Note: It has been said that Irish toasts are like prayers. This week’s seanfhocal is a toast that follows in that tradition. Like most prayers it asks God for something. Like most prayers it uses the subjunctive mood to do this, i.e., ‘go raibh’ is the subjunctive mood for the verb ‘be,’ ‘tá.’ The subjunctive is used to express contra-factual ideas, like wishes.
For many Irish who emigrated to America, the wish to never be poor came true.
In the National Opinion Research Center’s (NORC) 1977 and 1978 General Social Survey, 26% of families in America reported an annual income in excess of $20,000; of those who describe themselves as British Protestants, 30% reported more than $20,000 income; and 47% of the Irish-Catholic families reported more than $20,000 in income, a little higher than the 46% of Jewish families and 43% of Italian families.
Andrew M. Greely, The Irish Americans: The Rise to Money and Power, Warner Books, 1993, p.137.
The wish for a drink has come true too. Ach sin scéal eile.
The grace of God is found between the saddle and the ground.
Note: This week’s proverb is a positive way of saying that God hates a coward. His grace is available to those with the courage to jump on a horse and risk falling off. “Great deeds are usually wrought at great risk.” Herodotus.
Keep the faculty of effort alive in you by a little gratuitous exercise every day. That is, be systematically ascetic or heroic in little unnecessary points, do something every day or two something for no other reason than that you would rather not do it, so that when the hour of dire need draws nigh, it may find you not unnerved and untrained to stand the test. William James,The Sentiment of Rationality (1882)
Níor dhún Dia doras riamh nár oscail Sé ceann eile.
God never closed one door without opening another.
Note: There is a Spanish version of this week’s proverb, “Dios que da la llaga, da la medicina.” (God who gives the wound, gives the cure.) Neither the Spanish nor the Irish version expresses a Calvinist notion of predetermination. God may open another door, or offer the cure, but one does not have to go through the door, or accept the cure. The notion of free will is preserved in both proverbs.
Note also: Both verbs in this week’s seanfhocal are in the past tense. We took some poetic license translating the second verb into the English gerund form, ‘opening.’ A more literal translation would be “God never closed a door, He did not open another one.”
Irish has a widely used verb form comparable to the gerund called the progressive form of the verb. It is formed by putting the preposition ‘ag’ before the verbal noun form with the verb to be. So the negative past progressive form is ‘ní raibh Sé ag oscailt’ (He was not opening), while the negative present progressive form is ‘níl Sé ag oscailt’ (He is not opening), and the negative future progressive form is ‘ní bheidh Sé ag oscailt’ (He will not be opening). Each is used to express an ephemeral action, one that is in progress.
Note: This week’s seanfhocal is a reminder of the nearness of God and his mercy. He is the loving father, always ready to help his children, if only they would but ask Him. In cotrast is the stern English proverb, “God helps those who help themselves.”
Many have helped themselves to its authorship. Benjamin Franklin published this adage in 1735 in Poor Richard’s Almanac. In 1689, Algernon Sidney published it in his Discourses on Government. George Herbert wrote “Help thyself, and God will help thee.” (Jacula Prudentum 1651) Perhaps, each borrowed the idea from Aesop’s Hercules and the Wagoner, written around 550 B.C. He may have borrowed the idea from Aeschylus who wrote, “God loves to help him who strives to help himself.” Euripides wrote, “Try first thyself, and after call in God; For to the worker God himself lends aid.” Sophocles wrote “Heaven helps not the men who will not act.” While this proverb was lifted from one pen to another in the Greco-Roman-English tradition, the Celtic tradition passed this week’s seanfhocal from one voice to another without any concern about authorship.
Note also: The native speaker this week talks at a coversational pace. So you hear in this proverb how Irish words get fused together in normal discourse. Here the words ‘ná’ and ‘an’ get fused together in speech as if they were spelled ‘nán.’ The rule concerns consecutive words where the first ends in a vowel and the second begins with a vowel. If either of them is the neutral vowel, represented above as an upside-down ‘e’, then that vowel is ‘swallowed up’ in pronunciation. In this case, the article ‘an’ begins with a neutral vowel, so it is not heard.
Note: The Irish language, like the Irish people, has a special place for Mary, the Mother of God. Her name is “Muire” in Irish. This is not to be confused with the other Irish word for Mary, which is “Máire.” In Irish there is only one “Muire,” Máthair Dé (Mother of God), Muire Mháthair (Our Lady, Literally: Mother Mary), An Mhaighean Mhuire (the Virgin Mary), An Mhaighdean Bheannaithe (the Blessed Virgin). All other women named Mary have the name “Máire” on them.