Irish Language Blog

Taking “uain” by the “urla” (agus focail eile ar “time”) Posted by on Apr 27, 2012 in Irish Language

(le Róislín)

OK, so what’s that hybrid title all about?  The last blog discussed how the word “aimsir,” usually meaning “weather,” can also mean “time” in certain phrases like “aimsir na Cásca” and “in aimsir na bhFiann.”  That got me thinking, how many other ways are there to say “time” in Irish?

So I figured I’d carpe the old diem, since there’s no time like the present, and strike while the iron of vocabulary intrigue is hot.  In other words, I’d take “time” (“uain”) by the “forelock” (“urla”).  Hmm, that’s as opposed to what, a hindlock? Ah, in Irish, that would have to be the “cúilín” (hair on the back of the head, ach sin, once again, ábhar blag eile, especially considering all the rules and regulations pertaining to hair in medieval Ireland).  Not that I’ve ever actually heard “cúilín” translated as “hindlock,” in fact, I’ve hardly ever heard “hindlock” in English but Googling gives me about 300 samples of it online, mostly pretty obscure stuff.  It’s not in any of my hard-copy dictionaries, though, English or Irish.  As for taking time by the hindlock, well, …

Anyway, back to the question, how many ways are there to say “time” in Irish?  This blog will briefly describe a baker’s dozen (that’ll be thirteen), wrapping up with at least a couple of phrases in Irish that are about some aspect of time, but which don’t actually include any of the Irish words for time, including the classic, “Time, gentlemen, please!” and phrases “like “seven times as,” regarding size or amount.

But let’s start at the beginning, with the word usually learned first in most Irish language programs, “am” (pronounced like “ahm,” not like the English verb “am” as in “I am”).  Here are a few key phrases for “am””

1a. Cén t-am é? or Cén t-am atá sé?  What time is it?  You might ask, “Where’d that “t-“ come from?”  The same place it came from when we say “an t-am” (the time), or for that matter, “an t-úll” or “an t-oráiste.”  Since “cén” is really a compound of “” + “an,” the same rules apply for “cén” as apply to “an” (cén t-am, cén t-úll, etc., but cén eilifint, cén bhean, etc., the latter two having no “t”).

The usual answer to this is “Tá sé a haon a chlog,” or whatever time it is you wish to say.  As in English, we don’t tend to repeat the word “time” in the answer.

1b. Cén t-am ar tháinig sé?  What time did he come?  Note that this question phrase is followed by “ar tháinig,” not “a tháinig,” which can be used elsewhere.  We have the same basic set-up for other verbs, that is, the dependent verb form, with “a” in the present and future tenses (Cén t-am a bhfuil …?  Cén t-am a mbeidh …?), with “ar” for most past tense verbs (Cén t-am ar ith sé?  Cén t-am ar ól sé?) and with “a” for some of the past tense irregulars (Cén t-am a raibh …?  Cén t-am a ndeachaigh …?).  There are various interpretations of this rule, but my understanding is that the idea is “at what time did he come,” triggering the dependent form, as opposed to a question such as “Cén t-am atá sé?” (where “” equals the time) or “Cén t-am atá feiliúnach?” (where the adjective “feiliúnach” describes the time).  Those two examples use “atá,” the independent form of the verb.

Now, how about the other twelve words for time?  Here goes, in alphabetical order,  which means that “aga,” probably the most obscure of them, happens to come first.  I’m sure there are more possibilities but this should be go leor for now:

2. aga, a period of time, an interval, as in “Caith aga leis!” (Take your time with it!)

3. aimsir, time, as in this proverb in slightly archaic Irish , “Do b’fhéidir do luchóig le haimsir cábla do ghearradh ar a dhó” (In time, i.e. given enough time, a mouse may bite a cable in two).  “Aimsir” also means “tense” for verbs and “time of year.”

4. cian, a length of time, an age, as in “ó na ciantaibh” (from time immemorial) or ”ó chianaibh” (a while ago), both still used but featuring the archaic dative plural (–ibh ending)

5. faill, time, occasion, opportunity, chance,  as in “ag feitheamh na faille” (playing for time) or “nuair a bheidh faill agam” (when I have a chance/the time)

6. linn, a space or period of time, as in “idir an dá linn” (in the meantime, lit. between the two time periods)

7. , portion or period of time, as in “i ré Iorua” (in the time of Herod); “” also means “space” and “moon” (although “moon” is more typically “gealach”)!  Another way to say “Herod” is “Héaród” (with “Héaróid” for “of Herod”), but “Iorua” is a traditional form of the name.

