Note: This week’s seanfhocal has found its way into English as the proverb, “A green winter makes a fat churchyard.” This is possible because the Irish word “Nollaig” could be mistranslated as “December.” “A green December makes a fat graveyard” is not a stretch to become “A green winter makes a fat churchyard.” However, the correct Irish word for December is ‘Mí na Nollag,’ which literally means ‘the month of Christmas.’ (The genitive case drops the ‘i’ in ‘Nollaig’ thus broadening the final consonant.)
This astute observation is a macabre irony that gives new meaning to the term “White Christmas.” How could something that is green, the color of life (or, at least plant life) be associated with added deaths? The answer lies in the fact that a mild winter does mean life, but it is also life to the unseen world of deadly microbes and disease. However, a cold winter makes the world a veritable dessert. It effectively removes water from the environment. Nothing can live without water. Microbes either die or hibernate. The absense of microbes greatly reduces human mortality, i.e., a white Christmas makes a thinner graveyard.
Note also: Even such a short proverb as this illustrates some fundamental differences between the Irish and English languages. As in English this proverb has implied the verb. But, the Irish word order is usually the exact opposite of English when it comes to nouns and their modifying adjectives. In English, it is a “green Christmas,” but in Irish it is “Nollaig ghlas.” In English, it is a “fat graveyard,” but in Irish it is “reilig mhéith.” In English, it does not matter what gender the nouns are; the adjectives are always the same. In Irish, a feminine noun requires its modifying adjective to be lenited (séimhiú), e.g., ‘ghlas’ and ‘mhéith.’
There is hope from the sea, but there is no hope from the land (grave).
Note: Elizabeth Kubler-Ross argued in her book, On Death and Dying, that there are five stages of grief; the first is denial. This week’s proverb is a frank vehicle for helping the survivor get past this first stage. It is similar to a Spanish proverb, “A la muerte no hay cosa fuerte.” (Nothing is stronger than death.) An Italian proverb is equally blunt, “A ogni cosa c’é rimedio fuorché alla morte.” (There is a remedy for everything except death.)
Note also: In Ulster, you might hear a slightly different version of this seanfhocal, “Bíonn dúil le béal farraige ach cha bhíonn dúil le béal uaighe.” (There is hope from the mouth of the sea but not from the mouth of the grave.) The negative particle ‘cha’ is often used in Ulster speech instead of the negative particle ‘ní.’ Like the particle ‘ní,’ the particle ‘cha’ causes the word that follows it to be lenited, except words beginning with ‘d’ or ‘t’ which are eclipsed. For example, ‘cha bhíonn’ in this seanfhocal and ‘cha dtuigim’ instead of ‘ni bhíonn’ and ‘ní thuigim.’ An dtuigeann tú?
Note: You might hear a more poetic Hiberno-English translation of this seanfhocal, “We spend many a day asleep in the clay.” This is not necessarily the same as the English exhortation “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we may die.” One could invoke this proverb to work longer, as well as to play harder. Perhaps, another rhetorical English equivalent was written by Thomas Pinchon who ‘quoted’ an epitaph from an old New England gravestone, “Death is a debt to nature due. Mine is paid. How about you?”
Note also: This seanfhocal is an example of a common idiomatic use of the preposition ‘ar’ and a pronoun. In this case, the preposition ‘ar’ is combined with the old pronoun ‘sinn’ to form the prepositional pronoun ‘orainn.’ ‘Orainn’ means ‘on us.’ So translated literally, this seanfhocal says, “Many a day is in the churchyard on us.” It is a reflection of a different Irish perspective.
We are not in the grave. The grave is on us.
I do not have a cold. Tá slaghdán orm. (A cold is on me.)
You are not hungry. Tá ocras ort. (Hunger is on you.)
They are not afraid. Tá eagla orthu. (Fear is on them.)
She is not Siobhán. Siobhán atá uirthi. (Siobhan is that [name] on her.)
In Irish, a person does not ‘have’ a sickness. A person is not “one and the same” as his condition, or his emotions, or even his name. These are transient and ethereal things. They are not solid things that one can hold and therefore ‘have’. Isn’t it obvious then, that these are simply things that are on you, like a grave?
Bíonn an bás ar aghaidh an tseanduine agus ar chúl duine óig.
Death is facing the old (person) and behind the young (person).
Note: There is a subtle irony in this proverb. It is, of course, obvious that mortality is before us all, but somehow more intimately facing the old. What then do we make of the observation that death is “behind the young?” Is it that the young are aware of death, having seen it in those who came are chronologically behind them, e.g., grandparents. Or, does it mean that death is behind the young where they can not see it, i.e., do the old contemplate their own death while the young only think of others dying?
Note also: In this proverb there is a ‘t’ prefixed before the word “seanduine.” This is how one forms the genitive case for masculine nouns that begin with the letter ‘s’ and are followed by either a vowel, or the consonants l, r, or n. (The genitive case is required for nouns governed by compound prepositions, e.g., ar aghaidh, ar chúl, etc.) In contrast, the definite article ‘an’ prefixes ‘t’ to feminine nouns in the nominative case that begin with the letter ‘s’ and are followed by either a vowel, or the consonants l, r, or n, e.g., “Tá an tseanaois air.” (The old age is on him.).
Note: This is an obvious reference to “The Grim Reaper” and the inevitability of death.
Note also: Irish uses different verb tenses here than Béarla would. In Béarla the customary sequence is a clause in the present tense (When death comes…) followed by the body of the sentence in the future tense (…he won’t go away empty). Irish, on the other hand, puts both parts of such a sentence in the future tense.