How to say “Oh my god” in Irish

There is this very irritating habit of translating the English expression Oh my God literally into Irish. I must regrettably tell you that the result is not natural or good Irish. I would never use it – in fact I very much prefer Ó-maigh-ó or some other Irish transliteration of the English “Oh my!”, because that is what you see in modern Irish literature written by native speakers. The translation is bad even because you don’t address people or God that way. In English you say my good man, my friend, my God and whatever, i.e. you introduce your term of address with my, but in Irish it’s the vocative a: a fhir úd, a chara, a Dhia.

Is it then allowed to say Ó, a Dhia? Well at any rate it’s a huge improvement on the word-for-word translation, which I don’t reproduce here. But if you want a traditional expression, say Dia dár réiteach!

Am I being pedantic? No. I tell you to read the books. If you read books by native authors, this sort of thing will be quite obvious to you. Personally, I find it rather exasperating that I should need to point out such stuff.

PS: Mícheál pointed out in the comments box that you could also say th’anam ‘on diabhal. Yes, quite so, and I guess th’anam ‘on diocs is fine too.

Indirect vs Direct Relative Clause

The difference between indirect and direct relative clause is a key difficulty in Irish, and you never study it long enough. Here is how it works in traditional language.

The main difference between direct and indirect clauses is, that in a direct clause, the element relativized is either the subject or the object of the relative clause, and it is not written out in the relative clause. Like this:

Sin é an fear a chonaic mé. That is the man who saw me/whom I saw.

Sin é an fear a chonaic ag obair mé. That is the man who saw me working.

Sin é an fear a chonaic mé ag obair. That is the man whom I saw working.

Sin é an fear a chonaic sé. That is the man whom he saw.

Sin é an fear a chonaic é. That is the man who saw him/it.

Sin é an rud a thuig sé. That is the thing that he understood.

An fear atá ag obair anseo, is é mo mhac é. The man who is working here is my son. (More literally, “the man who is working here, he is my son”.)

The particle that signifies direct relative clause is a, and it always lenites, if this is applicable. It does not lenite the impersonal forms of regular verbs in past tense:

an mac a saolaíodh dóibh the son who was born to them

or those irregular verbs which are similar to regular ones in not leniting the impersonal form in past tense:

an bronntanas a tugadh dó the present that was given to him

But note that chonacthas is always lenited whether there is a direct relative particle before it or not. The past tense forms of faigh!/fáil, both personal and impersonal, resist lenition: an t-airgead a fuair mé uait the money I got from you, an pota óir a fuarthas ag deireadh an bhogha báistí the pot of gold that was found at the end of the rainbow. 

As you see above, the verb has the direct relative form atá – such forms as athá are dialectal (Munster), because the a- is historically speaking part of the stem. For a similar reason, the verb abair!/rá does not usually lenite the d- in direct relative: a deir, a deireadh, a déarfadh, a dúirt. It is not unheard of to write these relative forms as one word, i.e. adeir, adeireadh and so on, but it is not the present standard. 

The d’ used before vowel and fh- is usually kept after the direct relative a, and it is not lenited (in the written language, that is – the spoken language is a more complicated story). This d’ can be dropped at least in conditional mood before fh- + consonant, i.e. a fhliuchfadh is as correct as a d’fhliuchfadh, but I have learned to keep the d’ and usually do so, so I am not very sure where it can be dropped. 

The addition of a broad -s to present and future forms in relative clauses is not part of the standard, but it is the rule in the most widely spoken dialects, and I use it in my Irish, because it is my opinion that it is a good way to keep direct and indirect relative distinct. Thus, I write:

An fear a thagas ag glanadh an urláir gach uile lá, is iarchaptaen mara é a chuaigh ar an drabhlás.

The man who comes to clean the floor every day, he is a former sea captain who went/has gone to the dogs.

An fear a thiocfas ag glanadh an urláir amárach, is iarchaptaen mara é a chuaigh ar an drabhlás.

The man who will come to clean the floor tomorrow, he is (etc.).

In the standard language they prefer a thagann, a thiocfaidh. Note that this form can also keep the -nn before the -s in the present tense:  a thaganns. However, it is my opinion that this latter form is less established in literary Irish.

