Bíonn dhá insint ar scéal agus dhá leagan déag ar amhrán.
There are two versions to a story and twelve arrangements to a song.
Note: There are two sides to a story. This classic intepretation of our proverb of the week is the basis of western jurisprudence. Disputes can not be settled in a modern court until both sides of the story are told. This wisdom goes back to the ancient Greeks. Euripides said, “In a case of dissension, never dare to judge until you’ve heard the other side.” Protagoras extended Eurpides’ idea from points of fact to points of law, “There are two sides to every question.” St. Augustine, who built his philosophy on the Greeks, wrote, “Audi partem alteram.” (Hear the other side.) De Duabus Animabus, XIV, 2.
However, the rejoinder to the proverb, “and there are twelve arrangements (versions) to a song” suggests a uniquely Irish interpretation. Irish literature originated in an oral tradition. A Seanchaí (traditional story teller), when telling an old story, would usually personalize the tale as if it happened to him or her self. Local facts might be added to give the yarn a little color. Consequently, stories told in such a way often evolved into two or more versions.
For example, consider the ancient story of the selkie. In the John Sayle’s film, “The Secret Of Roan Inish”, he has the character, Tadhg Conneelly played by John Lynch, retell it to his young cousin. He begins by saying, “Do you know why I am dark?” He goes on to say he is dark because he is descended from a skelkie, a creature that is half seal, half human. Éamonn Kelly tells the begining of the story differently.
As ye all know I’m a stonemason by trade and its behind in Ballinskelligs I was one time building a pier. Tough enough work too, and you’d want to be well paid for it. And in a job like that, down on the brink of the tide, there are times when the shoes’d have to come off. Well, one day I noticed that the man tending me had webbed toes and of course I remarked on it. But it wasn’t until the night above in Main’s Pub that I came by the whole story.
Éamonn Kelly, “The Mermaid,” Ireland’s Master Storyteller: The Collected Stories of Éamonn Kelly, Marino Books, 1998, p. 196.
Kelly then explains that his attendant had webbed toes because he had a selkie in his family line. Both Conneelly and Kelly go on to tell the same story. Each differs only in a few minor details. Every story has two versions.
There is second rejoinder to this week’s proverb, “Bíonn dhá insint ar scéal agus dhá leagan déag ar amhrán agus dhá éiscint fhicid ar riail gramadaí.” (… and there are twenty-two exceptions to a rule of grammar.) Ach sin scéal eile.
Note: It is ironic how this seanfhocal could mark a period using both Christian and Druid feast days. Samhain is one of the four fire festivals in the Druid calendar, marking the end of the year. Halloween originated from it. Christmas marks the beginning of the life of Jesus Christ.
Also ironic is the application of this seanfhocal to both an agrarian past and an urban present. These seven weeks would be considered fat to the ancient Irish farmer because they follow the harvest time. These seven weeks would be considered fat to the urban present because it is the season of good food, good drink, and good company. Two out of the last three of these are rich in calories. Go on a binge now and go on a diet in the New Year.
Forgive us, but the editor can not go another week without mentioning Irish grammar. (It has been four weeks since our last syntactic discourse.) Note that this week’s seanfhocal has an exception to the rule for counting things in the Irish language. Usually, when counting things in Irish you use the nominative singular form of the noun, e.g., cúig mhadra (five dogs), naoi gcapall (nine horses), where English uses the plural form. The word seachtain, however, like other words for time, e.g., bliain (year), uair (hour, time), is an exception, e.g., seacht seachtaine, trí bliana, ceithre uaire.
An té a thabharfas scéal chugat tabharfaidh sé dhá scéal uait.
Whoever will bring a story to you will take two stories from you.
Note: This is more an Irish protocol than a proverb. If someone tells you a story, then you are expected to tell two in return. It is similar to the Irish greeting protocol; if someone greets you with a blessing, “Dia duit” (God to you) then you are expected to return a greater blessing, “Dia’s Muire duit” (God and the Blessed Virgin Mary to you). Another interpretation suggests that the two stories taken from you are the one you told and the one the story-teller told. In any case, you are expected to give at least as good as you got.
John Millington Synge discovered this cardinal principle of Irish hospitality when he visited the Aran Islands. His muse had deserted him in Paris when Yeats suggested he seek her in these remote islands in the Gaeltacht. Synge spent the next four summers learning Irish on Inishmaan (Inis Meáin). His Island hosts wanted to hear his stories about the continent. In return, they regaled him with the folk tales of the Islands. At least four of them ended up as plots in his plays.
