This selection is taken from a text called Compert Con Culainn, The Conception of Cú Chulainn, which is one of the preludes (remscéla, or pre-stories) to the tales forming the so-called Ulster Cycle, a collection of lore centered around the heroes of the ancient Irish province of Ulster. Compert Con Culainn narrates the miraculous circumstances of the threefold birth of Cú Chulainn, the main hero of the Ulster saga. According to Irish tradition, the events described took place around the time of the birth of Christ, yet the central topic of the Ulster epic is far older and can be seen as a window on pre-Iron Age Ireland, possibly reflecting the fights of the Indo-European Celtic settlers against the older non-Celtic inhabitants of northwest Ireland.
While the stories contain various mythological elements, the geographical setting is historical: Emain Macha, the seat of the king of Ulster, Conchobar mac Nessa, has been identified with the archaeological site of Navan Fort, to the west of the city of Armagh, and Bruig na Boinne is the Old Irish name of the region surrounding the pre-Celtic hill grave of Newgrange, County Meath.
The text contains remarkable archaisms. Like most of the earlier Irish tales, it cannot be attributed to any specific author, but was passed on as oral lore until being written down by medieval scribes.
The selection is the first part of the account of the conception of Cú Chulainn. It narrates the events that precede the threefold birth of the hero. The first of these takes place in the house where Conchobar and his men seek shelter from the snow, and coincides with the birth of two foals just outside the house. The child is then raised by Conchobar's daughter, Deichtire, but dies in its infancy. Thereafter, Deichtire conceives a child from the elf Lug mac Ethnenn, "Lug son of the Bird," by drinking from a copper cup, and has a vision of Lug telling her that she will be having a son by the name of Setanta. The miraculous conception together with the lack of a father causes a scandal with the Ulidians, so that Conchobar finally marries his daughter off to Sualtaim mac Roich, "Sualtaim son of the Mighty Horse." Ashamed of marrying a man when already bearing another man's child, Deichtire aborts Lug's baby and subsequently becomes pregnant by her husband, eventually giving birth to a boy named Setanta, who later acquires the name Cú Chulainn, "hound of the smith."
Boí Conchuḃur ocus maithi UlaḋN iN nEṁuin.
No tathigtis énḟlaith maġ arL Eṁuin.
NaL ġelltis conná fácbatis ciḋ mecnu na fér ná lossa iN dalaṁ.
BaH tochoṁracht laH hUltu aN naicsiu oc colluḋ aN nírenn.
Inlaat noí cairptiu diaN dofunn láaN nand.
Ar baH bés leusoṁ foriṁ én.
Conchuḃur dano iN suḋiu innaL charput ocus aL inġen Deichtire os síL ṁacḋacht.
Is síL ḃaH harae diaH hathair.
Erriḋ UlaḋN olchenae innaN garptiḃ .i. Conall ocus Lóeġuire ocus cách olchenae.
Bricriu dano leu.
Fosruṁat indL éuin reṁiḃ diaN ndaiṁ tar Slíaḃ Fúait, tar Edṁuinn, tar Breġa.
Ní bíḋ claḋ ná airḃe ná caisel imL thír iN nÉre ind amsir sin acht maiġe réiḋi.
BaH hálaind ocus baH caín in ténlorg ocus in ténaṁar boíL leu.
Noí fichit én dóiḃ, rond argit eter cach dáL én.
Cach fiche innaL lurg foL leith, noí luirg dóiḃ.
Saṁlaiḋ dáL én bátar reṁiḃ, cuing argit etarru.
Toscartha tríH héuin díḃ coH haidchi.
Lotir reṁiḃ iN gend inL Ḃroġo.
Is and baH haḋaiġ for feraiḃ UlaḋN.
Feraiḋ snechtae mór foraiḃ dano.
Asbert Conchuḃur friaL ṁuintir ara scortis aN gairptiu ocus ara cortis cor doL chuindchiḋ tiġe dóiḃ.
Boí Conchuḃur ocus maithi UlaḋN iN nEṁuin. No tathigtis énḟlaith maġ arL Eṁuin. NaL ġelltis conná fácbatis ciḋ mecnu na fér ná lossa iN dalaṁ. BaH tochoṁracht laH hUltu aN naicsiu oc colluḋ aN nírenn. Inlaat noí cairptiu diaN dofunn láaN nand. Ar baH bés leusoṁ foriṁ én. Conchuḃur dano iN suḋiu innaL charput ocus aL inġen Deichtire os síL ṁacḋacht. Is síL ḃaH harae diaH hathair. Erriḋ UlaḋN olchenae innaN garptiḃ .i. Conall ocus Lóeġuire ocus cách olchenae. Bricriu dano leu.
