Na trí cairde is fearr agus na trí naimhde is measa: tine, gaoth, is uisce.

Na trí cairde is fearr agus na trí naimhde is measa: tine, gaoth, is uisce.

The three best friends and the three worst enemies:
fire, wind, and water.

Note: This triad reveals the fundamental duality of nature. For the Gael, like the Greek, the four elements of nature were earth, air, fire, and water. We can only speculate why earth was chosen not to appear in this triad. Perhaps, it is neutral, a home for the people above the ground and the gods below the ground.

But, everything else in the universe can be either good or bad for you. Fire can keep you from freezing to death. It can also kill you. The wind is a manifestation of the air. Air is necessary for life. A gale wind, on the other hand, can kill you. Nothing can live without water. On the other hand, you can drown in water.

Note also: There is an exception to a counting rule in Irish grammar in this week’s parable. When counting things, one should use the singular number for the noun, e.g., trí chara, trí namhaid. However, one exception is when using the plural definite article ‘na.’ Then one uses the plural form of the noun, e.g., na trí chairde, na trí naimhde.

An rud a ghoilleas ar an gcroí caithfidh an t-súil é a shileas.

An rud a ghoilleas ar an gcroí caithfidh an t-súil é a shileas.

What pains the heart must be washed away with tears.

Note: It is interesting to contrast this Celtic sentiment with the Saxon stiff upper lip. It is very British to respond to grief by taking control over it, by suppressing the emotion. Real men do not cry. It is an Imperial attitude. Even the language reflects this emotional Imperialism. In English, one says, “I am sorry,” as if you were telling someone your name, as if it were part of your identity. Since I am rational being, “sorry” is my rational response to the situation.

On the other hand, the Gael says, “Tá brón orm,” for “I am sorry.” Literally, it means “Sorrow is on me.” It is something with which I have no control. It is a burden from beyond, like a sickness. The only way to unload this burden is to let the tears flow. A more literal translations of this week’s proverb would be: The eye must drain what pains the heart. The phrase “sileadh súl” (literally draining an eye) is a common idiom for “weeping.” Koobler-Ross and others have shown that this attitude towards grief is more healthy than to remain in denial indefinitely.

Is treise dúchas ná oiliúint.

Is treise dúchas ná oiliúint.

Instinct is stronger than upbringing.

Note: The word “dúchas” is difficult to translate into English, making this proverb open to interpetation. In the English form above, this proverb gives the nod to nature over nurture. You are your genes. Heredity overcomes education. Dr. Henry Higgins never had a chance with Eliza Doolittle. Briseann an dúchas trí shúile an chait.

However, “dúchas” also means hertitage. Hertitage is stronger than upbringing. For the Irish diaspora, this could mean that one’s Irish roots provide a greater part of one’s identity than the land in which one was raised. The Japanese have a proverb along these lines, “breeding rather than birth.” You may be an Irish American, but you are more Irish than American.

Putóga dubha na bliana ó Nollaig go Lá Fhéile Bríde.

Putóga dubha na bliana ó Nollaig go Lá Fhéile Bríde.

The darkest part of the year, from Christmas until the Feast of St. Bridgit.

Note: The significance of this proverb stems from ancient Celtic mythology, which divided the year into halves, and those halves into halves . . . ad infinitum. It begins with the dark half, the Night side of the year, called Giamos in Old Celtic. This runs from Samhain to Bealtaine, from November 1 to May 1. The other half is the light or sun half, the Day side of the year, called Samos in Old Celtic. Samhain, the midpoint between the fall equinox and the winter solstice, and Imbolc, the midpoint of the winter solstice and the spring equinox, are the beginning and ending dates of the first half of the Giamos half of the year. The second half of this first half of the Giamos half of the year runs from the winter solstice to Imbolc, i.e., from about Christmas to the Feast of St. Bridgit, Febuary 1.

This eighth of the year marks the victory of Giamos over Samos, of the night over the day, of the dark over the light. However, according to the ancient Celtic Cycle, the seeds of the destruction of the Night are sown at this darkest of times. Samos is conceived and growing in the guts of Giamos. It will one day be born and vanquish the dark. This is implied in the seanfhocal with the use of the words ‘putóga dubha’, which literally means ‘dark guts.’ Some naturally believe that the word ‘Imbolc’ is related to the modern Irish ‘i mbolg’, which means in the belly. However, ‘Imbolc’ actually is derived from the Middle Irish root ‘m(b)lig’ which means ‘lactation’. Imbolc was a time to celebrate the lactation of the ewes. Lactation is a nuturing manifestation of spring, when the lambs are born. So if you are getting depressed by the cold of winter, take heart in the fact that the days are getting longer. Take a cue from the Celtic cosmos and celebrate the imminent potential of sunny, warm weather.

Briseann an dúchas trí shúile an chait.


Briseann an dúchas trí shúile an chait.

Heredity breaks out in the eyes of the cat.

Note: The argument of nature vs. nurture has been raging for centuries. Here is a seanfhocal for those on the nature side of the debate. It can be argued that at least some of the attributes of the cat must me ascribed to nature, like the feline eye. The cat clearly has a predatory instinct to kill. Like the cat, man’s propensity for cruelty and savagery has been imputed by Tennyson to “Nature, red in tooth and claw.” In Memoriam, (1850), Conclusion, 56, st.4. Unfortunately, current events may be proving Tennyson’s thesis.

Note also: The dative case has all but disappeared from Modern Irish conversation. A few years ago, this seanfhocal would have used the dative plural case of the word ‘eye,’ ‘shúilibh.’ A number of prepositions used to require the dative case in Old Irish, e.g., the precursors of de, do, ag, and ó. These prepositions are typical of indirect object constructions requiring the dative case in a number of Indo-European languages. The accusative case that used to govern the direct object of a sentence is also gone from the Irish language. All that is left is the nominative, genitive and vocative cases. Be grateful that there are not as many inflections of Irish nouns to learn as there used to be.

Fearthain don lao agus grian don tsearrach; uisce don gé agus déirc don bhacach.

Fearthain don lao agus grian don tsearrach; uisce don gé agus déirc don bhacach.

Rain to the calf and sun to the foal; water to the goose and alms to the beggar(man).

Note: Every one of God’s creatures has its needs. Although their requirements may differ, it is fitting that the needs of each be fulfilled. On another level, this seanfhocal is a reminder that no one is self-sufficient; and we all lack something to make us whole. It is up to the human community to satisfy the needs of its members.

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