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.

Déan an fál nó iocfaidh tú foghail.

Déan an fál nó iocfaidh tú foghail.

Make the fence or you will pay the plundering.

Note: Robert Frost quoted an old English proverb similar to this week’s seanfhocal:


He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, ‘Good fences make good neighbors’.

Frost lived in New Hampshire where the fences are like those of Ireland, made over a long period of time from rocks without mortar. The rocks were extracted from a stony soil by persistent farmers. Frost goes on to wonder:


‘Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it
Where there are cows?
But here there are no cows.

But there are cows in Ireland. Is it fences that will prevent plunder? Read The Táin and discover that no fence can protect a cow from the Celt. There is another meaning of “foghail”, trespass. Considering the current politics of Northern Ireland, Frost was correct when he concluded that:

Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down…

“Mending Fences,” from North of Boston, 1914.

Is minic a ghearr teanga duine a scornach.

Is minic a ghearr teanga duine a scornach.

It is often that a person’s tongue cut his throat.

Note: This might be more colorfully be said as: “It is often that a man’s tongue slit his own throat”. Note also that although the seanfhocal speaks of a “person” (duine), it goes on to refer to “his throat”. Much as in English (in the days before political correctness), when it is necessary to ascribe gender to a person or people, the masculine gender is used. This can be viewed as either giving the subject “the benefit of the doubt”, or as a subtle statement that males come closest to the non-descript (neuter) gender.