Irish Language Blog

When Is An ‘Athair” Not A ‘Father’ (literally, that is) Posted by on May 10, 2013 in Irish Language

(le Róislín)

Cuid den “Ár nAthair” in the old print, starting with “A Athair”

In the last blog (nasc thíos), we first reviewed the basic words for “mother” (plus mom, mum, mam, mommy, mummy, mammy) in Irish (máthair, mam, mamaí, srl.).  Then we looked at phrases like “máthair shúigh” and “teanga dhúchais,” where there is not a one-to-one correlation between máthair/mother and the translation of a phrase into English or Irish respectively.  Remember the meaning of those two phrases?  “Máthair shúigh” is “squid” and “teanga dhúchais” is “mother tongue.”

So what’s the situation with “athair” (father)?  Are there as many figurative expressions and idioms as there are for “máthair“?  Bhuel, let’s check it out.  But first, as in the last blog, let’s go over the basics (athair, deaide, daidí, srl.).

A somewhat newer “old script” for the “Ár nAthair”

athair [AH-hirzh], father; an t-athair [un TAH-hirzh], the father.  Remember the “t-” prefixed to nouns like “athair,” “uisce,” and “úll,” giving us “an t-athair,” an t-uisce,” and “an t-úll.”  Why?  Because they are a) grammatically masculine, b) singular, and c) begin with a vowel.  Why the rule applies is much more complicated, going back to the Proto-Celtic word *sindo- (no relation to the nickname for the Sunday Independent, which isn’t Proto-Celtic!) and will have to be ábhar blag eile.

athar [AH-hur], of (a) father (ex. ar nós athar).  Like “máthar” for “máthair,” the change to show possession is indicated by making the final “r” broad (i.e. removing the letter “i”).  This removes the “zh” buzzy sound referred to in previous blogs.

an athar, of the father (ex. mac an athar, the son of the father, also coincidentally, the name of a short film, Mac an Athar, 2005, about a boy raised in an Irish-speaking household on Dublin’s Northside, which, needless to say, is not a traditional Gaeltacht (  Another very widespread usage, to say the least, is “in ainm an Athar” (in the name of the Father), which has been parodied in Des Bishop’s hilarious and shameless video series In the Name of the Fada, where he is actually referring to the “síneadh fada” (an comhartha idirdhealaitheach os cionn gutaí i nGaeilge, i bhfocail mar “bá,” “sé,” “sí,” “dó,” agus “tú”).  Tuilleadh ag .

aithreacha [AH-hrzhuh-khuh], fathers (NB: back to the slender “r” pronunciation)

na haithreacha [nuh HAH-hrzhuh-khuh], the fathers (NB: an initial “h-” is prefixed here)

aithreacha, of fathers (mic aithreacha, sons of fathers)

na n-aithreacha, of the fathers (“Lá na nAithreacha Sona!” Happy Father’s Day!).  Other examples, on a more reflective note, from the Bible, include “ag agairt cion [transgression] na n-aithreacha ar an gclann agus ar chlann na clainne” (Eaxodus 34:7) and “cúitíonn tú éigeart na n-aithreacha go hiomlán lena gclann ina ndiaidh” (Irimia 32:18).

As for the less formal “dad,” “daddy,” or “da,” we have the following: daid, deaid, deaide, daidí, daide, deaidí.

Athair” is, of course, also used as a religious title as in “An tAthair Ó Murchú” (Father Murphy, lit. the Father Murphy).  Note that the definite article “an” (the) is also used in these phrases, but not translated into English.

Having gone over all that, let’s now look at some phrases based on “athair” (father) in Irish but which don’t get translated into “father” in English (1a, b, below).  And we’ll look at the opposite situation also, terms that include “father” in English, but not in Irish (2a-d below).

