Triads of Ireland

The title Trecheng Breth Féne "A Triad of Judgments of the Irish", more widely known as "The Triads of Ireland", refers to a miscellaneous collection of about 214 Old Irish triads (and some numerical variants) on a variety of topics, such as nature, geography, law, custom and behaviour. Its compilation is usually dated to the ninth century.[1]


The following example is Triad 91:

Trí gena ata messu brón:
gen snechta oc legad,
gen do mná frit íar mbith fhir aili lé,
gen chon fhoilmnich.
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.[2]

The use of the triad form (arrangement into threes) to encapsulate certain ideas is neither distinctively Irish nor Celtic, but can be widely attested in many societies over the world, in part owing to its usefulness as a mnemonic device. It does appear to be particularly popular in the literatures of Celtic-speaking areas, one notable other example being the later Welsh collection Trioedd Ynys Prydein ("Triads of the Isle of Britain"). Beyond the particular form, however, there is nothing to suggest a shared literary tradition. Although triads can be pointed out in both Irish and (again later) Welsh law texts, they are the rule in neither as other numerical forms are usually preferred. Kuno Meyer proposed that the practice was inspired from the Old Testament, which however, offers very few examples. Fergus Kelly concludes that "[t]he case for a special Celtic cult of threeness is unproven, as is the attempt by Meyer and other scholars to establish a biblical origin."[3]

Manuscript sources

The only edition is still that of Kuno Meyer published in 1906. He based his text on six manuscripts (YBL, BB, Uí Maine, Great Book of Lecan, 23 N 10 and H 1.15) and was aware of another three (23 N 27, Rylands copy and Kilbride).[4] Fergus Kelly reports that four other versions have since been discovered and that the text is therefore in need of a new critical edition.[5]

See also


  1. Kelly, "Thinking in threes" p. 2.
  2. Meyer, Triads of Ireland, pp. 12-3, with changed lineation
  3. Kelly, "Thinking in threes" pp. 1-3
  4. Meyer, introduction to Triads of Ireland.
  5. Kelly, "Thinking in threes", p. 1 and p. 1 note 2.


Edition and translation

Secondary sources

Further reading

Modern adaptations

External links

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