The Irish-language Wikipedia page for “Black Lives Matter” offers one possible translation of the movement’s name: “Mór Againn Beatha Daoine Gorma.” Numerous syntactical differences between Irish and English (notably, in this case, the absence of a direct translation for the verb “to matter”) mean that the Irish version is a little bit more of a mouthful than the original. Translated literally, it means, “We Value the Lives of Black People.”
Or more literally still: “We Value the Lives of Blue People.”
One language’s conceptualisation of colours will not necessarily be the same as the next. For example, Irish has no standalone term for pink as we do in English, and instead characterises salmon and flamingos as “bandearg”, or “white-red.” Many languages, such as some of those indigenous to Australia, yoke black and blue together, using the same adjective to describe coal as they do the morning sky. But this is not the case for Irish, which has a perfectly functional word for black: “dubh.” It is used as a descriptor in all the other fixed expressions you might expect — “cuirín dubh”, blackcurrant; “éan dubh”, blackbird; “An Galar Dubh”, the Black Death. It is simply an idiosyncrasy of the Irish language that Black people are referred to as “gorm”, blue.
Irish is full of idiosyncrasies. At times it can be incredibly matter-of-fact — vegetarians are referred to as “feoilséantóirí”, or “meat-deniers.” An albino is a “dall bán”, or a “white blind person.” And having sex is “ag bualadh craiceann”, or, rather graphically, “hitting skin.” In other cases, it tends towards euphemism, as in the term “daoine le Dia”, which literally translates as “God’s people” but actually refers to those with intellectual disabilities. A mouse trap is known as a “fiodhchat”, or a “wooden cat.” “Uisce beatha” is whiskey (and also where we got the English word from), but literally means “water of life.”
But referring to Black people as “blue” doesn’t seem to fit into either category — it’s not an accurate descriptor of a Black person’s skin colour, nor does it have a metaphorical or politically correct aspect to it. So where did it come from?
The history of Black people in Ireland
Ireland is a homogeneous country, with over 90% of its inhabitants identifying as White according to the most recent census, but there have been relatively large Black populations living on the island since at least the 1700s. These are the findings of Dr William Hart, who, having consulted numerous newspaper articles and other documents from the time, posits that there were likely between 2,000 and 3,000 Black people living in Ireland over a fifty-year period during the 18th century. These written records mention Black musicians, sailors, and — something which may surprise modern Irish readers — slaves. The evidence of slavery in Ireland is scarce, but clear:
A black Servant Maid has eloped from her Mistress on Thursday the 11th Inst…. We hope no Person will employ her as she is the Slave and Property of Mrs Heyliger. (Dublin Journal, 13–16 March 1762.)
This isn’t as far back as the story goes, however. Black people walked on Irish shores long before the 18th century, and even before the nation was colonised by the British. In the Annals of Ireland, a book of ancient sources transcribed into English, reference is made to the “Lochlanns” (Scandinavians) who captured slaves in Mauritania and brought them to Ireland around the year 869. It is here that we find perhaps the earliest allusion to blue men— “As fada dna ro badar na fir ghorma sin i n-Eirinn” (“Long indeed were these blue men in Ireland”). We can be sure that the author was not suffering from some rare form of colour-blindness, as he or she also refers to them using the Latin word “nigritudo”, or “blackness”. But no explanation is provided as to why “blue” was considered the appropriate adjective to describe them.
All we can do is guess. One possibility is that “gorm” was once more flexible in meaning than it is now, as outlined in the Royal Irish Academy’s Dictionary of the Irish Language. In early literary works, “gorm” was used to describe eyelashes, a wild boar, and even Norsemen, which indicates that the term’s original sense was more along the lines of “dark, swarthy.” This is the opinion of James Charles Roy, who writes that Latin, “a matter-of-fact language, tells us red, blue, green, white, but [Irish] Gaelic is more fulsome, interested in shades, tones, subtleties of difference. […] [T]he Irish saw more possibilities for the colour blue (gorm) than we, and did not hesitate to plunge about finding an adjective more expressive, even if, to our minds, less accurate.” Another possibility is that it is an adaptation of the Old Norse “blámaðr”, a compound of “blár” (blue) and “maður” (man). (A descendent of this word remains in use in modern Icelandic, although today “svertingi” is the preferred term.) It has been pointed out by numerous scholars that, although “blár” is traditionally glossed as blue in translations of Old Norse sagas and poetry, it was also used to describe ravens, suggesting that “blár” was an ambiguous word that could mean either blue or black depending on the context. When it came to describing ethnicity, perhaps “blár” won out over “svartr”, the more typical word for black, because the latter was commonly associated with evil and “devilish traits”, as Kirsten Wolf writes. This is also true in Irish; “an fear dubh”, literally “the black man”, is an epithet referring to the Devil. It is therefore likely that the Vikings, and consequently the Irish, chose “blue” in order to avoid confusion.
