Bhí clog sa chill is níor bhinn clog é. Ach tháinig clog eile ‘on cill is rinne clog binn den…

Bhí clog sa chill is níor bhinn clog é. Ach tháinig clog eile ‘on cill is rinne clog binn den…

Bhí clog sa chill is níor bhinn clog é.
Ach tháinig clog eile ‘on cill is rinne clog binn den chlog sin.

There was a bell in the church and it wasn’t very sweet sounding.
But another bell came to the church and made a sweet bell of the first one.

 

Note: This week’s seanfhocal is a play on words and a parable. The word bell appears in two sentences as both the subject and the object of the sentence. In the first sentence, the clock in the church is not sweet. In the second it is. This word play seems designed to confuse. It begs the speaker to say it again.

The parable has a simple moral. No matter what the situation, it could always be worse. Or on this case, we have an example of Robert Burns’ adage, “The best laid schemes o’ mice and men gang aft a-gley.” After all their planning, the parishioners are now saddled with another clinker.

Fóireann spallaí do bhallaí chomh maith le clocha móra.

Fóireann spallaí do bhallaí chomh maith le clocha móra.

Walls require spalls as well as large stones.

Note: Our thanks go to Brendan McSherry for this week’s proverb. In is simplest sense it is a lesson in masonry. A spall or gallet is a small flake or chip of stone produced by splitting a larger stone. Practiced masons can create any size and shape chip they want. A deft blow of the hammer will create a chip to fit any whole in a wall. In fact, the word spall comes from the Old German word spell which means to split. Therefore, walls, especially walls made without mortar, need many of these chips if they are to stand for any length of time.

On a deeper level, it is a metaphor about society and about life. There is the American expression “all chiefs and no Indians” used to deride a group with all leaders and no followers. Such a situation is comically doomed to failure. You obviously need more of the latter than the former to be successful.

Wars may be fought with weapons, but they are won by men. It is the spirit of the men who follow and of the man who leads that gains victory.
      George S. Patton, In the Cavalry Journal, 1933.

Another interpretation of this metaphor concerns a healthy balance in life. It is easy to focus all of our attention on the big things in life and forget the little things. For example, many spend all their energy on advancing their careers. They lose sight of the little things in life, like watching your daughter’s first goal in a soccer match, taking your son to the museum, or simply enjoying a quiet sunset. Their lives, like walls without spalls, will soon collapse under their own weight.

An té nach bhfuil láidir ní foláir dó a bheith glic.

An té nach bhfuil láidir ní foláir dó a bheith glic.

Whoever is not strong must be clever.

Note: The Scots have a similar proverb, “Wiles help weak folk.” Celtic folklore is rich with stories of the clever overcoming the strong. Consider two other proverbs. Ní bhíonn tréan buan. (Strength is not enduring.) Ní thagann ciall roimh aois. (Sense does not come before age.) Given these cultural beliefs, it is not surprising that most of these tales involve clever old seers. The tradition spans centuries from the ancient mythic personification of wisdom, the sear Find in the Fionn mac Cumhaill sagas, to the later tales of Merlin the Magician.

If you hear this proverb, you might want to respond with a popular play on words, “Agus an tae nach bhfuil ládir ní folair dó a bheith te.” (And the tea that is not strong must be hot.) In the original proverb, “an té” means “whoever,” while in the rejoinder, the homophone, “an tae” means “the tea.”

Note also: This proverb uses a common Irish idiom “ní foláir dó” which means “he must.” If you look up the word “foláir” in your foclóir, you are likely to find it coupled with the negative particle “ní.” It would probably translate “ní folair” as meaning “it is necessary.” So “ní folair dó é” means “it is necessary for him” or more tersely, “he needs it.” The phrase “a bheith glic” means “to be clever.” Put these two together, “ní folair dó a bheith glic,” and you literally get “it is necessary for him to be clever” or “he needs to be clever,” or “he must be clever.”

However, some may be troubled by this negative particle. To understand the negative particle, you need to know that ‘folair’ is a synonym for the noun “foráil” which means “superabundance, excess; too much.” Therefore, “ní foláir dó é” then literally means “it is not too much for him.” This is an indirect way of saying that he really needs it.

Más maith leat siocháin, cairdeas, agus moladh, éist, feic, agus fan balbh.

Más maith leat siocháin, cairdeas, agus moladh, éist, feic, agus fan balbh.

If you wish for peace, friendship, and praise, listen, look, and stay mute.

