Irish Language Blog

Years, Ears, and Donkeys in Irish (Bhuel, Not Really Donkeys!) Posted by on Jan 25, 2014 in Irish Language

(le Róislín)

Cluasa Asail (from Håkan Dahlström,

Cluasa Asail (from Håkan Dahlström,

This time in January, in between the western New Year (1 Eanáir) and Chinese New Year (31 Eanáir i 2014) seems like a good time to look again at the word “bliain” (year) in Irish (nasc thíos do bhlag eile faoi seo).  In this blog, we’ll look at the basic forms of the word, a few traditional expressions using “year,” and then maybe we’ll mosey on down the garden path (agus an t-asal linn) and see what equivalents we can find for one of my favorite English expressions, “I haven’t seen you in donkey’s years.”

Let’s start with the basics:

bliain, a year; this basic form is used to say “one year” (bliain amháin) and it also comes after multiples of ten (20: fiche bliain, 30: tríocha bliain, srl.)

an bhliain [un VLEE-in], the year

bhliain: this lenited form is also used after:

a) “aon,” to say “eleven years” (aon bhliain déag) or to indicate “any year” (aon bhliain)

b) the number 2 and with numbers like 12, 22, 32, etc.: dhá bhliain (2), dhá bhliain déag (12), dhá bhliain is fiche (22), dhá bhliain is tríocha (32), srl.

c) “sa” and some other prepositions; sa bhliain [suh VLEE-in], in the year, usually followed by the actual date (sa bhliain 2525, mar shampla), but can also mean “per annum”

bliana [BLEE-uh-nuh], of (a) year; gamhain bliana, a yearling calf; also used in giving people’s ages from 3 to 10 (with eclipsis for ages 7 to 10, see “mbliana” directly below), and for numbers in the teens or higher ending in 3, 4, 5, 6: leanbh bliana (leanbh atá bliain d’aois), cúig bliana (tá an páiste sin cúig bliana d’aois), cúig bliana is fiche (tá an fear sin cúig bliana is fiche d’aois)

mbliana [MLEE-uh-nuh], of a year, following the numbers 7 to 10 (seacht mbliana, seacht mbliana déag, srl.)

As for the pronunciation of “mbl,” the “b” is silent (“eclipsed”).  I don’t think there are any English words that start with the sound “mlee” but the inital “ml” sound does exist in some languages (e.g. Polish: mleko, “milk”).  I believe we’d get the same sound in the Swahili “Mlilwane” but for that, I’d have to defer to lucht labhartha na Svahaílise (tuilleadh eolais sa nóta thíos).

If that doesn’t help, think “umlaut” with out the first “u” (‘mlaut!)

And one more use of “mbliana” outside the numbers context: i mbliana [im-LEE-uh-nuh], this year, as in “Tá mé ag dul ann i mbliana.”

Now for some plurals.

But wait!  Did you notice that in many of the examples just given we have plurals in English (two years, three years), but that the noun is still singular in Irish?  That’s the typical pattern in Irish (singular after numbers), as in: leabhar (book), leabhar amháin, dhá leabhar, trí leabhar, seacht leabhar, fiche leabhar, céad leabhar, srl.  — all singular (the plural is either “leabhair” or “leabhartha“).

None of the examples of “bliain” listed above are plural, as such.

The plurals are:

blianta [BLEE-un-tuh], years

na blianta, the years

blianta, of years

na mblianta, of the years

And some additional examples:

sna blianta sin, in those years,

blianta fada ó shin, a long time ago, lit. long years ago

A couple related words:

bliantúil, annual, yearly (adjective)

bliantóg, an annual plant

Here are a few fun phrases for when you feel like casting aspersions or otherwise criticizing things or people:

Bliain mhaith ina ndiaidh!  Good riddance to them!, lit. a good year after them (presumably the idea is that the year will be good now that they’ve left)

Chuir an fhéasóg sin deich mbliana air.  That beard put ten years on him (made him look 10 years older than he actually was).

and finally, coming on the heels (or hind paws) of the recent “rats” blog (, let’s not forget “Bliain na bhFrancach,” referring to 1798. Remember, this “Francach” is upper case, so it means “Frenchman,” not “rat”!  Lower-case “francach” means “rat.”  Of course, here, “na bhFrancach” here is plural, meaning “of the Frenchmen,” but that eclipsis will have to be ábhar blag eile.

