Ruadhán MacFadden


Of all the walks I did on the Faroes, the five-metre stretch between the door and the bar was the most difficult. Not for the usual reason that one might find one’s gait impaired in such an establishment (local drink prices having served as remarkably effective motivation for an abstemious evening), but rather due to the glutinous remnants of the untold numbers of beers that previous customers’ unsteady gaits had left upon the floor. Rambling around the sodden fens that dot the Faroese landscape was one thing, but this simple linoleum surface exerted an almost gravitational pull, every step crackling as I wrenched my foot free. Keeping in mind the typically Nordic cost of beer on the islands, I wondered just how much krónur had been wasted on the floor over the years, layered into a sticky palimpsest of Carlsberg and Tuborg.

Jógvan the bartender must have caught my bemused look.

“Yeah, it gets a bit crazy in here at the weekends.”

 I gestured at the floor in mock disappointment.

“C’mon now, I thought you lads were all expert sailors. I figured you’d be better able to keep your balance than this.”

Jógvan laughed.

“That’s the problem. After too many beers these guys think they’re back at sea, and their land legs disappear.”

I ordered something local. A pilsner from a nearby brewery, produced in small quantities. It turned out to actually be more expensive than the range of international brands on offer from the glowing taps lined up behind the bar like technicolour centurions, but if my own land legs failed me on the way back to my seat, I told myself, I would at least have added some variety to the palimpsest. As Jógvan dug around for the bottle, I propped my elbows on the bar and surveyed the random assortment of postcards, licence plates, and sporting memorabilia hanging on the wall.

One of them in particular caught my eye. A black and white photo—more of a poster really, considering how large it was—of eleven men standing proudly against a mountain backdrop.

Føroyar 1 – 0 Eysturríki

12 September 1990

Jógvan emerged from under the bar clutching my bottle of local beer. He followed my gaze to the poster.

“Ah, those guys?” He pointed at the poster with the bottle. “Those guys were fucking heroes, man. They’ll never have to pay for a beer for the rest of their lives.”

The twelfth of September 1990 was, it can surely be said without fear of exaggeration, the single most momentous day in Faroese sporting history. A day on which the national team, consisting entirely of amateur players, beat Austria in a qualifying match for the 1992 UEFA European Football Championship. Although technically a home game for the Faroese team, the islands at that point didn’t have a single stadium large enough to host such an event, so it had to be played in Sweden instead. The goalkeeper worked as a part-time forklift driver in a fish factory. The midfielder was a baker. The Austrian coach resigned the day afterwards.

Since I had not recently vanquished any Austrians on the field of battle, I was still required to pay for my beers. A tap of a credit card, a crackle of boots on linoleum, and I was settled on a barstool. Between sips I cradled the bottle in my hand, slowly rotating it to see how much of the Faroese text I could decipher. With each rotation, the figure on the front would gradually come back into sight. A bull, head lowered, horns primed, his eyes flashing like the halo of flames in which he was engulfed.



Restorffs Bryggjarí

Stovnað í 1849 

There is a form of old Irish literature called the immram (plural immrama). Although impossibly obscure in the wider global scope of literary genres, the framework of the immrama will be familiar to anyone who has ever followed Odysseus’ tortuously prolonged journey home across the Mediterranean. Immrama are great nautical voyages of discovery, accompanying the protagonists as they launch themselves from Ireland into the great unknown of the western ocean, travelling from island to island and encountering a wildly diverse, often disturbing or supernatural, range of inhabitants thereon. An island of people who laugh. An island of people who cry. An island inhabited by a lone harpist. An island of joy. An island of people with dog-like heads. An island where the biblical prophets Enoch and Elijah await the Day of Judgement.

The protagonists of the immrama are typically monks, priests, or other wandering clerical figures seeking solitude and communion with God in the open ocean. They are thus, at their core, religious tales; literary representations of the peregrination—and isolation—that was coming to characterise early Christian monasticism. Scattered outcroppings of rock in the cold northern seas, it seems, were deemed a suitable substitute for the scorching deserts of lower Egypt in which the Desert Fathers of Scetis similarly secluded themselves.