First, examples where we have “athair” or “athar” in Irish but where we don’t have “father” in English.  Unlike “máthair,” where there are many such examples, there seem to be fewer for the male parent.  But here are a couple, anyway.  An dtuigeann tú iad seo?  (Aistriúcháin thíos)

1a) lus gan athair gan mháthair

1b) ainm athar

I can’t stop thinking about máithreacha súigh and wish I could use it again here.  If “squid” is “máthair shúigh,” what’s a male squid?  “Máthair shúigh fhireann?”  Could we possibly get away with “athair shúigh“?  Somehow, ní dóigh liom é!

Next, a few where we may have “father” in English but not in the traditional Irish equivalent.   An dtuigeann tú na cinn seo?  (Aistriúchán thíos).

2a. scairpiasc spíonghearr

2b. an t-am  (also, an aimsir) 

2c. na Colmánaigh

2d. tír dhúchais

Ar smaoinigh tú ar fhrása le “father” fána gcoinne?

Cén t-athair é seo?

One phrase for which I can’t find an Irish equivalent is “Father Thames.”  Not too surprising, I suppose, but the term has always intrigued me.  Why is “Thames” personified as a man when so many other rivers are considered feminine?  In Irish, where virtually every noun has grammatical gender (bord, “table,” masculine; cathaoir, “chair,” feminine, etc.), most river names are feminine.  Even the Irish for “the River Thames” is feminine (an Tamais, uisce na Tamaise, etc.)   As a point of comparison, the River Thames is also feminine in Welsh (Tafwys [TAHV-wiss, d’fhoghlaimeoirí Breatnaise].  Welsh also has the concept of the Thames personified as seen in the phrases “Hen Afon Tafwys” (lit. Old River Thames) and “Yr Hen Dafwys” (lit. The Old Thames), but the “father” element, as such isn’t there.  B’fhéidir go bhfaighidh mé an freagra lá éigin.  Tá mé ag léamh “beathaisnéis” na habhann faoi láthair.

So fadar, oops, so far, so good.  Now we’ve looked at both terms for “mother” (last blog) and “father” and some extended meanings, I’m planning an “Uncail” blog, and one on “Aintíni,” as well as a “Tut, tut!” blog on intriachtaí like “oops!”  “Fadar” by the way is an old Gothic word for “father.”  Not so fa(da)r off, when one considers the softening of the “d” in many words for “father” (including the “soft th” of English “father” and the “ð” of Sean-Lochlainnisfaðir“).  The “d” sound has disappeared from “far,” which is “father” in some Scandinavian languages (Danmhairgis, Ioruais, and Sualainnis).  For that matter, it’s also gone from some versions of Northern Irish English (my farr, the farnlaw).  Hmm. “Darth Var”?  How’s that sound?

Not that we’re completely done with father figures yet.  There are “daddy” phrases, as opposed to “father” phrases, as well as “na Daidíní.”  And does an Nollaig have an “athair” or a “daidí“?  Or both?  At any rate, once again, these examples remind us that literal, word-by-word translations don’t always work.  Best rule of thumb is, as I said before, always double-check and don’t necessarily take the first definition you find. SGF, Róislín


1a) lus gan athair gan mháthair, duckweed, lit. plant without father without mother.  OK, dare I ask why? < reads diligently>.  Well, my tentative conclusion is that the “gan athair gan mháthair” part comes from this plant’s atáirgeadh éighnéasach(asexual reproduction, ”éighnéasach” [AYN-YAY-sukh] from “éi-” + “gnéasach“).  As for the “duck” part of the English word, ducks like to eat this plant, which is also called “ros lachan” (lit. duck-seed) or “ros uisce” (lit. water-seed).  That’s “ros” as in “seed” (not particularly common, IMO, since “seed” is usually “síol” in Irish), not the more well known word “ros” as in “wood / woody headland / headland” or as in Ros na Rún (an sobaldráma, soap opera, ar TG4, lit. Headland of the Mysteries/Secrets).  Various types of duckweeds are also known in English as “water lentils,” which further indicates how simple and parentless these plants are.

