Learning Irish can be a bit difficult at the start, until you break through a certain barrier or threshold of understanding, and after that point everything can become easy. The process can be good craic though, and in a way the social element can be just as important as the linguistic one.
I remember, just after I did my A levels I was teaching a night class in Armagh. I had probably just passed that learning threshold myself and I was showing the students how to show ownership in Irish which is different to the way we do it in English. A couple of days after the class I got a phone call from a very worried and embarrassed woman who said, “Antaine, I don’t know how to say this, but I’m having trouble with my suspended genitive.” It was a good thing that I was on the phone because if you had seen the redness on my young face it was something else!
But the suspended genitive is quite important. And just in case you were wondering, it is fairly simple. The genitive case of a noun is used when you want to show ownership of the noun for example dath means colour and féar means grass, the colour of the grass is dath an fhéir. The genitive is also used after a verbal noun for example ag baint can mean cutting, or harvesting, and an fear as I said means the grass. Put the two together and you get ag baint an fhéir, cutting the grass or the cutting of the grass. There is almost ownership there anyway
Here are a few other examples - the words an madadh means the dog. And the word teach means house. The dog’s house, or the house of the dog, as we say in Irish is teach an mhadaidh. An madadh becomes an mhadaidh in the genitive. If you wanted to reverse it and say the dog of the house the words an teach (the house) would have to go into the genitive case to become an tí and you would get madadh an tí. This is the same for Bean an tí, the woman of the house, or the Mrs, or fear a tí, the man of the house. Incidentally, to get back to the dog, the name Limavady or Leim a mhadaidh has the word for dog in the genitive case as well. Leim a’ Mhadaigh, the dog’s leap, the leap of the dog.
That’s the basics, but now to develop this further to the suspended genitive. It is possible to have a number of nouns in a row all belonging to each other and each meriting the genitive case because of ownership.
Where you have a number of them you always suspend the genitive to the last noun in the phrase and where possible aspirate, or put a h after the first letter of each noun that isn’t in the genitive case– I know that is a simplification but it is a useful one.
For example the colour of the dog’s house is dath theach an mhadaigh. The colour of the house would be dath an tí, the dogs house would be teach an mhadaidh as we saw before but when you put them together you get dath theach an mhadaidh. Notice also that although in English the word the, the definite article, is used twice, in Irish, like the genitive it is used only once and at the end: Dath theach an mhadaidh.
So that in very simple terms is a look at the common problems around the suspended genitive. Next week, if you like, I could give you a run down on the major difficulties some learners have with an even more serious complaint, the copula – now that is something you need to be very careful with!