Irish dust devils

by David Harris

photo: Coral Stanley Joblin

In doing some ancestor research in Thurles, Co Tipperary, I found the birth records of my great grandfather.  As a book-end to the story of his life I decided to find his grave, which I knew to be in the remote north of South Australia.  This area is very hot and dry semi-desert.  It is pastoral country, in that cattle are raised there, although, at a stocking rate of one cow per square kilometre, it is rather different from what a Tipperary man may expect.

I wrote a poem about this search, and to place the reader in the landscape I needed to refer to Dust Devils.  Also known locally as willy-willies, they are rising, narrow columns of air, filled with the red dust which is typical of this area.  My poem was written in English and in Irish, so I needed to find a suitable Irish term for a Dust Devil.

In my search I contacted the library at The Source centre, in Thurles, who were very helpful.  After some correspondence the question was put to a native speaker of Irish who suggested the term Sí Ghaoth.  She described it as ‘a Fairy blast, which often occurs in the summer on a very hot still day, usually when people were in the meadow, and suddenly wind would blow up and travel across the meadow, the belief being the fairies were travelling through the meadow.’  It was clear that this is indeed exactly the same meteorological phenomenon as a Dust Devil, but it looks completely different to the observer.  The phenomenon is a ‘thermal’, a rising column of warm air reaching from the ground to cloud base.

As our consultant noted, it occurs on especially hot days.  During the day, the sun warms the earth, and the earth warms the air directly in contact with it. At particularly heated spots the warmed air pushes up like a bubble into the cooler air above, and begins to rise. As it rises, it leaves a space behind it, and surrounding air is sucked in to fill the space, making a strong, localised ground-level wind and, in Australia, collecting dust in the rising air.  This piece of air becomes a column filled with dust, and begins to spin. Ultimately, there is a very high, spinning air column, with a reddish-brown colour. It is a ‘Dust Devil’. But is sí ghaoth the correct Irish word for it?

What are characteristics of the Dust Devil? It occurs in a hot day, with strong sun; a small area of strong wind gusts appears; the small area of ground-level wind moves around; and there is an air column full of dust rising to the sky.

‘Dust devil’ and sí ghaoth are one meteorological phenomenon – a ‘thermal’ – but they look different in Australia and Ireland. In Ireland there is a phenomenon with the first two characteristics, but in the green fields there is no dust to pick up. An air column without dust cannot be seen. To the Irish, the ghaoth is just a small region of strong breezes which moves around the field.

So, the correct Irish word for the phenomenon would be sí ghaoth, but it is not accurate enough to use in my poem. The poem talks of ‘pointing red fingers to the sky.’ In Ireland they do not have dust, so no red fingers.  So, although sí ghaoth would appear to be a correct translation, I have chosen to use the English word for the purposes of the poem.

Here are the poems. My thanks to Irish language friends in Adelaide, especially Eanna, for their help with and ideas for translating the poem into Irish.

The man from Tipperary
The bitumen ended miles ago.
Road is now soft dirt.
Not quite desert –
scrubby bushes, Spinifex
break up the harsh red earth.
Dust devils here and there
point red fingers at the sky.

In 1881 they buried John
somewhere close to here.
Building the Ghan line.
‘Industrial accident’
the Coroner reported.

Here at Warrina cemetery,
a dozen graves, unmarked.
Just three have headstones.

It seems that someone still
remembers Paddy O’Dea.
A marble headstone.
Clean, legible, cared-for.
‘Rest in Peace’ – well sure, it’s peaceful here
-‘killed, the 2nd August
1889.…Aged 23 years.’

But there is no sign of
my John Long.
Buried here?
Or nearby?
A long, long way from home.

Home.  Thurles,
among the green, green fields of Tipperary,
where once I viewed,
in Cathedral archives
in copper-plate script
the Parish record of his birth.

An Fear as Tiobrád Árann

Chríochnaigh an bhóthair mílte siar
anseo, gaineamh bog –
ina fhásach,
Sceacha míshlachtmhar, Spinifex,
anseo ‘s ansiúd ar an tír dóite dearg.
Dust Devils anseo, ansin,
pointionn Dust Devils anseo ‘s ansiúd
a méara dhearga chuig an spéire.

Sa bhliain 1881, cuireadh John
ní i bhfad as anseo.
Ag tógáil iarnród  –
‘Timpiste thionsclaíoch’
a dúirt an cróinéir.

San áit seo, an reilig i Warrina,
dosaen uaigh gan ainm,
gan cloch chinn ach trí.

Is amhlaidh go bhfuil cuimhne
ag duine éigin Paddy O’Dea fós.
Leac uaighe mharmair,
glan, inléite, soléir
Rest in Peace. Tá sé suaimhneach anseo-
‘killed, the 2nd of August
1889.…Aged 23 years.’

Níl tuairisc ná rian
dem’ John Long.
Curtha anseo,
nó cóngarach.
Gar bhfad, ‘s i bhfad ón baile.

A bhaile. Durlas Éile,
i measc na bpáirceanna glasa Tiobraid Árann.
Léigh mé tuairisc lá a bhreithe
i scríbhneoreacht ornáideach
sa chartlán ardeaglais.

David Harris is a member of Adelaide’s Friendly Street Poets. You can find more of his poetry by searching here at Tinteán and also at