'The sea has always sustained us, and it can again...' Manchán Magan writes for Culture about a unique project created for Galway 2020 that celebrates the language of Ireland's coastal communities.

Over the last year I've been roaming the coastline of Donegal, Mayo and Galway, collecting sea words and coastal terms from fishermen and folklorists for a project called Sea Tamagotchi for Galway2020, European Capital of Culture. I asked the fishermen for words that brought the sea and the coastline alive, and have since been sharing them on Instagram, Twitter and on my website.

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I’ve found it bewildering how a single word can give insight into so much – a mindset, a way of life, a fishing practise, a weather pattern or navigation system. Some of the words even reveal psychological aspects of life along the shore, such as caibleadh, spirit voices heard in the distance at sea on calm nights, or Airdeogaí, under the spell of fairies (from drinking poteen) and convinced you can do anything.

It strikes me that the loss of even one of these words wipes out something precious - an insight or hard-won knowledge that is gone forever.

For St Patrick’s Festival, I had planned to project short films of some of the most evocative words on the walls of Dublin city. With the support of Foras na Gaeilge I’ve been able to get 19 films made by Lauren Varian, Mickey Kelly and Myles O’Reilly, with music composed along the shore by the wonderful Brían Mac Gloinn of Ye Vagabonds and the force of nature that is Clare Sands. Both musicians roamed the coastline recording sea sounds to accompany the fishermen’s words.

Manchán Magan

Unfortunately, lockdown hampers our ability to project the films outside, but they will be shown on St Patrick’s Festival TV instead, both individually and as a 36-minute film.

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What is immediately clear when you hear the words gathered along the shores of Mayo, Donegal and Galway is how they were created be people who depended for their survival on the natural resources of their surroundings. Each word has an intensity and profundity that is rare now. And I am so aware that there are many thousands more words yet to be collected. I focused only on a few scant areas of three counties, while in truth every square inch of coastline has an equally rich word-lore connected to it.

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As well as the films and the postings of words on social media I’ve also published a book, handmade by Red Fox Press in their cottage on an Achill clifftop. It contains forty of my all-time favourite sea words illustrated by the great Korean artist, Antic-Ham. I was inspired to do this by the fisherman, John Bhaba Jeaic Ó Confhaola, from Lettermullen and the seanchaí, Pap Murphy, from the Mullet Peninsula in Mayo who both gave me words which they said they hadn’t spoken aloud or even thought about for 50 years. I realised that such words needed to be preserved in the pages of a hand-crafted book.

Some might say these old terms are a relic of a bygone era, but who knows, we might still need to return to the old coastal and fishing practices that our ancestors depended on at some point in the future. The insights encoded within them will be of great value then. The sea has always sustained us, and it can again.

Beannachtaí Féile Pádraig chugaibh go léir.

Sea Tamagotchi is a project of Galway2020, European Capital of Culture. The Sea Tamagotchi films will be available to view over St. Patrick's Weekend on SPFTV at stpatricksfestival.ie, here on RTÉ Culture and on TV via the Oireachtas TV channel.