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On Lockdown - Manchán Magan

Manchán Magan

Manchán Magan is a writer and documentary-maker. His theatrical installations Gaeilge Tamagotchi, Arán & Im and Sea Tamagotchi explore the insights and wisdom within the Irish language. He has written books on his travels in Africa, India and South America and his new book on the Irish language, Thirty Two Words for Field will be published in the Autumn. He writes regularly for The Irish Times, reports on travel for various radio programmes, and has presented dozens of documentaries on issues of world culture for TG4, RTÉ & Travel Channel. He lives in an oakwood alongside his bees, hens and vegetable plot in Westmeath.

He has received commissions to write plays from The Abbey Theatre, BBC and Project Art Centre. His bilingual plays have been nominated for numerous awards, including 2 Irish Times Theatre Awards, Fishamble New Writing Award and Bewleys Café Theatre Award. He won the Walter Macken Taibhdhearc Drama award in 2014, and the Stewart Parker Irish Language Theatre Award in 2009. In 2013 he won the Screen Directors Guild’s Outstanding Achievement Award for the 70 television documentaries.

Solstice commissioned Manchán to reflect on our national state and new internal lives through Covid 19.

Magh to Cumhal to Feartach to Gráin Video

Magh to Cumhal to Feartach to Gráin (Measuring Our World)

Manchán Magan


Magh is the distance that a bell, or a cock-crow, can be heard. Magh, or macha also refers to a level plain or a wide stretch of even earth, but in the term magh na hathgabala (‘the plain of distress’) it becomes a legal definition to refer to the space in which the chime of a hand bell can be heard from a church, or the crowing of a cockerel from a barn door.

The ancient Brehon Law, as recorded in the Seanchus Mór, says: “Is é magh na hathgabala annso airiut rocluintiur guth cluic no gair in cailigh cearc.” In Modern Irish that would be “Is é magh na hathgabhala an áit a chloistear guth cloig nó gair an choiligh circe.”

My land is a magh from Collinstown, Baile na gCailleach in Co Westmeath. I can just about hear the church bell ringing on a Sunday.

SEISREACH: The old measure for a ¼ of a baile (a townland), or roughly 60 acres according to Patrick Dineen’s dictionary [1]. Seisreach can also mean a plough team of 6 horses. In fact, seisreach was normally only used to refer to ploughable land, and certainly most of my land isn’t suitable for ploughing. Much of it is a steep drumlin, a gravel heap of riverbed deposited here by a glacier over 10,000 years ago. It would break the heart of any ploughman.

[1] This is the measurement from Foras Feasa in Éireann (1634AD), other sources will say that a seisreach was 120 acres, and only 1/12 of a baile.

CUMHAL: Most seisreacha had been divided up over generations into cumhala, which was the main unit of land long ago. A cumhal (or tír cumaile) was worth three milch cows, or a bondmaid (a woman bound to service without wages). Basically, a female slave. A cumhal was roughly 23 acres in size, but could be bigger or smaller, depending on the quality of the land. The Críth Gabhlach document claims it was 34.5 acres.

When I bought my land in 1997 it was roughly half of a cumhal. So, it’s worth would have been half a female slave, or one and a half milch cow.

They say that a good cumhal of land can graze twenty head of cattle, but, my land would really struggle to manage even seven head of the modern, heavy cattle breeds. I tried keeping pigs on it at one stage- 20 pigs and a few lambs, and that really stretched it to its limits.

CLOIGEANN: Why do we say ‘head’ of cattle? We don’t see ‘head’ of hens, or sheep. It seems to just be the counting term for cows, like blades of grass, sheets of paper and tracks of music. It means you can include bullocks, bulls and heifers in the count along with the cows.

In Irish you don’t say a ‘head of cattle’. Ceann bó. You just say bó, or dhá bhó (two cows). But when you’re counting people in some dialects you do say, heads or skulls of people. Cloigne. Like, in parts of Donegal you wouldn’t say there were 7 people there, or 28 people. But, instead, bhí seacht gcloigne ann. (There were 7 heads or skulls there). Bhí siad ocht gcloigne is fiche, ann. (There were 28 of them there).

In summary: Ireland in total has 870,000 cumhals and I am the guardian in this lifetime of a half of one of them. Yet, I don’t yet feel that I’ve adequately summoned up the land in terms of the old units of measurements.

FORRACH: a forrach is 144 feet of land, and it’s also the word for the measuring pole/rod used to measure the land. A cumhal consists of 12 forrachs in length by 6 forrachs in width. So, my land consists of six forracha by three.

FEARTACH: A feartach is twelve feet (spelt ‘fertach’ long ago). There are 12 feartaigh in a forrach. The roof of my house is made of grass and is two feartachs long. So my land stretches 72 times the distance of my roof in one direction and 36 times in the other.

DEISCHÉIM: There were two deischéim in a feartach. A deischéim is a double step.

TROIGHID: A foot was a troighid. There were 12 troighid in a feartach. But, a foot wasn’t 12 inches. It was the length of a man’s foot, which was closer to 10 inches than 12.

DORN: One foot is the size of 2 dorn. 2 fists. (Width of hand with thumb extended.) There was a dorn with the thumb extended and one with it folded in. (5 ordlach, versus 6 ordlach).

BAS: Bas is a palm, now spelled bos, as in bualadh bos (applause). There were 3 bas in a troighid. The bas was measured at the foot of the fingers. It was four odlach in length.

ORDLACH: Ordlach is a thumb-width. The word now means inch, but it equated to about .8 of an inch. It comes from the word órdóg, a thumb. There were 12 ordlachs in a troighid. The ancient Irish law tracts cite that there were “Ceithri orlaighi i mbais, teora basa i troighid.” (Four ordlaigh in a palm, three palms in a foot.)

GRÁIN: And there were 3 gráin in an ordlach. Gráin refers to grains of wheat laid lengthways. There were 36 gráin in a troighid, and 432 gráin in a feartach. Therefore, my half-cumhal is 31,100 grains of wheat in length by 15,500 in width.

Why am I telling you all this? Because, since buying the site in 1997 for £10,000, I’ve never appreciated every single forrach, feartach, deischéim,  troighid, dorn, orlach and gráin of it as much as I do now.

I yearn to get out into the forracha and feartaigh beyond my gate again. I envy the cockerel’s call and the church bells chime which are free to travel out there across the Magh. And I am determind that once I get that freedom again I will make sure to truly appreciate it.


A sample of the Brehon Laws:

In The Ancient Laws of Ireland, as translated by Gearóid Mac Niocaill, a legal scholar posed the question many centuries ago, “Cesc,  co  toimsither  tir  cumaile?” (How is a land of a cumal measured?)

He replies: A grainni. Tri grainne i n-ordlach innraic, se ordlaige i ndorn,  & da dorn a traigid; (By grains. Three grains in a standard inch, six inches in a fist and two fists in a foot;)

se traigthi i ndeisceim, se deisceimeanda a n-inntrit,  se inntrit a lait, se laitia forraig, se foirrge i n-airceand. Tir cumaili, da forrach (six feet in a pace, six paces in an inntrit, six inntrit in a lait, six lait in a forrach, six forrach in an end. The land of a cumal, its length is twelve forrach.)



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