Fiche bliain ag teacht, Fiche bliain go maith, Fiche bliain ag meath, is Fiche bliain gan rath.
Twenty years coming, Twenty years good, Twenty years declining, and Twenty years useless.
Note: This week’s proverb looks at the stages of life. A person will spend the first score of life coming of age. When one comes to that magic age of 21, one begins the second score of life. It is the prime of your life. It is marked by the mystical number 21, the multiple of two powerful prime numbers, the three of the trinity and the seven days of creation. Some say that life begins at forty. That is not true here. At forty, you begin your third score, an epoch of decline. By sixty, you will have declined to the point of being useless. You will also see an alternative form of this bleak proverb:
Fiche bliain ag fás.
Twenty years growing.
Fiche bliain faoi bhláth.
Twenty years in bloom.
Fiche bliain ag cromadh.
Twenty years declining.
Fiche bliain gur cuma ann nó as.
Twenty years when it doesn’t matter whether you’re there or not.
One of the classics of Irish literature takes its title form this alternative proverb, Fiche bliain ag fás. It is a memoir written in 1933 by Muiris Ó Súilleabháin. He was born on Great Blasket Island in 1902. Ó Súilleabháin tells a touching story of life in the islands. It was translated into English as Twenty Years A-Growing the same year it was published in Irish. It was later published into many other languages and has been acclaimed by international critics as a jewel of Irish culture. Ó Súilleabháin died in Connemara in 1950. We hope you get a chance to read this gem in its original language.
Téann an saol thart mar bheadh eiteoga air agus cuireann gach aon Nollaig bliain eile ar do ghualai
Life goes by as if it had wings, and every Christmas puts another year on your shoulder.
Note: A Russian poet named Andrei Andreevich Voznesenski paraphrased this proverb for the modern age:
Along a parabola life like a rocket flies, Mainly in darkness, now and then on a rainbow. Parabolic Ballad 
This week’s seanfhocal uses the metaphor that each year of life adds to the burden. Thomas Hobbes built his philosophy around a similar notion in his famous aphorism “the life of man [is] solitary, nasty, brutish, and short.” Hobbes’ axiom was adopted by the X-generation bumper sticker, “Life sucks, then you die.” But the Celtic world-view does not accept such a fatalistic attitude towards life. For example, an unknown medieval Irish poet wrote an epigram:
Avoiding death takes too much time, and too much care when at the very end of all, Death catches each one unaware. Peter Berresford Ellis, The Druids 1994, p. 209
Daltaí na Gaeilge wishes that you are burdened by nothing but gifts as this holiday season arrives to close out the year.
Is minic a rinne bromach gioblach capall cumasach.
A ragged colt often made a powerful horse.
Note: Parents everywhere are always worried about how their offspring will turn out. This week’s seanfhocal, of course, is meant to soothe those fears, especially for a child whose prospects appear limited. In English, a father may be mollified about the appearance of a daughter’s braces with a reference to the story of the ugly duckling that turned into a swan. A troubled mother with a son having difficulty in school may hear how Albert Einstein’s teachers thought he was slow, or how Thomas Aquinas was called a “dumb ox” in his youth. Unfortunately, children usually grow to become those difficult creatures known as teenagers. To make it worse, in Irish one becomes a teenager (déagóir) sooner than in English, ag a haon bliana déag d’aois.
Note also: This week’s seanfhocal has used the Irish suffix ‘-(e)ach’ to make an adjective out of a noun. ‘Giobal’ is a first declension noun that means ‘rag’. Add the suffix ‘-ach’ and you get ‘gioblach’, a first declension adjective meaning ‘raggy’ or ‘tattered’. Similarly, ‘cumas’ means ‘ability, capacity, talent’, while ‘cumasach’ means ‘able, capable, powerful’. We add ‘-ach’ when the last consonant of the noun is broad. We add the suffix ‘-each’ when the last consonant in the noun is slender, e.g., ‘cruit’ (hump) becomes ‘cruiteach’ (hump-backed). In essence, then, the Irish suffix ‘-(e)ach’ acts like the English suffix ‘-ish’, e.g., the English noun ‘book’ becomes the adjective ‘bookish’.
Note: Shakespeare had Hamlet argue the inexorable compulsion of youth:
To flaming youth let virtue be as wax, And melt in her own fire; proclaim no shame When the compulsive ardor gives the charge, Since frost itself as actively doth burn, And reason panders will.
There is an American proverb that compares this youthful impetuosity to the prudence of the aged, “Old age considers; youth ventures.” Similarly, Henry Estienne said, “Si jeunesse savait, si vieillesse pouvait.” (If youth but knew, if old age but could do.) Compare this to an earlier seanfhocal. Henry James wrote, “… I think I don’t regret a single ‘excess’ of my responsive youth — I regret, in my chilled age, certain occasions and possibilities I didn’t embrace.”
Note also: Irish grammar is full of exceptions, and this seanfhocal exhibits one of them. The word ‘oige’ is feminine gender. Therefore, for gender agreement, all pronouns referring to ‘youth’ must also be feminine. However, the prepositional pronoun ‘leis’ (with him/it) is masculine. This is because whenever the preposition ‘le’ is followed by the definite article ‘an,’ the preposition must always take the masculine form of the prepositional pronoun ‘leis an.’ It is translated as simply, ‘with the’ or ‘to the.’ So, literally, this seanfhocal is translated as ‘[It] is [all] the same to youth where she sets her foot.’
Note: This proverb was coined many centuries before Dr. Benjamin Spock offered similar advice. Spock advised parents to encourage their children to behave, not to beat them. However, according to the Old Testament, Proverbs, 13:24, “An té a choigleann an tslat, fuathaíonn a mhac; an té a bhíonn fial ag ceartú, bíonn grá aige dó.” (He who spares his rod hates his son, but he who loves him, takes care to chastise him.) One can express this Biblical sentiment with a common, ridiculing retort to the above seanfhocal:
Mol an óige agus tiocfaidh sí.
Bual sa tóin í agus titfidh sí.
In less poetic English, “Praise the youth and she will come. Kick her in the butt and she will fall.”
Note also: The pronoun ‘sí’ in this proverb refers, of course, to the noun ‘óige.’ This noun is feminine for no semantic reason. A ‘youth’ in Irish is not necessarily female. However, the feminine pronoun ‘sí’ is required here to agree with the feminine noun. Agreement is one of the grammatical reasons it is a good idea to memorize the gender of Irish nouns when learning them.