Focail na mBan
Irish Times Feature by Róisín Ingle, Sat, 18th Nov 2023 - here.
"Anybody who has ever spent time in dreary Limerick Junction will appreciate one of the funnier Irish language descriptions of a vagina contained in new book Focail na mBan. “Gabhal mná” is a word for vagina, but “gabhhal” can also mean junction, an amusing titbit for when you are next waiting for the train in a downpour at Gabhal Luimnigh, or Limerick’s crotch. It is just one of several entertaining and surprising moments in this unique collection of Irish language words for women’s genitalia, reproductive organs, menstrual cycles and sex lives.
Interestingly, it was a man who came up with the idea for the book, but it would be unfair to accuse writer Manchán Magan of mnásplaining. Understanding the limitations of both his gender and his “inherent 1970s conditioning”, he asked women artists to create visual representations of words for women’s parts, such as “an breallach meigheallach”, a word for vagina that means “bearded clam”, or “an láthair doluaite” which translates as “the unmentionable”, or “bosca” which speaks for itself. The artworks that go alongside them will be exhibited in the Fumbally Cafe in Dublin..."
Essay from the book: A Note on Bodies, Language and Reclamation by Annemarie Ní Churreáin
Silence and the female body: where to begin? A truth one learns as a poet is that, actually, not everything needs to be named aloud, which is not to undermine the necessary business of ascribing names but which is, simply, to acknowledge that in the Donegal Gaeltacht, where I grew up, more than what was spoken was understood. Gaeilge is, in fact, a deeply sensual language and perspective of the world, rooted in place, and in a marvellous feeling for the human body as an interwoven thread of nature. As a language it offers something I need today as I navigate a strange, new reality in which, scientifically, we humans know more than ever before about our bodies, but on a more fundamental level, and in the context of a global crisis, we live like we know less.... (The rest can be found in the book)
Essay from the book: Reflections on Lanugage, Queerness and Focail na mBan by Tadhg Mac Eoghain
As languages are human creations, it only makes sense that they would feature a wealth of words to describe different kinds of humans, their bodies, and different aspects of the human experience. However, much like humans, certain types of words receive more attention and respect than others. There tends to be more readily available vocabulary to talk about the experiences of people who enjoy status and visibility in society, spanning a wide range of registers – official terms, slang, polite language, colloquial language, and so on. However, those on the margins, who receive limited or conditional respect and acceptance – due to misogyny, racism, homophobia, transphobia, or any other social dynamic of oppression – often have their identities and experiences shrouded in euphemism or derisive language. Society’s hang-ups are also reflected in how we administer, standardise, and teach languages, which unfortunately means that certain kinds of words are often only uttered behind closed doors, rarely making an appearance in print... (The rest can be found in the book)
Focail na mBan is a gathering of Irish words for vaginas, vulvas, clitorises and periods with illustrations from 29 artists.
It is meant as a catalyst for those willing to seek out further terms and insights from older lore-keepers in the Gaeltacht. In no way is it a comprehensive collection of such words, but rather a humble first step; a gesture of encouragement for others who may wish to dive deeper into this rich realm of linguistic insight.
It is illustrated with the works of 29 artists who responded to the words. They are: Sandra Adams, Emily Robyn Archer, Chloe Austin, Aideen Barry, Aurélie Beatley, Emma Brennan, Eabha Cleary, Rachel-Marie Cleary, Amanda Coogan, Serena Viola Corson, Dorothy Cross, Arisleyda Dilone, Millie Egan, Bebhinn Eilish, Rachel Fallon, Ursula Foley, Sharon Greene, Lisa Harris, Joya Hatchett, Hammond Journeaux, Toma McCullim, Yvonne McGuinness, Eimear McGuire, Dee Mulrooney, Emily Ann Ní Dhriscoll De Marco, Kiki na Art/Ciarna Pham, Aisling Rogerson, Maria Simonds-Gooding and Carmel Winters.
This is a gender inclsuive book, with a few modern words to describe the wider spectrum beyond the dualistic confines of male and female, illustrated by artists who identify as trans, intersex and non-binary.
Also included are articles by, poet, Annmarie Ní Churreáin, writer, Tadhg Mac Eoghain; and some poetry by Dairena Ní Chinnéide.
Signed copies from MayoBooks.ie (wholesale orders here too)
Published by Mayo Books Press
220 × 155 mm
Forward to Focail na mBan by Manchán Magan
There is a shift occurring in Ireland right now. A rising of interest in and connection to our culture and the land. We are becoming aware of what we might have lost and what awaits to be rediscovered. One key element is the wisdom and power that women had in Ireland, and their role in stewarding the land and the water in the form of wells, rivers, and lakes.
There are still great reserves of women’s knowledge and lore awaiting to be rediscovered in old books, songs, poems, archive notebooks and folk recordings. And, of course, most especially from talking to women themselves – Gaeltacht women, in particular.
