Thursday, April 28

Medieval Irish Wisdom in the Ninth Century Triads.

Anyone who loves history will tell you that one of the most enjoyable things to do is to visit actual historical sites. An added bonus of writing historical fiction is that one can do quite a lot of this in the name of research. One of my more recent trips was to the wonderful Dunmore Cave in Co. Kilkenny in Ireland.

Dunmore Cave, Co. Kilkenny
© E.M. Powell

Dunmore Cave has been used for refuge and storage for hundreds of years. A Viking massacre here is recorded in the Annals of the Four Masters, a 17th century compilation of earlier Irish chronicles. In 928 Godfrey and the Vikings of Dublin reputedly slaughtered more than 1,000 people here. Archaeological investigations have found the remains of hundreds of people, with many being those of women and children.  10th century coins, beads, and pins have also been found.

I was particularly pleased to see an information board announcing it as ‘One of the Three Darkest Places in Ireland’. No, this wasn’t just a cheap marketing ploy by the Irish Office of Public Works. It's a reference to the mention of Dunmore Cave in the Irish Triads. Triads, the arrangement of ideas or sayings in groups of three, are common in ancient Irish and Welsh writing. They are a type of wisdom literature, serving to instruct, enlighten and at times entertain the reader/listener with truths about life.

St. Luke- 9th C Irish MS
Public Domain

Trecheng Breth Féne or The Triads of Ireland is a collection composed about the ninth century AD by an anonymous author who was most likely a cleric. One might think that the Irish Triad wisdom of over 1,100 years ago would be remote and/or inaccessible. It’s quite the opposite. So much of what this unknown writer has left us could have the ink still wet on the paper. I thought I’d share my personal favourites.

Some of the triads are simply a geographical reference, such as to Dunmore Cave above. We have ‘The three mountain-passes of Ireland: Baltinglass, the Pass of Limerick, the Pass of Dublin’ and ‘The three uneven places of Ireland: Breffny, the Burren, Beare.’ Anyone who has visited the Burren and had a walking boot wedged in a limestone crack would never disagree with this assessment.

Early Medieval Grave Slab, Durrow, Co. Offaly
© E.M. Powell

Moving on from geography, the writer relates some moral musings:
‘Three rejoicings followed by sorrow: a wooer's, a thief's, a tale-bearer's.’
‘Three things which justice demands: judgment, measure, conscience.’
‘Three things which judgment demands: wisdom, penetration, knowledge.’
Wise indeed, yet quite theoretical. Happily, he gets more specific:
‘Three laughing-stocks of the world: an angry man, a jealous man, a niggard.’ 
Yes, indeed, but closely followed by:
‘Three ruins of a tribe: a lying chief, a false judge, a lustful priest.’ 
‘Three ranks that ruin tribes in their falsehood: the falsehood of a king, of a historian, of a judge.’

Early Medieval Grave Slab, Durrow, Co. Offaly
© E.M. Powell

One has to wonder at this point if the scribe has somehow found a wormhole where he is viewing the 21st century. Leaving his very pertinent observations on human nature, we come to the cleric’s Triads that relate to the natural world. These for me have great lyrical beauty.
‘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.’
‘Three live ones that put away dead things: a deer shedding its horn, a wood shedding its leaves, cattle shedding their coat.’
‘Three cold things that seethe: a well, the sea, new ale.’
‘Three sounds of increase: the lowing of a cow in milk, the din of a smithy, the swish of a plough.’
‘Three dead things that give evidence on live things: a pair of scales, a bushel, a measuring-rod.’
‘Three renovators of the world: the womb of woman, a cow's udder, a smith's moulding-block.’
Beautiful, of course, but this unknown writer didn’t simply excel at pastoral imagery. He also has a number of observations of human nature that are on the nail and often hilarious.
‘Three rude ones of the world: a youngster mocking an old man, a healthy person mocking an invalid, a wise man mocking a fool.’
‘Three ungentlemanly things: interrupting stories, a mischievous game, jesting so as to raise a blush.’
‘Three ungentlemanly boasts: I am on your track, I have trampled on you, I have wet you with my dress.’ (Note: on this one, I have no idea. I included it because I love it.)
‘Three deaths that are better than life: the death of a salmon, the death of a fat pig, the death of a robber.’
‘Three silences that are better than speech: silence during instruction, silence during music, silence during preaching.’
‘Three speeches that are better than silence: inciting a king to battle, spreading knowledge, praise after reward.’
‘Three things that constitute a buffoon: blowing out his cheek, blowing out his satchel, blowing out his belly.’
‘Three wealths in barren places: a well in a mountain, fire out of a stone, wealth in the possession of a hard man.’
‘Three oaths that do not require fulfilment: the oath of a woman in birth-pangs, the oath of a dead man, the oath of a landless man.’
‘Three worst smiles: the smile of a wave, the smile of a lewd woman, the grin of a dog ready to leap.’