Note: Continuing last week’s theme that silence is golden, we present a proverb that goes back to Roman times. The Latin version is, “Audi, vide, tace; si vis vivere in pace.” (Listen, see, be silent; if you wish to live in peace.) It becomes apparent that French derived from Latin in this Gallic proverb, “Oye, vois, et te taise, Si tu veux vivre en paix.” (Listen, look, and keep quiet, if you wish to live in peace.) Spanish has a more curt, imperative variation, “Ver, Oir, y callar.” (Look, listen, and keep quiet.) Benjamin Franklin put a little twist on the theme,”He that speaks much, is much mistaken.” (Poor Richard’s Almanac.)

Ni théann cuileog san mbéal a bhíos dúnta.

Ni théann cuileog san mbéal a bhíos dúnta.

A fly will not go into a mouth that is closed.

Note: The oral tradition of Ireland has always maintained that the Gael came to Ireland from Spain. Perhaps this week’s proverb has the same author as this Spanish proverb, “En boca cerrada no entran moscas.” (The closed mouth swallows no flies.) A similar Spanish proverb may have its origin in the bible, “El pez muere la boca.” (The fish dies because he opens his mouth.)

Ní hé an machnamh is geal leis an amadán,
ach bheith ag tabhairt a thuairime os ard.

Tarraingíonn caint an amadáin aighneas air féin,
agus tugann a bhéal cuireadh chun é a léasadh.
Scriosann béal an amadáin é féin,
agus is gaiste dó a bheola.
          Leabhar na Seanfhocal, 18;2,7,8.

The fool takes no delight in understanding,
but rather in displayng what he thinks.

The fool’s lips lead him into strife,
and his mouth provokes a beating.
The fool’s mouth is his ruin;
His lips are a snare to his life.
          The Book of Proverbs, 18;2,7,8.

We have seen the idea of a mouth provoking a beating before. Is minic a bhris beál duine a shrón. (It’s often that a person’s mouth broke his nose.) Is minic a ghearr teanga duine a scornach. (It is often that a person’s tongue cut his throat.) George Bernard Shaw adapted this theme to the English mouth. “It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth, without making some other Englishman hate or despise him; English is not accessible, even to Englishmen.” Pygmalion, preface, 1913.

An rud nach mbaineann duit ná bain dó.

An rud nach mbaineann duit ná bain dó.

Don’t interfere with [any] thing that doesn’t concern you.

Note: This week’s seanfhocal is universal, as many proverbs are. “Is onóir do dhuine aighneas a sheachaint, ach beidh gach amadán ag achrann.” An Bíobla Naofa: Leabhar na Seanfhocal 20:3. (It is an honor for a person to cease from strife: but every fool will be meddling. The Holy Bible: The Book of Proverbs 20:3) “Let every man mind his own business.” Don Quixote de la Mancha, Miguel de Cervantes 1605-1615. “‘If everybody minded their own business,’ said the Duchess in a hoarse growl, ‘the world would go round a deal faster than it does.'” Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll 1865. “Dirt nosed folks always want to wipe other people’s noses.” French proverb. “He who tastes everymans’ broth sometimes burns his mouth.” Danish proverb “It’s ill meddling between the bark and the rind.” Scottish proverb.

Note also: This seanfhocal exhibits the wide semantic range of Irish verbs and their semantic extension under the influence of prepositions. One of the difficulties students of Irish encounter early in their studies is the different semantic range of Irish and English words, i.e., the different meanings of a word. In this case the verb ‘bain’ has many different meanings. By itself, Ó Dónnaill’s Foclóir Geailge-Béarla lists nine different meanings for ‘bain’, from “1. Extract from bed in the ground, dig out” to “8. Win.” and “9. Become due.” Combining the verb with a preposition creates even more varied meanings for the verb. For example, Ó Dónnaill gives additional meanings for ‘bain’ when combined with the set of prepositions below:

  • bain amach, 1. Take out … 7. Spend …
  • bain anuas, Take down …
  • bain ar, 1. Induce, … 2. Lit: (a) Deprive of …
  • bain as, 1. Take, remove, from, … 6. Gut … draw … castrate…
  • bain chuig, chun, Start
  • bain de, 1. Take off, remove … 5. Deprive
  • bain do, 1. Touch, interfere with … 2. Concern, relate to … 3. happen to …
  • bain faoi, 1. Settle; stay, … 4. Lit: Undertake
  • bain le, 1. Touch, interfere with … 2. Concern, relate to …
  • bain ó,1. Take from … 2. Pacify control …
  • bain siar as, 1. ~ siar as an airgead, use the money sparingly …

This seanfhocal plays with two equivocal meanings of ‘bain do,’ namely ‘interfere with’ and ‘concern’. The prepositions here are fused into prepositional pronouns, ach sin scéal eile.