Fosruṁat indL éuin reṁiḃ diaN ndaiṁ tar Slíaḃ Fúait, tar Edṁuinn, tar Breġa. Ní bíḋ claḋ ná airḃe ná caisel imL thír iN nÉre ind amsir sin acht maiġe réiḋi. BaH hálaind ocus baH caín in ténlorg ocus in ténaṁar boíL leu. Noí fichit én dóiḃ, rond argit eter cach dáL én. Cach fiche innaL lurg foL leith, noí luirg dóiḃ. Saṁlaiḋ dáL én bátar reṁiḃ, cuing argit etarru. Toscartha tríH héuin díḃ coH haidchi. Lotir reṁiḃ iN gend inL Ḃroġo. Is and baH haḋaiġ for feraiḃ UlaḋN. Feraiḋ snechtae mór foraiḃ dano.
Asbert Conchuḃur friaL ṁuintir ara scortis aN gairptiu ocus ara cortis cor doL chuindchiḋ tiġe dóiḃ.
Conchobar and the nobles of the Ulstermen were in Emain Macha. A flock of birds used to frequent the plain east of Emain Macha. They used to devour it until they left nothing on the ground, not even roots or grass or herbs. To see the destruction of their land was distress(ing) for the Ulstermen. One day they yoke nine chariots to chase them away. For the chase of birds was a custom with them. Conchobar then, sitting in his chariot, and his daughter Deichtire, she being an adult. It is she who was charioteer to her father. Also the champions of the Ulstermen in their chariots, that is Conall and Loegaire and everybody else. Bricriu, too, (was) with them.
The birds go before them to their abode, over Sliab Fuait, over Edmand, over Brega. There would not be a dyke, nor a fence or a stone wall around the land in Ireland at that time, but (just) even fields. It was delightful and it was beautiful the flight and the singing of those birds. Nine units of twenty birds to them, a chain of silver between every two birds. Each unit of twenty separated in its flight, nine trails (there were) to them. Thus (it was) two birds that were before them, a yoke of silver between them. Three birds were separated from them by the night. They flew before them to the end of Bruig na Boinne. It is there that night was on the warriors of the Ulstermen. Then it pours big snow on them.
Conchobar said to his party that they should unyoke their chariots and that they should put a delegation to the seeking of shelter for them.
The phonetic values of the constituents of the Old Irish phonological system can be inferred from their pronunciation in the modern language as well as from textual variants and from secondary sources, such as e.g. Old Norse manuscripts.
The Old Irish phonological system is made up of the following phonemes:
Vowels and Diphthongs
|Diphthongs||áu, ái (áe)||éu (éo)||íu, ía||oí (óe)||úa, uí|
Depending on their vocalic environment, consonants can have either palatal or non-palatal, that is velar or neutral quality. Palatal quality occurs after the vowels /e/ and /i/, whether short, long, or the second element of a diphthong (though <e> can also indicate a preceding palatal and a following nonpalatal consonant); velar quality occurs after the vowels /o/ and /u/, long and short or as second element of a diphthong; long and short /a/ or diphthongs containing it as the second element cause neutral quality of a following consonant.
The oldest extant written material of Old Irish consists of sepulchral stone inscriptions, carved into rectangular stone pillars according to a peculiar dots and line-system called ogam-alphabet. The distinction between vowels (represented by one to five notches on the central line, which is the edge of the stone pillar) and consonants (represented by one to five strokes cut across the central line), and the classification of the sounds into four sets, roughly according to their type of articulation, point to the fact that the writers were familiar with the Classical grammatical tradition and probably adapted an earlier numeral system to the Latin alphabet.
The Latin alphabet, which was used for all other purposes, had the major disadvantage of possessing a poor inventory of symbols representing fricatives, so that not every Irish sound could be orthographically represented by a specific letter. Therefore, in the manuscripts certain Latin letters denote various Irish phonemes, such as the letters <p t c>, which represent both voiced and voiceless stops [b d g p t k] (in the latter 3 instances they are sometimes written double), because the letters <b d g> are used to indicate voiced fricatives. Voiceless fricatives are indicated by <ph th ch>. The letter <m> stands not only for [m], but also for the voiced nasalized fricatives [β~] and [ṽ].