1b) ainm athar, lit. father’s name, meaning “maiden name” at least if discussing women’s names before and after marriage.  I know there are lots of controversies surrounding naming practices in this day and age, but am simply reporting one usage, not advocating any particular approach.  “Ainm roimh phósadh” is also being used these days, but of course, for women who don’t change their name after marriage, the phrase is a bit redundant.  And in Irish, there’s a long tradition of women retaining the “” or “Nic” (daughter of) form of their surname, even after marriage.  So sometimes “ainm athar” may be a moot point, but I appreciate that that terminology is swinging away from the emphasis on the “maiden” aspect.

2a. scairpiasc spíonghearr, known in English as the “short-spined sea-scorpion,” whose vernacular names include “father-lasher” (hence it presence here), as well as “shorthorn sculpin,” “bullhead,” “pig-fish” (!), “granny fish,” and “sculpin” (without specifying the horns).  Mh’anam! 

This double compound word breaks down to “scairp” (scorpion), “iasc” (fish), “spíon” ([spee-un], spine), and “gearr” (short; here lenited to become “ghearr” [yahr]).  All quite straightforward really.  Reminds me, too, how long has it been since I read the late Al Pittman’s delightful children’s book, One Wonderful Fine Day for a Sculpin Named Sam (Breakwater Books, 1987).

2b) an t-am (or, an aimsir), used for “Father Time,” at least according to one dictionary, but not, afaik, nearly as often as the actual personification occurs in English.  I’ve been on the lookout for some traditional combination of “athair” and “am/ama” or “aimsir/aimsire,” for a long time, partly so I could complete my family of personifications (Father Time, Mother Earth, Baby New Year).  I almost thought I had found one example until I realized that that “athair Ama,” was the father of a girl named “Ama.”  C’est la vie!  Brón orm, a Phóil!  Not that one lone example in all of Googleable cyberspace would really indicate a pattern of usage, anyway.

2c. na Colmánaigh, the Columban Fathers.  Members of this order are also known as simply as “Columbans,” so using the “Fathers” element in English seems to vary.  But what I don’t see anywhere in my (admittedly limited but moderately comprehensive) search is any combination, in Irish, of “Aithreacha” and “Colmánach,” “Colmánacha,” “Cholmáin,” “Colmán,” “Colmbánach,” “Colmbánacha,” or “Colmbánaigh.”  In other words, the “Father” aspect seems to be implied in Irish, not explicit.

2d. tír dhúchais, fatherland, lit. land of heritage (aka “athartha,” which does have the reference to “athair,” albeit in derived form, “athartha,” which also means “patrimony” and “inheritance”).  Ironically, “tír dhúchais” can also be translated as “motherland,” which means your motherland could be your “athartha.”  Suimiúil!

Iarbhlag ar an bhfocal “máthair”: ( 7 Bealtaine 2013

Grianghraf le “bencherlite”:,_St_John%27s_Lock,_Lechlade.jpg

Iarnóta: now I see there’s an Old Father Thames beer (  Why am I not surprised?

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  1. Ama Carey-Barr:

    Thank you for helping to explain athair / an t-athair.

    — Are you still active on this blog?

    (Btw, my name is Ama, and my father was “athair Ama” too!!)

    • róislín:

      @Ama Carey-Barr A Ama, a chara, Glad you enjoyed the blog, and yes it’s still active, even though this one’s from 2013 (10 Bealtaine) And that’s cool that your name is “Ama”, so there’s at least one more “sampla” of the phrase “athair Ama.”
      In case you’re just starting Irish, here are three ways to say “My name is Ama”:
      Ama is ainm dom. (lit. Ama is name to me)
      Ama atá orm. (lit. Ama is on me; the word “ainm” is implied but not actually in the sentence)
      And, but more formal-sounding: Is é “Ama” an t-ainm atá orm. (lit. It is “Ama” the name that is on me.)
      And, just out of curiosity, were you just searching for the phrase “athair Ama” or looking for “Father Time” or one of the other “father” phrases? Or did you just randomly stumble upon this blogpost?

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