Such present forms of strong verbs as chí/tchí/tí ‘sees’, gheibh ‘gets’, ‘finds’, deir ‘says’, thig ‘comes’ do not usually take the -ann, and nor do they need the relative -as, even in dialects and styles where it is otherwise preferred. However, I don’t think such forms as a (t)chíos, a gheibheas, a deireas, a thigeas are wrong either. 

Note that tchí/chí/tí and gheibh are not part of the standard language, which prefers respectively feiceann and faigheann. Thig is accepted by the standardizers in the phrase thig leis [rud a dhéanamh] = is féidir leis [rud a dhéanamh] ‘he can [do something]’, and sometimes those who don’t know that it is basically the same as tagann perceive it as a distinct verb and try to introduce other finite forms of the same “verb”.

The habitual present of the verb “to be”, bíonn, is typically treated as a regular habitual present. Thus, its direct relative form is a bhíonn in the standard language and a bhíos, a bhíonns in those dialects which take the relative -s. However, in Ulster the delenited forms a bíos and a bí also exist. This is as far as I know due to some ancient irregularity.

If the verb has a personal ending, the -s forms are of course not used: seo é an seomra a ghlanaim gach uile lá this is the room I clean every day. However, I don’t think it is wrong at all to use pronoun and -s form: seo é an seomra a ghlanas mé gach uile lá.

It is a well-known problem that the direct relative clause can be ambiguous. Sin é an t-oifigeach a mharaigh an gnáthshaighdiúir can mean “that is the officer who killed the common soldier” or “that is the officer whom the common soldier killed”. Scroll down for how the ambiguity can be avoided.

The direct relative clause is also used in emphasis:

Airsean a rinne mé trácht ‘It’s of him I made mention’

Ar an traein a tháinig mé ‘It’s by train I came’

Leis an gcailín a labhair mé ‘It’s with the girl I spoke’

The indirect relative clause is used when the relativized element is written out inside the relative sentence. Most often this means that the element relativized is a prepositional phrase in the relative clause, but it can also be something that is referred to by a possessive pronoun:

Seo é an fear a ndearna mé trácht air. This is the man I made mention of. 

An duine a nglanaim a sheomra gach uile lá, níl a fhios agam a dhath ina thaobh. The person whose room I clean every day, I don’t know anything about him or her. (In English “him or her”, or maybe “them”, but in Irish we use the masculine gender, because the noun duine is masculine.)

An duine ar cheannaigh mé an rothar uaidh, chuaigh sé ar imirce go dtí an Astráil. The person from whom I bought the bike emigrated to Australia.

An t-arrachtach ar dhírigh an captaen a gha-ghunna air, is é peata an Tliongánaigh úd thall é. The monster at which the captain aimed his raygun is the pet of that Klingon over there. (The noun Tliongánach for Klingon is purportedly based directly on the Klingon language, so I’ll use it. Earlier, I preferred Cliongónach, but as Tliongánach is so much more authentic, I guess Irish-speaking Trekkies should prefer it. Qapla’!)

The preposition can be put before the indirect relative clause, but this is a somewhat posh or literary usage not all are aware of:

Seo an fear ar a ndearna mé trácht. This is the man of whom I made mention. (In fact, you do sometimes see this done wrongly, like this: Seo an fear ar a rinne mé trácht. I tend to think that this is a pure Anglicism rather than a rethinking of the old structure. I.e., the old one being entirely forgotten by or unknown to the speaker, the new one is introduced under the influence of literary English. Of these two I recommend the older form though, because it is an established literary form; but being stylistically marked, it is less acceptable than Seo an fear a ndearna mé trácht air.) 


Tháinig an fear ar labhair mé leis = Tháinig an fear lenar labhair mé The man to whom I spoke came. 

D’imigh an fear a bhfuair mé an peann ar iasacht uaidh = D’imigh an fear óna bhfuair mé an peann ar iasacht The man from whom I borrowed the pen went away/left.

An t-arrachtach ar dhírigh an captaen a gha-ghunna air, is é peata an Tliongánaigh úd thall é = An t-arrachtach ar ar dhírigh an captaen a gha-ghunna, is é peata an Tliongánaigh úd thall é.

