Dá mbeinn chomh saibhir is a bhí mé anuraidh
Thógfainn tigh mór ar an chnoc údai thall,
Fíon agus ór ‘siad a bhéarfainn do mo stór,
Is bheinn ag gabháil ceoil le mo chailín rua.
The Monster in the Living Room
I just have to say it. Ever since I started learning Irish, I’ve heard people speak with dread and loathing of the modh coinníollach (pronounced, roughly “mohg kun-EE-lukh”).
“It’s too difficult!” “I’ll NEVER get it!” “Why do we have to have this in the language?” “Can’t we just get rid of it?” (this latter group usually wants to do away with the tuiseal ginideach — the genitive case — as well).
As I’m sure you can imagine, by the time I was an advanced student, I’d built the modh coinníollach up into a terrible monster in my mind!
And I wasn’t alone! I’ve even seen an entire class of advanced students turn white as sheets when the teacher suggested doing a drill on the modh coinníollach. I swear, you’d have thought he’d asked us to rappel down Sliabh Liag using dental floss!
Irish-American comedian Des Bishop had a similar experience:
Des Bishop on An Modh Coinníollach
Meet the Monster
So what is this terrible thing that has been terrorizing Irish students for generations? Well, if you listened to the above video (And you should. Des Bishop is hilarious!), you already know: It’s simply the conditional mode of a verb.
Furthermore, if you’re a student of Irish, it’s likely that you’ve been using the modh coinníollach from some of your earliest lessons. Does any of this sound familiar?
Cad é ba mhaith leat?: What would you like?
Ar mhaith leat cupán tae?: Would you like a cup of tea?
Ba mhaith.: Yes (“I would”)
Níor mhaith: No (“I wouldn’t”)
Ba, ar, and níor are, in this case, conditional forms of the copula is.
In my case, I’d unknowingly encountered the modh coinníollach even before I started seriously studying Irish, in one of my favorite songs: An Cailín Rua (“The Red-Haired Girl”), the last verse of which is at the beginning of this post:
If I were (dá mbeinn) as wealthy as I was last year,
I would build (thógfainn) a big house on the hill over yonder,
Wine and gold I would give (bhéarfainn) to my love,
And I would be (bheinn) making music with my red-haired girl.
Are you seeing a pattern here?
A Matter of Condition
I suspect one reason the modh coinníollach worries people is that they’re not sure how or when to use it.
Formal grammar terminology can be intimidating if you’re not familiar with it (and sometimes even if you are!). And “modh coinníollach” certainly is a mouthful, even in English (“conditional mode/mood”).
But it’s really not all that bad. Let’s break it down:
Modh = “Mode” or “Mood”: A distinctive form, or set of forms, of a verb.
Coinníollach = “Conditional”: Something that is dependent on certain conditions.
So, put reasonably simply (or hilariously, if you listen to Des Bishop’s monologue), the modh coinníollach is a verb form you use when you’re talking about something that might or might not happen, depending on other factors (“conditions”):
“If I were rich, I would buy a Ferrari.”
“If I had the time, I would write more blog posts.”
“If it weren’t raining, I would go for a walk.”
The first part of the sentences above tells you what would need to happen (more money, more time, no rain) to make the second part happen (buying a Ferrari, writing more blog posts, going for a walk).
Of course, you can also flip such conditional sentences around:
“I would buy a Ferrari, if I were rich.”
“I would write more blog posts, if I had the time.”
“I would go for a walk, if it weren’t raining.”
Shoulda, Woulda, Coulda
Another way to keep track of when to use the modh coinníollach, at least if English is your first language, is to link it in your mind with certain English words:
Were (Not as in the past tense — “the boys were playing” — but in the subjunctive — “If I were rich.”).
Don’t be intimidated!
But perhaps the issue isn’t so much knowing when to use the modh coinníollach as knowing how to form it.
The thing is, it really isn’t difficult. It’s certainly no more difficult than other Irish verb forms (which, because of the relative lack of irregular verbs in Irish – there are only 11 – aren’t all that difficult at all).
If you can learn the future and past tenses, you can learn the modh coinníollach, and I’m going to give you some basics to get you started.
Days of future past
With a nod to The Moody Blues*, then, let’s get started.