“The Playboy of the Western World”, for example, was based on a story Synge heard of a young Connaught man who had actually murdered his Father with a spade in a wild rage. He fled to Inishmaan and asked the Islanders to save him from the despised English law. They hid him in a hole for several weeks until they could arrange his clandestine passage to America. “If a man has killed his father, and is already sick and broken with remorse, they can see no reason why he should be dragged away and killed by the law.”1
1John M. Synge, The Aran Islands, republished by Dover, 1998, p. 44.
Note: This week’s seanfhocal is subject to two seemingly opposing interpretations. One interpretation is a variation of the American proverb, “Travel broadens the mind,” and the English axiom, “He that travels much knows much.” Such a traveller returns with a great store of sagas about his peripatetic exploits. On the other hand, there is another interpretation explicit in the English language proverb that says, “A traveller can lie with authority.” In this case, the travelling storyteller can weave the wildest yarns without fear of being challenged by the untravelled audience. Maybe there is a middle ground. Isn’t it the story itself that is important to the Irish, to every literate person, in fact? Was it any good? Whether it was fiction or non-fiction is of secondary interest.
Note also: Here we have an interesting grammatical case of nouns being converted to adjectives to be used as nouns. The words ‘siúlach’ and ‘scéalach’ are adjectives derived from the nouns ‘siúl’ (walk) and ‘scéal’ (story), respecitvely. Many nouns can be made into adjectives by adding the suffix -lach. As adjectives, they are hard to translate out of context. Ó Dónaill translates ‘siúlach’ using gerunds, “Walking, strolling, roaming,” and a noun clause, “inclined to travel.” However, in this sentence, the adjectives are not modifying any nouns. So the listener has to infer that a traveller is one who is “walking” or “inclined to travel.” The same is true for ‘scéalach.’ In other words, the adjectives are used as nouns.
Nuair a bhíonn an cat amuigh, bíonn an luch ag rince.
When the cat is outside, the mouse does be dancing.
Note: The English language parallel is “When the cat’s away, the mice will play”. Notice that Irish mice don’t just play – they dance (although the seanfhocal does not dare tread into the political minefield of specifying whether mice prefer céilí or set dances).
Ag dul chun dlí leis an ndiabhal is an chúirt i n-ifreann.
Going to the law with the devil and the court is in hell.
Note: “Going to the law with the devil” was a common metaphor for the system of jurisprudence in Ireland when she was under British rule. Until the 1840’s, most people in the countryside spoke Irish exclusively. The English language was indigenous to the cities only. Being an agrarian economy, Ireland was a country where most of her citizens lived in the countryside. In other words, most peoples’ only tongue was Irish. However, the British installed a legal system where the proceedings were exclusively in English. Thus, any accused Irish defendants found themselves being charged, tried, and convicted in a foreign tongue. Since most could not afford to hire an English-speaking barrister, most would never know why they were imprisoned. The Penal Laws only made the situation worse.
However, there were rare occasions when the Irish successfully defended themselves. The author had a distant cousin, fadó, fadó, (long, long ago) who was walking by the landlord’s castle one day when he smelled the succulent aroma of His Lordship’s breakfast being cooked. He lingered to savor the sweet smell of sausages sizzling in the mouth-watering company of eggs and biscuits. His Honor, the Lord of the Manor, spied the wretch standing stupefied near his kitchen. He asked the cook who the man was and what he was doing. She told His Lordship that he was just one of his tenants vicariously enjoying His Lordship’s breakfast. Then the landlord sent his tenant an invoice for the pleasure.
The tenant refused to pay and was dragged into court. Knowing the danger of the English court, the tenant went begging his friends, relations, and all the other tenants for money to pay a British barrister to defend him. He collected a tidy pile of pennies and half-pennies and put them into a small purse made of pig skin. With it, he got himself a first-rate defender.
The plaintiff’s counsel argued before the local magistrate that his client had provided a service to the tenant. He had given his tenant a measure of joy that now required a measure of payment.
The defendant’s counsel called the landlord to the stand. Throwing the pig’s skin purse full of pennies and half-pennies on the table before him, the lawyer asked, “Is this the recompense you seek?”
“It is,” says the landlord.
“And does the sound of this give you pleasure?” The lawyer shook the purse, clinking the coins inside.
“It does,” says the landlord.
Whereupon, the lawyer petitioned the magistrate that his client’s payment had been made in full. The landlord had given his tenant a measure of joy. Now the tenant has given the landlord a like measure of joy. The debt is paid in kind. The judge agreed. Some thought the tenant had got out of hell by hiring a better devil.