Some Irish Idioms


[Irishleabhar na Gaedhilge, May 1st 1895, Vol VI, No 2, p26]

In the story of Micheál na Buile, the expression occurs bó & í ag dul amú. Phrases of this description are best translated in English by a relative construction—“a cow that was straying”. In the Irish, the two ideas, “cow” and “going astray”, are much more distinct and the expression a great deal stronger when the construction with agus is used, than if the phrase were to run cad do seólfí fán ngleann ach bó a bhí ag dul amú. In the English the relative does not seem to have this weakening effect.

I believe I have sometimes noticed that students of Irish appear to regret the absence from the language of a special verb to express possession, like the English “have”. There seems also to be a feeling of disappointment because Irish has no machinery for complex relative constructions. This is a great mistake. Students ought to take it for granted that a nation whose intellectual capacity secured for it a worldwide renown through a long course of centuries must have possessed a language in every way up to the level of that capacity. Those who have spoken Irish from their earliest childhood are well aware that they never missed this verb “to have”, either as a principal or as an auxiliary; also that, however interdependent the thoughts may have been to which they desired to give expression, they have always been able to express them clearly and thoroughly without the aid of complex relative constructions.

The principal thing to be borne in mind by the student is that it is never safe to translate from English into Irish following the English mode of thought. This precept may have the effect of discouraging beginners, but there is one great consolation that should always be borne in mind—the language is wonderfully consistent. Its general rules have few exceptions. For instance, there is no exception to the rule that “after the verb , or any part of it, a substantive cannot be used as predicate”. The English phrase “he is a man” has two entirely different meanings, which can be distinguished only by the context. It may mean that “he is a man and not some other being”, or it may mean “he is (now) a man”, “he has come to man’s estate”. The first meaning would be expressed in Irish by Is fear é, the second by Tá sé in’ fhear (=ina fhear, “in his man”). This distinction permeates the whole Irish language. Any person can see from this the great advantage that Irish enjoys over English in accuracy of expression so far as the use of the verb “to be” is concerned.

This facility for accuracy of expression is characteristic of Irish in other constructions as well as in those in which the verb “to be” is found. And nowhere are the modes of thought and expression more beautiful or more clearly defined than in constructions which have to be rendered into English by using relatives. Take this example, Do rug sé ar chaolaibh cos ar an bhfear ba mhó ceann & ba chaoile cosa, “he caught by the slender parts of the legs the man who had the largest head and the slenderest legs”. It would be absolutely impossible to translate the Irish sentence literally into English, and equally impossible to render the English sentence word for word in Irish.

Here is another example:—

Níl maith dhom bheith dá labhairt,
’S do ghaol le Donnchadh an tsagairt,
Le hEóghan na gcártaí, a athair,
Le lucht na gceann do ghearradh,
Do chur i málaibh leathair,
Do bhreith leó síos don chathair,
’s an óir do thabhairt abhaile
Mar chothú ban is leanbh.

No use is my uttering it,
Since you are related to Denis of the priest,
To Owen of the cards, his father,
To those who cut off the heads,
Who put them in leathern bags,
Who carried them down to the city,
And who brought home the gold with them,
As a support for wives and children.1

Here we have four relative pronouns in the English translation and not one in the original Irish. But the absence of the relative in the Irish is not a loss, but a distinct gain in strength of thought and energy of expression.

The Irish relative usage does not admit of the insertion of any words between the antecedent and the relative (or verb with relative unexpressed). Hence, such sentences as “He who, having got good advice, refuses to follow it, must blame himself for the consequences”, must be recast before being put into Irish. It must be put into some such shape as this—“He who gets a good advice and does not take it must take the consequences”, An té ’ gheibheann dea-chómhairle & ná glacann í, bíodh air féin.

In my schooldays, when a number us indulged in “scrooging”, some boy with strong ribs would shout, An té lenar cúng, fágadh!, “Anyone who finds things too tight, let him leave!” As often the expression was An té leis gur cúng, fágadh! There are additional methods of rendering an English relative.

I believe that if a learner had once mastered the Irish idioms of the verbs “to be” and “to have” and the relative, the chief portion of his trouble would be over.

Peadar Ua Laoghaire.


caoineadh: “keen, lament, elegy”.
caointeóir: “keener, mourner”.
caol: “slender part of something”, including wrists and ankles.
cúng: “narrow”, pronounced /ku:ŋg/. An té leis gur cúng, fágadh!, “let whoever find it narrow be the one to leave”.
fá: “under”, generally in WM Irish and faoi in GCh. has a wider meaning in fén ngleann, “into/over the valley”.
leanbh: “child”, pronounced /lʹanəv/.
Micheál: note the short i here, frequently found in PUL’s works. The story of Micheál na Buile (“mad Michael”) refers to a story by PUL in a previous issue of Irisleabhar na Gaedhilge that was later published in his Ár nDóithin Araon.

1This is a fragment of a caoineadh. The caointeóir seems to have been praising some dead person, and must have suddenly remembered that the praise was useless on account of the bad character of the some of the dead person’s relatives. Donnchadh must have been a priest-hunter. His father must have been a card-sharper. The others must have been people who hunted down political outlaws on whose heads a price had been set, and obtained money in return for their victims’ heads.


About dj1969

at the conservative end of the libertarian spectrum
This entry was posted in Contents. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s