The following table shows the Old Irish consonant system as expressed by the Latin letters, and the phonetic values these represent in Old Irish:
The phonetic value of those letters which represent several phonemes is determined by its context. That is to say, whether e.g. /b d g m/ are pronounced as stops or as fricatives depends on their position in the word and in the sentence. Word-internally in intervocalic position or between vowel and sonorant, as well as word-finally in postvocalic position and after vowel+liquid, they undergo so-called lenition, which means they have laxer articulation. The phenomenon also affects /n r l/ in intervocalic and post-vocalic word final position; yet while lenited /b d g m/ in later manuscripts came to be written bh, dh, gh and mh respectively, there is no orthographic indication of this phenomenon with respect to /n r l/ (but they are sometimes written double when they are not lenited).
The same mutation also occurs between syntactically related words, where it has to a great extent developed into a grammatical phenomenon, i.e. beyond the phonetic one it originally was. Initial lenition will be discussed in lesson 2, section 6, together with the two other types of initial mutation, i.e. nasalization and gemination, which cause prefixing of an n- and h-, respectively, to a following vowel (where nasalization takes place, there is also voicing of voiceless stops, yet this is not orthographically indicated in the manuscripts or in the present text). There are many examples for the various mutations in the present text. In the first sentence alone, we find instances of lenited c, b, m and d in Conchuḃur, nEṁuin, and UlaḋN. The dative of the toponym Eṁuin is furthermore nasalized by the preceding nasalizing preposition iN, thus nEṁuin. Sentence four contains an example of gemination, where the preposition laH causes aspiration of the vocalic initial of the following noun Ultu, thus hUltu.
That a word in certain syntactical contexts causes mutation of the initial of the following word is indicated in the present work by L, N or H respectively after the word in question. To facilitate correct pronunciation of the Old Irish texts, lenited consonants are orthographically indicated in the first two lessons, even if these clues are not present in the actual manuscripts.
As can be inferred from the reduction of unstressed syllables (viz. word-internal syncope and word-final apocope), as well as from the pronunciation in most modern dialects, Old Irish had a strong stress accent, which falls on the first syllable in uncompounded words susceptible of full stress as well as in nominal compounds. Only in verbal compounds does the first preverb not form a close compound with the second element, so that the stress is usually on the second syllable of the compound; this can be either the verbal stem itself or another preverb. Compound verbs following this stress pattern are called deuterotonic. An example from the text is found in sentence three, where naL (i.e. the verbal particle no + pronoun aL) precedes the 3 plural imperfect indicative ġelltis, which bears the accent on the first syllable, thus naLġelltis. If the first position, however, is occupied by certain conjunctions and particles, the stress falls on the first syllable, i.e. on the first preverb of a compound verb. The compound is then said to have prototonic form. In the text, this is illustrated by the verbal form fácbatis in the third sentence, which is preceded by the conjunction conná, consisting of the conjunct particle conN + suffixed negative particle ná. The verbal compound fo°ácaib accordingly has prototonic form, thus fácbatis. Prototonic verbal forms are also required in a few other constructions (cf. lesson 5, section 22.2). Unstressed words, such as the article, prepositions, and many pronouns are attached either to the following or the preceding word as proclitics or enclitics.
In Old Irish, nominal as well as verbal predicates stand at the head of the sentence, preceding subjects and objects. Only certain elements like pretonic prepositions, conjunctions, interrogatives, negative particles and infixed personal pronouns can precede the verb; all other elements, when focussed and hence placed left of the verb, require a relative marker. According to typological classification, Old Irish is therefore a language of the VSO type, because its basic word order is Verb-Subject-Object. Sentences like the first two illustrate the VSO word order with initial position of the verb, which in the first sentence is the copula boí, followed by the subject Conchuḃur, and in the second the compound verb form no tathigtis, followed by the subject énḟlaith and the direct object maġ arL Eṁuin. Sentence twelve constitutes an example of the finite verb -- in this instance the copula bíḋ -- being preceded by the negative particle ní.
The VSO order also implies further syntactical as well as certain morphological characteristics and even phonological features. As to syntax, the determinans follows the determinatum, that is to say, nominal modifiers such as genitives, descriptive adjectives and relative constructions follow the noun they modify, complements follow finite verbs etc. The aforementioned constructions can be seen in the text: in the first sentence, the genitive UlaḋN follows the noun it modifies, maithi 'the nobles of the Ulstermen'; the same is true in sentences 4 and 12, where we find colluḋ aN n-írenn 'the destruction of their land', and in imaḋ na treḃ 'the rivalry of the tribes'. In sentence 11, the noun maiġe is followed by its modifier, the adjective réiḋi, thus 'even fields'. A determinatum-determinans relation in form of a relative construction following the noun it modifies can be found in sentence 13, where boí leu 'that was with them' follows the nouns in t-énlorg ocus in t-énaṁar 'the flight of the birds and the singing of the birds'.
In nominal syntagms, the verbal or predicate element is placed at the head of the sentence.