As you see, the indirect relative a eclipses, i.e. behaves like the go (“that”) particle. In the past tense of the regular verbs, we use ar, which lenites and which behaves like gur. Thus:

Seo é an fear ar thrácht mé air. This is the man I mentioned (note that in Irish trácht!/trácht ‘to mention’ takes the ar preposition).

Note that the inflected preposition agrees in person with the element relativized:

Mise a ndearna sé trácht orm, ní maith liom a iompraíocht ar aon nós. Me, whom he mentioned, I don’t like his behavior at all. (Yes, the example is somewhat contrived, but I vouch for its grammaticality. The English translation is intentionally clumsy, meant to keep close to the original.)

Mise an duine a ndearna sé trácht air – I am the person he mentioned, because here the element relativized is not mise immediately, but rather an duine.

Indirect relative clauses are also used after such nouns as áit “place” or dóigh “way, manner, method”, although no preposition is written out: an áit ar chaith mé laethanta m’óige the place where I spent the days of my youth, an dóigh ar chríochnaigh sé an obair the way he finished the work. The underlying structure here is *an áit inar chaith mé laethanta m’óige/*an áit ar chaith mé laethanta m’óige inti; *an dóigh ar ar chríochnaigh sé an obair/*an dóigh ar chríochaigh mé an obair uirthi – note that we say san áit, ar an dóigh; but the underlying structure is no longer used. You do see direct relative clause used here sometimes, but it should be avoided as substandard language. The direct/indirect relative clause distinction might be disappearing in spoken Irish, but what I am concerned about is established literary language (whichever dialect). 

After nouns meaning “way” in the sense of a concrete way or road, you have a direct relative clause: an bealach a tháinig sé the way he came. Here bealach is treated as a kind of object or accusative, although the verb tar!/tag-/t(h)ioc-/tháinig/teacht does not take a real object. 

After units of time you can have either: an lá a bhí mé ansin = an lá a raibh mé ansin the day I was there. (Of course if the verb is a transitive one and the unit of time is obviously its object, then use only the direct relative clause: an lá a chaith mé ansin the day I spent there.) Actually, I would see those units of time as “extra objects” and prefer an lá a bhí mé ansin, an bhliain a bhí mé ansin, an mhí a bhí mé ansin, but some people insist an indirect relative clause should be used here.

I’d like to point out however that the conjunction nuair ‘when’ is always followed by a direct relative clause, and nuair comes from an uair ‘the hour, the time, the occasion (when)’, so it occurs to me that putting the direct relative after units of time is a usage that has been around for a while and should be accepted.

Finally, there is the “all-inclusive relative clause”. This can be an indirect or a direct one, but it uses the a + eclipsis (or with the regular past tense, ar + aspiration), which then has the meaning “all available ones”:

Tháinig a raibh ann All who were there came.

Labhair mé lena raibh sásta freagra a thabhairt I spoke to all who were willing to answer.

Labhair mé lenar casadh orm I spoke to all whom I met.

Direct and indirect relative clauses look the same when negated. Compare:

Sin é an fear a chonaic mé. That is the man whom I saw.

Sin é an fear nach bhfaca mé. That is the man whom I didn’t saw.

Sin é an fear ar chuala mé trácht air. That is the man whom I heard mention of.

Sin é an fear nár chuala mé trácht air. That is the man whom I didn’t hear mention of.

Labhair mé lena raibh sásta freagra a thabhairt. I spoke to all who were willing to answer.

Labhair mé le nach raibh sásta freagra a thabhairt. I spoke to all who weren’t willing to answer. 

And finally: 

If you want to avoid the ambiguity in direct relative clauses, you are allowed to write out the subject or the object and make the relative clause indirect. Like this:

Sin é an t-oifigeach a mharaigh an gnáthshaighdiúir. That is the officer who killed the common soldier/whom the common soldier killed (the original direct relative clause).

Sin é an t-oifigeach ar mharaigh an gnáthshaighdiúir é. That is the officer whom the common soldier killed. (This is the more common variant.)

Sin é an t-oifigeach ar mharaigh sé an gnáthshaighdiúir. That is the officer who killed the common soldier. (This is less common of the two, because for the direct relative clause, this is the default interpretation.)

