The symbol of Óglaigh na hÉireann (ÓnaÉ), Defence Forces Ireland
The symbol of Óglaigh na hÉireann (ÓnaÉ), Defence Forces Ireland

One can understand foreign news media misinterpreting the Irish language but our domestic equivalents? The title Óglaigh na hÉireann seems to be causing all sorts of confusion for both. The name dates back to 1913 and the foundation by Irish political and cultural leaders of a Nationalist defence force known in English as the Irish Volunteer Force or more simply the Irish Volunteers (and abbreviated as the IVF or IV). This was done to counter the establishment of a terrorist organisation, the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), by leading politicians from the British Unionist community in the country, principally in the north-east (hence the “Ulster” designation, though in fact it had branches or associated groupings in Dublin, Cork and elsewhere). Whereas the proto-fascist UVF had the support of Britain’s colonial establishment in Ireland (members of the British parliament, government, police, judiciary and armed forces) the IV relied almost entirely on home-grown support with some supplementary aid from expatriate communities in the United States, Australia and sympathetic nations like France and Poland.

When it came to regulating the Volunteers a committee containing a number of military veterans, politicians and academics was selected. It included Eoin Ó Néill, a professor of Irish linguistics and literature, and Pádraig Mac Piarais, a well-known writer, journalist and teacher. From a suggestion by Piaras Béaslaí they devised an Irish translation of the name which reflected not just vernacular usage but also Irish history: this was Óglaigh na hÉireann “the (Military) Volunteers of Ireland”, a name abbreviated under Gaelic grammar rules as ÓnaÉ (ÓÉ). The word óglach (the singular of óglaigh) originally meant a “youthful warrior” and the term was still occasionally used in that literary sense. It was derived from óg “young; a youth, a boy” which in the earliest strata of the language could also mean a “(youthful) warrior”. By combing óg with the termination -lach it became a definitive noun that was understood to have more explicitly military connotations (though it also carried secondary meanings such as “servant” and “follower” depending on context). The committee believed that this ancient word would be a suitable equivalent for “(military) volunteer” and so it has remained in modern Irish.

Thus Óglaigh na hÉireann can be literally translated as “the (Military) Volunteers of Ireland” or more idiomatically “the Irish Volunteers” (this has been the English rendering since the 1900s). The common media translations of “(Young/Youthful) Warriors/Soldiers of Ireland” are very poor indeed. Likewise the abbreviation of the name is not ONH, ONE or ONÉ. It is ÓnaÉ or ÓÉ. Of course, it being Ireland, even the organisations claiming the title frequently use the wrong translations and abbreviations.

As for the name Irish Republican Army that is literally Arm Poblachtach na hÉireann “the Republican Army of Ireland” (APnaÉ or APÉ).

10 comments on “Óglaigh na hÉireann – ÓnaÉ

  1. Graham Ennis

    Only in Ireland would poets and writers be put in charge of an Army……oh, the wild beauty of that!!

    • Hence, “All their wars are merry, and all their songs are sad”.

    • Indeed. Poets, dramatists, historians, translators, journalists, artists, teachers, mathematicians… The archetypal intellectual revolutionaries.

      • Pádraig Ó Déin

        Perhaps these same people, whethter ameatuer or professional, will be called upon again to engage this time in a linguistical battle, rather than a physical one. A battle that will define Ireland as a nation of its own and not as a derivative blur between the United States and Britain.

        • Totally agree, Pádraig. If those currently engaged in “military resistance” to the continued British Occupation were to do so in linguistic and cultural ways so much more could be achieved at this present moment in time. One only need look at what has happened in Catalonia or the Basque country or Flanders and Québec in the 1970s-90s. Language shift would do more to “free” Ireland than any amount of self-defeating and frankly callous firebombs in retail premises or car-bombs in city streets.

          There is a better way!!!!!!

  2. “WarS” why no *** edit thingy?

    • Fixed that for you. I think the edit function is limited to site owners to stop people abusing the Comments system. Personally I think it would be a good idea to give some corrective functionality.

  3. Sharon Duglas

    I ave no issue with using ONE, to be honest, but I found this very informative in the linguistic sense. Thanks, again, Séamas!

    • Glad you liked it 🙂 You can of course use “ONE” (and no doubt people still will) but it actually has no meaning in terms of the Irish language. It is an English abbreviation of an Irish name. Like saying “Teashop” for “Taoiseach”! 😛

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