Caibidil a Trí Déag: Sentences and Syntax (Abairt agus Comhréir)

The Relative Clause (an clásal coibhneasta)

Direct relative clauses
Indirect relative clauses
Generalizing relative pronoun

Relative clauses are subordinate clauses, which refer back to a word (antecedent) in the primary clause. In Irish, they are introduced by a relative particle, more rarely by a relative pronoun. The relative particle is usually not a pronoun. Is links only an antecedent and a relative clause (thus it is a conjunction.)

In Irish, there is a distinction between direct and indirect relative clauses. In direct relative clauses, the antecedent is a direct subject or object. In indirect relative clauses, a there usually appears a further pronoun which has the function of an object, and which itself refers back to the antecedent.

For syntactic reasons, relative clauses are used by far more frequently than in English.

The direct relative clause (an clásal coibhneasta díreach)

antecedent + a + verb + subject and/or object

form: One uses the direct relative particle (mír chobhneasta dhíreach)



Characteristics of the syntax:

If a sentence with a go/nach subordinate clause is converted into a direct relative clause, the go/nach subordinate clause is also converted into a direct relative caluse. The previous primary clause is converted into a module clause (clásal idiraisnéiseach) as in our example “whom I think.” It usually involves a verb of saying or thinking.


Sílim go bhfuil an fear sásta

I think (that) the man is happy
direct relative: Feicim an fear a shílim atá sásta. I see the man whom I think is happy.


The indirect relative clause (an clásal coibhneasta indíreach)

form: The indirect relative particle (mír choibhneasta indíreach) is used

Use:  The indirect relative clause is either

A back-referencing pronoun (forainm iartheachtach) appears both in prepositional use (mostly as a prepositional pronoun) and in genitive use (as a possessive pronoun). Is can also appear as a prepositional pronoun in the form of an accusative object (without this pronoun a direct relative clause it necessary)

This back-referencing pronoun represents the antecedent (réamhtheachtaí) as an object. The antecedent is only more indirectly the object of the sentence (represented by the pronoun). In the direct relative clause however, the antecedent is always the direct object or the subject of the sentence.

I. prepositional use (on which.... / in which... / etc.)

1. Preposition with personal pronoun at the end of the clause al. 

antecedent + a + verb + subject + preposition + pronoun

an bord a bhfuil an forc air = the table that the fork is on.


antecedent + ar + verb + subject + preposition + pronoun

  an bord ar luigh an forc air = the table that the fork lay on.

The personal pronoun is here the back-referencing pronoun.
Combinations of prepositions and personal pronouns are the most common occurences. (Prepositional_Pronouns).

2. Preposition before the relative pronoun al. 

antecedent + preposition + a + verb + subject

  an bord ar a bhfuil an forc = the table on which the fork is.


antecedent + preposition + ar + verb + subject 

  an bord ar ar luigh an forc = the table on which the fork lay

A preposition can introduce the relative clause. [Learners of English who remember being scolded not end sentences with prepositions will recognize this as the “proper” or “formal” form in English. In Irish, like in English, the previous form, with the preposition at the end, is more common and more natural in living speech – DN]

This variant is only encountered with a few prepositions (ar, as, do, i, le) and
it is only possible in affirmative sentences, not in negative ones: e.g.:

An bord ar a bhfuil an forc = the table on which the fork is (affirmative) but:
An bord nach bhfuil an forc air. = the table that the fork is not on (negative)

In this case the relative particle is a genuine relative pronoun, the so-called back-referencing relative pronoun (forainm coibhneasta iartheachtach).
The back-referencing relative pronoun requires certain combinations of the prepsitions and the relative pronoun a / ar.
Of these, the most frequently appearing forms are lena(r), dá(r), ina(r)

II. genitive use (whose...)

Present et al. 

