It’s a lower-key St Paddy’s Day than usual but it’s nice to take a break.

Not many facts are known about the life of St Patrick, but it seems he was born in Britain, probably in the late 4th Century AD, probably somewhere around the Severn Estuary and probably in Wales. It also appears that he didn’t know any Latin. When a young man, it seems he was captured by Celtic marauders coming up the River Severn and taken as a slave to Ireland. He eventually escaped back to Britain, but returned to Ireland as a missionary and succeeded somehow in converting the Irish people to Christianity.

Or did he? This interesting piece suggests his role was of lesser importance than many think.

However it happened, Ireland was the first country to be converted to Christianity that had never been part of the Roman Empire. That made a big difference to the form of the early Church here. The local Celtic culture was very loose and decentralized. There were no cities, large buildings, roads or other infrastructure. Life revolved around small settlements and farms. When wars were fought they were generally over livestock or grazing land. The early Irish Church that grew in this environment was quite different from that of continental Europe. It was not centralized, revolved around small churches and monasteries, and lacked the hierarchical structure of the Roman Church. Despite these differences, Ireland was quite well connected with the rest of the Christian world.

Irish monks – and the wonderful illuminated manuscripts they created – spread across the continent, starting with Scotland and Britain. Thanks to the attentions of the Vikings few of these works survive but the wonderful Lindisfarne Gospels, dating from somewhere in the 8th Century were almost certainly created by Irish monks. The Book of Kells was probably created in Scotland by Irish Monks.

The traffic wasn’t entirely one-way however. A few weeks ago I saw a fascinating documentary about the Fadden More Psalter. This is a leather-bound book of Psalms found in a peat bog in 2006, which is of similar age to the Lindisfarne Gospels. It took years of painstaking restoration work to recover at least part of the text (much of which was badly degraded), but the leather binding turned out to hold a particularly fascinating secret: it was lined with papyrus. The only other books from the same period with the same structure that are known are from the Coptic Church in Egypt.

That doesn’t mean that whoever owned the Fadden More Psalter had actually been to Egypt, of course. It is much more this book made its way to Ireland via a sort of relay race. On the other hand, it does demonstrate that international connections were probably more extensive than you might have thought.

Anyway, back to St Patrick’s Day.

Saint Patrick’s Day is celebrated on March 17th, the reputed date of his death in 461 AD. Nobody really knows where St Patrick was born, though, so it would be surprising if the when were any better known.

In any case, it wasn’t until the 17th Century that Saint Patrick’s feast day was placed on the universal liturgical calendar in the Catholic Church. Indeed, St Patrick has never been formally canonized. In the thousand years that passed any memory of the actual date of his birth was probably lost, so the choice of date was probably influenced by other factors, specifically the proximity of the Spring Equinox (which is this year on Saturday March 20th).

The early Christian church in Ireland incorporated many pre-Christian traditions that survived until roughly the 12th century, including the ancient festival of Ēostre (or Ostara), the goddess of spring associated with the spring equinox after whom Easter is named. During this festival, eggs were used a symbol of rebirth and the beginning of new life and a hare or rabbit was the symbol of the goddess and fertility. In turn the Celtic people of Ireland probably adapted their own beliefs to absorb much older influences dating back to the stone age. St Patrick’s Day and Easter therefore probably both have their roots in prehistoric traditions around the Spring Equinox, although the direct connection has long been lost.

The traditional St Patrick’s Day parades etc will not take place this year because of Covid-19 restrictions, but that doesn’t mean everyone is ignoring the day. Indeed here’s a picture of the spire of St Patrick’s College lit up in celebration:

Lá Fhéile Pádraig sona daoibh go léir!

R.I.P. Roger Griffin (1935-2021)

Posted in Film, History, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on February 19, 2021 by telescoper

Roger Griffin (picture credit: St John’s College, Cambridge)

Earlier today I heard the sad news of the death at the age of 85 of astronomer Roger Griffin. He passed away on 12th February 2021.

Roger Griffin worked at Cambridge for over six decades, except for one year when he had a post-doctorate position at the Mount Wilson and Palomar Observatories, of the Carnegie Institution of Washington. He was the Assistant Director of Research in Astronomy at the University of Cambridge for nine years before he was promoted to a Readership of Observational Astronomy and later a Professorship. He appeared in the film Starmen alongside Donald Lyndon-Bell, Wal Sargent and Neville “Nick” Woolf.

Roger Griffin worked on astronomical spectroscopy and his main scientific claim to fame was that he invented a method of measuring radial velocities of stars in binary systems described in this classic paper published in 1967:

Over the subsequent years he published many radial velocity curves thus obtained in a long series of papers in the Observatory Magazine and the same method was subsequently used for measuring orbits of black holes and detecting extrasolar planets.

