Someone asked on the Daltaí forum recently how to say “the oldest man” and “one of the oldest men”. The final post in the conversation said:
As far as I know there’s no difference between ba é an fear ba shine…é and bhí sé ar an bhfear/fhear ba shine. “Amongst the oldest men”=bhí sé ar na fir ba shine.
I don’t have the email address for the poster, and as it raises a question raised by many, I have decided to discuss this here.
Bhí sé ar na fir ba shine – this sentence is wrong, if is intended as a translation of “he is among the oldest men”, i.e., “he is one of the oldest men”.
This point was made by PUL in his Notes on Irish Words and Usages:
Tá sé ar na fearaibh is treise ar a chine. Now that construction is not Irish at all. It is just as bad, in Irish, as if a person were to say, in English, “He is about the strongest men of his race”. Yet some writers persist in using it. I daresay they consider the phrase tá sé ar an bhfear is treise absurd. That is because they do not understand the meaning of ar here.
The Foclóir do Shéadna, authorised by PUL, with a preface saying that no other explanations of Séadna were approved by PUL himself, gives further explanation:
An capall is measa ar na capaill, the worst horse among the horses. Distinguish carefully between this use of ar for “among” and the use of ar instead of ina to connect a noun with any part of the verb tá, as in the next four examples. Bhí sé ar an gcéad duine a fuair a chuid, “he was the first man who got his property”. . . . By the above examples it will be seen that ar here forms an unqualified statement like tá sé in’ fhear, “he is a man”, and has nothing to do with the use of ar for “among” or “one of the”.
You could say, an duine is sine ar na daoinibh anso, “the oldest person among the people here”. To that extent ar does mean “among”. But when you say in English “he is among the oldest men”, you mean “he is one of the oldest men”, and PUL shows specifically that constructions such as tá sé ar na fearaibh is treise ar a chine are not correct. “He is among the oldest men” is tá sé ar dhuine de sna fearaibh is sine.
Interestingly, PUL denies that the ar in ar an bhfear is sine and ar dhuine de sna fearaibh is sine means “among” at all. It is an idiom-specific way of forming a copula-like sentence with the substantive verb táim, and is completely separate from the use of ar to mean “among”.