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…
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.
Note: This is a play on the multiple meanings of words. In this case the mouth does not physically break the nose in question. Rather, the mouth sets a chain of events in motion by speaking offensive words (by being “mouthy”) which results in injury to its neighbor, the nose.
Do not break your shin on a stool that is not in your way.
Note: Don’t go out of your way to get in trouble. Never trouble trouble until trouble troubles you. Do not meet troubles half way.
Are you come to meet your trouble? The fashion of the world is to avoid cost, and you encounter it. William Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing.
Troubles are like the rough in golf; the trick is not staying out, but getting out after we are in.
Note also: This proverb has two negative verbal particles, ná and nach. Ná is used to give negative commands and does not require the following verb to be lenited or eclipsed. It will put an h before a following verb that begins with a vowel. Ná hól bainne géar. (Don’t drink sour milk.) Nach can be used either as an interogatory verbal particle or as a relative verbal particle. In either case, it requires the following verb to be eclipsed.
Ná nocht d’fhiacla go bhféadair an greim do bhreith.
Don’t bare your teeth until you can bite.
Note: There is another variation to this week’s proverb. “Ná taispeáin d’fhiacail san áit nach dtig leat greim a bhaint amach.” (Don’t show your teeth where cannot give a bite. Literally: Don’t show your teeth in a place you may not be able to take a bite out.) In Scots Gaelic, there is a slight variation. “Mur comas dut teumadh, na rùisg do dheudach.” (If you cannot bite, don’t show your teeth.) Sun Tzu knew this in 500 B.C. “He who knows when he can fight and when he cannot will be victorious.” — Sun Tzu, The Art of War, III, 25.
Note also: In the two Irish versions of this week’s proverb, there are two different plural forms of the word ‘fiacail,’ namely ‘fiacla’ and ‘fiacail.’ The first is the official standard plural, ‘fiacla.’ You will see this standard in the Chois Fharraige dialect in county Galway. In parts of Donegal, you will see the non-standard plural, ‘fiacail.’ In these non-standard cases, the nominative sinular form is ‘fiacal,’ not ‘fiacail.’ This is not to say that Galway speakers always use the official standard. Such is not the case. In fact, nobody speaks the official standard. The official standard is a standard for spelling and grammar, not pronunciation. A standard pronounciation was proposed later called ‘an Lárchanúint’ (the core dialect), ach sin scéal eile.