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…
Note: Literally, this proverbs means, “May God leave your health at you.” This implies that if you lose your health it is because God has taken it away from you. God is an active agent in one’s life. Please God and your health is spared. Anger God and your health could be withdrawn. According to an earlier proverb, live long enough and God will take it away from you in the Fiche bliain ag meath.
This idea of supernatural cause and natural effect goes back to the ancient Druids. Druids never composed anything comparable to the Book of Job. They never wondered why there is misery in life. Every thing in nature happens for a supernatural reason. Gods of the underworld controlled the seasons. Planting began only after asking these gods for permission. Harvesting had to be completed before the end of the season when the gods would take back the land. That is why is is still considered bad luck in some part of Ireland to eat wild berries after Lughnasa.
Go ndeine an diabhal dréimire de cnámh do dhroma ag piocadh úll i ngairdín Ifrinn.
May the devil make a ladder of your backbone [and] pluck apples in the garden of hell.
Note: A great curse seeks to conjure the worst fate that can be conceived for the cursed. This week’s proverb goes beyond the common curse, “Go to hell.” May you go to hell and may you become a living ladder for the devil to climb in his garden. May his evil hooves crush your spine as he picks apples to lure your friends and relations to join you.
If Adam and Eve could not resist the devil’s apples, what chance does your loved ones have? In addition to the pain, you would bear the guilt of being an instrument of the devil. Compared to this curse, simply going to hell would be a walk in the park.
Note also: The verb ‘go ndeine’ is the subjunctive form of the irregular verb ‘dein.’ ‘Dein’ is a variant of ‘déan,’ the standard form of the Irish verb meaning ‘make’ or ‘do.’ Its standard subjunctive form is ‘go ndéana.’ The subjunctive mood is used to the indicate situatuations that are contrary to fact. Consequently, the subjunctive mood is most often used to curse, to bless, and to pray.
Two people see a thing that an individual does not see.
Note: This can be taken on a superficial, physical level such as when people elicit the help of others to find a lost object or person. On another level, this seanfhocal refers to the deeper understanding which can be obtained when multiple people examine (consider) a problem or situation. “Two heads are better than one” as they say. The sharing of ideas and perspectives among a group of people can often develop insights which would otherwise have been missed by an individual.
Note also: In normal “running” speech, neutral vowel sounds tend to get “swallowed up”. For instance, although the speaker here is pronouncing the words here deliberately and distinctly for your benefit, conversational speech would sound somewhat different. For example, the vowel sound at the end of the word “duine” and the vowel sound at the begining of the word “amháin” would overlap and be pronounced as a single sound. As a result the two words would sound almost like one word, “duin-a-mhain.” This change is proper in Irish, and is not in any way equivalent to slurring in English. In general, neutral vowels tend to fall off the end of words that are followed by words beginning with another vowel.
A chomhairle féin do mhac árann ‘s ní bhfuair sé ariamh níos measa.
It does not get worse than a dear son that pleases himself.
Note: There is nothing so exasperating to parents then to have their wishes ignored by a beloved child. Parents want the best for their children. They want their children to benefit from their experience in the harsh realities of life. They want them to go to the right schools. They want them to enter the right profession. Then they want to kill them when they demonstrate a mind of their own.
There is little play on words in the Irish of this proverb. Literally, this proverbs means, “His own council for a dear son and it never got worse.” “A chomhairle féin a dhéanamh” is an idiomatic way of saying “he does what he pleases.” He only takes his own advice. Of course, from a parent’s perspective, this is the worst advise he could get. He who takes his own council has a fool for a councilor.
Note: This week’s proverb is a little tongue in cheek. Of course, a black hen always lays a white egg. That is why you might hear a slight variant of this proverb, “Beireann cearc dhubh ubh bhán.” (A black hen lays a white egg.) There is a similar Spanish proverb, “Tierra negra buen pan lleva.” (Black land produces good bread.) Perhaps the closest English aphorism comes from Thomas Paine, “Whenever we are planning for posterity, we ought to remember that virtue is not hereditary.” Common Sense, 1776.
Proverbs need not be consistent. Compare this week’s proverb to “Briseann an dúchas trí shúile an chait. (Heredity breaks out in the eyes of the cat.) “Like father, like son.” “The acorn never falls far from the tree.” “The gods visit the sins of the fathers upon the children.” Euripedes. In contrast to all these, this week’s proverb makes the point that virtuous people can spring forth from un-virtuous ancestors.
This idea of good descended from evil is central to the 11th Century Irish epic, Caithe Maige Tuired (The Battle of Mag Tuired). It describes the primordial struggle in Ireland between good and evil, between a divine people, the Tuatha Dé Dannan, and the demonic band, the Fomhóire. Balor of the Evil Eye was the king of the Fomhóire. He gave his daughter, Eithne, to Cian, a young warrior of the Tuatha Dé Dannan. They had a son they named Lugh.
Under Balor, the Fomhóire were massing a formidable army to seize control of Ireland from the Tuatha Dé Dannan. Nuadhu, the King of the Tuatha Dé Dannan, was mustering an Army to resist them at Tara. Young Lugh went to Tara to join the warriors. He so impressed the king with his diverse skills as a warrior, poet, and artisan that Nuadhu gave Lugh command of his army.
Noble Lugh confronted his evil grandfather at Moytirra (in County Sligo). Balor only opened his evil eye in battle. Anyone who looked into it was destroyed. Before Balor could train his evil eye on him, Lugh hit the eye with a stone from his sling. It turned Balor’s eye inward, immediately killing him, winning the battle and the war.