The question naturally arises of just how far these early Irish anchorites managed to travel. And this, predictably, is an issue on which the literary tradition and cold, hard archaeological evidence often disagree.

Once, in the east of Iceland, I stood on a peninsula near Egilsstaðir. On a clear day, one could see the island of Papey off in the distance. Now inhabited solely by squalling masses of puffins and guillemots, local lore holds that Papey was once home to—and drew its name from—a small community of Irish monks (papar). As intriguing a possibility as this is, no physical remnants of any historical monastic presence have ever been located on Papey, and so the origins of this particular toponym ultimately remain unclear. An alternative proposed etymology deriving from the Old Norse word for “breast” or “nipple” (pappe) would, if nothing else, at least highlight the dangers of assigning naming duties to sailors who have spent too long at sea.

The bottle was now half empty. Every now and then I would pick it up and rotate it in my hand again—probably trying to avoid scrolling through Instagram on my phone too much—and see if my Faroese vocabulary had managed to improve within the past five minutes. 

Faroese is a North Germanic language; specifically a member of the insular branch that also includes Icelandic and the now-extinct Norn that was once spoken on the Shetlands, and so there is a great deal of overlap between those three languages in particular. The previous day I had been in a bookshop just around the corner from where I was currently sitting in Tórshavn, a quietly hyggelig (to borrow an increasingly trendy word from another part of the Kingdom of Denmark) and welcoming retreat called H. N. Jakobsens Bókahandil. As well as having established the town’s first bookshop, the Jakobsen dynasty produced one of the islands’ most notable scholars, the linguist Jakob Jakobsen (1864 – 1918), who devoted decades of study to both his native Faroese and the Norn of the Shetlands. According to one of Jakobsen’s letters, he first became aware of the links between the two languages as a child, when visiting Shetland islanders—mostly fishermen—would drop into his family bookshop. The staff spoke Faroese, but it and the visitors’ ancestral tongue were old fellow travellers along the northern seaways, so they could understand each other without any issues.

One can no longer hear Norn spoken in the bookshops of Tórshavn; nor, unfortunately, anywhere else, the language having gone extinct sometime in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Icelandic is thus Faroese’s closest living relative.

I looked up and caught Jógvan’s attention.

“How well do you understand Icelandic?”

“Huh.” He paused and thought about it. Probably not the kind of question he was usually ambushed with on a Tuesday night. “Pretty well, I guess. I mean, normally we would probably just speak English to each other.”

“Let’s say you had no choice though. Maybe, say an old person who doesn’t speak much English. You reckon you could get by?”

“Yeah, yeah, I think so. They’re pretty close in a lot of ways, so I think we’d get what we’re trying to say. It just sounds really weird sometimes.”

“Like grammar, or pronunciation?”

“Everything. Icelandic is like—” He paused again and thought over how best to explain it. “It’s like Faroese if it was written by a really shitty AI.” 

I had to laugh at that. Comparative linguistics for the modern age.

“And what would an Icelander say about Faroese?”

His turn to laugh.

“Probably the same!”

I went back to the bottle. Some individual words were easy to pick out, especially when used in a familiar context like a list of ingredients, like vatn (“water”), so similar to its equivalents on the Scandinavian mainland. Or smakka (“taste”), with branches of its family tree blooming even further afield in German (geschmack) and English (to smack one’s lips in anticipation of a tasty meal). Even the orthographic holdovers from Old Norse in the Faroese alphabet, the eth (ð) and the ash (æ), so initially intimidating to foreign eyes, were once an integral part of English as well. The English of Bede and Beowulf, before the infusion of latinate loanwords that took place in the centuries following the Battle of Hastings, peppering the language like a hail of Norman arrows and gradually transforming it into the English we know today.

I continued turning until I was staring down the bull again.

