Feola & fethamla
The old Irish feminine word 'fethemla' (quietness, calmness) contains the word 'féth' (a calm). It
is unclear whether the old Irish feminine word 'feithemail' contains the same element or the
element 'feth' (skill) or even 'fethem' (observing/waiting).
The feminine word 'fethamlacht' may be related to the masculine word 'fetamlacus' which is
documented as meaning 'superintendence'. This in turn would relate both 'fethamlacht' and
'fetamlacus' to the element 'fethem' (watching/waiting), modern 'feitheamh'. Against this
hypothesis stands the possibility that 'fetamlacus' and 'fethamlacht' derive from the loanword
Meanings of a putative 'téad na bhfeitheamhla' (string of calmness/watchfulness/ skillfulness)
might be appropriate, as the D above the sisters would have to sound a perfect clean note in
harmony with the sisters: the harper would need to tune the string skilfully, paying close
attention to ensure than the pitches of the G and D string create a clear, calm 3:2 pitch ratio
with no oscillating wave sound. Although the wave theory of sound is first conclusively
demonstrated experimentally in 1636, the origin of the idea of sound being like a wave is older
than we can say. A description of how sound operates as a wave by the Roman architect
Vitruvius (c75-c15 BC) begins:-
Bunting's reference in English to the notion of leading strings is sensible, as 'téad na feola' d is
the first of those six strings tuned by a fifth and not by an octave or unison, ie, a b c d e & f
above the sisters at G. All other strings are then tuned by octaves to these and to the sisters.
Vox autem ut spiritus fluens aeris et actu sensibilis auditu. Ea movetur circulorum
rutundationibus infinitis uti si in stantem aquam lapide inmisso ...
Now the voice is like a flowing breath of air and is actual when perceived by the sense
of hearing. It is moved along innumerable undulations of circles as when we throw a
stone into standing water ...
De arcitectura libri by Vitruvius, book V, chapter III