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Subh Mhilis / A poem about jam!

easy grammar tips irish literature

If you went to school in Ireland you might remember this poem from your schooldays. It's a short poem, but one with a powerful message....don't sweat the small stuff!


Séamus Ó Néill

Séamus Ó Néill was born in Co. Down in 1910, and was a prolific writer in the Irish language, writing short stories, plays, and two novels. It's perhaps for 'Subh Mhilis', his poem of only eight lines, that he is best known however.


Subh Mhilis / Sweet Jam

Bhí subh mhilis / there was jam

Ar bhoschrann an dorais / on the handle of the door

Ach mhúch mé an corraí / but I quenched the anger

Ionam a d'éirigh / In me which arose

Mar smaoinigh mé ar an lá / because I thought of the day

A bheas* an boschrann glan / that the handle will be clean

Agus an lámh bheag / and the little hand

Ar iarraidh / missing


*a bheas (dialect)/ a bheidh (standard Irish)


Ar bhoschrann an dorais / On the doorhandle

The poem pivots around one small and irritating scene. Jam on a door handle! Aaggh! The poet notices immediately the irritation that rises in him. Rather than letting his anger take hold however, he manages to quench it. Because he thinks instead of the day that the little jam smearer will have grown up and left his care.


Using Poems to learn Irish

Poems are a great way to learn Irish. This poem is ideal because it is short; and easily memorable. Imitating the sounds will help improve pronunciation. And listening to a poem more than once will help get the much needed repetition that is required when learning a language.


Don't just learn off by heart!

You can learn a poem de ghlanmheabhair / off by heart if you hear it often enough. Now, I don't want to spoil a really nice little poem with dreaded grammar...

but I still have to make the point...

You can use lines / phrases from poems or songs that you remember to make yourself familiar with grammar rules.

Here's what I mean:

Use the phrases 'subh mhilis' and 'lámh bheag' from this poem to learn a useful little grammar rule.


Subh mhilis / Lámh bheag

Milis is the Irish for 'sweet'; and beag is the Irish for 'small'. 

Did you notice, however, that the poem contains the words mhilis and bheag.

Why is this?

Here's the reason:

An adjective coming after a feminine noun will be lenited (i.e. the sound changes: add a 'h' to mark this) if possible.

Subh and lámh are both feminine nouns and so the start of the adjective following them changes sound a little (marked in writing by the séimhiú / letter 'h')


Just remember subh mhilis and lámh bheag to remember this rule.

Subh mhilis / sweet jam

Lámh bheag / a small hand


Notice that there is no change to the start of the sound of an adjective after a masculine noun:

Cáca milis / sweet cake

Fear beag / a small man


Oíche mhaith / Lá maith

Knowing this little rule means that you now know why it's oíche mhaith (good night); but lá maith (good day). Oíche is a feminine noun; is a masculine noun.


Here are a couple more very well known poems which you might like to listen to:

Na Blátha Craige / The Rock Flowers by Liam Ó Flaithearta

An tEarrach Thiar / The Western Spring by Máirtín Ó Direáin

Fear Lasta Lampaí / The Lamplighter by Máirtín Ó Direáin

Oíche Nollaig na mBan / Women's Christmas by Seán Ó Ríordáin

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