This possibility is overlooked by practically every learners’ grammar, and when I suggest it, there is always someone who suggests it is wrong. Indeed, you need to sift through literally thousands of pages of native literature and folklore to see this often enough to be sure of it. However, it is common enough to be acceptable, and it is used in every dialect zone, both Connacht, Ulster and Munster. 

A short note on “caithfidh” = “must”

As most people learning Irish know, the future of the verb caith!/caitheamh is used in the sense of “must”, and the conditional moood in the sense of “had to”. Many ask me whether it is possible to use the present of the verb in this sense at all.

I answer: yes it is, if it is syntactically required, i.e. after ‘if’. which is followed by present tense if there is a future form in the main clause: Má chaitheann tú an rud áirithe seo a dhéanamh, caithfidh mé é a dhéanamh chomh maith ‘If you must do this particular thing, I must do it too’.

It is nowadays common practice to use caith!/caitheamh in the sense ‘must’ in its all tenses. It is my impression that this is a specifically Munster usage, or was to start with. If you say Chaith mé é a dhéanamh ‘I had to do it’, I can’t dismiss it as out and out wrong, but I wouldn’t use it myself. (And of course, if I was trying to imitate Kerry Irish for artistic purposes, I would say Chaitheas é a dhéanamh.) My preferred practice would be to say B’éigean dom é a dhéanamh

In fact, I would not object to Bhí agam é a dhéanamh, although obviously a loan-translation from English (‘I had to do it’), because this is an established structure in those dialects I am most familiar with. However, it does clash somewhat with the native logic of prepositional usage, because in the sense of obligation, ar rather than ag is the usual preposition – bhí orm é a dhéanamh should thus be preferred.

Note that the impersonal caithfidh sé is preferred when we are speaking of things that it seems must be true: caithfidh sé go bhfuil tú sásta means ‘you must be happy’ in the sense that external circumstances suggest you are happy. (My anonymous commenter says that it feels more natural to omit the , i.e. caithfidh go bhfuil tú sásta, and while I am not sure about “more natural”, I do agree that in this particular expression the subject pronoun can be omitted and often is, and it is absolutely OK to omit it.) If you say caithfidh tú bheith sásta, the sense conveyed is that you must be happy because there is some sort of obligation upon you: caithfidh tú bheith sásta nó cuirfidh mé as oidhreacht thú! ‘you must be happy or I’ll disinherit you!’ (In this sense though, I guess it would be more idiomatic Irish to say caithfidh tú cuma shásta a chur ort nó cuirfidh mé as oidhreacht thú ‘you must put on a happy face [in Irish, ‘you must put a happy expression on yourself’] or I’ll disinherit you’).

Love is an attitude

It is generally known among learners that emotions and feelings (and illnesses) are in Irish on (ar) the person experiencing them: Tá áthas orm. Tá lúcháir orm. Tá brón orm. Tá fearg orm. 

However, love and hatred are in Irish not perceived as transient emotions, but as attitudes. Those are in Irish something you have, i.e. you use the preposition ag ‘at’. If you use ar with these nouns, it does not refer to the person who does the loving or hating, but to the person or thing loved or hated, although in this sense the preposition do is more common.

The correct construction is, thus:

tá grá ag Seán do/ar Ghobnait ‘Seán loves Gobnait’

tá fuath ag na páistí don scoil/ar an scoil ‘the children hate the school’ (by the way, this can also mean ‘children hate school’, noting that the definite article also can have a generic sense in Irish).

The difference between i and sa

One thing which ligeadóirí agus casadóirí an Chaighdeáin – the makers of standard Irish – got wrong is the treatment of the preposition i. Many learners are confused about what the exact relationship between i and sa is, because sa does not look like i at all. If the caighdeán had kept ins an, ins na instead of introducing the colloquial form sa, sna, I think learners wouldn’t be even half as confused.