Despite the Cambridge connection I never met Roger Griffin personally but people who did talk about him with great affection and he will be greatly missed.

Rest in peace, Roger Griffin (1935-2021)

Memories of the Aldwych Bus Bombing

Posted in Biographical, History, LGBT with tags , , , , on February 18, 2021 by telescoper

Twitter just reminded that today is the 25th anniversary of the Aldwych Bus Bombing, which happened while I was living in London. In fact, as it happens, in the late evening of Sunday 18th February 1996, when the bomb went off I was scarily close to it. The bomb went off in Aldwych, near The Strand, while I was standing in a fairly long queue trying to get into a night club near Covent Garden. The explosion was no more than 200 yards away from me.

The reason I was there was a one-nighter called Queer Nation which was on every Sunday in the 90s. I went there quite regularly and provided very nice music and provided an environment that attracted a very interesting crowd of people. Anyway I preferred it to the very big clubs of the more commercial London gay scene of the time, largely because it wasn’t such a big venue as many of the others and you could actually talk to people there without having to shout.

The queue to get in wasn’t too long and I had only been waiting a few minutes when there was a loud bang followed by a tinkling sound caused by pieces of glass falling to the ground. Everyone in the queue including myself instinctively dropped to the ground. The blast sounded very close but we were in a narrow street surrounded by tall buildings and it was hard to figure out from which direction the sound had come from. Shortly afterwards the air was filled with the sound of sirens from police cars and other emergency vehicles. According to Wikipedia the bomb went off at 22:38.

It turned out that an IRA operative had accidentally detonated a bomb on a bus, apparently while en route to plant it somewhere else (probably King’s Cross). The bomb consisted of 2kg of Semtex, which is rather a large amount, hence the enormous blast. The explosion happened on the upper deck of the bus and the only person killed was the person carrying the bomb.

After the people outside the nighclub had stood up and dusted ourselves down, we talked briefly about what to do next. Everyone was rattled. I didn’t feel like going clubbing after what had clearly been a terrorist attack so I said goodnight and left for home.

Getting home turned out to be rather difficult, however. The police quickly threw a cordon around the site of the blast so that several blocks either side were inaccessible. Aldwych is in the West End, but I lived in the East End, on the wrong side of sealed-off area, so I had to find a way around it before heading home. No buses or taxis were to be found so I had to walk all the way. I ended up having to go as far North as the Angel before walking along the City Road towards the East End. I didn’t arrive him until about three o’clock in the morning (though I did stop off for a Bagel in Spitalfields on the way).

So that was 25 years ago. Fortunately since then we’ve had the Good Friday Agreement and such events have virtually disappeared. But how long will that peace last?

Decimal Day – 50 Years On!

Posted in Biographical, History, mathematics with tags , , , , , on February 15, 2021 by telescoper

The old half-crown coin (2/6)

People of a certain age will remember that fifty years ago today, on 15th February 1971, it was Decimal Day. That was the day that the United Kingdom finally switched completely to the “new money”. Ireland made a similar switch on the same day. Out went old shillings and pennies and in came “new pence”. Old pennies were always abbreviated as `d’ but the new ones were `p’.

In the old system there were 12 pennies in a shilling and 20 shillings in a pound. The pound was therefore 240 old pennies while in the new money it became 100 new pence.

It was not only shillings that disappeared in the process of decimalization. The old ten-bob note (10 shillings) made way for what is now the 50p piece. The shilling coin became 5p. The sixpence was no longer minted after 1970 but stayed in circulation until 1980, worth 2½p.

The crown (5 shillings) and half-crown (two shillings and sixpence, written 2s 6d or 2/6) disappeared, as did the threepenny bit. For a personal story about the latter, see here.

The old penny was a very large and heavy coin, whereas the new one was much smaller despite being worth more. If you had an old penny in your pocket you felt you had something substantial where as one new “pee” seemed insignificant. Even the ha’penny was quite a big piece.

At first, to echo the old ha’penny, there was a ½p coin but that was discontinued in 1984. The old farthing (a quarter of an old penny) had long since ceased to be legal tender (in 1960) although we still had some in the house for some reason.

I was just 7 on Decimal Day but I remember some things about it rather well. There were jingles on the radio announcing Decimal Day and at Junior School we played “Decimal Bingo” to get used to the new money. I remember taking our elderly neighbour’s ten-bob notes to the Post Office to change them into the new coins, though this would have been before Decimal Day as the ten-bob note was phased out in 1970. I remember my Grandad being convinced that the Government had stolen 140 pennies out of every pound he owned…

Youngsters probably find the old system incredibly cumbersome and archaic, which in some ways it was, but at least it got us doing arithmetic in different bases (i.e. base 12 and based 20). The advantage of base 12 is that it has prime factors 2, 3, 4, and 6 so is relatively easier to divide into equal shares; base 10 only has 2 and 5.

