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Thinking in threes: the triad in early Irish literature

Sir John Rhys Memorial Lecture, delivered by Professor Fergus Kelly, on 9 October 2003.

The arrangement of ideas in groups of three is common in the literatures - ancient and modern - of the Celtic-speaking peoples. In this paper I concentrate on the most extensive collection to be found in the Irish language, which consists of 219 triads, as well as a few nonads, tetrads, duads, and single items. It was composed about the ninth century AD by an anonymous author - probably a cleric - and includes observations on law, nature, geography, the Church, and human behaviour in general.

Some of these triads have clearly been adapted from earlier sources, but most display the author's vivid personal style. Sometimes, his triads consist simply of observation of natural phenomena, as in Triad 145 'three cold things which bubble: a well, the sea, new ale'. Here he is obviously attracted by the paradox that these liquids are bubbling, though not at boiling point. In a lyrical mood in Triad 75 he presents another paradox 'three slender things which best support the world: the slender stream of milk from the cow's udder to the pail, the slender blade of green corn above the ground, the slender thread over the hand of a skilled woman'. There is also a paradox in Triad 91 'three smiles which are worse than sorrow: the smile of snow melting, the smile of your wife to you after another man has been with her, the grind of a hound ready to leap'. Here he has imaginatively seen a common denominator between melting snow, an unfaithful wife, and a fierce hound.

Speaker: Professor Fergus Kelly, Director of the School of Celtic Studies, Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies.

More about the Sir John Rhys Memorial Lectures

Lecture text published in Proceedings of the British Academy, 125

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