8. saol [seel OR sayl], time, as in “ar na saolta seo” (in these times, nowadays); in different contexts, also means “life,” “world,” and “all creation”

9. seal [shal], time, spell, stint, as in “do sheal a chur isteach ar na báid” (to do your stint of time on the boats)

10. tráth [traw], time, hour, occasion, as in “i dtrátha na Nollag” (around Christmas) or “Tráth na gCeist” (Question Time, a quiz show)

11. tréimhse, period or term of time, as in “sa tréimhse a bhí dlite” (in the time that was allotted).  Sometimes, more specifically, “a three-month period of time.”

12. uain, time, interval of time, opportune time, as in “ar uainibh” (by turns, at times, occasionally; with the old dative plural ending, -ibh) or “breith ar an uain ar an urla” (to take time by the forelock, lit. to take “on” the time “on” the forelock)

13. uair, time, hour, season, as in “an uair seo den bhliain” (this time of (the) year) or “baois na huaire” (the folly of the times).  This is probably the most commonly used of all of these twelve examples, occurring in widely in expressions such as “Cén uair …?” (When …?) and “trí huaire” (three times).  Occasionally it can also be used for “weather,” in a neat reversal of the “aimsir” time-weather continuum.

Well, sin trí fhocal déag ar “time.”  So, which of these do we use in Irish for “Time, gentlemen, please!”  Well, at least according to standard lexicography, none of them.  The phrase “Caithigí siar iad!” (lit. drink them back/down) suffices.  Of course, these days, the phrase shouldn’t be limited to “gentlemen,” but should instead perhaps be phrased as “gentlepeople,” or, perhaps more colloquially, as “folks.”  Or drop out the vocative, and just leave the imperative (in Irish) or the noun with verb implication (“time,” i.e. “drink up”)

We could ask, though, is this phrase even needed these days, now that pubs have all kinds of hours?  And how did it come about anyway?  Well, the origins probably go back to beginnings of the registration of drinking hours (whenever that was), but I did discover one new piece of the puzzle, albeit a very English one.  Time, Gentlemen, Please! was the name of a 1952 movie, set in the fictitious village of “Little Hayhoe” (no less!) and starring Eddie Byrne (the Dublin actor) as an archetypal boozy but sly old codger who gets the “luck of the Irish” in this quintessentially English setting, with half-timbering and all.  The movie also features Hermione Baddeley, Raymond Lovell, and Sid James, in case you’re interested.  How the Irish character ends up in Hayhoe is never stated but the story is mildly amusing, if we can forgive the stereotyping.

Another “time” expression in English, which is “time-less” in Irish is “seacht n-oiread an méid sin,” where both “oiread” and “méid” mean “amount.  So the full phrase would be translated as “seven times as much” or “seven times that amount.”  More literally, but a bit awkwardly, I’d say, “seven amounts of that amount.”

Well, that’s thirteen ways to say time in Irish, plus a couple of extra expressions, and I’m sure there are more.  Keep in mind that most of these words have multiple meanings, and may well be translated in other ways than “time.”  But that’s all we have time for in one blog.  Maybe we’ll return to this topic am éigin eile (some other time).  SGF, Róislín

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Keep learning Irish with us!

Build vocabulary, practice pronunciation, and more with Transparent Language Online. Available anytime, anywhere, on any device.

Try it Free Find it at your Library
Share this:
Pin it


  1. FlyFly:

    An-pheann agat a Róisín. Bhain mé fíor-taitneamh as seo.

    • róislín:

      @FlyFly GRMA, a Chuileog/Chuileog. Tá áthas orm gur bhain tú sult as.

  2. Tristan:

    Stair, history but can also mean a ‘spell of time’ stair báisteach, = spell of rain.

    • róislín:

      @Tristan Go raibh maith agat as uimhir a ceathair déag! Cosúil le “seal báistí,” is dócha.

Leave a comment: