The Triads of Ireland refer to a collection of early Irish proverbs presented in threes. Here’s an example of an Irish triad …
“Three things which justice demands:
judgment, measure, conscience.”
First compiled in the 9th century these usually wise words comprise three items that share a memorable trait.
The reason I say “usually wise words” is that some of these old Irish statements tend to put women in their place, and that place has not been accepted by strong Irish women for many years, nor decades, nor maybe even centuries.
Translation of the Triads of Ireland:
The original name of this collection is Trecheng Breth Féne. Kuno Meyer translated the triads at the beginning of the 20th century, and explained this title as “a triadic arrangement of the sayings of Irishmen.”
In his text Meyer noted that “it is but a small portion of the large number of triads scattered throughout early Irish literature.”
This translation work was published in London by the Hodges Figges Company in 1906. Here’s the exact reference for anyone who may be interested ….
- The Triads of Ireland. Kuno Meyer (ed), First edition [xv + 35 pp., v–xv Introduction, 1–35 Text and Translation, 36–43 Glosses and Notes, 45–46 Index Locorum, 46 Index Nominum, 47–54 Glossary.] Hodges Figgis & Co.London (1906) . Todd Lecture Series. , No. 13
Composition and Arrangement of the Triads of Ireland:
The triads cover a wide variety of topics including nature, geography, law, customs, traditions, and the one that piques my interest most, human behavior.
The first part of a triad usually identifies a specific characteristic followed by a list of three things or traits this characteristic shares.
Triads were arranged in groupings according to their content, and were numbered.
The first sixty-one contain topographical enumerations. Here is an example …
40. “The three rivers of Ireland:
the Shannon, the Boyne, the Bann.”
These entries are interesting in that they share the names of places holding historical and cultural significance for Irish men in days gone by.
For me, the next grouping of triads is even more interesting. These entries comment in a very moralistic tone on human nature, and socially acceptable behavior.
Women are warned about how to behave, and which unladylike traits were frowned upon. How about these examples?
109 – “Three maidens that bring hatred upon misfortune:
talking, laziness, insincerity.”
110 – “Three maidens that bring love to good fortune:
silence, diligence, sincerity.”
114 – Three idiots that are in a bad guest-house:
the chronic cough of an old hag,
a brainless tartar of a girl,
a hobgoblin of a gillie.
Note it’s an old hag with a chronic cough, not some old man, illustrating how women were sometimes put down in these old triads. And God forbid, we ever encounter girls who are “brainless tartars.” A ‘tartar of a girl” would be a sulky, disagreeable girl, but to be brainless into the bargain, is an indictment for the ages.
The gillie was a solitary male faerie that appears in Scottish folklore. He was kindly and devoted to children. I believe a hobgoblin of a gillie would instead have been a fiendish faerie.
The triads numbered 149-186 display a legal bent, some of them being direct quotes from ancient Irish law tracts.
160 – “Three that are not entitled to renunciation of authority:
a son and his father,
a wife and her husband,
a serf and his lord.”
And the message was – Irish women, obey thy husbands. I’m happy to report those days have long since passed. Hopefully Irish men and women better understand each other in today’s world.
But then again, there’s a more modern nineteenth-century Irish saying in the form of a triad, shedding light on the relationship between men and women …
“Three kinds of men who fail to understand women:
young men, old men, and middle-aged men.”
I think it’s interesting that the Irish still favored groupings of threes for proverbs, centuries after the first triads were created.
A Celtic Affinity for Groupings of Three:
Groupings of three items that share a characteristic feature seems to have appealed to our Celtic forebears. Ancient Celtic imagery and ornamentation relied heavily on groupings of threes, with the trinity knot being a key example of our Celtic love of threes.
But why did our ancestors learn rules and sayings in groups of threes?
This was probably a method of systematizing and preserving ancient mythology and lore, wisdom and law, proverbs and ethical lessons. Wandering bards could memorize these important moralistic rules, social lessons and legalities by using the triad as a mnemonic device.
When welcomed into a home, the bard could share his knowledge with the family or the entire household by reciting memorized triads.
The Irish are not alone in their affinity for arranging ideas into threes. There is a Book of Welsh Triads, and other world cultures feature triads as useful memory devices.
A Collection of Irish Triads:
I’m not planning on sharing all of the triads in this short blog post. However, here are a few of my favorites from the long collection found in the Triads of Ireland.
After recovering from the fact Irishmen were a little chauvinistic toward women in the first millennium, I admit, some of these wise old words from Ireland still ring true to this very day.
Here’s a little sampling of a few that caught my eye …
76 – Three hands that are best in the world:
the hand of a good carpenter,
the hand of a skilled woman,
the hand of a good smith.
80 – Three things for which an enemy is loved:
wealth, beauty, worth.
82 – Three rude ones of the world:
a youngster mocking an old man,
a healthy person mocking an invalid,
a wise man mocking a fool.
86 – Three sparks that kindle love:
a face, demeanor, speech.
90 – Three ungentlemanly things:
a mischievous game,
jesting so as to raise a blush.
91 – Three smiles that are worse than sorrow:
the smile of the snow as it melts,
the smile of your wife on you after another man has been with her,
the grin of a hound ready to leap at you.
93 – Three fewnesses that are better than plenty:
a fewness of fine words,
a fewness of cows in grass,
a fewness of friends around ale.
Some may wonder why a fewness of cows might have been considered a good thing. To non-farmers more cows may automatically appear to be a better proposition.
However, if too many cows are crowded into a small field, they won’t have enough grass to graze. Each cow needs space to roam and eat their fill, so the less dense a herd is in a field, the more prosperous the farmer.
97 – “Three preparations of a good man’s house:
ale, a bath, a large fire.”
111 – Three silences that are better than speech:
silence during instruction,
silence during music,
silence during preaching.
146 – “Three sounds of increase:
the lowing of a cow in milk,
the din of a smithy,
the swish of a plough.”
225 – “Three welcomes of an ale-house:
plenty and kindliness and art.”
250 – Three prohibitions of food:
to eat it without giving thanks,
to eat it before its proper time,
to eat it after a guest.
And there you have it – my little introduction to the Triads of Ireland. I hope you enjoyed this ramble around Irish social edicts and etiquette rules from the first millennium.
Slán agus beannacht,
(Goodbye and blessings)
Irish American Mom
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