From The Triads of Ireland

Translated by Kuno Meyer

Note: The Triads of Ireland (Trecheng Breth Féne) are a collection of roughly 256 proverbs originally collected in manuscripts in the ninth century and written in Old Irish. The single proverbs undoubtedly date earlier. More information is found following the selection.

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.

The three worst welcomes: a handicraft in the same house with the inmates; scalding water upon your feet; salt food without a drink.

Three rejoicings followed by sorrow: a wooer’s, a thief’s, a tale-bearer’s.

Three rude ones of the world: a youngster mocking an old man; a robust person mocking an invalid; a wise man mocking a fool.

Three fair things that hide ugliness: good manners in the ill-favoured; skill in a serf; wisdom in the misshapen.

Three sparks that kindle love: a face, demeanour, speech.

Three glories of a gathering: a beautiful wife, a good horse, a swift hound.

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.

Three ruins of a tribe: a lying chief, a false judge, a lustful priest.

Three laughing-stocks of the world: an angry man, a jealous man, a niggard [1].

Three signs of ill-breeding: a long visit, staring, constant questioning.

Three signs of a fop [2] : the track of his comb in his hair; the track of his teeth in his food; the track of his stick behind him.

Three idiots of a bad guest-house: an old hag with a chronic cough; a brainless tartar of a girl; a hobgoblin of a gillie. [3]

Three things that constitute a physician: a complete cure; leaving no blemish behind; a painless examination.

Three things betokening trouble: holding plough-land in common; performing feats together; alliance in marriage.

Three nurses of theft: a wood, a cloak, night.

Three false sisters: ‘perhaps,’ ‘may be,’ ‘I dare say.’

Three timid brothers: ‘hush!’ ‘stop!’ ‘listen!’

Three sounds of increase: the lowing of a cow in milk; the din of a smithy; the swish of a plough.

Three steadinesses of good womanhood: keeping a steady tongue; a steady chastity; a steady housewifery.

Three excellences of dress: elegance, comfort, lastingness.

Three candles that illume every darkness: truth, nature, knowledge.

Three keys that unlock thoughts: drunkenness, trustfulness, love.

Three youthful sisters: desire, beauty, generosity.

Three aged sisters: groaning, chastity, ugliness.

Three nurses of high spirits: pride, wooing, drunkenness.

Three coffers whose depth is not known: the coffers of a chieftain, of the Church, of a privileged poet.

Three things that ruin wisdom: ignorance, inaccurate knowledge, forgetfulness.

Three things that are best for a chief: justice, peace, an army.

Three things that are worst for a chief: sloth, treachery, evil counsel.

Three services, the worst that a man can serve: serving a bad woman, a bad lord, and bad land.

Three lawful handbreadths: a handbreadth between shoes and hose, between ear and hair, and between the fringe of the tunic and the knee.

Three angry sisters: blasphemy, strife, foul-mouthedness.

Three disrespectful sisters: importunity, frivolity, flightiness.

Three signs of a bad man: bitterness, hatred, cowardice.


[1] Niggard: From Middle English and then from possibly Scandinavian or Old Norse, a parsimonious or stingy person, ungenerous of spirit. (Not at all related to the North American slur; this made the news in 1999 when David Howard referred to a budget for Washington D.C. as “niggardly.” Other controversies with the word, see here.)

[2] Fop: From Middle English and Middle High German, usage dates to the 15th century. A coxcomb, a dandy, a man overly concerned with appearance and superficialities to the point of using cheap duplicity to fake elements of physique or background.

[3] Gillie (Ghillie): Gaelic term for a personal attendant, usually one who assists in hunting or fishing or assists a host with his/her guests.


This version of the “Selections” dates to the 1911 Selections from Ancient Irish Poetry, translated by Kuno Meyer. Meyer first published a whole edition of the Triads in 1906.

Manuscript sources of the Triads:

  • 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.

Kuno Meyer 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). Fergus Kelly[*] reports that four other versions have since been discovered and that the text is therefore in need of a new critical edition. [Wikipedia]

This translation is in the public domain.

[*] See Fergus Kelly, Thinking in Threes: The Triad in Early Irish Literature, Sir John Rhys Memorial Lecture, British Academy, 2003.

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