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Living and Dying

Nollag ghlas, reilig mhéith.

Nollag ghlas, reilig mhéith.

A green Christmas, a fat graveyard.

Note: This week’s seanfhocal has found its way into English as the proverb, “A green winter makes a fat churchyard.” This is possible because the Irish word “Nollaig” could be mistranslated as “December.” “A green December makes a fat graveyard” is not a stretch to become “A green winter makes a fat churchyard.” However, the correct Irish word for December is ‘Mí na Nollag,’ which literally means ‘the month of Christmas.’ (The genitive case drops the ‘i’ in ‘Nollaig’ thus broadening the final consonant.)

This astute observation is a macabre irony that gives new meaning to the term “White Christmas.” How could something that is green, the color of life (or, at least plant life) be associated with added deaths? The answer lies in the fact that a mild winter does mean life, but it is also life to the unseen world of deadly microbes and disease. However, a cold winter makes the world a veritable dessert. It effectively removes water from the environment. Nothing can live without water. Microbes either die or hibernate. The absense of microbes greatly reduces human mortality, i.e., a white Christmas makes a thinner graveyard.

Note also: Even such a short proverb as this illustrates some fundamental differences between the Irish and English languages. As in English this proverb has implied the verb. But, the Irish word order is usually the exact opposite of English when it comes to nouns and their modifying adjectives. In English, it is a “green Christmas,” but in Irish it is “Nollaig ghlas.” In English, it is a “fat graveyard,” but in Irish it is “reilig mhéith.” In English, it does not matter what gender the nouns are; the adjectives are always the same. In Irish, a feminine noun requires its modifying adjective to be lenited (séimhiú), e.g., ‘ghlas’ and ‘mhéith.’

Bíonn súil le muir ach ní bhíonn súil le tír.

Bíonn súil le muir ach ní bhíonn súil le tír.

There is hope from the sea, but there is no hope from the land (grave).

Note: Elizabeth Kubler-Ross argued in her book, On Death and Dying, that there are five stages of grief; the first is denial. This week’s proverb is a frank vehicle for helping the survivor get past this first stage. It is similar to a Spanish proverb, “A la muerte no hay cosa fuerte.” (Nothing is stronger than death.) An Italian proverb is equally blunt, “A ogni cosa c’é rimedio fuorché alla morte.” (There is a remedy for everything except death.)

Note also: In Ulster, you might hear a slightly different version of this seanfhocal, “Bíonn dúil le béal farraige ach cha bhíonn dúil le béal uaighe.” (There is hope from the mouth of the sea but not from the mouth of the grave.) The negative particle ‘cha’ is often used in Ulster speech instead of the negative particle ‘ní.’ Like the particle ‘ní,’ the particle ‘cha’ causes the word that follows it to be lenited, except words beginning with ‘d’ or ‘t’ which are eclipsed. For example, ‘cha bhíonn’ in this seanfhocal and ‘cha dtuigim’ instead of ‘ni bhíonn’ and ‘ní thuigim.’ An dtuigeann tú?

Is iomaí lá sa chill orainn.

Is iomaí lá sa chill orainn.

We are in the Churchyard (grave) many a day.

Note: You might hear a more poetic Hiberno-English translation of this seanfhocal, “We spend many a day asleep in the clay.” This is not necessarily the same as the English exhortation “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we may die.” One could invoke this proverb to work longer, as well as to play harder. Perhaps, another rhetorical English equivalent was written by Thomas Pinchon who ‘quoted’ an epitaph from an old New England gravestone, “Death is a debt to nature due. Mine is paid. How about you?”

Note also: This seanfhocal is an example of a common idiomatic use of the preposition ‘ar’ and a pronoun. In this case, the preposition ‘ar’ is combined with the old pronoun ‘sinn’ to form the prepositional pronoun ‘orainn.’ ‘Orainn’ means ‘on us.’ So translated literally, this seanfhocal says, “Many a day is in the churchyard on us.” It is a reflection of a different Irish perspective.

  • We are not in the grave. The grave is on us.
  • I do not have a cold. Tá slaghdán orm. (A cold is on me.)
  • You are not hungry. Tá ocras ort. (Hunger is on you.)
  • They are not afraid. Tá eagla orthu. (Fear is on them.)
  • She is not Siobhán. Siobhán atá uirthi. (Siobhan is that [name] on her.)

In Irish, a person does not ‘have’ a sickness. A person is not “one and the same” as his condition, or his emotions, or even his name. These are transient and ethereal things. They are not solid things that one can hold and therefore ‘have’. Isn’t it obvious then, that these are simply things that are on you, like a grave?