So, just as an introduction:

When we take the preposition i and add the definite article an or in plural na, what we get is ins an, ins na. Thus:

i gcathair ‘in a city’ but ins an chathair ‘in the city’

i dteach ‘in a house’ but ins an teach ‘in the house’

in eitleán ‘in an aeroplane’ but ins an eitleán ‘in the aeroplane’

in áit ‘in a place’ but ins an áit ‘in the place’

i gcathracha ‘in cities’ but ins na cathracha ‘in the cities’

i dtithe ‘in houses’ but ins na tithe ‘in the houses’

in eitleáin ‘in aeroplanes’ but ins na heitleáin ‘in the aeroplanes’ 

In the caighdeán we are supposed to use sa, san, sna instead of ins an, ins na:

sa chathair, sa teach, san eitleán, san áit, sna cathracha, sna tithe, sna heitleáin.

This is a common reduction of ins an, ins na in the spoken language, but for a learner, it is not easy to understand why such very different words as i and sa could be related. If you think of every single sa, san, sna as ins an, ins an, ins na, this should help you.

As regards the initial mutation after i and ins an, the preposition when not followed by definite article eclipses the noun. After ins an, the noun is lenited. If it begins with s + vowel, s + l, s + n, s + r, then the standard language supposes that you prefix a t- to the s- instead, if the noun is feminine. In plural, the noun simply adds h- to an initial vowel and does not change an initial consonant at all (i.e. there is no difference between plural noun after ins na and after just na).

In dialects, the rules may be different. So:

* In Ulster, the t- prefixation to a lenitable s happens always after singular ins an. Thus, ins an tsaol, although saol is masculine.

* In Connacht, ins an eclipses rather than lenites. Thus, ins an mbaile, ins an gcathair. But it does not eclipse t- and d-, of course (neither does it lenite them, in other dialects)

* In Munster, ins an generally lenites, but there is a handful of nouns it does not lenite: ins an mbreis, ins an mbliain, ins an méid. At least in some dialects in Munster, there is an additional rule that ins an lenites other initial consonants, but eclipses f-: ins an bhFionlainn rather than ins an Fhionlainn. Many non-Gaeltacht speakers seem to have adopted this particular rule, even though they don’t generally attempt to prefer Munster words and forms.

Now, let’s add another rule. If you now want to stick to the Caighdeán, substitute sa for ins an before consonants, san for ins an before vowels and fh- (ins an fharraige > san fharraige), and sna for ins na. (Note that sa for ins na – such as sa háiteanna, sa heitleáin – is Kerry dialect, not standard language.)

Some Notes on Article Usage in Irish

One of the main differences between Irish and English is article usage, and it is a source of errors and headache for all learners. I didn’t learn it overnight either, so try not to lose heart. It is possible to learn it.

To start with, remember that while we say in English, for instance, “the president of Ireland”, “the managing director of the company”, in Irish genitive constructions, one definite article is enough. So, in Irish we say:

the president of Ireland =  Uachtarán na hÉireann

the managing director of the company = stiúrthóir bainisteoireachta an ghnólachta

To add an extra article (*an tUachtarán na hÉireann, *an stiúrthóir bainisteoireachta an ghnólachta) is out and out wrong, and it is wrong in all the Celtic languages. It is only allowed when the first noun is qualified by seo, sin, or úd – i.e. you can say “an tUachtarán seo na hÉireann“, but it is not required – the first article can be omitted: “Uachtarán seo na hÉireann” ‘this president of Ireland’.

Note that if a noun followed by a definite genitive attribute is indeclinable. If it is put in genitive position, that genitive will only be expressed by leniting the first consonant, if it can be lenited. Compare:

Aerfhórsa na Stát Aontaithe “the air force of the United States”


Aerfhórsa Stáit Aontaithe Mheiriceá

“the air force of the United States of America”

Note that as a proper name Meiriceá is inherently definite.

A noun should not be modified by two definite genitives. This is why I find the recommended form “Duais Nobel na Síochána” (“Nobel Peace Prize”) objectionable: “Nobel” is a proper name, which means that it is a definite noun, and after “duais”, it is a genitive. I would prefer “Duais Síochána Nobel”.

“Ag” as an agent preposition in Irish

In English, the preposition by is used as agent preposition. This means, that when you transform an active sentence, such as this –

The callous criminal murdered the poor beggar

into a passive one, the subject of the active sentence is pointed out using the preposition by:

The poor beggar was murdered by the callous criminal.

People tend to think that the Irish preposition ag always corresponds to the English preposition by in passive constructions. This is of course basically correct, but only to a certain extent. To start with, what does “passive” mean in grammar?