Important work has been done on this by the likes of Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, Angela Bourke, Ríona Ní Fhrighil, Mary McAuliffe, Annemarie Ní Churreáin, Helen McHugh, Dairena Ní Chinnéide, and Bríona Nic Dhiarmada, but there is much still to do. So many aspects and elements of women’s lives, language, and daily experiences remain unrecorded.
My book Thirty-Two Words For Field (Gill Books, 2020) highlighted the many different words and phrases that have been recorded in Irish for penis and sex from a male perspective. Significantly less words have been recorded for women’s reproductive organs and their sex lives. Such words exist, they just have not been documented to the same extent.
In recent years it has been heartening to see a few people starting to seek out elders in their communities for words that convey women’s lived experience – words to do with menstruation, childbirth, breastfeeding, childrearing, natural contraception, sensuality, and sexuality. It is a start, but so much remains to be done and time is running out. The older generation with the richest wealth of Irish are falling silent and passing on.
That was the catalyst for this book. It is a gesture of encouragement for those who might engage in this work. It is by no means a definitive collection of women’s words. Quite the opposite. It is a merely a summary of some words for vaginas, vulvas, clitorises, and periods that are easily accessible in online dictionaries. I have also included a smattering of more colloquial words that were offered to me, mainly by men, who had previously helped me seek out words for the sea and coastal practises. I limited myself to these men as I had worked with them on vocabulary in the past, and also, if I’m being honest, because I was a little apprehensive about broaching the subject with the great female lore-keepers in the Gaeltacht.
A further spark for the book was a song by the queer, comedy burlesque duo, The Wild Geeze. On Culture Night 2022 I heard them perform their Irish Fanny Song in Clonmel in which they list pet names that women have shared with them for their genitalia. We decided to collaborate on a bilingual version of the song, and I have included some of the more playful Irish translations we came up with while composing the song.
Gender is a complex and evolving topic at present. We are all awakening to the pitfalls of defining people by their biological or anatomical organs, and, in particular, of restricting our views of womanhood to the notion of childbearing. This book does not wish to limit or categorise the sexual or gender identity of anyone, though it could be accused of compounding the simplistic duality between male and female that has weakened society in so many ways. This is not its intent. Rather, it seeks to redress the imbalance that exists in the recorded terminology in Irish regarding male and female sexuality and body parts. Its aim is simply to present a range of terms that have become eclipsed or were in danger of being forgotten, and to highlight how Gaelic culture was largely free of a sense of shame about the body and its natural processes.
As I was considering how best to illustrate the book the artist, Alice Maher wrote to me to say,
‘our bodies somehow understand Irish, it is our intellect that is afraid. Irish is somehow known to our interior spaces’.
This resonated deeply, though I am not sure I fully understand it yet. It circled around my head and clarified my intention to reach out to artists of various backgrounds, ages, and nationalities to ask them to interpret or respond visually to the words. Their art has propelled this little book beyond what I could ever have hoped for. The paintings, photographs, drawings, collages, sculptures, and illustrations have expanded the words in innumerable ways – in some cases rejuvenating and re-imagining them, in others adding wisdom and allure.
My hope is that Focail na mBan will capture people’s hearts and minds, and may spark further exploration of the field. There is a vital need for it. I am ill-suited for the work by dint of my gender, my inherent 1970s conditioning, and my lack of knowledge of gender issues and of the complexity of sexuality in contemporary culture. Others should take up the gauntlet and begin the vital work of exploring and recording women’s words and wisdom in the Gaeltacht.
To ameliorate some of my blind-spots I've asked poet Annemarie Ní Churreáin and queer lexicographer Tadhg Mac Eoghain to write short musings from their perspectives on the topic, and the Corca Dhuibhne poet Dairena Ní Chinnéide has shared some poems.
The one thing I know for certain is that my shyness and reluctance to ask Gaeltacht women about issues of sexuality and their lived experience was misplaced. For the most part, the custodians of female lore of the older generation are not in any way coy or embarrassed about discussing the entirely natural topic of sexuality and our reproductive organs. The poet, Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, points out that while Gaeltacht women may not have discussed private female topics in front of men, they conversed freely amongst themselves. Our current reticence is a legacy of a colonised mindset imposed upon us by our sexually-repressed oppressors and the sexually-obsessed clergy.
Finally, though I am proud of this little, literary art project, it is a drop in the ocean of what needs to be done. We all have a responsibility to bring these words back to life and to seek out their many sister words that lie hidden inside the minds and mouths of older women throughout this island. The words are the keys that allow us then honour and learn from the mindset and mentality behind them. Irish is a language of the land, the sea, the water, and the sky, but most of all it is a language of the human body interacting with these aspects and with the spirit beyond. One cannot help but notice how landscape is embedded in so many of the words in this collection. There is wisdom and fun and wildness within them. Let’s begin to play with them as our ancestors have done for millennia.