antecedent + a + verb + poss. pron. + subject + object

  an  fear a bhfuil a mhac sásta = the man whose son is happy


antecedent + ar + verb + poss. pron. + subject + object 

  an  fear a raibh a mhac sásta = the man whose son was happy

Here the possessive pronoun is the back-referencing pronoun. It must refer back to the antecedent of the relative clause. [1]

III. adverbial use

Present. et al. antecedent + a + verb + subject + object

Place an áit a bhfuil mé sásta  = 
the place where I was happy
Time an t-am a dtiocfaidh mé anseo = 
the time that I will come here
Reason an fáth a mbeidh mé anseo = 
the reason that I will be here
Past: antecedent + ar + verb + subject + object Place an áit ar ól mé fuisce  = 
the place where I drank whiskey
Time an t-am ar tháinig mé anseo = 
the time that I came here
Reason an fáth ar ól mé fuisce = 
the reason that I drank whiskey

The antecedent must be a general term of time / place / reason / and way. A direct relative clause is equally possible here.
e.g.: áit = place, slí = way, caoi = manner, dóigh, fáth = reason, am =time, lá = day, oíche = night, etc. (uair however is not usual)
The antecedent can also occur in questions, e.g.: cén chaoi, cén fáth (Cén chaoi a bhfuil tú? = How are you?)

These uses are called adverbial, since the relative particle here replaces the relative adverbs when, where, who, how, etc.
In English this is very common:

e.g.: an áit a bhfuil mé sásta = the place where I'm satisfied
       an fáth a bhfuil mé sásta = the reason why I'm satisfied
       an t-am a bhfuil mé sásta = the time when I'm satisfied
       an tslí ar fhoghlaim mé Gaeilge = the way how I learned Irish

In principle, this adverbial relationship can be convered into a prepositional relationship (the place in which, the time at which, etc.). This means that a back-referencing pronoun would be conceivable.
(e.g. an áit a bhfuil mé ann / an áit ina bhfuil mé = the place that I am in).

Actually, the indirect relative pronoun with the preposition “i” ina = in which was was reduced in the course of time to the modern a.
In earlier times, i (in the sense of “in which,” as an abbreviation of ina) was written here.
(an áit ina bhfuil mé > an áit i bhfuil mé. today: an áit a bhfuil mé).

IV. use with a back-referencing personal pronoun as accusative object.

Principally, when the antecedent is an accusative object, a direct relative clause is used.
However, direct relative clauses like "An fear a bhuail mé.”are ambiguous.
There is no way to distinguish whether the antecendet is the subject (”the man who hit me”) or the object (“the man whom I hit”).

In the latter case, an unambiguous sentence structure with the indirect relative particle is possible.

Present et al..:  antecedent + a + verb + subject + é/í/iad

   an fear a mbuailfidh mé é = the man whom I hit 

antecedent + ar + verb + subject + é/í/iad 

   an fear ar bhuail mé é  = the man whom I hit

The back-referencing pronoun (usually é, í, iad) is important.
Without it, a direct relative clause would be necessary.


Special properties of the indirect relative clause

A go/nach-subordinating clause my be converted into an indirect relative clause if one turns the main clause into a relative clause, similarly to direct relative clauses. A prerequisite for this is a potential back-referencing pronoun, or the creation of such (in the example below: air = upon it)
The main clause becomes an inserted clause (clásal idiraisnéiseach), in the example: "of which I thought ".
According to the Bráithre Críostaí, the inserted clause is a direct relative clause: "a shíl mé"
According to Ó Siadhail it is an indirect relative clause: "ar shíl mé"

normal:  Shíl mé go raibh an forc ar an mbord. I thought that the fork wason the table.
(in)dir. relative:  An bhfuil an forc ar an mbord a(r) shíl mé a raibh sé air?  Is the fork on the tableof which I thought, that it upon it was?

The conversion of the go/nach-subordinating clause is not required. Also sentences like this are possible:
An bhfuil an forc ar an mbord ar shíl mé go raibh sé air? = Is the fork in the table, of which I thought, that it was on?
The indirect relative clause (ar shíl mé ...) is comprised here as well of the prepositional pronoun air, referring back to bord, so it is a back-referencing pronoun.

