The Triads of Ireland by Kuno Meyer (1906, available from Project Gutenberg) is a collection of a specifically Irish form of poetry popular amongst Irish bards that probably date from the Ninth Century[i]. They are, as the name suggests, based on threes – they’re sometimes witty, sometimes profound, sometimes strange and I discovered them recently while reading David Greene and Frank O’Connor’s A Golden Treasury of Irish Poetry: AD 600 – 1200 (Macmillan, 1967). A lot of ancient Irish poetry has the kind of sparseness that we associate with Japanese verse (there are beautiful, brief, precise poems like “Writing Out Of Doors” and “Winter” in the Greene & O’Connor volume) and best of the triads seem, to me, to have a haiku-ish thing going on. They do make me wish that I’d paid more attention when people were trying to teach me Irish since something is lost in translation. Still, I was delighted to discover them.
Some of them are bland and for some of the meanings are long lost in history, like this one:
107. Three wonders of Ireland: the grave of the dwarf, the grave of Trawohelly, an echo near.
But, here are some of the finer examples that caught my eye – they either give an insight into the ancient mind, express wisdom that reaches across time, they just made me laugh or I found the images they evoke to be striking. Not all of them are exactly politically correct… and there’s quite a bit of ale.
67. Three rejoicings followed by sorrow: a wooer’s, a thief’s, a tale-bearer’s.
75. Three slender things that best support the world: the slender stream of milk from the cow’s dug into the pail, the slender blade of green corn upon the ground, the slender thread over the hand of a skilled woman.
77. Three things which justice demands: judgment, measure, conscience.
78. Three things which judgment demands: wisdom, penetration, knowledge.
82. Three rude ones of the world: a youngster mocking an old man, a healthy person mocking an invalid, a wise man mocking a fool.
88. Three glories of a gathering: a beautiful wife, a good horse, a swift hound.
89. Three accomplishments of Ireland: a witty stave, a tune out of a harp, shaving a face.
91. 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 tear you to pieces.
92. Three deaths that are better than life: the death of a salmon, the death of a fat pig, the death of a robber.
93. Three fewnesses that are better than plenty: a fewness of fine words, a fewness of cows in grass, a fewness of friends around good ale.
97. Three preparations of a good man’s house: ale, a bath, a large fire.
100. Three darknesses into which women should not go: the darkness of mist, the darkness of night, the darkness of a wood.
122. Three things that constitute a good harper: a tune to make you cry, a tune to make you laugh, a tune to put you to sleep.
130. Three nurses of theft: a wood, a cloak, night.
146. Three sounds of increase: the lowing of a cow in milk, the din of a smithy, the swish of a plough.
194. Three things that make a fool wise: learning, steadiness, patience.
195. Three things that make a wise man foolish: quarrelling, anger, drunkenness.
201. Three candles that illumine every darkness: truth, nature, knowledge.
204. Three keys that unlock thoughts: drunkenness, trustfulness, love.
225. Three welcomes of an ale-house: plenty and kindliness and art.
227. Three things that are best in a house: an ox, men, axes.
242. Three things that are best for a chief: justice, peace, an army.
243. Three things that are worst for a chief: sloth, treachery, evil counsel.
[i] Not, as my wife suggested, a Dublin-based Chinese mafia.