The Sting of Fleas on Him!

Luí fada gan faoilte air! Seacht n-aicíd déag agus fiche na hÁirce air! Calcadh fíodáin agus stopainn air! Camroillig agus goile treasna air! An ceas naon air! An Bhuí Chonaill air! Pláigh Lasaras air! Eagnach Job air! Calar na muc air! Snadhm ar bundún air! Galra trua, bios brún, péarsalaí, sioráin, maotháin agus magag air! Glogar Chaoláin ní Olltáirr ann! Galraí sean-aoise na Caillí Béara air! Dalladh gan aon léas air agus dalladh Oisín ina dhiaidh sin! Tochas Bhantracht an Fháidh air! An Galra glúiníneach air! Deargadh tiaraí air! Gath dreancaidí air!…
Cré na Cille, Máirtín Ó Cadhain,

May his lying be long and without relief! The thirty-seven diseases of the Ark on him! Hardening of the tubes and stoppage on him! Graveyard club-foot and crossed bowel on him! May the pangs of labour consume him! May the Yellow Plague consume him! May the Plague of Lazarus consume him! May the Lamentations of Job consume him! May swine-fever consume him! May his arse be knotted! May cattle-pine, bog lameness, warbles, wireworm, haw and staggers consume him! May the squelching of Keelin daughter of Olltár consume him! May the Hag of Beare’s diseases of old age consume him! Blinding without light on him, and the blinding of Ossian on top of that! May the itch of the Prophet’s women consume him! Swelling of knees on him! The red tracks of a tail-band on him! The sting of fleas on him!…
Cré na Cille/Graveyard Clay, Máirtín Ó Cadhain, trans: Mac Con Iomaire/Robinson

Via Neil Patrick Doherty‎’s Facebook feed; we discussed Cré na Cille in 2017 and this January. If you’re curious about “warbles,” the OED says it’s “Of uncertain origin; compare Middle Swedish varbulde boil” and means “A small hard tumour, caused by the pressure of the saddle on a horse’s back. Usually plural.”


  1. These days, I find myself cursing (but no out loud) “корона тебя побери” or simply “корона!” (for those who need it “let corona take you”/”corona!”, as they (presumably) used to say in Brooklyn “10 years we are living here and they still don’t speak Russian!” ). The latter is probably influenced by (infrequent) use of Polish “cholera!” (but never, “cholera jasna”, go figure).

  2. Bud Driver says

    Warblers or wolves are parasites of the heel fly which lays eggs on heels of cattle. These hatch and migrate through the body arriving at the skin on the back where they make an opening and emerge to continue the cycle.

  3. May cattle-pine, bog lameness, warbles, wireworm, haw and staggers consume him!

    Interestingly these seem to be animal and plant diseases rather than human ones. Warbleflies infect livestock rather than people (one species of botfly causes myiasis in humans but isn’t found in Europe). The staggers is a deficiency disease of cattle and sheep. Wireworm attack the roots of plants. Haw is an inflammation of the third eyelid. No idea what cattle-pine is, but sounds like that’s a disease of cattle. Bog lameness is also called bog spavin and is a joint inflammation in horses.

    My knowledge of pathology is out of date and incomplete, and so I am unable to shed light on the etiology of the squelching of Keelin daughter of Olltár. But it doesn’t sound nice.

  4. Jen in Edinburgh says

    You should enjoy the number here – seven-diseases-teen-and-twenty!

  5. David Marjanović says

    Interestingly these seem to be animal and plant diseases rather than human ones.

    Sure, for further insult.


    Ha! That’s amazing.

  6. Excellent!

  7. Ha! That’s amazing.

    Isn’t that a standard Irish way of counting?

    44 years – “ceithre bliain is dá fhichid” (four+years+and+two+twenty)

  8. Yes, but it’s a lot more piquant with diseases instead of years.

  9. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    There is an interesting discussion of the translations here:

    It doesn’t shed much light on the squelching of Keelin daughter of Olltár, however.