In nominal compounds, such as the determinative compounds énlorg 'flight of the birds' and énaṁar 'singing of the birds', the VSO-specific syntactical order of modifier and modified element appears reversed. Here, we find determinans-determinatum instead of determinatum-determinans, with the logical genitive én 'birds' preceding lorg 'flight' and aṁar 'singing' respectively, which it modifies. The explanation for this lies in the fact that compounds generally tend to preserve archaic patterns and Irish, like all other ancient Indo-European languages, originally belonged to the SOV type but later underwent a typological change.
Apart from the word order in nominal compounds, which were formed according to the older syntactic structure still preserved in the older Goidelic layers, remnants of the original SOV structure can also be found in some of the earliest texts, where verbs may be placed at the end of their clause. In this situation, simple verbs take conjunct forms (see below, section 3.3), while compound verbs take prototonic forms (see above, section 1.2). The phenomenon was identified by Osborn Bergin ("On the Syntax of the Verb in Old Irish," Ériu 12, 1938, 197-214) and is therefore referred to as Bergin's Law. Another type of residual OV construction is to be seen in sentence 3, where the non-compound verb ġelltis is preceded by the object pronoun aL, which is infixed between the verb itself and the imperfect-marker no. Remnants of SVO are also attested, as probably the deuterotonic inlaat (with implicit subject) followed by the direct object noí cairptiu in sentence 5.
In Old Irish, the verb is frequently omitted in any type of clause, especially where it would have been a form of the 3rd person indicative, but also in descriptions, peremptory commands, and even replies to questions. Omission of the verb 'to be' is especially common, as in the present text sentences such as 7, 9 and 10 show, which begin with the subject of the clause: Conchuḃur, Erriḋ UlaḋN, and Bricriu, respectively.
In Old Irish, verbal action is frequently expressed by nouns, the so-called verbal nouns, whose subject or object is usually in the genitive. In the last sentence of the present text, the verbal noun of con°dieig, cuindchiḋ, which is itself in the dative and is governed by the preposition doL, has the genitive tiġe as its object. Literally translated, the phrase thus means 'for the seeking of shelter', though in English it corresponds to an infinitive construction 'to seek shelter'. Verbal nouns may also occur without an object; in still other constructions the subject or object of the action may be placed before the nominative or accusative of the verbal noun, as the following phrase from Fingail Rónain illustrates: Is mór bríg do mac aithig guin maic ríg, 'It is a much too serious matter for the son of a villain to kill the son of a king' (lit. 'for the son of a villain the killing of the son of a king'), where the logical subject mac aithig 'son of a villain' precedes the verbal noun guin 'killing', and the object maic ríg 'son of a king' follows in the genitive.
Other nominal forms of the verb are the past participle passive, which is inflected like an adjective, and the verbal of necessity, which is not inflected and, used only in predicative constructions, has the same meaning as Latin gerundives such as agenda 'things to be done'.
In Old Irish, verbs are inflected for voice, mood, tense, number and person.
There are two voices, active and passive. In the active, two inflections are distinguished, active and deponent, the latter of which is in its form similar to the passive but actually based on the Indo-European middle voice, which denotes that an action is carried out with reference or benefit to the subject. In the present selection, only active and passive finite verbal forms occur. There are numerous examples of active forms, e.g. boí 'it was', inlaat 'they prepare', fosruṁat 'they go', lotir 'they flew', etc. A passive form is found e.g. in sentence eighteen, in the 3 plural preterite passive toscartha 'they were separated'.
The passive has a special form for the 3rd person plural only, whereas the form of the 3rd person singular is used for all other persons; in these contexts an infixed pronoun (1st/2nd person singular/plural) must then be added to indicate the subject.
Three moods are distinguished. The indicative is used in declarative statements, the subjunctive indicates uncertainty, in subordinate clauses also volition or expectation, and the imperative serves for commands.
In the indicative, five tenses are distinguished: present, imperfect, preterite, future and secondary future. The present is used for present and universal or indefinite time, and is also very often employed as historical present to make a narration more vivid. This is observed e.g. in sentences five, eleven and twenty-one of the present text. The imperfect denotes repeated or customary action in the past, as illustrated by the verbs in sentences two and three, which describe the habitual behaviour of the birds. The preterite indicates past action or state. As is to be expected in narration, most of the verbal forms of the text are in the preterite. The future indicates future action, also action completed at a point of time in the future. The secondary future indicates an action which, when viewed from a definite point of past time, lay in the future, and also serves as potentialis and irrealis.