“Blue people” and the current political climate
Unlike Old Norse, Irish is very much a living language, and for the purpose of newscasts, education, and the 70,000 people who still use the language in daily conversation, its lexicon is frequently updated to include new concepts relating to modern society and current affairs. Over the past year, Irish has found itself inundated with new terminology to describe the pandemic, “coróinvíreas”, “scaradh sóisialta” (social distancing) and “féin-aonraigh” (to self-isolate) being just some of the entries recently added to the online dictionary Tearma. Irish is also commonly used by political activists — in the run-up to the 2018 abortion referendum, many a campaigner could be seen bearing badges and leaflets that read “Vótáil Tá” (Vote Yes) or “Vótáil Níl” (Vote No).
So now that the Black Lives Matter movement has reached an international scale, how do Irish-language journalists and activists navigate the mixed connotations of the colour blue? The answer is they don’t. Despite the translation proffered by one Wikipedia editor (as a recent Scots-related incident has proven, minority languages and Wikipedia are a dangerous mix), Irish-language newscasts and articles uniformly adopt the English name when reporting on the protests. This is nothing out of the ordinary, of course — even in English, there is a tendency to preserve the names of political movements and parties in the languages of the regions in which they originated (think of the gilets jaunes or Sinn Féin). Nobody has yet made the mistake of translating the name literally — nobody, that is, except one very ill-informed American who thought “Blue Lives Matter” could be rendered as “Gorm Cónaí Ábhar”, which is both nonsensical and the exact opposite of what he meant.
Interestingly enough, it seems that in the 21st century the Irish language has begun to move away from the practice of describing a Black person as a “duine gorm.” Reporting on the events that led up to June’s protests, one journalist refers to George Floyd as a “fear dubh 46 bliain d’aois as Minneapolis” (46-year-old Black man from Minneapolis). Newscasters for the public radio station Raidió na Gaeltachta have also referred to Floyd as a “fear dubh.” This is likely due to the fact that today, every Irish speaker is also an English speaker; every Irish speaker has been exposed to the black/white dichotomy embedded in English-language racial discourse. “Gael is ea Gael, cuma dubh, bán nó riabhach”, read one placard from the Black Lives Matter demonstration held in Dublin this past June — “An Irish person is an Irish person, whether Black, White or striped.”
However, there are two clear problems with using the phrase “fear dubh.” The first is its aforementioned Satanic connection; the second is that “fear dubh” is a “Béarlachas”, or an Anglicism. While French and Italian may continue to thrive in spite of a constant influx of English borrowings, minority languages like Irish are threatened by them. There is something particularly insidious about “fear dubh”, which is a calque from English rather than an outright borrowing — it’s an Anglicism disguised as an indigenous term, comparable to those hordes of tech neologisms that have been inducted into Irish with Gaelicised spellings (like “léasar” for laser or “táibléad” for tablet). More importantly, it erases the historical weight of a preexisting phrase. Although not an entirely accurate descriptor (neither is “Black”, to be fair), “duine gorm” attests to the presence of Black people in Ireland long before the modern era, something which deserves more attention than it is currently paid. And as Antain Mac Lochlainn, a columnist for the Irish-language news site Tuairisc.ie, puts it, “People like ‘duine gorm’ simply because it’s different from the English. That makes it more Irish, doesn’t it?”
The author would like to thank Dr William Hart for his help in finding sources for this article.