In an active sentence, such as “The callous criminal murdered the poor beggar”, the agent of the action (the callous criminal) is also the subject of the sentence. If we substitute “he” for “the callous criminal”, we get “He murdered the poor beggar”. “He” is the subject form of the pronoun. On the other hand, if we substitute a pronoun for “the poor beggar”, we get “The callous criminal murdered him”.  Here the form is “him”, an object form. Thus, the patient or “sufferer” of the action is in the object position and takes the object form.

In a passive sentence, the patient, though, is in the subject position, and the agent can be left completely unmentioned:

The poor beggar was murdered

or mentioned in a prepositional phrase, the preposition being by in English:

The poor beggar was murdered by the callous criminal.

I hope you have now understood the idea. By the way, the grammatical category that can be passive or active is called voice or, in a more learned way, diathesis. Back when all learned men were men and spoke Latin, the term genus verbi (the “gender” of the verb) was also used. In German, we also use Handlungsrichtung, “the direction of the action”, which makes eminent sense, but regrettably, English seems not to have an equally good term. In Irish, “voice” in this sense is faí (it’s feminine: an fhaí, genitive na faí), “active voice” being an fhaí ghníomhach, “passive voice” called an fhaí chéasta.

Now that you should know what we are talking about, let’s get on with the Irish-language part of the story.

It is basically true that in Irish, the agent of an action or a development takes the preposition ag. Thus, we have such constructions as: tá mo chroí briste agat “you have broken my heart”, or even tá a chuid gruaige liath ag an aois “his hair is grey with old age” (word for word, “grey by the age” – note that Irish uses article for generic, abstract things, while English does not). And of course, in tá sé á bhualadh ag na ruifínigh “he is being hit/beaten by the ruffians”, we have an obviously passive construction with ag marking the agent.

In Irish, there are two kinds of passive constructions: the situational passive or Zustandspassiv, as Germans say, and the progressive passive. The situational passive is created by combining a finite form of the verb tá “is” and the participle of the verb: déanta, críochnaithe, briste, scríofa, faighte, and so on. It is appropriate to use the German term Zustandspassiv for Irish, because this construction is used in a way similar to the German one: it suggests that the action is already finished, and the result has been attained:

Tá mo chroí briste agat. “You have broken my heart. My heart has been broken by you.”

Tá an tasc críochnaithe ag an oibrí. “The worker has finished the task. The task has been finished by the worker.”

Tá an t-úrscéal scríofa ag an údar. “The author has written the novel. The novel has been written by the author.”

Note that although this Irish construction looks similar to the English one – “The book is written by the author” – its meaning is quite different. The English construction suggests an ongoing process, while the Irish one suggests a finished one.

In Irish, we have another passive construction, the progressive passive, which suggests ongoing activity (“progression”). Thus:

Tá an t-úrscéal á scríobh ag an údar “The novel is being written by the author”.

Here, we have a form of the verb tá combined with á + verbal noun. It can also be written dhá or  (actually, I have no idea whatsoever which of these is the official standard, and could not care less). Anyway, this is a combination of do + possessive pronoun, in this particular instance the third person possessive pronoun “his, its”. Thus, tá an t-úrscéal á scríobh means, word for word, “the novel is to its writing”.

Note that the do can in this construction combine with other possessive pronouns, too:

tá mé do mo thuirsiú ag an múinteoir “I am being exhausted/bored by the teacher”

tá tú do do thuirsiú ag an múinteoir “you are being exhausted/bored by the teacher”

tá sé á thuirsiú ag an múinteoir “he is being exhausted/bored by the teacher” (also dá thuirsiú or dhá thuirsiú)

tá sí á tuirsiú ag an múinteoir “she is being exhausted/bored by the teacher” (also dá tuirsiú or dhá tuirsiú)

tá muid dár dtuirsiú ag an múinteoir “we are being exhausted/bored by the teacher” (also dhár dtuirsiú; I recommend against using ár dtuirsiú here, because this ár can be confused with the pronoun ár “our”, which is combined with do in dár, dhár. However, don’t be confused if you do see ár in this position.)

tá sibh do bhur dtuirsiú ag an múinteoir “you guys are being exhausted/bored by the teacher”

tá siad á dtuirsiú ag an múinteoir “they are being exhausted/bored by the teacher” (also dá dtuirsiú or dhá dtuirsiú)

Note that in a combination of preposition and possessive pronoun (also called possessive adjective by Irish grammarians) the possessive pronoun comes last and determines, which initial mutation the verbal noun takes. Thus: do mo, do do lenite (t > th), á lenites when it includes “his”, does not lenite (but adds h- to a vowel) when it includes “her”, and it eclipses when it includes “their”. Dár and do bhur eclipse.

