Irish Language Blog

Eve vs. Evening in Irish (‘Christmas Eve’ vs. ‘a nice evening’) Posted by on Dec 20, 2014 in Irish Language

(le Róislín)

Oíche Nollag… it has always struck me as interesting that the Irish phrase for “Christmas Eve” actually uses the word for “night” (oíche), not the usual word for “evening,” which is “tráthnóna.”  Usual?  It’s actually an intriguing question – what exactly is “evening” in Irish, since “tráthnóna” can also mean “afternoon.”  Scéal cineál casta é sin, déarfainn.

But given the season that’s in it, let’s look at “Christmas Eve” first.  Then maybe the next most celebrated “evening” in the traditional Irish calendar, Oíche Shamhna.  And, of course, New Year’s Eve, Oíche Chinn Bhliana.  And then I’ll try to make a dent in the nóin – iarnóin – tráthnóna – oíche continuum, as space permits.   Space-permitting?  Hmm, does that make it a “space-time” continuum?  How much space do we have to talk about time?  I could easily see ten blogs’ worth, but we’ll just deal with some basics today.

So, here goes:

Oíche Nollag, Christmas Eve, lit. the night of (i.e. preceding) Christmas (24 Mí na Nollag)

Oíche Lá Nollag, the night of Christmas Day (25 Mí na Nollag)

Oíche Shamhna, Halloween, aka All Hallow’s Eve, reminding us that at one time the following day, Samhain, was at least equally important, being the Celtic New Year.  So November 1st was the ancient Celtic New Year, whereas January First is now recognized as the beginning of the new year.

Oíche Chinn Bhliana, New Year’s Eve, lit. night/eve (of the) end (of the) year (31 Mí na Nollag)

The most basic translation of “oíche” is “night,” and we use it constantly to say “Good night!” (Oíche mhaith!)

So what’s the deal with “evening,” since “eve” is just a short form of “evening”?

There are several ways to say “evening” in Irish, with “tráthnóna” as the most basic.  But, fad m’eolais, tráthnóna” is not used in the actual name of any “holiday eves.”  They’re all “oíche,” and understood to refer to the night before the holiday.  To make things even more complicated, “tráthnóna” also means “afternoon.”

This distinction has always intrigued me.  Sometimes “tráthnóna” is defined as “evening,” that is, evening while there is still light.  After it turns dark, the word “oíche” can be used, but that also means “night.”  Is there an exact cutoff point for evening becoming night?  Níl a fhios agam.

I’ve always had a rough sense of “tráthnóna” lasting from after noon to dusk.  Dusk-ish, rather.  Since dusk can start as early as four o’clock in Ireland and Scotland, and a little earlier, the farther north you go.   So once it gets dark, is it totally “oíche,” even if it’s fairly early?

And while we might say “tráthnóna breá” means a “nice evening,” it could also mean a “nice afternoon.”

If we look at some of the phrases that typically use “evening” in English, we see a mixture of “tráthnóna” and “oíche“:

an evening of music: oíche cheoil

evening primrose: coinneal oíche, lit. candle of night

evening class: rang oíche

the evening news: nuacht an tráthnóna

evening prayer: urnaí an tráthnóna

evening dress: culaith thráthnóna

And then there’s “iarnóin” (iar-, after + nóin, noon).  But that doesn’t really affect the “oíche/tráthnóna” distinction.  “Iarnóin,” in my experience, is mostly limited to when you’re referring to specific times of the day, as in “ag a ceathair iarnóin.”  But you can also say, “ag a ceathair tráthnóna.”

Nóin” can also mean “nones,” as in the canonical hours.  Specifically, it’s the ninth canonical hour, which is at 3 pm.  But dealing with all the uaireanta canónta, bhuel, that could definitely be ábhar blag eile.

So to recap:

oíche, which basically means “night,” also used for holiday “eves”

tráthnóna, for some uses of “evening,” outside of holiday names

oíche for some other uses of “evening,” aside from holiday names

tráthnóna for “afternoon” in general

iarnóin for “afternoon,” mostly accompanied by a specific time, or at least implying some specific hours

and nóin, mostly for noon (12 pm) in everyday speech, but can be nones (3 pm).

Ah, well, maybe I should go turn on Christian Morgenstern’s “Daynight Lamp” and be done with it.  What if Irish were the native language of some Arctic locale where you have 24 hours of daylight and 24 hours of darkness, depending on the season.  The mind boggles!  Or mine does, anyway.   Especially if I consider the phrase “tráthnóna iarnóna,” which means “postmeridian hours.”  Why isn’t it “uaireanta iarnóna“?  Mh’anam!  But hope this was of interest. SGF — Róislín

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  1. Jed Hudson:

    In English the word afternoon is a late invention. There was morning, evening and night. In one of Oscar Wilde’s plays one of his characters,possibly Lady Windermere, greets a friend at about 4p.m. with “Good Morning.” And, remember, in the theatre a matinée performance takes place in the afternoon.

    • róislín:

      @Jed Hudson Suimiúil, go raibh maith agat. Thanks for writing in, Jed, that helps explain the situation. I’m reminded a bit of the Dowager Countess in Downton Abbey asking “What’s a weekend?”

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