In 1892, Silva Gadelica: A Collection of Tales in Irish, edited and translated by Standish Hayes O’Grady, was published in Edinburgh. In the preface, O’Grady mentioned what he called the shortest of Irish hagiographic texts. He paraphrased it as follows:
“Three penitents resolved to quit the world for the ascetic life, and so sought the wilderness. After exactly a year’s silence the first one said: ‘’tis a good life we lead.’ At the next year’s end the second answered: ‘it is so.’ Another year being run out, the third exclaimed: ‘if I cannot have peace and quiet here I’ll go back to the world.’”
O’Grady added “The original Irish is in a paper MS in the British Museum, but for the moment I have mislaid the reference.”
The Irish text finally surfaced in print in 1926, in volume two of the Catalogue of Irish manuscripts in the British Museum, compiled by Robin Flower. Dr. Flower wrote on page 586 that the text “obviously derives from some mediæval MS.” Very few texts in Old Irish survive in their original written form. In almost all cases, the material was copied and recopied from older manuscript compilations into newer ones, as the old books wore out. The language of this little anecdote is arguably more than a thousand years old, but the anecdote survives only in a paper MS in the British Library known as Egerton 190, copied in 1709 by Richard Tipper of Mitchelstown, Co. Dublin.
Dr. Flower reproduced the Irish text but did not offer a translation:
“Triar mannach dorath (sic) diultadh don tsaoghal. Tiagait a fasach do athghaira a pecadh fri Dia Bhadar cin labhradh fri araile co ceann bliaghna. Is ann isbeart fear dibh fri aroile dia bliaghna ‘Maith atámm,’ ol se, ‘amen’ [...] co cionn bliaghnai. ‘Is maith ón,’ ar in dara fear. Batar ann ier suidhe co ceann bliaghna. ‘Toingim nam abith (sic),’ ar in treas fear, ‘mine lecthi ciunnus damh co n-imgeb in fasach uile dibh.’ Finis.”
I was able to have a look at a microfilm of the manuscript itself in 2008, however, which revealed quite clearly that Dr. Flower’s transcription was not entirely accurate. The corrected transcription follows, with the emended words highlighted: tsaoghail, tiegait, uam, abit. Of these four, it is only the third and fourth which make a serious difference in the understanding of the text. I have also removed all the punctuation supplied by Dr. Flower since I am convinced that he was mistaken in treating the word “amen” as part of the dialogue.
TRIAR mannach dorath diultadh don tsaoghail. tiegait a fasach do athghaira a pecadh fri dia. bhadar cin labhradh fri araile co ceann bliaghna. IS ann isbeart fear dibh fri aroile dia bliaghna Maith atamm ol se amen.co cionn bliaghnai. IS Maith on ar in dara fear batar ann ier suidhe co ceann bliaghna Toingim uam abit ar in treas fear mine lecthi ciunnus damh conimgeb in fasach uile dibh. FINIS
The manuscript text contains many spellings which date from the Early Modern period. I have brought them into line with the norms of Old Irish, and have also normalized the grammatical shape of some of the words to approximate late Old Irish or early Middle Irish usage. The only major editorial change I have made is changing “athgaira” of the manuscript to “aithrigi” (repentence), since this word appears to have been corrupted in transmission. My thanks go to Elisa Roma for pointing this out. I would also like to thank Liam Breatnach very much for suggesting the interpretation of “uam”.
The images used in the illustrations were lifted primarily from Aztec codices written in Mexico in the period immediately following the Spanish conquest. Most of these, including all the human figures, came from the Códice Boturini. The mountain, however, came from the Códice Aubin, the house from a wall painting in the Templo de los Guerreros in Chichén Itzá, one small plant image from the Códice Fejérváry-Mayer, and the rabbit next to it from an inscription on the Piedra de Tízoc. I rearranged these images freely to meet the needs of the Old Irish narrative, altering some of them slightly.
Three monks turned their back on the world.
They go into the wilderness to repent their sins before God.
They did not speak to one another for the space of a year.
Then one of the men said to another at the end of the year, “We are well,” said he.
Thus it was for another year.
“It is well indeed,” said the second man.
They were there after that for another year.
“I swear by my habit,” said the third man, “if you do not allow me some quiet I will abandon the wilderness entirely to you!”
This little tale is listed in The Types of International Folktales by Hans-Jörg Uther (Helsinki. 2004) where it bears the ATU number 1948. It has also been recently discussed in volume 12 of the Enzyklopädie des Märchens (Berlin. 2007). Uther cites versions from Norway, Finland, Friesland, Ireland, and other Northern European countries. The summary he gives of the tale is as follows:
Too Much Talk. Three silent men (trolls, brothers, captains, farmers) withdraw from the world and retreat to a hermitage (canyon, monastery, island). After seven years, one of them speaks, “I think I heard a cow moo”. The others are irritated but stay silent. Seven years later, another man says, “It could have been an ox”. The third is annoyed but does not speak. After seven more years, he says, “I am leaving this place because there is too much talking (noise)”.
The Modern Irish version, recorded in Uíbh Ráthach (the Iveragh Peninsula in Kerry) by Séamus Ó Duilearga and published in Leabhar Sheáin Í Chonaill (Dublin. 1977) is as follows:
49. An Triúir Driothár san Oileán Uaigneach
Triúr driothár a imig ar luíng chún na faraige. Thugadar tamall math ar a’ bhfaraige, agus ní raibh aon talamh a’ buala leó, is bhí eagal ortha ná buailfeadh; ach sa deire do casach isteach go hoileán iad, a’s do bhí cuíllthe anuas go dtí an fharaige, agus cranna a’ fás aníos thríthi. Do cheangaluíodar a’ lúng ansan do chrann, agus d’imíodar féinig isteach fén dtír. N’fheacadar éinne, agus níor bhuail éinne leó. Luíodar ansan ar a bheith ag obair ’s a gnó ar feag seach’ mblian, agus i gciúnn na seach mblian labhair duin’ aca:
“Airím géim bó!” a duairt sé.
Ní’ thug éinne aon fhreagar’ ar a’ bhfocal san.
D’imig seach’ mblian eile thórsa. Labhair a’ tarna fear ansan, agus duairt sé: “Canad?”
D’fhan a sgéal mar sin ar feag seach’ mblian eile.
“Mara n-éisti sibh,” aduairt a’ tríú fear, “cuirfear as so sinn!”
As far as I can determine, none of the versions of ATU 1948 in the folklore collections date from earlier than the 20th century. None seem to predate the 1892 publication of Silva Gadelica, where the tale first appeared in English. Today, a century and more since O’Grady published his loose translation of this anecdote, versions of it have proliferated, especially in the English-speaking world, peopled by Christian, Buddhist and Hindu monks. The following version is reported in The Kitchen Chronicles: 1001 Lunches with J. Krishnamurti by Michael Krohnen:
“There are three monks, who had been sitting in deep meditation for many years amidst the Himalayan snow peaks, never speaking a word, in utter silence. One morning, one of the three suddenly speaks up and says, ‘What a lovely morning this is.’ And he falls silent again. Five years of silence pass, when all at once the second monk speaks up and says, ‘But we could do with some rain.’ There is silence among them for another five years, when suddenly the third monk says, ‘Why can’t you two stop chattering?’”