Note: This is not meant to insult the young by implying that youthfulness always equates to foolishness. Rather, it is a reminder that life’s most important lessons can only be truly “learned” from experience. They cannot be absorbed by merely hearing or reading about the exploits of others. In the end, there is no better training academy than the proverbial “School of Hard Knocks”.
Note: This oxymoron is also loosely translated as the Hiberno-English expression “feeding the dog his tail.” It is an absurdity used to lampoon circular arguments and those who make them. In the Irish, it has the subtle recursive property of imputing that the person making such a specious argument is, of course, a fool. The fool is saying that something he gave himself is charity. It is a most uncharitable rejoinder.
The sting of this week’s seanfhocal hinges on the idiomatic expression “dá chuid,” which is a contraction of “de a chuid” (literally: from his share). Ancient Celts where a communal people who operated as a tribe or clann. All members of the clann contributed to the wealth of the clann, from the farmers, to the warriors, to the druids. Each was therefore deserving of a share.
Hence the Irish word for share, portion, or part, ‘cuid’ is used in many expressions, especially those involving possession. There are no possessive pronouns in Irish, e.g., there is no direct Irish word for ‘mine’ or ‘yours.’ The Irish equivalent for ‘mine’ is ‘mo chuid’ while ‘yours’ is ‘do chuid.’ So, technically, this seanfhocal uses ‘a chuid’ to mean ‘his,’ the possessive pronoun, not the possessive adjective ‘his’ as in ‘his books.’ Possessive adjectives in Irish also require the use of ‘cuid’ when modifying certain nouns, . . . ach sin scéal eile.
Note: Every year on the fourth Thursday in November people in the United States of America, wherever they may live, gather their clans together for a great feast, called Thanksgiving. It celebrates the first harvest of the Puritans in the New World. Traditionally, a large turkey is roasted and eaten along with potatoes, turnips, carrots, onions, and other garden delicacies. After dinner, it is customary for the family to root for their favorite American football team. A snack during the game is not unusual. Those who snack during the game would do well to keep this proverb in mind.
Of course, this week’s seanfhocal is actually to remind you that you can not do two things at once. Perhaps, the more widely known version of this seanfhocal is “Ní féidir le aon duine a bheith ag feadaíl agus ag ithe mine.” (One can’t whistle and drink at the same time.) However, this version comes from the West of Ireland, where, apparently, people are more confident of their capabilities. It may be hard to whistle and eat simultaneously, but it is not impossible for someone from the West.
Note also: The genitive case is used after a verbal noun, i.e., “ag ithe mine”. The word ‘mine’ is the genitive singular of ‘min,’ the word for ‘meal’ as in corn meal (min bhuí), oatmeal (min choirce), wheatmeal (min chruithneachta), barley meal (min eorna), rye-meal (min seagail). So, literally, this seanfhocal translates “It is hard to be whistling and eating meal.” There are three verbal nouns in this proverb, ‘bheith’ (be), ‘feadaíl’ (whistle), and ‘ithe’ (eat). Put the preposition ‘ag’ in front of a verbal noun and it becomes a gerund, e.g., ‘ag feadaíl’ (whistling), ‘ag ithe’ (eating). In any case, a verbal noun acts like a noun. So whether it is two nouns, e.g., ‘min choirce’ (literally, ‘meal of oats’) or a verbal noun and another noun, ‘ag ithe mine’ (literally, ‘eating of meal’), the modifying noun must be in the genitive case.
Más cam nó díreach an ród, ‘s é an bothar mór an t-aicearra
Whether the road is crooked or straight,the main road is the short cut.
(Alternatively: The longest way round is the shortest way home.)
Note: For the Gael, the short cut is always supreme, but for the Gall (foreigner) it is to be avoided. Another Irish version of this week’s proverb has the same meaning, “Cam díreach an ród is é an bealach mór.” Through the centuries, the Gaels’ peripatetic journeys tended to be on feet unencumbered by shoes. Even in the twentieth century, a Donegal man living all his life in Clonmany, in the northeast corner of the Inishowen peninsula, recalled,
My father hardly wore shoes or boots about the house in the summer-time. And it wasn’t him alone but everybody else of his time. I knew a man in my time to get married in the second pair of shoes ever went on his feet. I wore no shoes myself when I was young. The men and women used to carry the shoes on their shoulder when going to the chapel until they got as far as Skeeog, and then they would put them on. They would take them off again on their way home.
Charles McGlinchey, The Last of the Name, The Blackstaff Press, 1986, p. 17.
Given this penchant of the Gael for perambulation unfettered by pedal protection, any path that minimizes foot falls is to be preferred.
The Gall, on the other hand, shod in boots, sandals, or shoes, prefers the safest way to the shortest path. This preference can be inferred in the English proverb, “The longest way round is the shortest way home.” The Viscount of St. Albans, the English philosopher Francis Bacon, was more explicit. “It is in life, as it is in ways, the shortest way is commonly the foulest, and surely the faire way is not much about.” (The Advancement of Learning, 1605.) Another English proverb warns, “Better go about than fall into a ditch.” These sentiments were expressed in an ancient Latin proverb, “Short cuts are long ways around.”
Note: Anything carried a long distance becomes a heavy burden. The notion that easy physical burdens can become exhausting over time would be obvious to any rural farmer. What is not so obvious is that psychological burdens carried a long time can be a heavy thing too. Guilt, anger, fear, hate, and such are natural emotions that come upon us from time to time. In fact, Irish idiom recognizes that these emotions are a burden. For example, in Irish one would literally say, ‘Fear is on you.’ But at some point, you need to let go of these burdens. This proverb could used as a gentle nudge to someone who has carried such a burden too long, to give it up. Lighten up.
Ní hiad na fir mhóra a bhaineas an fomhar i gcónaí
It is not the great men that always reap the harvest.
Note: Strength is not everything. Even though the bards sing about the exploits of great men, like Fionn and the Fianna, the warrior class of ancient Irish society would not have existed without the farmer. It is the farmer, who reaps the harvest. It is the farmer who was the foundation of the ancient Irish political unit, the tuath. While the tuath was dominated by the neimhidh, the privileged people, i.e., warriors, artisans, bards, priests, etc. it was the farmers who had the greatest numbers. It was the farmer who counted most. This proverb recognizes their unheralded greatness.