Imperial weights and measures also included base 3 (feet in a yard), 8 (pints in a gallon), 14 (pounds in a stone) and 16 (ounces in a pound). I have to admit that to this day when I follow a cookery recipe if it says “100 g” of something, I have to convert that to ounces before I can visualize what it is!

Celtic Europe

Posted in History with tags , , , , on February 6, 2021 by telescoper

The Extent of Celtic Europe, from “Dictionary of Languages” by Andrew Dalby

Following on from Thursday’s post I thought I’d show the above map that shows the spread of Celtic languages in Europe. I’m sorry that the picture isn’t great but I scanned the map from a big hardback book and the map spreads across the fold as you can see.

The Celtic languages at the time depicted in the map (1st Century BC) were all oral languages, but when the Roman Empire spread across Europe about two thousand years ago it came into contact with the major dialects. Evidence for these can be found in place names, from Mediolanum (modern-day Milan, originally in cisalpine Gaul) to Singidunum (the Roman name for modern-day Belgrade) and Laccobriga (Lagos in Southern Portugal).
Belgium gets its name from the Belgae, regarded by Julius Caesar as the bravest and most fearsome of the tribes of Gaul. There are also words recorded in early inscriptions and in reconstructions based on later texts from which it is possible to glean clues about these languages. The picture that emerges is of a network of dialects spoken by Celtic peoples that inhabited a swathe of Continental Europe from the Iberian peninsula in the West to Galatia in the East, much of the Danube valley, and from Cisalpine Gaul (now part of Italy) in the South to modern-day Germany in the North.

Galatia (in classical Asia Minor) merits a special mention. St Paul’s Letter to the Galatians was addressed to the young Christian churches in this Celtic-speaking enclave which was then a distant province of the Roman Empire.

Linguists refer to the language that was spoken in Ireland at this time as Goidelic and it sits apart from the others because Ireland was never part of the Roman Empire. Brythonic is the name given to the dialects spoken in Britain. Continental Celtic is the name given to the dialects stretching all the way from Spain to Galatia of which the largest group was Gaulish. The language of the Scottish highlands Pictish may have been a separate subdivision but I don’t think anybody really knows because the language is extinct.

None of these groups was homogeneous. The Celts lived in relatively small communities and there were many regional variations even within each major group. Irish has four main dialects, roughly aligned with the four provinces. In Description of Ireland (1577), Richard Stanyhurst wrote:

As the whole realme of Ireland is sundred into foure principal parts so eche parcell differeth very much in the Irish tongue, euery country hauing his dialect or peculiar manner in speaking the language.

 

Our Irish teacher speaks the Irish of Connacht in which some pronunciations are very different from Leinster, which is the province I live in. As an absolute beginner this is the least of my worries at the moment.

The Goidelic group comprises Irish, Manx and Scottish Gaelic; and the Brythonic group that comprises Welsh, Cornish and Breton. These are sometimes referred to as q-Celtic and p-Celtic, respectively, although not everyone agrees that is a useful categorization. It stems from the fact that the “q” in Indo-European languages morphed into a “p” in the Brythonic languages. The number five in Irish is a cúig which has a q sound (though there is no letter q in the Irish alphabet); five in Welsh is pump. Contrast with the number two: a dó in Irish and dau in Welsh.

Incidentally, Scottish Gaelic is not the language spoken by the Celtic people who lived in Scotland at the time of the Romans, the Picts, which is lost. Scottish Gaelic is actually descended from Middle Irish due to migration and trading contacts. The Ulster dialect of Irish is in turn much influenced by reverse migration from Scotland. Languages do not evolve in isolation or in any simple linear trajectory.

Contrary to popular myth, Breton is not a Continental Celtic language but was taken to Brittany by a mass migration of people, which peaked in the 6th Century AD, from South-West Britain, fleeing the Anglo-Saxons. The Saxons won a great victory in battle at Dyrham (near Bath) in 577 after which they advanced through Somerset and Devon, splitting the Celts of Cornwall and Wales and leading to the formation of two distinct Brythonic language groups, Welsh and Cornish. Breton is much closer to Cornish than Welsh.

The Continental Celtic languages are all extinct, except for fascinating remnants that linger here and there in local dialect words in French and Spanish.