The subjunctive mood only differentiates between present and past, whereby the present subjunctive corresponds to the present and future indicative, and the past subjunctive corresponds to the imperfect and preterite indicative, and in some subordinate clauses can also serve as subjunctive of the secondary future.
In order to indicate that an act or state is perfect, completed, the verbal particle ro, which in origin is a preposition, can be combined with nearly all simple and most compound verbs. It gives perfective force to the preterite indicative and the past subjunctive, which otherwise have the meaning of a simple past, and with the imperfect denotes that an action is repeatedly completed in the past. It also has modal function, expressing possibility or ability (e.g. as°ro-ba(i)r 'he can say', from as°beir 'says').
The tenses and moods of the verbs are formed from five different stems:
Two main classes of verbs, strong and weak, can be distinguished according to the way in which they form these stems. Strong verbs are without exception primary, never derived, while weak verbs are mainly denominative. The difference between the two classes is most obvious in the 3 singular present indicative active, where a weak verb in the so-called conjunct inflection has the ending -a or -i, while a strong verb has no visible ending.
There are two numbers, singular and plural. Dual subjects take a plural verb. Both numbers distinguish three persons.
Inflection may be either absolute or conjunct. Absolute inflection is employed for simple verbs in absolute sentence-initial position. Conjunct inflection is used after all kinds of preceding elements, such as prepositions, the verbal particles ro and no, the conjunctions and particles usually termed conjunct particles, and in the archaic construction where the verb stands at the end of its clause. An example of conjunct inflection is found in the second and third sentence, where the verbs, viz. notathigtis, naLġelltis, and connáfácbatis, are in the imperfect and therefore necessarily conjunct, since the imperfect has no absolute forms; its forms must therefore be preceded by the semantically void particle no whenever there is no preverb or conjunct particle to introduce them.
Special relative forms of the verb incorporating the pronominal element exist in the absolute inflection for the third person singular and plural, active and passive, and generally also for the first person plural active in the present and future indicative as well as in the present subjunctive (cf. lesson 5, section 21).
Not all paradigms given in the following lessons are complete. This does not necessarily mean that the forms did not exist, but rather that no textual evidence has been found for them yet; forms which are preceded by an asterisk are reconstructions.
Impersonal constructions are very common in Old Irish. They are generally used where the emphasis is on the semantic content of the verb, rather than on the logical subject of the action. Many of these constructions involve prepositions, as for example in sentence four, which reads BaH tochoṁracht laH hUltu and would be literally translated as 'it was weariness with the Ulstermen', i.e. 'the Ulstermen were weary', or in sentence six, where we find the construction ḃaH bés leusoṁ, 'it was a custom with them', i.e. 'they had the custom'. Another type of impersonal construction is found in the Irish passive constructions, where the emphasis on the verbal action is even stronger, while the persons involved are of no importance; there are also actual impersonal forms within the Old Irish passive paradigms.
Old Irish distinguishes three grammatical genders, masculine, feminine, and neuter. In nominal inflection, the three Indo-European numbers, singular, plural and dual -- the latter denoting units of two -- are preserved. Four cases are still differentiated: nominative, accusative, genitive, and dative. They have the following primary functions:
Old Irish also possesses a vocative, which is strictly speaking not a case but a special grammatical form of address for nouns, which are then preceded by the leniting particle aL, áL.
It must be noted that not all cases are formally differentiated by all three genders or in all three numbers, and distinction is furthermore dependent on the stem-class to which a noun belongs. Old Irish distinguishes twelve different stem-classes, six vocalic and six consonantal, according to the sound in which the stem originally ended. These will be discussed in detail in the subsequent lessons.
Prepositions introduce prepositional phrases, comparable to those in English, and are very common in VSO languages. They require the accusative (e.g. friL 'against', laH 'with') or the dative (e.g. doL, duL 'to'; diL, deL 'of, from') of the following noun or pronoun, or either the accusative or dative depending on whether they denote direction or location (e.g. iN, in 'in; into'; foL 'under'). They are frequently followed by enclitic personal or possessive pronouns, as in diaN 'to their', from prep. doL 'to' + suffixed possessive pronoun 3 plural aN 'their' in sentence five, innaN 'in their', from prep. inN + suffixed possessive pronoun 3 plural aN 'their' in sentence nine, dóiḃ 'to them', from prep. doL + enclitic personal pronoun -iḃ 'them' in sentences fifteen and sixteen, etc. Due to the frequent occurrence of these combinations of prepositions plus personal pronouns, they are not transparent anymore and therefore treated as inflectional paradigms in the grammars, where they are usually referred to as conjugated prepositions (cf. lesson 7, section 35); here, for the sake of clarity, they are referred to as pronominalized prepositions.