  10. That reminded me of this:

    “From his hours of sitting at the foot of the table, Fafhrd had learned that most of the spells were designed to inflict a noisome disease upon Gwaay: the Black Plague, the Red Plague, the Boneless Death, the Hairless Decline, the Slow Rot, the Fast Rot, the Green Rot, the Bloody Cough, the Belly Melts, the Ague, the Runs, and even the footling Nose Drip. ”
    —Fritz Leiber (and Harry Otto Fischer), The Lords of Quarmall

  11. There is an interesting discussion of the translations here:

    Thanks, that’s great and I’ll add it to the earlier post. I liked the Stalin joke:

    Stalin and Roosevelt had an argument about whose bodyguards were more loyal and ordered them to jump out of the window on the fifteenth floor. Roosevelt’s bodyguard flatly refused to jump, saying, “I’m thinking about the future of my family.” Stalin’s bodyguard, however, jumped out of the window and fell to his death. Roosevelt was taken aback.

    “Tell me, why did your man do that?” he asked.

    Stalin lit his pipe and replied: “He was thinking about the future of his family, too.”

  12. per incuriam says

    Tim Robinson, one of the translators, died earlier this month from the coronavirus. He was a remarkable individual and a celebrated author in his own right, best known for his books on Connemara and the Aran Islands.

    On a trivial note, Máirtín Ó Cadhain’s surname is shared with another well-known figure in Irish literature: Nora Barnacle, Joyce’s missus, who hailed from the same part of the country (cadhan = barnacle goose!).

  13. Thanks for reminding me, I’ve been meaning to post about Robinson. And that’s great about Nora!

  14. Of course, there can be no Irish curse thread without Michael Hartnett and his missing cat.

    On those who stole our cat, a curse:
    may they always have an empty purse
    and need a doctor and a nurse
    may their next car be a big black hearse –
    oh may it, surely!

    May all their kids come down with mange,
    their eldest daughter start acting strange,
    and the wife start riding the range
    (and I don’t mean the Aga);
    when she begins to go through the change
    may she go gaga.

    And may the husband lose his job
    and have great trouble with his knob
    and the son turn out a yob
    and smash the place up;
    may he give his da a belt in the gob
    and mess his face up!

    And may the granny end up in jail
    for opening her neighbours’ mail,
    may all that clan moan, weep and wail,
    turn grey and wizened
    on the day she doesn’t get bail
    but Mountjoy Prison!

    Oh may their daughter get up the pole,
    and their drunken uncle lose his dole,
    for our poor cat one day they stole –
    may they rue it!
    and if there is a black hell-hole
    may they go through it!

    Unfriendly loan-sharks to their door
    as they beg for one week more;
    may the seven curses of Inchicore
    rot and blight ’em!
    May all their enemies settle the score
    and kick the shite of ’em!

    I wish rabies on all their pets,
    I wish them a flock of bastard gets,
    I wish ’em a load of unpayable debts,
    TV Inspectors –
    to show’em a poet never forgets
    his malefactors.

    May rats and mice them ever hound,
    may half of them be of mind unsound,
    may their house burn down to the ground
    and no insurance;
    may drugs and thugs their lives surround
    beyond endurance!

    May God forgive the heartless thief
    who caused our household so much grief;
    if you think I’m harsh, sigh with relief –
    I haven’t even started.
    I can do worse. I am, in brief,
    yours truly, Michael Hartnett.

  15. John Cowan says

    How did agus come to be compressed to is, all heedless of the collision with the copula?

  16. PlasticPaddy says

    Old texts often use ampersand. But here is one from “the battle of Moytura”
    ” etir mag & dun & cuirm & coindeil & ben & fer & ech”
    This is supposed to be speech, so I would go for a pronunciation of is or ‘s at this early stage unless this is impossible. I think weakening is not so strange, look at ‘n in English.

  17. How did aqua come to be compressed to /o/, all heedless of the collision with the preposition?

  18. John Cowan, Hat: in French the copula (“est”) and the word for “and” (“et”) are homophonous in many accents, and as a native speaker I cannot ever recall this situation having caused any misunderstanding in speech: as a linguist, I know that the two words appear in such different contexts that this homophony is utterly unproblematic. Now, my knowledge of Gaelic syntax is nowhere near as good as it should be, but from what little I know of it I see no reason to assume that this homophony should cause any problems in that language either.

