Note: “Sionnach” is one Irish word for “fox.” Ulster Irish, like Scots Gaelic would also use another word for “fox,” namely “madadh ruadh.” “Cho charach ris a’ mhadadh-ruadh.” (As wily as a fox)– Scots Gaelic. This expression would be spelled “madra rua” in the official standard Irish, and literally means “red dog.”
Seán Ó Dálaigh wrote a short story called “Dioltas an Mhada Rua,” showing that a fox is not only clever, but also vengeful:
Díoltas an Mhada Rua
Seanfhocal is ea — chomh glic le mada rua. Agus i dteannta é a bheith glic bíonn sé díoltasach. Thaispeáin sé d’fhear ó Dhún Chaoin go raibh sé díoltasach mar b’air féin a d’imir sé an díoltas.
Revenge of the Fox
‘Tis a proverb — as clever as a fox. And when he is in a fix he can be vengeful. He showed a man from Dhún Chaoin that he could wreck vengeance when he must be avenged.
Seán Ó Dálaigh lived in the Kerry Gaeltacht. Hence, he uses another dialectical spelling of fox,”mada rua,” quoted above in the title and the first sentence of his story. Ó Dálaigh is the “Máistir Ó Dálaigh” that Peg Sayers writes about in her autobiography.
Má labhríonn an chuach ar chrann gan duiliúr díol do bhó agus ceannaigh arbhar.
If the cuckoo calls from a tree without leaves, sell your cow and buy corn.
Note: The cuckoo bird is giving a warning. A warning that the season to come, like the tree on which it is perched, will be barren. Therefore, a wise person will sell the clan’s riches, which ancient Gaels measured in cows, and buy food. In the north, there is another version of this proverb, “An tráth a ghaireann an chuach ar an sceach lom, díol do bhó agus ceannaigh arbhar.” (When the cuckoo cries on the bare thorn bush, sell your cow and buy corn.)
Ancient Celts were well known for their powers of augury, the ability to foretell the future from the behavior of animals. Some Celtic diviners specialized in bird augury. Diodorus Siculus, an ancient Roman writer, told of Druids who predicted the future from the flight of birds. “An Irish version of the Historia Brittonum, by the Welsh historian Nennius, includes an ancient poem which refers to six Druids who lived at Breagh-magh and who practiced the ‘the watching of birds’.” (Peter Berresford Ellis, The Druids, William P.Eerdsmans Publishing Company, 1994, p. 223.)
Part of this tradition of ‘the watching of birds’ survives in Irish proverbs. Pádraig Ua Maoileoin, who was called an Seabhac (the Hawk), devotes a whole chapter of Seanfhocail na Mumhan to proverbs about birds. He gives proverb # 2259 “An gobadán (nó gobachán) i mbeale cuaiche.” (The sandpiper (or sharp-tongued person) is in the mouth of a cuckoo.) Here, the Hawk is pointing out that in Irish, the words for sandpiper and sharp-tongued person are synonymous. This is a natural artifact of a belief that the behavior of birds influences the lives of people. In other words, Druid gossips (one type of sharp-tongued people) should be good to sandpipers and listen to cuckoos.
Note: Theodore Roosevelt extolled this virtue of self-reliance in a speech given in New York on November 11, 1903: “The first requisite of a good citizen in this Republic of ours is that he shall able and willing to pull his own weight.” Almost two decades later, Micheal Collins argued that this kind of economic independence was a hallmark of ancient Irish culture:
The pertinacity of Irish civilization was due to the democratic basis of its economic system, and the aristocracy of its culture.
It was the reverse of Roman civilization in which the state was held together by a central authority, controlling and defending it, the people being left to themselves in all social and intellectual matters. Highly organized, Roman civilization was powerful, especially for subduing and dominating other races, for a time. But not being rooted in the interests and respect of the people themeselves, it could not survive.
Gaelic civilization was quite different. The people of the whole nation were united, not by material forces, but by spirtitual ones. Their unity was not of any military solidarity. It came from sharing the same traditions. It came form honouring the same heroes, from inheriting the same literature, from willing obedience to the same law, the law which was their own law and reverenced by them.
They never exalted a central authority. Economically they were divided up into a number of larger and smaller units. Spiritually and socially they were one people.
