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The Definite Article in Irish – Part 2

In our last post, we talked a bit about the definite article in Irish (the equivalent of the word “the” in English), and how it changes (and changes the words around it) in context (if you missed it, you might want to read The Definite Article in Irish – Part 1 first!).

In this post we’ll talk a bit about how the definite article combines with the preposition i (in), and the effect that has on following words. We’ll also talk about ways in which the definite article is used in Irish that aren’t encountered in English.

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In the…

One of the most interesting things about the definite article in Irish is how it combines with prepositions. And of those prepositions, one of the most interesting is i: “in.” 

  • I + the singular definite article an = sa in front of a consonant.
  • I + the singular definite article an = san in front of a vowel or “f” followed by a vowel.
  • I + the plural definite article na = sna.

To make things more interesting, while normally i causes something called “eclipsis” to words beginning with consonants (this is a grammatical change that involves placing a particular consonant or group of consonants at the beginning of the word), these new forms cause different changes to the nouns that follow them:

  • Sa causes “lenition” (the softening of an initial consonant indicated by writing an “h” after it) of words beginning with b, c, g, or p, and prefixes “t” to the initial “s” of feminine nouns.
  • San causes “lenition” to words beginning with “f.”

So, for example…

bpáirc (ih bark) = “in a field,” but sa pháirc (suh fark) = “In THE field.”

 i mbialann (ih MEE-uh-lahn) = “in a restaurant,” but sa bhialann (suh VEE-uh-lahn) = “in THE restaurant.”

dteach (ih jakh) = “in a house,” but sa teach (suh chakh) = “in THE house” (“teach” doesn’t begin with b, c, g, or p, so there’s no lenition).

sráid (ih srahj) = “in a street,” but sa tsráid (suh trahj) = “In THE street” (“sráid” is feminine).

feadán (FAD-ahn): “a tube, you say i bhfeadán (ih VAD-ahn) = “in a tube,” but san fheadán (sun AD-ahn) = “In THE tube.”

Usage differences

As I mentioned earlier, Irish uses the definite article in different ways than English does.

One of these differences has to do with languages and countries.

In general, the name of a language in Irish is preceded by the definite article. For example:

Is breá liom an Ghaeilge: I love [the] Irish.

Is í an Fhraincis an teanga is ansa léi:  Her favourite language is [the] French.

(Fortunately for the purposes of memorization, most languages are grammatically feminine. The exception is that language that seems to epitomize exception: English!)

In addition, many (but not all) country names are preceded by the definite article in Irish:

Beidh mé ag dul go dtí an Fhrainc sa tsamhradh: I will be going to [the] France in the summer.

Itheann daoine pasta san Iodail: People eat pasta in [the] Italy.

Placement issues: The genitive

Another interesting feature of the definite article in Irish has to do with the genitive case.

In English, we usually put the definite article before the first noun in a genitive phrase:

The dog’s bowl.

The horses’ stable.

In Irish, the definite article goes BETWEEN the nouns:

Babhla an mhadra.

Stábla na gcapall.

(By the way, this is the source of the common misconception that “na” means “of” in Irish. It’s actually just the plural or feminine definite article “the.” The word “of” isn’t even in these phrases…rather, it’s implied by the genitive form of the noun!).

No double dipping!

In English, it’s possible to have multiple occurrances of the definite article in certain phrases. For example:

The mother of the children.

The house of the priest.

In Irish, that first “the” is left off:

Máthair na bpáistí does for both “Mother of the children” or “The mother of the children,” depending on context.


Teach an tsagairt does for both “House of the priest” and “The house of the priest.”


Seems complicated, doesn’t it? It may be so at first, but you’ll be surprised at just how quickly all this becomes natural!

Bitesize subscribers ease into the definite article with such lessons as Lesson: The Definite Article, Lesson: Countries and Nationalities, and Lesson: Nouns: The Genitive Case — Part 2.

As with all things regarding language learning, it’s practice and exposure that will make all this come easily.

Why not give it a try!

Has all this whetted your appetite for more? If you haven’t subscribed to Bitesize Irish Gaelic yet, why not give our free introductory mini-course a try?

Whether or not you’re a Bitesize member, did you find this article helpful? Let us know your thoughts below!

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9 thoughts on “The Definite Article in Irish – Part 2”

  1. To make things even more complicated with “sa”. It seems like it indeed lenites for Caighdeán and 2 of the three dialects. For Connacht it appears to eclipse — unless I’m wrong:

    “The preposition-article compound sa (i + an “in the”) causes eclipsis, where it causes lenition in the Caighdeán and in the other dialects.”

    This has snagged me up a bit because I’m attempting to lear Cois Fharraige dialect via the “Learning Irish” book. So I am writing “sa mbaile” as the correct answer to the questions in C-F dialect but putting “sa bhaile” in parentheses to cover “Standard” Irish. I now know why I kept hearing “at the mall” on Ros na Rún… they were saying “sa mbaile” (at home!).

  2. An úsáideach ar fad, go raibh maith agat.
    An mbeadh tú in ann rialacha a chur suas ar úsáid i/in, sa/san le do thoil??
    Bím ag cleachtadh i gceart ach níl mé in ann na rialacha a shroich amach, más dtuigeann tú mé….
    Le meas,

    1. Haigh a Anita.

      i / in – indefinite [ i siopa – in a shop // in árasán – in an apartment ] – i + consonant // in + vowel
      sa / san – definite [ sa siopa – in the shop // san árasán – in the apartment ] – sa + consonant // san + vowel

      Tá súil agam go bhfuil sin soiléir!

  3. The form of the definite article “na” in the genitive phases is the same as the plural of “an”. Please explain. Why is it not “an” if the following word is singular?

    1. Hi David,

      Na is used in the genitive with feminine, singular nouns, and plural nouns of any gender. For example, the woman’s hat: hata na mná. Or the men’s hats: hataí na bhfear.

      Le beannacht,

  4. DJ Mac Lochlainn

    Tá mé ag foghlaim an Ghaeilge le naoi mbliana anuas: I have been learning [the] Irish for nine years.

    As the genitive case follows the verbal noun, should it not be na Gaeilge in the example?

    Great work on the site.

  5. For some reason I never saw Pádraig’s question above. Just in case Pádraig is still tuned in (and still needs to know), there’s no real difference between “insna” and “sna.” The former is an older form from which the latter was derived. You’ll encounter it widely in songs, and I believe it may be the default form in Munster.

  6. patrick mc nally

    Hi Audrey, Would it be correct to say, “Lá suntasach sna sléibhte” or would it be better to say, “Lá suntasach insna sléibhte”? Pádraig