Triads of Ireland

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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[edit]

  • H 2.16 or Yellow Book of Lecan (YBL), col. 236 ff, p. 414b-418a (TCD, Dublin). Complete.
  • 23 P 12 or Book of Ballymote (BB), f. 65b-66b (RIA).
  • Book of Huí Maine, f. 190a1-191a2. Complete.
  • H 2.17 or Great Book of Lecan, f. 183b-184b (TCD).
  • 23 N 10 (previously Betham 145), pp. 98–101 (RIA, Dublin), a paper MS written in 1575.
  • H 1.15, pp. 946–957, a paper MS written by Tadhg Tiorthach Ó Neachtain in 1745.
  • 23 N 27 (Stowe), f. 1a-7b (RIA, Dublin), written in 1714 by Domnall (or Daniel) ó Duind mac Eimuinn.
  • copy in Rylands Library, Manchester, poor and corrupted copy written by Peter O'Longan in 1836.
  • MS Kilbride III, f. 9b2 (Advocates Library, Edinburgh). Vellum.

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[edit]


  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[edit]

  • Meyer, Kuno (ed. and tr.). The Triads of Ireland. Todd Lecture Series 13. Dublin: Royal Irish Academy, 1906. Available online as PDF from the Internet Archive and Google Books, and the main text and translation as html markup from CELT here and here and from Dennis King.

Secondary sources[edit]

  • Kelly, Fergus. "Sir John Rhys Memoral Lecture. Thinking in Threes: The Triad in Early Irish Literature." Proceedings of the British Academy 125 (2004). 1-18.

Further reading[edit]

  • Sims-Williams, Patrick. "Thought, Word and Deed: an Irish Triad." Ériu 29 (1978): 78-111.

Modern adaptations[edit]

  • A parody of the triad form can be found in Flann O'Brien's novel At Swim-Two-Birds (1939).
  • An illustrated adaptation of selected Triads specially designed as gift book or for children: Fergus Kelly (introduction), Aislinn Adams (illustrator). The Three Best Things. Appletree. 1994.

External links[edit]