Each community was independent and complete within its own boundaries. The land belonged to the people. It was held for the people by the Chief of the Clann. He was their trustee. He secured his position by the will of the people only. His successor was elected by the people.
Michael Collins, The Path to Freedom, Mercier Press, 1996, pp. 103-4.
In effect, Collins was arguing that the Irish had a federal Republic thousands of years before the United States of America and would return to it soon again. A few months later he was killed by those who thought he had betrayed the Republic.
Note: It is no wonder that this proverb can be heard all across Ireland in one form or another. This variant is from Connacht. In Ulster, you might hear the more alliterative, “Bíonn adharca móra ar bha i bhad ó bhaile.” Whereas, in Munster, one is more likely to hear an older form, “”Bíonn adharca móra ar na buaibh tharr lear,” which retains a dative form not used commonly today. In that ancient agrarian society cows were a form of currency, a measure of one’s wealth. A poor tentant farmer with no cows would, therefore, find the lure of emmigration compelling.
However, this proverb uses the present habitual form of the verb to be, ‘bíonn,’ as an ironic warning that it may not be so. This syntax is used to convey the sense that something is usually the case. We took a little poetic liberty and inserted the word ‘always’ to emphasize this subtle meaning. It is the same meaning as the American proverb, “The grass is always greener in the other fellow’s yard.”
Note also: This seanfhocal is not necessarily a paean to Texas longhorns either. Both the Ulster and the Munster versions use the nominative plural form of the adjective ‘mór’ to describe the horns. It means big. Big horns mean big cows. ‘Long horns’ is just another metaphor for big cows. While the Irish did emmigrate to Texas, others emmigrated to Africa, especially South Africa, and still others to Australia. All these Irish emmigrants would have written home about long horned cattle.
Note: St. Bernard of Clairvaux coined an English proverb similar to this week’s seanfhocal, “Love me, love my dog.” (The Saint Bernard dog was named after another Saint Bernard.) This Irish proverb has the same roots as the story of Cú Chulainn.
Sédanda was the son of the God Lugh, nephew of Conor mac Nessa, King of Ulster. One day Conor rode by while the boy, Sédanda, was playing with a bat and a ball. He asked the King where he was going. The King told him he was going to a feast held by the chief smith, Cullan, and invited the boy to join him. Sédanda said he would follow him later after he finished playing ball.
Conor and the other guests were feasting by the fire when Cullan asked the King if there were any other guests coming. Forgetting about Sédanda, the King said no. To this Cullan explained that it was his custom to unleash his hound at night to protect his property from thieves and robbers. It was a brave hound and a fierce fighter. Cullan feared no man when the hound was out. The King gave him permission to release his hound.
Sédanda arrived before the feast to be confronted by the savage hound. The hound lunged at Sédanda but the boy drove the ball with his stick into the skull of the dog, instantly killing the creature.
Upon arriving at the sight of his dead hound, the smith wept in grief and fear. He argued to the King that the boy’s family must pay a blood fine for such an egregiously inhospitable act. Who would now protect him, his clan, and his property?
The boy agreed to find a pup of a breed superior to the one he had killed and raise it into an even more fearsome defender of the smith’s home. Until the pup was old enough to do this, however, Sédanda said that he himself would replace the hound. He would become the Hound of Cullan, or Cú Chulainn in Irish.
Note: Spinoza was almost as eloquent as this week’s seanfhocal when he wrote,
Surely human affairs would be far happier if the power in men to be silent were the same as that to speak. But experience more than teaches that men govern nothing with more difficulty than their tongues.
Ethics, pt. III, proposition 2, note.
Silence may be golden, metaphorically, but this seanfhocal alludes to the more tangible rewards of being quiet.
Note also: This week’s seanfhocal strays a bit from the Caighdeán Oifigiúil (the official standard) Irish grammar. According to the official standard, the direct relative clause of the sentence would be “a itheann an mhin” (that [he] eats the meal). However, a special form is widely used in the present and future tenses which appends a broad ‘s’ to the verb. So in this case, the direct relative clause becomes “a itheas an mhin.” The penultimate letter, or the last vowel, ‘a’ in ‘itheas’ is simply an indicator vowel that tells the reader this is a broad ‘s.’ We strayed here because this special form is very often found in conversation, literature, prayers, and in seanfhocail.