  19. I quite agree; I was expressing my surprise that JC would fall victim to such an idea.

  20. David Eddyshaw says

    Kusaal (with mid tone):

    1. preposition “with” (also “and” joining NPs)

    2. ubiquitous focus/aspect particle variously meaning “at this time in particular” or “this NP in particular” or “this action as opposed to some other” depending on sentence position and the mood, polarity and semantics of the verb itself (and perhaps whether there is an “r” in the month and what the speaker has had for breakfast that day)

    3. meaningless particle following all complements of the verb wɛn “resemble” or the preposition wʋʋ “like” unless (a) they are followed by la “the” or (b) are cardinal numbers

    In certain contexts clause-finally:

    4. the postposition “at”

    5. the “discontinuous-past” clitic after verbs (but this always has high tone, so no problem. On the other hand, mid-tone changes its tone to high in some contexts. Take care!)

    Quite distinct (of course) from nɛ’ “this one”, which has a glottalised vowel. No problem!
    (In Toende Kusaal the phonologically corresponding form ne also follows the subject of a nominalised clause, but this is not an issue in Agolle, where the corresponding particle is just n. Toende also has a verb ne “stay awake”, happily unattested in Agolle.)

    None of this actually causes any trouble in practice, of course.

  21. How did the gerund and the present participle in English fall together, splashing their combined uses right across the language, causing friction and dissonance, and posing constant difficulties for the foreign student trying to master this ‘simplest’ of languages?

  22. In Welsh i is a preposition meaning “to” or “for” as well as the first-person singular pronoun; “o” is a preposition meaning “from” as well as (in the north) the masculine third-person singular pronoun. It’s not uncommon for the i words to occur consecutively, as in Es i i Gymru, “I went to Wales.” (Hoping I didn’t make any errors there, since I’m only a beginner in Welsh.)

  23. David Eddyshaw says

    The forms written as ei “his/her” are actually also pronounced i (and always have been: the spelling was due to the mistaken idea that the words were related to Latin eius.) Ein “our” is likewise pronounced exactly like yn “in” (as indeed is fy “my” in Welsh As She is Actually Spoke.)

    No wonder the perfidious Saxons beat us at Dyrham. It was their secret weapon, Plonking Lack of Ambiguity (this was before we got them to confuse their gerunds and participles, of course.)

    (Happy St George’s Day to all you perfidious Saxons, by the way!)

  24. David Marjanović says

    |s| in my German dialect:

    “she” nom/acc enclitic
    “it” nom/acc enclitic
    “you” pl nom enclitic
    “they” nom/acc enclitic
    “the” neuter nom/acc proclitic

    Further adding to the confusion:

    “you” sg verb ending
    “you” nom enclitic

    “you” pl verb ending

    Chains of |s| are broken up by epenthetic /ɪ/ (but /ɐ/ in Vienna):

    |vɒn=s=s vʏ-0|
    wenn sie es will
    “if she wants it”

    |vɒn=s=s voɪ̯-ts|
    wenn ihr es wollt
    “if y’all want it”

    |vɒn=s=s voɪ̯-n|
    wenn sie es wollen
    “if they want it”

    Compare epenthetic /ɐ/ elsewhere (also in Vienna):

    |vɒn=st=s vʏ-st|
    wenn du es willst
    “if you (sg.) want it”

    No epenthesis across other morpheme boundaries:

    |vɒn=s sovɛɪ̯d ɪs|
    wenn es soweit ist
    “once it gets to that point”, “once it’s ready”

  25. David Marjanović says

    No epenthesis across other morpheme boundaries:


    |vɒn=s=s sɛg-ts|
    wenn ihr es seht
    “if/when you (pl.) see it”

    |dɒn sɛg-ts=s|
    dann seht ihr es
    “then you (pl.) see it”

    |dɒn sɛg-ts s=grosː-ɛ|
    dann seht ihr das Große
    “then you (pl.) see the big one”

    |s=grosː-ɛ sɪɐ̯x-0=ɪ nEd|
    das Große sehe ich nicht
    “the big one? I can’t see the big one”

    (|°E°| for variation between /ɛ/, /e/, and anywhere in between depending on stress, surroundings, and the phases of Venus – not those of the moon, that would be too obvious.)