(*And yes…I know the name of the CD is actually “Days of Future Passed.” But this always pops into my head when I think about the modh coinníollach – you’ll see why in a moment – so I think the band will allow me a little leeway).
If you know how to form the past tense and the future tense of regular Irish verbs, you’re more than halfway to knowing how to form verbs in the conditional mode.
First, change the beginning
For independent verb forms* in the modh coinníollach, the beginning of the word is the same as it is in the past tense. Let’s review those:
1. If it begins with a lenitable consonant, lenite it. Shín sí: “She stretched.”
2. If it begins with an unlenitable consonant, leave it alone: Lean sé: “He followed.
3. If it begins with a vowel, put “d’” in front of it. D’éirigh siad: “They arose/got up.”
4. If it begins with “f,” first you lenite it and then, because “fh” is silent, you also put “d’” in front of it. D’fhan sé: “He stayed.”
* Independent verb forms are those that don’t “depend” on a particle: “an,” “ar,” “nach,” etc.
Next, broaden your future
The future tense of the verbs above are as follows:
To form the conditional mode, after you change the beginning, if necessary, you make those slender endings (i.e., “i” or “e”) broad:
Shínfeadh sí: She would stretch
Leanfadh sé: He would follow
D’éireodh siad: They would arise/get up
D’fhanfadh sé: He would stay.
Not too bad, is it?
One way in which the conditional mode differs from other verb forms is that the first- and second-person singular are formed a little differently.
The first- and second-person singular forms in the modh coinníollach always incorporate the pronoun into the verb itself (if you speak a dialect that uses táim and táimid instead of tá mé and tá muid, you’re already familiar with this concept). Technically, these are referred to as “synthetic” verb forms.
For first-person singular, that means that the verb ends in “-inn” (Yeah, I know that seems a little odd. If it helps you to remember, just pretend that “nn” is an “m.” It kind of looks like an “m” in sans serif fonts anyway.)
For second-person singular, that means the verb ends in “-fá.” I have no mnemonic for you for this one. It’s just one you’ll have to learn. But it’s unusual enough that it’s actually pretty easy to remember.
So, for the verbs we’ve been talking about:
Shínfinn: I would stretch.
Shínfeá: You would stretch.
Leanfainn: I would follow
Leanfá: You would follow
D’eireoinn: I would rise/get up
D’éireofá: You would rise/get up
D’fhanainn: I would stay
See how easy it is? Just follow the pattern!
It’s a bit of a struggle at first to remember not to add a pronoun after the word (for example, it’s just shínfinn, not shínfinn mé, because the pronoun is already incorporated into the ending), but it’s just a bit of practice…nothing insurmountable.
First- and third-person plural
First- and third-person plurals are also different, and require a little bit of memorization. The ending for first-person plural is “-mis.” For third-person plural, it’s “-dís.”
Shínfimis: We would stretch
Shínfidís: They would stretch
Leanfaimis: We would follow
Leanfaidís: They would follow
D’éireoimis: We would arise/get up
D’éireoidís: They would arise/get up
D’fhanfaimis: We would stay
D’fhanfaidís: They would stay
Again, these are synthetic verb forms, so don’t stick a pronoun on the end…it’s already there.
Is that all? Of course not!
Some time in the future (when I have time to sit down and write again) we’ll explore the negative and dependent forms of the conditional mode. In the meantime, spend some time practicing what I’ve given you here.
Really, the point of this post is not to make you an overnight expert, but to minimize the angst that seems to surround what really is a very basic and simple verb form.
Don’t shy away from it! It really is no more difficult than any other verb form. Why it’s developed its fearsome reputation I have no idea, but you’re doing yourself a disservice if you avoid it.
You would be much happier, and you could find yourself much more comfortable with conversational Irish, if only you would let go of your fear!
An modh coinníollach abú!
The featured picture at the top of this post was taken on midsummer eve in Ballyvaughan, Co. Clare. The cottage is in a little holiday village where I and some friends stayed for a week, making music and seeing the sights. © 2008, by Audrey Nickel.
In addition to being “The Geeky Gaeilgeoir,” Audrey Nickel is the author of The Irish Gaelic Tattoo Handbook,” published by Bradan Press, Nova Scotia, Canada. For information about the book, including where to buy it, please visit http://www.bradanpress.com/irish-tattoo-handbook/