The Faroes are located just over halfway between Ireland and Iceland. Eighteen rocky, volcanic islands clustered closely together in the great blue expanse of the North Atlantic. And yet as remote and lonely as they may seem, these islands were once a waypoint on a dense network of sea routes that criss-crossed this part of the world. The great foundational text of medieval Icelandic history, the Landnámabók (Book of Settlement) even mentions the travel times that one could expect. Five days by boat from Ireland to the east coast of Iceland. And then from Iceland, only four days to get onwards to Greenland. Words and gods and ambitions moving as fast as oars could drive them and the wind would carry them.

The Faroes (Føroyar) are not specifically mentioned by name in that particular early route planner, but a name did eventually take hold, most likely an Old Norse compound inspired by the wandering ruminant that appears on the country’s coat of arms to this day: fær (“sheep”) + eyjar (“islands”). Just like in Iceland, however, rumours of pre-Norse settlement by seafaring Irish monks remain stubbornly persistent here. Some have even proposed that it was these men who christened the islands with the Old Irish fearann, meaning “land-holdings” or “estate”. The famously peripatetic Saint Brendan the Navigator once graced a Faroese postal stamp on which he was specifically depicted as the discoverer of the islands—a version of history that might well cause an archaeologist to grit their teeth in quiet frustration. Brendan also lent his name to a hotel I had walked past on the outskirts of town a few days earlier, a crisply modern building located right beside the new football stadium that ensured any future assaults on Austrian national pride could now take place on home soil.

The sporadic exchanges with Jógvan continued on the subject of language.

“You have your own language in Ireland, yes? Not just English?”

“Right, we have Irish as well. That was the native language originally, but after a few hundred years of being a British colony almost everyone now speaks English. There are a few places in the west where people still speak Irish as their first language, but those areas are very small, unfortunately.”

“Can you speak it?”

I winced in the same way I always do when that particular subject ends up on the table.

“Ah, not well enough. I can understand it alright. Say if there were two people having a conversation at that table, I’d probably be able to get a feel for what they’re talking about. And if you give me an Irish newspaper to read I could probably get the gist of most things, but speaking—man, I’m rusty as fuck.”

“Can you say something?”

“Sure, but first I’m gonna need another one of these.” 

I held up the bull, wreathed with its halo of flames.

Since the days of Jakob Jakobsen there have been whispered rumours of the legacy that those possible early Irish settlers may have left behind in the speech of the Faroes. Did the Irish bláthach (“buttermilk”) influence the Faroese word for the same (blaðak)? Is there an echo of the Irish lámh (“hand”) in the Faroese word for an animal’s paw (lamur)? Why does a Faroese phrase for expressing fear—tað er ótti á mær; literally “there is fear on me”, a grammatical formulation not found in any other Germanic language—seem to have such a close structural twin in Irish (tá eagla orm)?

These are questions that are generally confined to the dustiest of tomes or the most specialised of academic journals. Prolonged discussions on hypothetical Celtic loanwords, after all, tend to make for very poor hotel names.

I had come across them while researching my trip to the Faroes, and had blown the dust off a tome or two in an attempt to learn more. Perhaps I shouldn’t have. Now I was hearing Irish everywhere.

Not individual words. Not meanings. Even a glance at written Faroese, to my foreign eyes almost indistinguishable from Icelandic, confirmed that it was firmly rooted in the linguistic soil of Scandinavia. But there was something about the sound of it. The flow and the cadence. The music.

An interview with a local woman being played over the radio in a village supermarket. The old man outside my hotel in Tórshavn who each morning stood at the harbour’s edge and raged at the gods of the sea. The other customers ordering drinks in the pub. I was probably riddled with confirmation bias, but it felt like there was something there. A fleeting beat of the familiar that made me turn my head and wonder. A fading echo of an immram.

One last rotation. One last staredown.



tarbhm. bull

From Old Irish tarb, from Proto-Celtic *tarwos (“bull”)

Ruadhán MacFadden is a writer who explores expressions of human culture across national, historical, and linguistic boundaries. His work has been used for UNESCO ICM, and he has published a book on the history and decline of the Irish folk wrestling tradition (Irish Collar and Elbow Wrestling, Fallen Rook Publishing 2021). Originally from Sligo, he currently lives in Germany.