Boreen is a word used frequently in rural Ireland. It’s a beloved term, conjuring homesickness and nostalgia for many.
But have YOU ever wondered what this frequently used little word means?
And so, today I thought we might explore, WHAT is a boreen?
Table of Contents
Origins Of The Word Boreen
The word ‘boreen’ literally means “little road” and it’s part of the language of the Irish landscape, passed down to us from our ancestors.
Bóthar, pronounced bow-her, is the Irish word for road.
Boreen or Irish bóithrín, is the diminutive of bóthar road. It truly is a small, narrow rural road in Ireland.
The Irish word for cow is bó, which is pronounced bow. And the word for over is thar, prounounced har. The word for road came from cow and over – a way for taking cows over to another field. Irish roads were originally cow paths. And that’s the etymology of the Irish word for road.
Now the suffix -ín in the Irish language, and -een in English, means small.
Noreen means little Nora, Maureen or Máirín is little Máire, and Seáinín is little Seán.
This Irish inspired diminutive suffix -een normally signifies smallness or endearment.
Boreen’s a word found in the English dictionary, but it’s roots are firmly Irish.
Boreen As An Example Of Hiberno-English
Boreen is a good example of Hiberno-English, which is the English language as it is spoken in Ireland.
The Irish language holds a huge influence over the traditional English dialects spoken throughout the island of Ireland. The Irish inspired suffix –een became established over time in vernacular Hiberno-English, and this is especially evident in the western counties of Ireland.
Here’s an example of a sentence you might hear anywhere along the Atlantic coast of Ireland –
“I’ll have a dropeen of milk in my tea, to go with a biteen of bread.”
Our Irish conversations are speckled with residual Irish words and boreen is one such word which is standing the test of time.
In Ireland, the language used to describe the natural world and environment, has been inherited from our ancestors.
But I’m sad to report this colorful vocabulary is changing so fast, that many Irish language words used in day to day conversation, are being lost each and every decade.
Language of Ireland’s Past
To tell you the truth an Irish person’s age can probably be predicted based upon the words they choose to describe the landscape around them.
With each passing decade, fewer and fewer of our favorite words can be understood by the younger generations in Ireland. Even my own children do not understand many of the words I use.
“What are you talking about, mom?” is a frequent chorus in our house.
I hold fond, nostalgic memories of conversations with my grandmothers as we wandered east and west along the boreens of beautiful County Cork.
The words of my rural grandmothers would be meaningless to my American born children.
Together, we looked over the ‘cluans,’ or meadows between trees.
I knew where the bánóg (pronounced bawn-ogue) was, where dances were held in olden times, since it referred to a level patch of grass.
My Donegal husband often took the boreen over the brae, a small hill, where he comes from.
And in Galway they look out over the cleggans, spreading in finger-like projections into the Atlantic Ocean. Our predecessors looked at these promontories stretching out into the ocean and thought they looked like skulls.
And so to describe this landscape, they chose the Gaelic or Irish word ‘cloigeann’ which literally means head or skull. And from this Irish word, the Hiberno-English term ‘cleggan’ was born to describe a peninsula or promontory.
Unique Gaelic Vocabulary
But I’m afraid to report these words we borrowed from the Irish language are disappearing at an incredible pace.
Our unique Gaelic vocabulary used throughout Ireland in years gone by, even when speaking English, is being cast away along the highways and byways of this lovely island.
These lyrical, descriptive words are disappearing at an alarming rate, never to be heard again over the hedgerows and ditches of Ireland’s boreens.
However, I’m happy to report, ‘boreen’ is no such dying word.
It’s use is alive and well, especially in the southwest of Ireland around Cork and Kerry, where people travel hither and tither along the boreens of the Irish countryside.
Now to truly qualify as a boreen, rather than an actual road, the center of the route should boast a grass verge.
Grass-ridged, rural boreens are iconic symbols of Ireland.
The Old Boreen – Irish Folk Song
And of course, boreens feature in traditional Irish folk songs.
One such song that comes to mine is called, The Old Boreen, and was often performed by the Irish duo, Foster and Allen. Here’s a verse….
“I love to ramble down the old boreen,
When the hawthorn’s blossoms are in bloom
And to sit by me gate on that auld mossy seat
Whispering to Kate Muldoon.”
~ From The Old Boreen by Foster and Allen
These narrow, often unpaved roads, found throughout rural Ireland, are part of our Irish cultural heritage.
A boreen also features in the Irish folk song called, The Star of the County Down.
“Down a boreen green came a sweet colleen,
And she smiled as she passed me by.”
The boreen has romantic connotations in Irish culture. Don’t you just love how boreen and colleen rhyme.
Famine Relief Roads
In the western counties of Ireland you will see strange road patterns on the sides of mountains.
Small roads criss-cross the Irish landscape, scarring the hillsides, climbing the slopes and suddenly stopping. Some of these roads lead to nowhere, terminating as a dead end, right in the middle of nowhere.
Many of these small roads or boreens were built at the time of the Great Irish Famine.
The English government set up relief or public works to provide employment for the Irish peasantry. English policy dictated that charity could not be handed out without a fair exchange. The impoverished Irish could only provide labor as payment for food aid.
This economic theory of the day was called laissez-faire, which is a French term, meaning let things be.
This philosophy meant the weak, starving and dying Irish people had to toil in the dead of winter to receive any form of compensation or charity.
In addition, any roads built could not interfere with other economically beneficial projects, so often the roads built led to nowhere.
Over 150 years later, these small roads built by our ancestors remain. They stand as visible reminders of the greatest hardship ever endured by the people of Ireland.
The Irish countryside bears witness to the past and some of our boreens are evidence of our tragic history. Every time I pass a mountain boreen, I wonder if it was built at the time of the Famine.
Boreen Family Name in the USA
Did you know that there is a last name or surname “Boreen” which is found around Tennessee.
This name comes from Scotland, and does have Gaelic origins.
In 1840, there was only one family with the last name Boreen in Tennessee, but by the 1920’s this had grown substationally.
And there you have it. A look at the meaning and significance of Irish boreens, those narrow country roads that stir fond memories for many of us.
Thank you for joining me today on our nostalgic stroll down our boreen of Irish life.
And thank you to everyone who follows my recipes and ramblings.
Slán agus beannacht,
(Goodbye and blessings)
Irish American Mom
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