Initial- 9th C Irish MS
Public Domain

The last of the Triads I have included have a particular appeal. They reflect the contemporary world that the writer lived in, such as this one about Irish appearance.
‘Three lawful handbreadths: a handbreadth between shoes and hose, a handbreadth between ear and hair, a handbreadth between the fringe of the tunic and the knee.’
The world of work is here, too.
‘Three things that constitute a comb-maker: racing a hound in contending for a bone; straightening a ram's horn by his breath, without fire; chanting upon a dunghill so that all antlers and bones and horns that are below come to the top.’
‘Three things that constitute a carpenter: joining together without calculating, without warping; agility with the compass; a well-measured stroke.’
‘Three things that constitute a physician: a complete cure, leaving no blemish behind, a painless examination.’
‘Three things that constitute a harper: a tune to make you cry, a tune to make you laugh, a tune to put you to sleep.’ 

Durrow High Cross, Co. Offaly c850 A.D.
© E.M. Powell

And as it’s Ireland, we have views on hospitality. First, things the writer isn’t happy with:
‘Three unfortunate things for a man: a scant drink of water, thirst in an ale-house, a narrow seat upon a field.’
‘The three worst welcomes: a handicraft in the same house with the inmates, scalding water upon the feet, salt food without a drink.’
‘Three preparations of a bad man's house: strife before you, complaining to you, his hound taking hold of you.’
‘Three sorrowful ones of an alehouse: the man who gives the feast, the man to whom it is given, the man who drinks without being satiated.’
Counterbalanced with what he approves of:
‘Three preparations of a good man's house: ale, a bath, a large fire.’
‘Three entertainers of a gathering: a jester, a juggler, a lap-dog.’
‘Three accomplishments of Ireland: a witty stave, a tune on the harp, shaving a face.’
‘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.’

John- 9th C Irish MS
Public Domain

But I think he must be back at that wormhole, looking over my shoulder. For, lastly, we have:
‘Three glories of speech: steadiness, wisdom, brevity.’
I’ll accept that 1,100 year old advice: brevity it is. Slán!

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References:
Images are either © E.M. Powell or are in the Public Domain and are part of the British Library's Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts. 

Kelly, Prof. Fergus, SIR JOHN RHYS MEMORIAL LECTURE: Thinking in threes: the triad in early Irish literature: (2003) http://www.britac.ac.uk/events/2003/autumn/031009.cfm
Lindahl, C., McNamara, J & Lindow, J. (eds.): Medieval Folklore, Oxford University Press (2002)
Meyer, Kuno, The Triads of Ireland, Royal Irish Academy, Dublin, Hodges Figgis & Co. Ltd.: (1906.) http://www.gutenberg.org/files/31672/31672-h/31672-h.htm
Yocum, Christopher: Wisdom Literature in Early Ireland. STUDIA CELTICA, XLVI (2012), 39–58 https://www.academia.edu/419294/Wisdom_Literature_in_Early_Ireland
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I wrote this post or an edited version of it for the English Historical Fiction Authors blog in March 2016. 

1 comment:

  1. Fascinating and yet eerie too. Ireland is one of my favorite places, although I've not been to that particular cave. They seriously have a lot of caves there...must be the limestone and the rain:)

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