In Irish, two types of passive constructions will often be encountered.
Firstly, every verb has a particular verb form (the autonomous form) that is “impersonal” or “subjectless”. In other words, the person doing the action is not identified.
Briseadh an fhuinneog.
This can be translated by the English passive:
The window was broken.
There is no mention of who/what broke the window and, the fact that this type of construction is not used to say who/what did a particular action is worth emphasising. If we wish to say who broke the window (say it was Somhairle), we would usually revert to the active form of the verb:
Bhris Somhairle an fhuinneog.
Somhairle broke the window.
This autonomous/impersonal form of the verb has been described in the Autonomous Verb lesson and is not the focus of discussion here.
[It would be useful for anyone who is not confident about the autonomous verb to read that article in conjunction with this one.]
Below, I’ll be describing another type of passive construction that is used in Irish. To avoid confusion between the 2 passive constructions (i.e between the one to be discussed below and the autonomous), I will be using the term “passive” only to describe the former and not to describe the autonomous verb form.
This passive is a construction that involves the usage of an active form of the verb “bí” (e.g. “tá” or “bhí“) as well as a verbal noun that is preceded by a preposition and a possessive pronoun.
Essentially, this construction is used to convey the idea that an action is being done, was being done, etc while the autonomous form of the verb usually described an action that was done, is done, will be done, etc.
[I have to admit that I am not telling the complete truth here since the autonomous form of one particular verb (the verb "bí") can also be used to convey this sense of an action "being done" (i.e an action that is being done, was being done, etc. However, I’m going to conveniently ignore this fact since a)I’m not concentrating on the autonomous here
and, more importantly, b) it would complicate matters unduly – at least for me!]
So, to start giving examples that, hopefully, might make things clearer.
If we want to say :
Eoghan cuts the grass in the summer.
We would use the active form of the verb and say:
Baineann Eoghan an féar sa tsamhradh.
But, if we want to say:
The grass is cut every fortnight in the summer
[and it’s not really important to say who cuts it]
Then, we could use the autonomous (agentless) form of the verb and the sentence might be translated as follows:
Baintear an féar gach uile choicís sa tsamhradh.
However, if we want to say:
The grass is being cut right now.
It would be usual to use a construction like the following:
Tá an féar dá bhaint anois díreach.
Literally: the grass is to its cutting right now.
This construction is arrived at as follows:
Tá an féar do a bhaint anois díreach.
The grass is to its cutting right now.
“do” is a preposition meaning “to”.
“a” is a possessive pronoun meaning “his”/”its”
“bhaint” come from “baint” the verbal noun meaning “cutting”.
“Baint” becomes “bhaint” because it is a noun (albeit a verbal noun) preceded by the possessive pronoun “his” – in the same way that “cóta” (coat) becomes “a chóta” (his coat).
The “do” and “a” are combined to form “dá“.
The combination “dá” is shortened in the Standard to “á” so, in the Standard, the above sentence would read:
Tá an féar á bhaint anois díreach.
[However it should be noted that the non-standard "dá" and even "dhá" will be commonly encountered. The important thing to remember is that whether you use dá, dhá or á, a possessive pronoun ("a") is contained within and this may affect the following verbal noun.
So, while our autonomous construction
Baintear an féar means that "the grass is cut",
Tá an féar á bhaint means that "the grass is being cut".
[It will be noticed that, in this particular example, our passive construction, like the autonomous, is "agentless" (i.e the identity of grass-cutter is not specified). However, it will (hopefully) be seen later on that we could modify this construction very easily to say who is doing the cutting).
We have already seen (above) that we can use the autonomous form of the verb to say, "the window was broken". [Briseadh an fhuinneog.]
However, if we wanted to say:
The window was being broken downstairs but I was afraid to go down.
Then, we could again make use of our passive construction.
All we have to do is:
-get the appropriate tense of the verb “bí” (it’s the past tense in this example because we’re saying that something was being done)
- use an appropriate verbal noun (in this case, the verbal noun meaning “breaking”)
- and precede the verbal noun with the preposition “do” in combination with a possessive pronoun (as before, in this case, the combination is “á“).
Which gives us:
Bhí an fhuinneog á briseadh thíos an staighre ach bhí faitíos orm dul síos.
which means, literally:
The window was to its/her (window being feminine) breaking downstairs……etc.
In this case the verbal noun is not lenited because the possessive pronoun refers to a feminine noun (fuinneog) – the same rule that means “her coat” is “a cóta”.
If we wanted to say:
The windows were being broken, we could say:
Bhí na fuinneoga á mbriseadh.
The windows were to their breaking.
Here, the “á” is again a shortened form of “do” and “a“. However, in this case the “a” is the possessive pronoun meaning “their”.
