Poems from the ninth-century, called the “Triads of Ireland” hold fascinating nuggets of wisdom inside them, if we can work out what they mean!
Triads are a specifically-Irish form of verse. They were very popular amongst Irish bards of 9th Century Ireland. Bards were poets who recited epic poems as entertainment. But they also recited law triads to squabbling citizens.
The form of the triad helped the bards remember the verses correctly, by grouping ideas in threes. Sometimes triads were funny, sometimes profound. Many show that human nature has not changed, even over the centuries. Sometimes they are bizarre, their meaning lost over the centuries. And occasionally they show their age, especially when they mention how women and slaves should be treated (badly, of course).
Most of these triads were collated from a range of manuscripts in Old Irish, including The Yellow Book of Lecan, a vellum currently held at Trinity College. Also, some were taken from the Book of Ballymote, a vellum held at the Royal Irish Academy, and the Book of Húi Maine, among others. These Old Irish texts were translated into English by a German scholar called Kuno Meyer, who lived in Ireland in the late 19th century. He said, “In Ireland, the manufacture of triads seems at times, almost to have become a sport.”
Meyer himself was an interesting character. He was a German academic, distinguished in the field of Celtic philology and literature. Meyer’s translations from Old Irish into English allowed modern Irish people who had lost the Irish language to enjoy these old poems once again. He became a hero in Ireland, and published translations of Old Irish romances and sagas, and wrote prolifically. His topics ranged from name origins to ancient law. Meyer was instrumental in showing the world just how lyrical and advanced the Old Irish language was.
Meyer was wildly popular across Europe until he voiced his support for Hitler in World War II, and from there he fell out of favour. However, his contribution to Irish historical literature cannot be understated. He has since regained favour posthumously despite his controversial position regarding Hitler’s regime.
Speakers of Old Irish called their language Goídelc. The language was used from c. AD 600–900, and after that the language transitioned into early Middle Irish. Old Irish is the ancestor of Modern Irish, Manx, and Scottish Gaelic. The triads translated by Meyer became known as Trecheng Breth Féne – “A Triad of Judgments of the Irish.” It was first published in 1906. Soon the book became known as “The Triads of Ireland” and this is what we call it today.
A complete list of the triads translated by Kuno Meyer can be found on the University College Cork website. They give a fascinating insight as to what was topical in the day. Like for example, how women were expected to behave: “Three maidens that bring love to good fortune: silence, diligence, sincerity.” (Try telling Irish women that today).
Triads soon spread from Ireland. Triads can be pointed out in Welsh law texts, long after first appearing in Irish texts. Proverbial sayings in the form of triads are still popular in Ireland today: “Three kinds of men who fail to understand women: young men, old men, and middle-aged men.” So here are some triads for you to enjoy. Like the literature from any old text, the translation may be lost in time; however, there are certainly nuggets of wisdom that can still apply today.
Three enemies of the soul: the world, the devil, and an impious teacher.
Three things whereby the devil shows himself in man: by his face, by his gait, by his speech.
Three things there are for which the King of the sun is grateful: union of brethren, upright conversation, serving at the altar of God.
The three rivers of Ireland: the Shannon, the Boyne, the Bann.
The three dark places of Ireland: the cave of Knowth, the cave of Slaney, the cave of Ferns.
The three halidoms of the men of Ireland: breast, cheek, knee. Three rejoicings that are worse than sorrow: the joy of a man who has defrauded another, the joy of a man who has perjured himself, the joy of a man who has committed parricide.
Three unfortunate things for the son of a peasant: marrying into the family of a franklin, attaching himself to the retinue of a king, consorting with thieves.
Three unfortunate things for a householder: proposing to a bad woman, serving a bad chief, exchanging for bad land.
Three excellent things for a householder: proposing to a good woman, serving a good chief, exchanging for good land.
Three holidays of a landless man: visiting in the house of a blacksmith, visiting in the house of a carpenter, buying without bonds.
Three things which justice demands: judgment, measure, conscience.
Three things which judgment demands: wisdom, penetration, knowledge.
Three characteristics of concupiscence: sighing, playfulness, visiting.
Three things for which an enemy is loved: wealth, beauty, worth.
Three things for which a friend is hated: trespassing, keeping aloof, fecklessness.
Three rude ones of the world: a youngster mocking an old man, a healthy person mocking an invalid, a wise man mocking a fool.
Three deaf ones of the world: warning to a doomed man, mocking a beggar, keeping a loose woman from lust.
Three ugly things that hide fairness: a sweet-lowing cow without milk, a fine horse without speed, a fine person without substance.
Three accomplishments of Ireland: a witty stave, a tune on the harp, shaving a face.
Three ungentlemanly things: interrupting stories, a mischievous game, jesting so as to raise a blush.
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.
Three deaths that are better than life: the death of a salmon, the death of a fat pig, the death of a robber.
Three fewnesses that are better than plenty: a fewness of fine words, a fewness of cows in grass, a fewness of friends around ale.
Three sorrowful ones of an alehouse: the man who gives the feast, the man to whom it is given, the man who drinks without being satiated.
Three laughing-stocks of the world: an angry man, a jealous man, a niggard.