Bíonn an bás ar aghaidh an tseanduine agus ar chúl duine óig.

Bíonn an bás ar aghaidh an tseanduine agus ar chúl duine óig.

Death is facing the old (person)
and behind the young (person).

Note: There is a subtle irony in this proverb. It is, of course, obvious that mortality is before us all, but somehow more intimately facing the old. What then do we make of the observation that death is “behind the young?” Is it that the young are aware of death, having seen it in those who came are chronologically behind them, e.g., grandparents. Or, does it mean that death is behind the young where they can not see it, i.e., do the old contemplate their own death while the young only think of others dying?

Note also: In this proverb there is a ‘t’ prefixed before the word “seanduine.” This is how one forms the genitive case for masculine nouns that begin with the letter ‘s’ and are followed by either a vowel, or the consonants l, r, or n. (The genitive case is required for nouns governed by compound prepositions, e.g., ar aghaidh, ar chúl, etc.) In contrast, the definite article ‘an’ prefixes ‘t’ to feminine nouns in the nominative case that begin with the letter ‘s’ and are followed by either a vowel, or the consonants l, r, or n, e.g., “Tá an tseanaois air.” (The old age is on him.).

Nuair a thiocas an bás ní imeoidh sé folamh.


Nuair a thiocas an bás ní imeoidh sé folamh.

When death will come, he won’t go away empty.

Note: This is an obvious reference to “The Grim Reaper” and the inevitability of death.

Note also: Irish uses different verb tenses here than Béarla would. In Béarla the customary sequence is a clause in the present tense (When death comes…) followed by the body of the sentence in the future tense (…he won’t go away empty). Irish, on the other hand, puts both parts of such a sentence in the future tense.

Maireann croí éadrom a bhfad.

Maireann croí éadrom a bhfad.

A light heart lives a long time.

Note: Don’t worry. Be happy. You will live longer. The insight in this week’s proverb can be traced back to the Bible, specifically, Leabhar Shíorach (the Book of Sirach 30:14-25):

 

Sláinte agus Aoibhneas
(Health of Soul and Body)

14   Is fearr as an bochtán ina shláinte agus ina neart, ná an duine saibhir atá á chrá ag drochshláinte.
  (Better a poor man strong and robust, than a rich man with a wasted frame.)
15 Is fearr sláinte agus neart ná ór ar bith, agus colainn dhochaite ná maoin gan áireamh.
  (More precious than gold is health and well-being, contentment of spirit than coral.)
16 Is fearr sláinte choirp ná saibhreas ar bith, agus ní sháraíonn aon aoibhneas an croí suairc.
  (No treasure greater than a healthy body; no happiness, than a joyful heart!)
17 Is fearr an bás ná saol dona, agus suaimhneas síoraí ná breoiteacht bhuan.
  (Preferable is death to a bitter life, unending sleep to constant illness.)
18 Is cuma nithe maithe a chaitheamh le béal iata, nó ofrálacha bia a fhágáil ar uaigh.
  (Dainties set before one who cannot eat are like offerings placed before a tomb.)
19 Cén tairbhe d’íol ofráil torthaí? níl cumas ite ná bolaithe aige; is mar sin don té ar a luíonn an Tiarna.
  (What good is an offering to an idol that can neither taste or smell.)
20 Faigheann sé lán a shúl, agus bíonn ag cneadaíl dála an choillteáin a bhíonn ag cneadaíl agus é ag breith barróige ar mhaighdean.
  (So it is with the afflicted man who groans at the good things his eyes behold.)
21 Ná tabhair thú féin suas don bhrón agus ná bí do do chiapadh féin d’aonghnó.
  (Do not give in to sadness, torment not yourself with brooding;)
22 Maireann an duine ar aoibhneas croí, agus is fad saoil dó an t-áthas.
  (Gladness of heart is the very life of man, cheerfulness prolongs his days.)
23 Cuir lúcháir ar d’aigne agus tabhair sólás do do chroí; cuir an ruaig i bhfad uait ar an mbrón, mar is iomaí duine a scrios an brón, agus ní aon tairbhe é d’aon duine.
  (Distract yourself, renew your courage, drive resentment far away from you; For worry has brought death to many, nor is there aught to be gained from resentment.)
24 Ciorraíonn an t-éad agus an fhearg saol duine, agus déanann imní an tseanaois a bhrostú.
  (Envy and anger shorten one’s life, worry brings on premature old age.)
25 Fear croí éadroim agus fear croí mhóir, beidh [rian a choda] air.
  (One who is cheerful and gay while at table benefits from his food.)