  26. John Cowan says

    It was a long time before the Scots abandoned the careful separation of -ing (gerund) and -and (participle).

  27. John Cowan says

    I wasn’t asking “How is it possible that is and agus have the same phonological shape?” I was rather asking “What sound changes transformed agus > is?” We do know, after all, exactly how aqua > /eau/ > /o/ happened, or for that matter Augustus > /aut/ > /u/.

  28. PlasticPaddy says

    The older script uses ampersand or Tironian et a lot for is/ocus. So intermediate forms may be hard to locate. If you want a similar case, take cos which is cos in Old Irish but was *koxsa in Proto-Celtic. So at some point you had a reduction of a xs cluster. Maybe in some environments ocus was forced to contract to make that kind of cluster so that the middle consonant dropped out. This is something like what happens with “me ‘n’ him”.

  29. Jen in Edinburgh says

    It’s not something that I’ve ever really thought about, but it feels like agus has a tendency to become aghus or a-us anyway – it’s definitely not the -k sound of ‘aig’ or ‘beag’.

    Whether this is connected to the way you have ag obair and ag radh but a’ cluinntinn and a’ sgriobhabh I have no idea, but I think Irish keeps ‘ag’ all through.

  30. PlasticPaddy says
    What Jen says. He writes a teacht for ag teacht. This is very common but this is the best reference i could find for it.
    Actually ag and agus have the same origin, from Proto-Celtic *onkus (“near”).

  31. In Northern dialects of Irish you can get “agham”, “aghat”, etc. instead of “agam”, “agat”, so Jen in Edinburgh could have a point that this may have happened to “agus” too. I am not a linguist so I don’t know how plausible this is.

    In the construction “ag teacht”, “ag moladh”, “ag ól”, etc., the ‘g’ is typically only pronounced before a vowel.

    Note, Ó Siadhail, Modern Irish, p. 295.

    One particular case of an active progressive must be mentioned here. Where fronting of the object is involved, a + lenition replaces ag:

    Sin í an bhean atá sé a phósadh ‘That is the woman he is marrying’

    (Also a few similar cases, but they all cause lenition.)

  32. Jen in Edinburgh says

    I will stop now to think about the fact that I answered about Scottish Gaelic a question that was really asked about Irish 🙂 But ‘is’ taking the place of ‘agus’ is found there too, so…

    Presumably there is no relation between ‘agus’ and Scandinavian ‘og’ etc, although the similarity helped me to remember the meaning of ‘og’ when I first came across it.

  33. PlasticPaddy:

    That’s a very interesting sample. I see it was collected in Gleann Cholm Cille. It shows some local usages from that region (and maybe just some spoken usage).

    a teacht (ag teacht)
    go teach muinnteardha damh (domh = dom)
    na mrá (na mná)
    ar a bhealach (ar an mbealach)

  34. John Cowan says

    Presumably there is no relation between ‘agus’ and Scandinavian ‘og’ etc

    They couldn’t be more different: Proto-Celtic *onkus-tus ‘near-NMLZ, proximity’ vs. Proto-Germanic auk ‘also’ (in English only in the ick in n-ick-name ‘additional name’), from either PIE *h₂ewg-, *h₂weg ‘increase’ or *h₂ew- ‘away from’ + ge, an intensive suffix. If the latter is correct, it’s literally near vs. far.

  35. in English only in the ick in n-ick-name ‘additional name’

    How about the ‘eke’ in ‘eke out’? Is that of a different origin?

  36. John Cowan says

    That too, apparently.

  37. David Marjanović says

    Amid all the cliticking I forgot the point: whomst. Here goes:

    |vɛ-n=st sɪɐ̯x-st|
    wen du siehst
    “whom you are seeing”

    |vɛ-m=st s gɛb-st|
    wem du es gibst
    “to whom you are giving it”

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