And what about donkeys and ears? Again, these words are often learned quite early on in Irish ach seo súil siar:

an t-asal, the donkey

an asail, of the donkey

na hasail, the donkeys

na  n-asal, of the donkeys

And ears:

an chluas [un KHLOO-uss], the ear

na cluaise [nuh KLOO-ish-uh], of the ear, or just “cluaise” for “of ear” as in, a choice example, “sail (or “sal“) chluaise” (earwax)

na cluasa [nuh KLOO-uss-uh], the ears

na gcluas [nuh GLOO-uss], of the ears

And if we want to talk about the ear or ears of a donkey or donkeys, we’d have:

cluas an asail (the ear of the donkey) and cluasa an asail (the ears of the donkey)

cluasa na n-asal, the ears of the donkeys

And when might you need those phrases?  Bhuel, b’fhéidir:

Seo seanhata don asal ach caithfidh tú dhá pholl a chur ann dá chluasa (or “dá cluasa“, if it’s a jenny, i.e. a “láir asail“).

And if there’s more than one donkey, we’ve got the plural, but with a few strategically placed “bearnaí” for you to fill in (freagraí thíos faoin nóta):

Seo seanhataí do na  ________ ach caithfidh tú  _____ a chur iontu dá   ________.

As for “donkey’s years,” as an expression, it’s not really traditional in Irish, as such.  Phrases like “le blianta fada” or “le fada” or “leis na cianta,” usually suffice.

Speaking of “ears,” here’s yet another aspersion to cast, if you’re so inclined: Cá raibh tú aimsir na gcluas?  Where were you in the time of the ears? (when ears were being “given out”), implying that someone is not a good listener.

And speaking of long ears, if not necessarily those of donkeys, some traditional words of wisdom:

Cluas fhada agus teanga ghearr, a long ear and (implying “but”) a short tongue, i.e. Speak little, listen much.

Bhuel, here’s to years, ears, and New Year’s cheers, whichever way you celebrate “an bhliain úr,” an dóigh “iartharach” nó an dóigh Shíneach, nó an dá dhóigh. — Róislín

Nóta: I can’t find a sound file for “Mlilwane” online and the following comment makes me wonder about it further: “I’m sitting right now on a slightly moist park bench (and that’s after trying my best to wipe it down with my mittens) and looking out across a beautiful Lion King-esque (no joke) landscape at the Mlilwane Game Reserve.  (And don’t even bother trying to pronounce “Mlilwane”–Tessa and I have been trying for two days and are both still incredibly unsuccessful.)” (, June 4th, 2007 at 3:29 pm)

Sounds like a beautiful place, even if we can’t pronounce it.  Svahaílis, anyone?  Where are you, a Shéamais Uí Dhireáin, when we need you?  He’s the only person I know who’s fluent in both Swahili and Irish, not to mention some other languages. (Agallamh suimiúil ar Shéamas Ó Direáin anseo:, Beo! Nollaig 2010)

Freagra:  Seo seanhataí do na hasail ach caithfidh tú poill a chur iontu dá gcluasa.  Of course, if we know exactly how many donkeys, we could say exactly how many holes were needed, and we’d be back to the singular of the word for hole (“poll“).  or example, seacht n-asal, ceithre pholl déag.  Here “poll” is lenited (“ph-“) but still singular (no “i”).

Nasc: Blianta Go Leor — Years Galore, Except the Donkey’s! Posted on 29. Jun, 2009 by róislín in Irish Language


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