Sé leigheas na póite ól arís.

Sé leigheas na póite ól arís.

It is the cure of a hangover (to) drink again.

Note: This is a more direct reference to what in Béarla is known as “the hair of the dog that bit you”. To some it may seem incongruous that drink would both cause and cure the condition; but the logic is often more apparent to one who is suffering the effects of “one too many”.

An té a bhíonn breoite, ní bhíonn feoil air.

An té a bhíonn breoite, ní bhíonn feoil air.

The person who is ailing, there does not tend to be meat on him.

Note: On the surface, this seems merely to be an acknowledgement that the sick often lose weight due to their illnesses. This seanfhocal has a more droll aspect when one considers that “breoite” which generally means “sick”, also has a secondary menaing of “seared”. Hence, the person who is cooked, there does not tend to be meat on him. Is leor sin.

Ní bhíonn tréan buan.

Ní bhíonn tréan buan.

Strength is not enduring.

Note: This, of course, is a reference to the ever-changing cycles of life. A helpless child grows to be a powerful man (or woman), but must eventually yield to the effects of advancing age. In English, the comment is often made that youth is fleeting.

Níl sa saol ach gaoth agus toit.

Níl sa saol ach gaoth agus toit.

In life there is only wind and smoke.

Note: Nothing is at it appears. “I suspect that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of, in any philosophy.” (J.B.S. Haldane, Possible Worlds 1927.) “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Then are dreamt of in your philosphy.” (Shakespeare, Hamlet.) Perhaps, Plato best captured the idea of this week’s proverb in his Republic.

Behold! human beings living in an underground den .., they see only their own shadows, or the shadows of one another, which the fire throws on the opposite wall of the cave.

Plato’s concept of the the ideal, or idea, or form was at the heart of his ethics and metaphysics. Greeks like Plato wrote about the Celts. They even coined the term, “Keltoi.”

Some have argued that the Greeks adopted some Celtic philosophy. Celts conquered Thrace in 298 B.C. The English word philosophy comes from the Greek for lover of truth. The Modern Irish word for philosophy is feallsúnacht which comes from the Old Irish for sophistry, after one of the oldest schools of Greek philosophy. The western world owes its philosophy to the Greeks who go started by the Celts.

Is búaine clú ná saol.

Is búaine clú ná saol.

Fame is more enduring than life.

Note: The most enduring fame achieved in the Irish ‘seanchas béil’ (oral tradition) is when a ‘file’ (poet) composes a poem to commemorate the deeds of a hero. It is a tradition dating from the earliest myths of the Ulster Cycle to the ballad of Kevin Barry. It is even part of the language. The word for hero, or warrior, in Irish is ‘laoch’. Poems about heros are so pervasive in the oral literature that the Irish word for narrative poem is derived from it. A narrative poem in Irish is a ‘laoi’.

Note also: The adjective ‘buaine’ is the comparative degree of ‘buan’, the root word one finds in the dictionary. An adjective’s root form is the nominative singular form (ainmneach uatha) or positive degree (bunchéim). Like all Irish adjectives, ‘buan’ has two different genitive singular forms, one masculine (ginideach firinscneach), is é sin, ‘buain’, and one that is feminine (ginideach baininscneach), in this case, ‘buaine’. The feminine genitive form is used as the comparative form (breischéim) except for a few irregular adjectives.

Is ait an mac an saol.

Is ait an mac an saol.

Life is strange.
[Such is life].

Note: This week’s proverb is an ancient paragon of Irish word play. It literally means “The life is the strange son.” In Irish, the definite article is used to express abstraction whereas in English the same is done with an indefinite article, or no article at all. This week’s subject and predicate are both abstractions so a better English translation would be “Life is a strange son.”

To ancient Celts, both the clan and the world were composed of living things. For example, recall the Lady of the Lake in Celtic, Arthurian legend. She was the living embodiment of the world’s bodies of water. This is why the word ‘saol’ means both life and world.

Now the word “ait” is a play on words. It means pleasant, likeable, fine, excellent, comical, queer (in the sense of strange). Lengthen the vowel and you get “áit” meaning place. One would expect to hear the world is a strange “áit.”

This concept of a living world explains the subtle word play using ‘son’ as a metaphor. It is common, even today, to use ‘a mhic’ (o son) as a term of endearment for addressing any male. So in this case the author used this metaphor to say the world is strange, but it is also a friend.