Hence, three possibilities come about of this sentence:
An bhfuil an forc ar an mbord a shíl mé a raibh sé air? (dir. + indir. relative clause)
An bhfuil an forc ar an mbord ar shíl mé a raibh sé air? (indir. + indir. relative clause)
An bhfuil an forc ar an mbord ar shíl mé go raibh sé air? (indir. relative clause + go-subordinating clause)

The indirect neg. relative clause identical in form to the direct neg. relative clause (as well nach/nár), with the exception of a naturally occurring back-referencing pronouns (in the examples in bold)
A preposition is not possible as the introducer of the relative clause.

Present, et al. antecedent + nach + verb + etc. an bord nach luíonn forc ar bith air = the table upon which no fork lies
an fear nach bhfuil a mhac sásta = the man whose son is not happy
an t-am nach mbeidh mé ansin = the time which I will not be there
an fear nach mbuaileann mé é = the man whom I do not hit
Past antecedent + nár + verb + etc. an bord nár luigh forc ar bith air = the table upon which no fork lay
an bhean nár tháinig a mac = the woman whose son didn't come
an t-am nár tháinig mé ansin = the time in which I did not come there
an fear nár bhuail mé é = the man whom I didn't hit

Clauses with the generalising relative pronoun a

Present, et al.   + verb + subject / object  Sin a bhfuil anseo  = That is all there is
Past  ar + verb + subject / object  Sin ar tháinig anseo = That's all that came

In this instance, a / ar means:  "everything which " or "all that"
even this a requires eclipsis, ar lenites! This generalising relative pronoun (forainm coibhneasta réamhtheachtach) looks the same as the indirect relative particle, but the antecedent is missing!
The missing antecedent (réamhtheachtaí) is expressed by the relative pronoun itself.
Hence the term "réamhtheachtach"
It can be the object (sin a bhfaca mé = that's all that I saw ), as well as the subject (sin a bhfuil anseo = that's all that's here) of the relative clause.
Sin a bhfuil is short and sweet for: That's all.

possible further modification using de ( = everything which is..)

Present, et al. a + verb + de + noun   Féiceann tú a bhfuil d'fhir ann = You see all of the men which are there.
Past ar + verb + de + noun   Chonaic tú a raibh de mhná ann = You saw all of the women which were there.

With the help of the preposition de (= of) one can closer modify what is meant by "all".

emphasis of a selection with dá (= of all that which)

Present (u.a.)

noun + + verb + object

    Féiceann tú fear bhfuil ann = You see one man of all which are there


noun + dár + verb + object

    An leabhar is fearr dár scríobh sé = The best book of all which he wrote

This is a combination of de (= of) and the general relative pronoun a (all that).

use of the form dá:


negation of a = all with an méid

an méid nach + verb an méid nach bhfuil ann = Everything that isn't there (lit.: "the amount, that isn't there")

nach is here a normal relative particle and not a pronoun, which is replaced by an méid. The whole clause is a normal direct relative clause.


negation of a = everything with diabhal (= devil)

diabhal a + verb diabhal a bhfuil ann = Nothing is there (lit.: "devil all that there is ")

a is again the generalising relative pronoun, which is negated by diabhal.
diabhal a means then nothing.
With ach an only-clause is created: Diabhal a bhfuil ann ach leabhartha = Only books are there.

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© Lars Braesicke 1999 / 2003
English translation and annotation by Daniel Nieciecki with help from Lynn Schneider.
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[1] The genitive use comes from the prepositional use (selectively, the prepositions ag, i, do)
an fear ag a bhfuil a mhac ann = the man whose son is there
an fear ina bhfuil a mhac ann = the man whose son is there
an fear bhfuil a mhac ann = the man whose son is there
(ag a > 'ga > gha > a, ina > 'na > a, dá > dhá > a)
ag a > 'ga > go - also the reason why in Munster, one uses go instead of a