Three ruins of a tribe: a lying chief, a false judge, a lustful priest.
Three preparations of a good man’s house: ale, a bath, a large fire.
Three shouts of a good warrior’s house: the shout of distribution, the shout of sitting down, the shout of rising up.
Three props of obstinacy: pledging oneself, contending, wrangling.
Three characteristics of obstinacy: long visits, staring, constant questioning.
Three ungentlemanly boasts: I am on your track, I have trampled on you, I have wet you with my dress.
Three oratories of Ireland: the oratory of Birr, the oratory of Clonenagh, the oratory of Leighlin.
Three maidens that bring hatred upon misfortune: talking, laziness, insincerity.
Three silences that are better than speech: silence during instruction, silence during music, silence during preaching.
The three chief sins: avarice, gluttony, lust.
Three things that constitute a buffoon: blowing out his cheek, blowing out his satchel, blowing out his belly.
Three things that constitute a harper: a tune to make you cry, a tune to make you laugh, a tune to put you to sleep.
Three things betokening trouble: holding a plough-land in common, performing feats together, alliance in marriage.
Three cold things that seethe: a well, the sea, new ale.
Three wealths in barren places: a well in a mountain, fire out of a stone, wealth in the possession of a hard man.
Three renovators of the world: the womb of woman, a cow’s udder, a smith’s moulding-block.
Three concealments upon which forfeiture does not close: a wife’s dowry, the food of a married couple, a boy’s foster-fee.
Three that are incapable of special contracts: a son whose father is alive, a betrothed woman, the serf of a chief.
Three causes that do not die with neglect: the causes of an imbecile, and of oppression, and of ignorance.
Three bloodsheds that need not be impugned: the bloodshed of battle, of jealousy, of mediating.
Three cohabitations that do not pay a marriage-portion: taking her by force, outraging her without her knowledge through drunkenness, her being violated by a king.
Three dead ones that are paid for with living things: an appletree, a hazel-bush, a sacred grove.
Three that are not entitled to renunciation of authority: a son and his father, a wife and her husband, a serf and his lord.
Three who do not adjudicate though they are possessed of wisdom: a man who sues, a man who is being sued, a man who is bribed to give judgment.
Three on whom acknowledgment does not fall in its time: death, ignorance, carelessness.
Three oaths that do not require fulfilment: the oath of a woman in birth-pangs, the oath of a dead man, the oath of a landless man.
Three ranks that ruin tribes in their falsehood: the falsehood of a king, of a historian, of a judge.
Three free ones that make slaves of themselves: a lord who sells his land, a queen who goes to a boor, a poet’s son who abandons his father’s craft.
Three brutes whose trespasses count as human crimes: achained hound, a ferocious ram, a biting horse.
Three brutish things that atone for crimes: a leashed hound, a spike in a wood, a lath.
Three glories of speech: steadiness, wisdom, brevity.
Three ornaments of wisdom: abundance of knowledge, a number of precedents, to employ a good counsel.
Three hateful things in speech: stiffness, obscurity, a bad delivery.
Three steadinesses of good womanhood: keeping a steady tongue, a steady chastity, and a steady housewifery.
Three excellences of dress: elegance, comfort, lastingness.
Three that are not entitled to sick-maintenance: a man who absconds from his chief, from his family, from a poet.
Three women that are not entitled to a fine: a woman who does not care with whom she sleeps, a thievish woman, a sorceress.
Three things that characterise every chaste person: steadiness, modesty, sobriety.
Three things by which every angry person is known: an outburst of passion, trembling, growing pale.
Three things that characterise every patient person: repose, silence, blushing.
Three things that characterise every haughty person: pompousness, elegance, display of wealth.
Three things that tell every humble person: poverty, homeliness, servility.
Three signs of wisdom: patience, closeness, the gift of prophecy.
Three signs of folly: contention, wrangling, attachment to everybody.
Three things that make a wise man foolish: quarrelling, anger, drunkenness.
Three things that show every good man: a special gift, valour, piety.
Three things that show a bad man: bitterness, hatred, cowardice.
Three things that set waifs a-wandering: persecution, loss, poverty.
Three rocks to which lawful behaviour is tied: a monastery, a chieftain, the family.
Three candles that illumine every darkness: truth, nature, knowledge.
Three things that constitute a king: a contract with other kings, the feast of Tara, abundance during his reign.
Three things that are undignified for everyone: driving one’s horse before one’s lord so as to soil his dress, going to speak to him without being summoned, staring in his face as he is eating his food.
Three welcomes of an ale-house: plenty and kindliness and art.
Three things that are best in a house: oxen, men, axes.
Three that are worst in a house: boys, women, lewdness.
Three entertainers of a gathering: a jester, a juggler, a lap-dog.
Three things that are best for a chief: justice, peace, an army.
Three nurses of high spirits: pride, wooing, drunkenness.
Three prohibitions of food: to eat it without giving thanks, to eat it before its proper time, to eat it after a guest.
Three debts which must not be neglected: debts of land, payment of a field, instruction of poetry.
Three locks that lock up secrets: shame, silence, closeness.
Three well-bred sisters: constancy, well-spokenness, kindliness.
Three ill-bred sisters: fierceness, lustfulness, obduracy.