“Their” means that we must have “á mbriseadh” in this example – in the same way that “their table” would be “a mbord“.
The preposition “do” along with the list of possessive pronouns and the subsequent effect on the following verbal noun can be shown as follows:
do mo bhriseadh “to my breaking”
do do bhriseadh “to your breaking”
á bhriseadh “to his breaking”
á briseadh “to her breaking”
dár (do + ár combination) mbriseadh “to our breaking”
bhur mbriseadh “to your (plural) breaking”
á mbriseadh “to their breaking”
As stated above, this passive construction (unlike the autonomous) can be used with an agent i.e. we could say that something is being done by someone.
So, if we wanted to say that Oisín was being hit, and we also wanted to let it be known that Méabh was the guilty party, we could say:
Bhí Oisín á bhualadh ag Méabh
Oisín was being hit by Méabh [Literally: Oisín was to his hitting at Méabh.]
Bhí Oisín á bhualadh aici.
Oisín was being hit by her [Literally: Oisín was to his hitting at her.]
So, using the same construction that we used above to say things like “the grass is being cut” or “the window was being broken”, we can now add in an agent/ “do-er” by using the preposition “ag” (or by a special personal form of “ag” which combines it with a preposition i.e. agam, agat, air, aici, againn, agaibh acu).
Tá an féar á bhaint ag Pól.
The grass is being cut by Pól [Literally: the grass is to its cutting at Pól]
Bhí an fhuinneog á briseadh ag Conor.
The window was being broken by Conor [Literally: the window was to its breaking at Conor.]
Bhí na milseáin á gceannach ag na páistí.
The sweets were being bought by the children [Literally: the sweets were to their buying at the children.]
Nach bhfuair tú an litir uaidh? Ní bhfuair, ach de réir cosúlachta tá sí á seoladh inniu aige.
Didn’t you get the letter from him? No, but apparently it is being sent by him today.
[Note that "litir" is a feminine noun so it is "á seoladh" (to its/her sending) rather than á sheoladh.]
Word of warning
Unfortunately (and I wish I didn’t have to mention this) this passive construction can, on some occasions, be potentially ambiguous.
Take the following example:
Bhí Oisín á bhualadh.
From what we have said already, this should mean:
Oisín was to his (i.e Oisín’s) hitting i.e Oisín was being hit.
Thankfully, all that has gone before has not been a lie and yes, it could mean this but it could also mean that Oisín was hitting some other guy – or any masculine noun). In other words, the “his” in “to his hitting” could refer to someone else. So this sentence could also mean:
Oisín was hitting him.
Of course,this type of ambiguity could not arise with the following:
Bhí Oisín á bualadh.
This is because “á bualadh” (rather than “á bhualadh”) means “to her hitting”. Thus, in this case at least we’re safe enough – we know that Oisín is hitting a woman (or at least a feminine noun) and that’s it’s not he himself who is the victim of violence.
On a brighter note, the potential for ambiguity described above often depends on the context and it will often be the case that we don’t need to worry about it.
For example, with regard to our grass-cutting sentence:
Tá an féar á bhaint anois díreach.
It’s unlikely that anyone would misconstrue the intending meaning and come up with a translation like:
The grass is cutting him right now – even though this is a possible translation.
[And of course, even if the grass was going around cutting people, such activity would merit a verb such as "gearr" rather than "bain" in this context!]
However, it is important to be aware that a sentence like
Bhí Oisín á bhualadh.
can cause problems out of context and might need to be altered slightly. Thus, if we mean that Oisín was the person being hit, we should, if possible, consider naming the aggressor (i.e. add an agent) to avoid confusion (as was done earlier by adding “ag Méabh“).
Alternatively, if we were trying to say that Oisín was the agent of aggression i.e that “Oisín was hitting him”, we could just cheat slightly and turn things around to say:
Bhí sé á bhualadh ag Oisín ["he was being hit by Oisín]
Tá sé á cheannach could mean either:
He is buying it/him.
It/he is being bought.
So, again, if the intended meaning is unlikely to be clear from the context, a different construction should be considered.
To summarise very briefly
In Irish, every verb has an autonomous or “impersonal” verb form.
Constructions using this verb form are sometimes translated with the English passive e.g
Crádh na léitheoirí/The readers were tormented. There is no mention of who was doing the tormenting.
However, there is another passive construction which may be used with an “agent” i.e. the tormentor can be specified:
Bhí na léitheoirí á gcrá ag Eoghan/The readers were being tormented by Eoghan.
Finally, this passive construction may be ambiguous out of context:
Bhí na léitheoirí á gcrá could mean:
The readers were being tormented.
The readers were tormenting them.
Firstly submitted by: Merryploughbhoy
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