Language Lessons

Posted in History, Maynooth with tags , , , , , , , , , , on February 4, 2021 by telescoper

Thursday is Computational Physics Day this term so this morning I delivered the first Panopto lecture of that module and in the afternoon we had our first laboratory session. The students are all at home of course so we had to run the lab with them using their own laptops rather than the dedicated Linux cluster we have in the Department and interacting via Microsoft Teams.  The first lab is very introductory so it was really just me presenting and them following on their machines without too much interaction. The ability to share a screen is actually very useful though and I imagine using it quite a lot to share Spyder. It went fairly well, I think, with all the students getting started out on the business of learning Python.

In between lecturing the morning and running the laboratory session this afternoon I had the chance to study another kind of language. Soon after I first arrived in Maynooth I got an email from Maynooth University about Irish language classes. Feeling a bit ashamed about not having learned Welsh in all my time in Cardiff, I thought I’d sign up for the Beginners class and fill in a Doodle Poll to help the organizers schedule it. Unfortunately, when the result was announced  it was at a time that I couldn’t make owing to teaching, so I couldn’t do it. That  happened a couple of times, in fact. This year however I’ve managed to register at a time I can make, though obviously the sessions are online.

I’m not sure how wise it is for me to try learning a new language during a term as busy as this, but I have to say I enjoyed the first session enormously. It was all very introductory, but I’ve learnt a few things about pronunciation – unsurprisingly the Irish word for pronunciation fuaimniú is unsurprisingly quite difficult to pronounce – and the difference between slender and broad vowels. I also learnt that to construct a verbal noun, instead of putting -ing on the end as you would in English, in Irish you use the word ag in front of the verb.

That’s not to say I had no problems. I’m still not sure I can say  Dia duit (hello) properly. The second “d” is hardly pronounced. 

Irish isn’t much like Welsh, which I failed to learn previously.  Although Irish and Welsh are both Celtic languages they are from two distinct groups: the Goidelic group that comprises Irish, Manx and Scottish Gaelic; and the Brythonic group that comprises Welsh, Cornish and Breton. These are sometimes referred to as q-Celtic and p-Celtic, respectively, although not everyone agrees that is a useful categorization. Incidentally, Scottish Gaelic is not the language spoken by the Celtic people who lived in Scotland at the time of the Romans, the Picts, which is lost. Scottish Gaelic is actually descended from Middle Irish. Also incidentally, Breton was taken to Brittany by a mass migration of people from South-West Britain fleeing the Anglo-Saxons which peaked somewhere around 500 AD. I guess that was the first Brexodus.

Welsh and Irish don’t sound at all similar to me, which is not surprising really. It is thought that the Brythonic languages evolved from a language  brought to Britain by people from somewhere in Gaul (probably Northern France), whereas the people whose language led to the Goidelic tongues were probably from somewhere in the Iberia (modern-day Spain or Portugal). The modern versions of Irish and Welsh do contain words borrowed from Latin, French and English so there are similarities there too.

Only a diacritic mark appears in Irish, the síneadh fada (`long accent’), sometimes called the fada for short, which looks the same as the acute accent in, e.g., French. There’s actually one in síneadh if you look hard enough. It just means the vowel is pronounced long (i.e. the first syllable of síneadh is pronounced SHEEN). The word sean (meaning old) is pronounced like “shan” whereas Seán the name is pronounced “Shawn”.

One does find quite a few texts (especially online) where the fada is carelessly omitted, but it really is quite important. For example Cáca is the Irish word for `cake’, while the unaccented Caca means `excrement’…

I took the above text in Irish and English from the front cover of an old examination paper. You can see the accents as well as another feature of Irish which is slightly similar to Welsh, the mysterious lower-case h in front of Éireann. This is a consequence of an initial mutation, in which the initial character of word changes in various situations according to syntax or morphology (i.e. following certain words changing the case of a noun or following certain sounds). This specific case is an an example of h-prothesis (of an initial vowel).

In Welsh, mutations involve the substitution of one character for another. For example, `Wales’ is Cymru but if you cross the border into Wales you may see a sign saying Croeso i Gymru, the `C’ having mutated. The Irish language is a bit friendlier to the learner than Welsh, however, as the mutated character (h in the example above) is inserted in front of the unmutated character. Seeing both the mutated and unmutated character helps a person with limited vocabulary (such as myself) figure out what’s going on.

Mutations of consonants also occur in Irish. These can involve lenition (literally `weakening’, also known as aspiration) or eclipsis (nasalisation). In the case of eclipsis the unmutated consonant is preceded by another denoting the actual sound, e.g. b becomes m in terms of pronunciation, but what is written is mb. On the other hand, lenition is denoted by an following the unmutated consonant. In older forms of Irish the overdot (ponc séimhithe) -another diacritic – was used to denote lenition.

Anyway, I’ve seen Dia duit written Dia dhuit which might explain why the d sounds so weak. We live and learn. If I keep at it long enough I might eventually be able to understand the TG4 commentary on the hurling..