Curses & Insults

Ferr cach maín mainbthig mifhocal már marta.

Ferr cach maín mainbthig mifhocal már marta.

(Better * (than) * every * treasure * rich * evil word * of death)

A great killing curse is better than any opulent treasure.

At one point in the law tract "Bretha Nemed Dédenach", which was edited by Stephen Gwynn in Ériu xiii under the title "An Old-Irish Tract on the Privileges and Responsibilities of Poets", Athairne, the great mythical satirist par excellence, asks:

"Cía háithemh éo?"
"What is the sharpest of points?"

His immediate answer is "acais dhlighidh", which is glossed as "aor no mallacht" (satire or curse). A bit further along we are treated to the Vodemortian maxim above, which was spelled "Ferr gach maoin mainbthigh miofhocal már marta" in the late medieval manuscript in which it survives. Despite the modernized spelling, the maxim is in classical Old Irish, with the prepositionless dative used to express comparison.

Ní raib úaid acht cairem 7 círmaire...

Ní raib úaid acht cairem 7 círmaire nó nech bed fíu iad.

(not * may be * from him * but * shoemaker * & * combmaker * or * one * that would be * equivalent to * them)

"May none spring from him but shoemakers and combmakers, or people of that kind."

That is Kuno Meyer's translation of Saint Colmán's curse on those who would turn on him, from Meyer's 1911 edition and translation of "Betha Colmáin Maic Luachain". A very similar formula is envoked by the poet Eochaid against the impertinent young Mongán, after Mongán had arranged for his followers to mock Eochaid's learning (in "Why Mongán was deprived of issue" in Ériu 8, edited by Eleanor Knott from the test in the Yellow Book of Lecan):

Nícon bia acht eachbachlaich uait! = There will be only stable-boys from you!

Beirid tríst 7 mallachtain nóem nÉrenn!

Beirid tríst 7 mallachtain nóem nÉrenn!

(let them carry * curse * and * malediction * of saints * of Ireland)

May they bear the curse and the malediction of the saints of Ireland!

This curse is quoted in Archiv für Celtische Lexicographie, ii.3.23. Another version of it is found in the Book of Fermagh (142.1):

Mallacht 7 tríst 7 anoráit naem nÉrend dóib! = The malediction and the curse and the imprecation of the saints of Ireland to them!

Úir aineóil tarat!

Úir aineóil tarat!

(soil * unknown * over you)

Foreign soil over you!

In other words, may you die and be buried in a strange land. A curse quoted by Stokes in "On the Calendar of Oengus", found as part of a marginal note on page 101 of the Leabhar Breac.

Ní gilla i ngillaidecht é ...

Ní gilla i ngillaidecht é, ní óclach i n-óclachas, ocus ní gaiscedach i ngaisced.

(is not * page * in * pageship * he * is not * squire * in * squireship * and * is not * knight * in * knighthood)

His actions befit neither page nor squire nor knight.

This imprecation was delivered, entirely petulantly and inappropriately, by Gúaire against Finn Bán after losing a series of fidchell games to him. This episode is found in "Acallam na Senórach". I have restated the line slightly, shifting it from indirect to direct speech, and normalizing the orthography to the Old Irish norm. I have also, rather more radically, translated the threefold insult in terms of Anglo-Norman chivalry. In more Gaelic terms, the "gilla" was a serving boy, the "óclach" was a young warrior, and the "gaiscedach" was a seasoned champion.

The original text is "Adubairt nár' ghilla a n-gillaighecht h-é, & nár' óclach i n-óclachus & nár' ghaisceadach a n-gaisced." (He said that he was not a page....) A very similar formula is found in the short tale "Erchoitmed Ingine Gulidi", where it is used positively to praise Gulide:

"Is amlaid immorro bái Gulide, co mba laech ar laechdacht ... 7 co mba feinnid ar fheinnidecht 7 ba mílid ar milidacht 7 ba brugaid ar brugamnus 7 ba cainti ar caintecht." (Thus indeed was Gulide, having been a warrior in warriorship, and a fenian in fenianship, and a soldier in soldiership, and a landholder in holding land, and a satirist in satire.)

Mo mallacht is mallacht ríg nime ar lín in tighi-sea i tái!

Mo mallacht is mallacht ríg nime ar lín in tighi-sea i tái!

(my * curse * and * curse * of king * of heaven * on * full number * the * of house * in which * you are)

My curse and the curse of the king of heaven on all those within your house!

Patrick's curse on Máelán, a wealthy householder who refused him a drink, found in "Acallam na Senórach" (line 4839).

Saint Mo Ling uses a similar formula against Finnachta in the "Bóroma" (at LL 39190):

Mo mallacht ar Finnachta
ocus mallacht ríg nime;
ro impá form Finnachta,
niba airdite a fhine.

My curse on Finnachta
and the curse of the king of heaven;
Finnachta turned against me,
his family will not be the higher (for it).

Bad nenaid co bráth a lucht!

Bad nenaid co bráth a lucht!

(let be * nettles * to * doomsday * his * household)

May his household be nettles forever!

In other words, "May his house be deserted forever!" This malediction is included in "Mairg thochras ri clerchib cell", a poem attributed to Diarmait mac Cerbaill and found in LL 149b36. Nettles ("nenaid") are one of the three signs of a ruin or a cursed place, the other two being the elder bush ("tromm") and the corncrake or landrail ("tragna", modern "traonach"). "Trecheng Breth Féne" includes the triad "Trí comartha láthraig mallachtan: tromm, tradna, nenaid", and "Cáin Adomnáin" (§23) talks of "three shouts of malediction on every man who should kill a woman... so that his heirs would be elder and nettle and corncrake (... comad he a comarbpa trom 7 nenaid 7 traghnae)".

Fognad dúib ág is ernbas!

Fognad dúib ág is ernbas!

(may serve * to you (pl.) * strife, oppression, etc. * and * iron-death)

May danger and violent death follow you all!

This curse was meted out somewhat inexplicably by Digais to her sons and daughters in "Bairend Chermain", the tenth poem in volume three of "The Metrical Dindshenchas".

Goirde shaogail duit...

Goirde shaogail duit abhus 7 ifrenn thall!

(shortness * of life * to you * on this side * and * hell * yonder)

Short life to you on this side, and hell on the other!

Thus Saint Moling curses the swineherd who killed Suibhne Geilt. See also "Mallacht Críst" in this collection.

Mallacht Críst...

Mallacht Críst ar a hanmoin!

(curse * of Christ * on * her * soul)

Christ's curse on her soul!

When Suibhne Geilt thinks back on the now-deceased Old Woman of the Mill, who had incited his return to madness, he curses her in those words. Saint Moling places a similar curse on the swineherd who kills Suibhne at the tale's end: "Mallacht Críst ort, a bhuachaill!" See also "Goirde shaogail duit" in this collection.

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