So, in Irish there are two kinds of true passive constructions. However, when you hear “Irish” and “passive”, you probably think of the verb form known as saorbhriathar or the autonomous verb, which (for a regular verb) has the following forms:

present: dúntar, osclaítear

past: dúnadh, hosclaíodh

conditional mood: dhúnfaí, d’osclófaí

habitual past (imperfect past): dhúntaí, d’osclaítí

future tense: dúnfar, osclófar

There is an irritating habit among grammarians to equate this form with “passive”. This is wrong, because the formal difference between it and a real passive is obvious. In a real passive construction, the patient of the action becomes the subject of the sentence. This does not happen in the Irish autonomous form. As you should know, Irish third-person pronouns have object forms: sé, sí, siad become é, í, iad. Like this:

Bhris an buachaill an fhuinneog “The boy broke the window” – Bhris an buachaill í. “The boy broke it” (í, because fuinneog “window” is feminine).

Bhris an fear an buidéal “The man broke the bottle” – Bhris an fear é. “The man broke it.” (é, because buidéal “bottle” is masculine)

Bhris an buachaill na fuinneoga “The boy broke the windows”. – Bhris an buachaill iad “The boy broke them”.

These object forms are also used after the autonomous form. See:

Briseadh an fhuinneog – Briseadh í. “Somebody broke the window. Somebody broke it.”

Briseadh an buidéal – Briseadh é “Somebody broke the bottle. Somebody broke it.”

Briseadh na fuinneoga – Briseadh iad “Somebody broke the windows. Somebody broke them.”

So, the point of using the Irish autonomous form is not so much that of focusing on the patient rather than the agent, it is above all hiding the agent. This is why I translate briseadh na fuinneoga as “somebody broke the windows” rather than “the windows were broken”.

However, you do see the autonomous form used with an ag agent. My impression is, that it is much more common in bureaucratic and/or non-native Irish than in the works of native writers – indeed so common that it is a dead giveaway of non-native Irish. You do sometimes see it in native literature – one book that is almost to a non-native extent replete with it is Domhnall Mac Síthigh’s Fan Inti. (I am not recommending against the book, though, because it is very interesting in providing the reader with much important information about traditional boat-making – if you read it, you’ll learn all the boating terminology in Kerry Irish, which is quite a worthy undertaking for any Irish-language enthusiast). However, usually there is no ag agent added to the autonomous form – even in today’s Irish. a typical book by a native writer includes one or two instances. This suggests to me that the usage is basically Anglicist and very untypical of native Irish.

The Ó Donaill dictionary, which is not unnecessarily purist at all – in fact it includes a lot of loan words from English often attacked by purists – does not acknowledge ag as an agent preposition used with the autonomous verb, while it acknowledges other agent usages of the preposition. However, Ó Donaill notes that the preposition le can be used to refer to the agent of an autonomous verb, but only in older, pre-20th century literature (as the abbreviation Lit: suggests, in the dictionary).

Should this usage of le be revived? I am not sure. I have seen one or two instances of it used in this way in Gaeltacht literature, but it is so rare as to be almost as grating as ag, It should however be noted that it is still part of the living language in Gaelic Scotland, and the contemporary writer in whose works I have spotted it – a minor Donegal poet and seanchaí – might have learnt it over there.

There is also ó. I have been reliably informed that ó is sporadically used as agent preposition with autonomous verbs in Connacht dialects. However, this usage has, as far as I know, never entered native literature or folklore.

My opinion is, thus, that impersonal autonomous forms should never take any kind of agent constructions, and they should only be used when we don’t want, or when we don’t find it necessary, to mention the agent of the action at all.