Is maith an scáthán súil charad.


Is maith an scáthán súil charad.

A friend’s eye is a good mirror.

Note: There is another seanfhocal that expresses a similar sentiment. “Ní cara gach bladaire.” (Every flatterer is not a friend.) It is expected that one will often flatter a friend. Yet another seanfhocal tells us that: “Gineann bladar cradas”. (Flattery begets friendship.) But a true friend will reflect our errors, our misjudgments, our shortcomings, … when necessary.

Warning: If grammar makes your head hurt, just enjoy this seanfhocal as it is, and DO NOT read any further!

The word order in this seanfhocal is not the usual verb–subject–predicate, but verb–predicate–subject. This is because the copula, i.e., the verb ‘is’, is used with an indefinite predicate.

For example, in this case the predicate, ‘a good mirror’, is not specific. It does not tell the reader exactly which mirror is being discussed. Like many proverbs, this one is a metaphor, so it can be any good mirror. Since the predicate is indefinite, and the verb is the copula, then the “classification” rule for the copula requires that the predicate precedes the subject.

All forms of the copula with indefinite predicates put the predicate before the subject. We see this is in the negative form of this seanfhocal, “Ní cara gach bladaire.” (Every flatterer is not a friend.)

On the other hand, when the copula is used with a definite predicate then the usual Irish word order applies.

Giorraíonn beirt bóthar.

Giorraíonn beirt bóthar.

Two people shorten a road.

Note: The Irish are a deeply communal people. If a trip is necessary, be it long or short, it is always preferable to have companionship.

Note also: The Irish word “beirt” refers to “two people”. The Irish language uses personal numbers to designate from one to ten persons (and sometimes twelve). When counting people these special numbers must be used. The common numbers which are used to count mere things are not acceptable!

Maireann na daoine ar scáil a chéile.

Maireann na daoine ar scáil a chéile.

The people live in one another’s shadows.

Note: An English language saying expressing a similar thought is John Donne’s “No man is an island”. Human beings are by nature communal, and what happens to one member affects each member of the community. Although this relationship is not a physical manifestation of nature and can be as ephemeral as a shadow, its strenght and power are pervasive and profound.

Castar na daoine ar a chéile, ach ní chastar na cnoic (ná na sléibhte).

Castar na daoine ar a chéile, ach ní chastar na cnoic (ná na sléibhte).

The people encounter one another, but the hills never meet (nor the mountains).

Note: This is a bit ironic. The hills have all of the time in the world and spend their entire existence in sight of one another, but never get to consort with their own kind. Although we mere mortals may have our days numbered, we can pass them in the warmth of one another’s company.

Lá Nollaig go péacach is Lá Féile na Stiofáin ag iarraidh déirce.

Lá Nollaig go péacach is Lá Féile na Stiofáin ag iarraidh déirce.

A showy Christmas Day and begging on the Feast of St. Stephen.

Note: St. Stephen was the first Christian martyr whose feast day is the day after Christmas. It is a national holiday in Ireland, but its roots go back beyond Chritianity. The tradition is for children to go “hunting the wren” on St. Stephen’s Day. It is killed and its corpse, or its effigy, is put on a pole, or sometimes in a basket. “The wren boys” go from home to home displaying the dead bird and begging for money “to bury the wren.” At the door step of each home the ‘Bean an Tí’ (the woman of the house), is beseeched,

The wren, the wren, the King of all birds,
     St. Stephen’s Day was caught in the furze.
So up with the kettel and down with the pan,
     and give us a penny to bury the wren.

The house that is least generous is likely to have the wren buried under their door step. Killing the wren is considered a good omen, because the wren is believed to be a treacherous bird. Some believe that it was a chattering wren who betrayed St. Stephan’s hiding place. An old Druid story tells of how the birds had a contest to determine who was king of the birds. Whoever flew the highest would be coronated. The wren hid in the back of the eagle. When it was his turn, the eagle soared higher than any other bird. However, when fatigue would let him climb no higher, the wren emerged rested and climbed to the greatest height. So by treachery, the wren became “the king of all birds.”

Is í an eorna nua tú a fheiceáil.

Is í an eorna nua tú a fheiceáil.

Seeing you is like seeing the new (season’s) barley.

Note: This is a very enthusiastic expression one would use to greet a favorite friend or relation not seen for a while. Although we translated this seanfhocal as a simile, it is actually a metaphor. (A more literal translation is: “You are the new barley to see.”) This agrarian metaphor is a reminder of the time when the harvest was anticipated by the whole community. Homegrown barley bread would be a welcome change from the usual potatoes and Indian meal. Of course, the “juice of the barley “, poteen (poitín as Gaeilge), would be enjoyed at the harvest celebration of Lughnasa.

Note also: This is another example of fronting. Fronting is a grammatical structure where the copula, ‘is’, is used with an inverted word order to emphasize one part of a sentence over another part. We saw a fronted adjective, ‘Is TEANN gach madra gearr . . .’ (i.e.: ‘It’s BOLD that every terrier is . . .’), emphasized before. Here we have a fronted noun, ‘eorna’. But it is a definite noun, “an eorna”. The copula is never followed immediately by a definite noun. The correct pronoun must separate them. In this case, the definite noun is feminine, so the pronoun must be feminine. “Is í an eorna nua tú a fheiciáil.”