The Triads of Ireland

Cover art by Olivia at Leafing Out Art

“Three profitable labours in the day: praying, working, reading.”

Triads of Ireland

The “Trecheng Breth Féne” more commonly known as “The Triads of Ireland”, are delightful tenets of Irish wisdom that have been passed down through the generations. They refer to a collection of about 256 old Irish triads (and some numerical variants) on a variety of topics, including nature, geography, law, custom and behaviour. Thought to have been compiled in the ninth century, they are essentially a miscellany of insights written in threes.

All art by Olivia at Leafing Out Art

The following Triads outline some geography of Ireland.

“The three heights of Ireland: Croagh Patrick, Ae Chualann, Bonn Boirche.
The three lakes of Ireland: Lough Neagh, Lough Ree, Lough Erne.
The three rivers of Ireland: the Shannon, the Boyne, the Bann.
The three plains of Ireland: the plain of Meath, Moylinny, Moy-Liffey.”

Translated from Old Irish by the controversial and noted German Celtic scholar Kuna Meyer (1858–1919), who described them as “a triadic arrangement of the sayings of Irishmen.” Everything comes in threes is a great tenant of purported wisdom that abounds in Ireland. They are recorded in many of our ancient texts and most notably in places like The Book of Ballymote and The Yellow Book of Leccan.

The following Triads outline some insightful wisdoms.

“Three sounds of increase: the lowing of a cow in milk, the din of a smithy, the swish of a plough.
Three wealth’s 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.”

They are a text in themselves, but their purpose and use and why they were recorded is shrouded in mystery. They are a product of a post Christian and post Viking Ireland and the effect of the doctrine of the Trinity upon the Celtic imagination in these texts has been put forward without conviction. Often acerbic and scathing, sometimes amusing and other times extremely sexist they offer a unique insight into the mindset of 9 th century Ireland.

The following Triads outline some inherently sexist wisdoms.
“Three forbidden things of a church: a nun as bellringer, a veteran in the abbotship, a drop upon the altar. 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 steadiness’s of good womanhood: keeping a steady tongue, a steady chastity, and a steady housewifery.”

The Triads can be described as a wisdom text (akin to the Book of Proverbs in the Old
Testament) of sorts, their usually wise words contain three elements that share a memorable trait. The concept of recording ancient wisdom utilising this mnemonic device is not unique to Ireland, though it does appear to be particularly popular in our ancient literature.

The following Triads outline some ways to behave with dignity.
“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 indications of dignity in a person: a fine figure, a free bearing, eloquence.
Three nurses of dignity: a fine figure, a good memory, piety.”

There is a sacred character of the number three, and the popularity of the Triad may have contributed to how it lends itself to composition, and enables them to be remembered and indeed recited. These Triads stole some of their wisdom directly from older law texts and Brehon Laws had a single author. There seems to be a consistency of authorship through them, probably that of a cleric, though this thesis is impossible to prove.

The following Triads outline some wisdoms of entertaining guests.
“Three tabus of a chief: an alehouse without storytelling, a troop without a herald, a great company without wolfhounds.
Three prohibitions of food: to eat it without giving thanks, to eat it before its proper time, to eat it after a guest.
Three welcomes of an alehouse: plenty and kindliness and art.”

In conclusion, The Triads of Ireland can be described as a melange of ideas, some trivial, some highly original, on human psychology, the structure of society, the workings of nature, the geography of the country, and other topics and as such are of great interest to the student and social historian alike. And finally…

“Three ornaments of wisdom: abundance of knowledge, a number of precedents, to employ a good counsel.”

Further Reading

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