An té atá thuas óltar deoch air. An té atá thíos buailtear cos air.
The one who succeeds is toasted. The one who fails is kicked.
Note: Success has many fathers but failure is an orphan. The whole world loves a winner. Show me a good loser and I’ll show you a loser. Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing. These are universal sentiments, although the Irish language does not have a single word for toast, as in a toast to your health. The literal translation of the first sentence is, “The one who is up, somebody drinks a drink to him.”
Note also: The literal translation in the last sentence is in the active voice, while the poetic translation above is in the passive voice. Somebody drinks — active voice: the subject of this sentence, somebody, performs an action. One … is toasted — passive voice: the subject of this sentence, one, has an action done to him. This points out an interesting feature of Irish.
Irish has no passive voice. In Irish, the subject of a sentence must commit an action; an action can not be committed on the subject. By implication, nothing happens unless somebody does it. Perhaps, this view of the world remains from Celtic times when every event, every season, every occurrence had a natural or a supernatural cause.
The Irish equivalent of the passive voice is the autonomous form of the verb. It is autonomous in that some nameless being commits the action. That nameless being is the implied subject of the sentence. In our case, the verb “óltar” is the present tense autonomous form of ól, meaning “someone drinks.” The someone is implied by the “-tar” ending.
Similarly, “buailtear” is the present tense autonomous form of buail, meaning “someone strikes.” The someone is implied by the “-tear” ending. The second sentence of our proverb literally means, “the one who is down, someone strikes a foot on him.” Why the two different spellings of the endings? Caol le caol agus leathan le leathan ach sin scéal eile.
Is maith an athbhliain a dtig Nollaig i dTús gealaí.
The year is good when Christmas comes during the first phase of the moon.
Note: The first phase of the moon is the new moon. A new moon occurs about every 29 1/2 days, the time it takes for the moon to orbit the earth. More specifically, it occurs precisely when the excess of the apparent ecliptic (celestial) longitude of the Moon over that of the Sun is 0 degrees. In other words, it occurs when the moon is exactly between the sun and the earth. At this point no light is reflected off the moon’s surface to the earth. Therefore, when you look at a new moon in a clear night sky, you see no moon, or a completely shaded moon. Ancient Celts knew this precise moment.
A new moon had cosmic significance for the Gael. For the ancient Druids, it is believed that the moon and the planets represented Celtic gods. For this reason, there was a geis, a proscription against speaking or writing their names. Anyone who violated a geis was cursed with an evil spell. So the moon and the planets were referred to with euphemisms. That is why the Irish word for the moon is ‘gealach’ (‘Gealaí’ is the genitive singular form.), a euphemism that literally means ‘brightness.’
When Christianity supplanted Druidism, the new moon took on a new cosmic significance. Jesus Christ was born under a new moon. The beginning of the Savior’s life corresponded with the beginning of the life of the moon. So it is obvious that it is good luck whenever Christmas corresponds with the new moon. The next time the new moon occurs on Christmas will be December 25, 2000 at exactly 5:22 P.M. GMT. However, the good year will mostly be in 2001 since the Irish year begins in November and ends in October.
Tuar maith don athbhlianin na píobairí teallaigh a chloisteáil Lá Nollaig.
It is a good omen for the coming year to hear crickets on Christmas Day.
Note: If an American heard crickets on Christmas Day, then she would probably make a note to call the exterminator. However, the Irish have a tradition of augury going back to the ancient Druids.
When Dio Chrysostom [born AD 40, died AD 111] said that the Druids were ‘well versed in the art of seers and prophets’ he was simply stating general knowledge of his day. From the earliest Greek and Roman sources it was claimed that the Druids practiced auguries, could foretell the future and ‘interpret nature’. The reputation of the Druids as seers, prophets, diviners and augurers is confirmed by a Celtic writer of the first century B.C. Trogus [The Celtic word ‘Trog’ evolved into the modern Irish word ‘trua’ meaning ‘miserable’.] Pompeius … who wrote … in Latin … with some obvious personal pride and authority, ‘the Gauls excel all others in the skill of augury’.
Peter Berresford Ellis, The Druids, Willam B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1994, pp. 220-221.
