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Focail na mBan: ‘Go to the fire and warm your vulva’ and other Irish women’s words and phrases

Manchán Magan’s new book is a collection of Irish language words for women’s genitalia, reproductive organs, menstrual cycles and sex lives, wonderfully illustrated by women artists

Anybody who has ever spent time in dreary Limerick Junction will appreciate one of the funnier Irish language descriptions of a vagina contained in new book Focail na mBan. “Gabhal mná” is a word for vagina, but “gabhhal” can also mean junction, an amusing titbit for when you are next waiting for the train in a downpour at Gabhal Luimnigh, or Limerick’s crotch. It is just one of several entertaining and surprising moments in this unique collection of Irish language words for women’s genitalia, reproductive organs, menstrual cycles and sex lives.

Interestingly, it was a man who came up with the idea for the book, but it would be unfair to accuse writer Manchán Magan of mnásplaining. Understanding the limitations of both his gender and his “inherent 1970s conditioning”, he asked women artists to create visual representations of words for women’s parts, such as “an breallach meigheallach”, a word for vagina that means “bearded clam”, or “an láthair doluaite” which translates as “the unmentionable”, or “bosca” which speaks for itself. The artworks that go alongside them will be exhibited in the Fumbally Cafe in Dublin.

Magan first began ruminating on the subject when he published his book 32 Words for Field, and discovered more than 40 Irish words for the penis but very few that described the vagina, vulva or clitoris. His resolve to try to uncover some of these forgotten women’s words was strengthened on Culture Night last year when he heard comedy burlesque duo The Wild Geeze (say it out loud for full satisfaction) perform their Irish Fanny Song, in which they list pet names women have shared for their genitalia, “mo Mháire”, or “me Mary” being a popular one.

These “sister words” are by turns shocking, crude, mischievous and charming but, says Magan, the book is by no means a definitive collection. He hopes the book will inspire others to further record women’s words and wisdom. In her short introduction, poet Annemarie Ní Churreáin says she grew up in an Ireland where the female body “was not a welcome topic”, even more reason why this linguistic “treasure trove” should be preserved.


The words and phrases include “gibhis”, a euphemism for vagina which means crack or cleft or cavity. “Breall”, the clitoris, has the unfortunate translation of “blubber lip” or “ugly protuberance”. “Grabhaid” means vulva, and how brilliant to discover that a variation of this word is used in the Connemara phrase “teir chun na tine agus téigh do ghrabaide”, which means “go to the fire and warm your vulva”. Blathscaileadh, a word for menstruation, means “bloom release” and may in fact be the source of the Dublin expression “I’m on me flowers”. The saying “bhain sí sásamh as a port” translates as “she enjoyed her tune”, meaning she got great pleasure from her vagina. The west Kerry phrase “Is mór an scannal Dé é gabhal ban” means “a woman’s groin is a wonderful thing”. (Scannal means a scandal as Gaeilge, but scannal Dé or God’s scandal, can also mean a remarkable phenomenon.)

“What a joyous project,” says Amanda Coogan, one of the artists involved. “Not only to learn the Irish words for women’s body parts, but reclaim and proclaim them.” Another artist, Sharon Greene, who illustrated the word “leabhrú” (the act of menstruating or stretching out), says she hopes the project “would in some small way bring our collective shyness and shame around sexuality and our bodies more into the light in a playful and creative way”.

It seems fitting that the book is dedicated to the late Sinéad O’Connor, who would no doubt have appreciated the shame-busting sentiment behind the truly wonderful Focail na mBan.

Growler & The Wild Geeze will perform as part of the Focail na mBan exhibition at Dublin’s Fumbally Cafe at 7.30pm, November 25th. Tickets €27. See