That crickets would be a good omen on Christmas Day is hinted at by the Irish word for cricket, ‘píobaire an teallaigh,’ which literally means ‘the piper of the fireplace.’ (‘Teallaigh’ is the genitive singular form of ‘teallach.’) Another word for cricket is ‘píobaire gríosí’ which literally means ‘the piper of the hot ashes (embers)’, i.e., meaning the same as the other word for cricket. ‘ (‘Gríosaí’ is the genitive singular form of ‘gríosach.’) It is, therefore, natural to believe that it is good luck to have a band of insect pipers around your hearth celebrating the birth of the Saviour.
Note: There is a theological position and a set of mathematical theorems implicit in this week’s proverb. This proverb is not a call to ban gambling. The word ‘cearrbhach’ also means card player. Compare this seanfhocal to a popular English proverb, “Cards are the Devil’s books,” a word play on the seventeenth century name for a deck of cards, “the King’s books” from the French livre des quatre. Presbyterian preachers of the era used this proverb to convey their proscription against card playing. In contrast, this week’s seanfhocal is a proscription against dumb card playing.
This proverb expresses the mathematical certainty that if you gamble against the house long enough, then you will lose, and lose everything. The eminent French, seventeenth-century mathematicians Blaise Pascal and Pierre de Fermat failed in efforts to determine a gambling technique to beat the Casinos at Monte Carlo. (As a by-product of trying to beat the house, they created the mathematical discipline known as Probability Theory.) The famous nineteenth century Russian mathematician, A. Ya. Khintchine showed how the house’s advantage in terms of relative stake ultimately leads to a “gambler’s ruin”. Khintchine was also the first to discover the Law of Large Numbers. Ludwig von Mises, the famous ninteenth century economist, showed how no gambling strategy, other than to exit shortly after entering a game, could overcome the house’s odds.
Edward Thorp, an American mathematician, showed in the 1950s, that the odds (when you include vigorish) of all the games in the Casino favor the Casino. Thorp and others combined this empirical fact with von Mises Theorem, with the Law of Large Numbers, and the theory of “Gambler’s Ruin” to prove that if you play against the house long enough, then you will with certainty, eventually, lose everything.
Since this seanfhocal obviously predates Thorp, than we can assume that Irish folk wisdom acquired this axiomatic truth the hard way, by losing. So if you are gambling and losing, cut your losses and quit playing before you lose everything. There is a variation of this seanfhocal that looks at winning, “Súil le breis a mhilleann an cearrbhac.” (Hoping for more ruins the gambler.) In other words, if you are gambling and winning, take the money and run. Otherwise, you will eventually lose it all. In the long run, you simply can not beat the house.
Ní huasal ná íseal ach thuas seal agus thíos seal.
It is not upper class or lower class, but up a while and down awhile.
Note: Ancient Irish society had a caste system where birth determined your social class. For example, the son of a Druid, i.e., a member of the intelligensia, was deemed to be a Druid, just as the son of Brahmin in Hindu culture was a Brahmin. Unlike other cast societies, however, Irish individuals could move between classes. The son, or daughter for that matter, of a peasant could become a Druid. This cultural value of social mobility is combined with a sense of luck or fortune in this proverb. It warns the well-off and comforts the not-so-well-off that their good (bad) fortune could be reversed soon.
Note also: There is an interesting play on the words ‘up’ and ‘down’ in this proverb. While the seanfhocal suggests that one’s socio-economic position is constantly changing, it uses adverbs that describe fixed positions. Your position in life may be fixed for now, but it can change later.
‘Thuas’ means ‘up’ in the sense that something is fixed above the position of the speaker, while ‘thíos’ has the same fixed sense but in the opposite direction. For example, if someone is standing at the top of the stairs, and you are at the bottom of the stairs, then you might say,”Tá sé thuas an staighre.” (He is up the stairs.)
In all, Irish has three words for ‘up’ and three words for ‘down’. The “extra” words are used to show movement either towards or away from the speaker. For example, if you are downstairs and someone is going upstairs, then you would say “Tá sí ag dul suas an staighre.” (She is going up the stairs.)
Note: The French might say “C’est la vie” to express the same idea. One must accept what has already happened as “fate”; but everything is subject to change. The ups and downs of our fortunes are natural and part of the fabric of life.