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Chomh glic le sionnach.

Chomh glic le sionnach.

As clever as a fox.

Note: “Sionnach” is one Irish word for “fox.” Ulster Irish, like Scots Gaelic would also use another word for “fox,” namely “madadh ruadh.” “Cho charach ris a’ mhadadh-ruadh.” (As wily as a fox)– Scots Gaelic. This expression would be spelled “madra rua” in the official standard Irish, and literally means “red dog.”

Seán Ó Dálaigh wrote a short story called “Dioltas an Mhada Rua,” showing that a fox is not only clever, but also vengeful:

 

Díoltas an Mhada Rua

Seanfhocal is ea — chomh glic le mada rua. Agus i dteannta é a bheith glic bíonn sé díoltasach. Thaispeáin sé d’fhear ó Dhún Chaoin go raibh sé díoltasach mar b’air féin a d’imir sé an díoltas.

 

Revenge of the Fox

‘Tis a proverb — as clever as a fox. And when he is in a fix he can be vengeful. He showed a man from Dhún Chaoin that he could wreck vengeance when he must be avenged.

Seán Ó Dálaigh lived in the Kerry Gaeltacht. Hence, he uses another dialectical spelling of fox,”mada rua,” quoted above in the title and the first sentence of his story. Ó Dálaigh is the “Máistir Ó Dálaigh” that Peg Sayers writes about in her autobiography.

Má labhríonn an chuach ar chrann gan duiliúr díol do bhó agus ceannaigh arbhar.

Má labhríonn an chuach ar chrann gan duiliúr díol do bhó agus ceannaigh arbhar.

If the cuckoo calls from a tree without leaves, sell your cow and buy corn.

Note: The cuckoo bird is giving a warning. A warning that the season to come, like the tree on which it is perched, will be barren. Therefore, a wise person will sell the clan’s riches, which ancient Gaels measured in cows, and buy food. In the north, there is another version of this proverb, “An tráth a ghaireann an chuach ar an sceach lom, díol do bhó agus ceannaigh arbhar.” (When the cuckoo cries on the bare thorn bush, sell your cow and buy corn.)

Ancient Celts were well known for their powers of augury, the ability to foretell the future from the behavior of animals. Some Celtic diviners specialized in bird augury. Diodorus Siculus, an ancient Roman writer, told of Druids who predicted the future from the flight of birds. “An Irish version of the Historia Brittonum, by the Welsh historian Nennius, includes an ancient poem which refers to six Druids who lived at Breagh-magh and who practiced the ‘the watching of birds’.” (Peter Berresford Ellis, The Druids, William P.Eerdsmans Publishing Company, 1994, p. 223.)

Part of this tradition of ‘the watching of birds’ survives in Irish proverbs. Pádraig Ua Maoileoin, who was called an Seabhac (the Hawk), devotes a whole chapter of Seanfhocail na Mumhan to proverbs about birds. He gives proverb # 2259 “An gobadán (nó gobachán) i mbeale cuaiche.” (The sandpiper (or sharp-tongued person) is in the mouth of a cuckoo.) Here, the Hawk is pointing out that in Irish, the words for sandpiper and sharp-tongued person are synonymous. This is a natural artifact of a belief that the behavior of birds influences the lives of people. In other words, Druid gossips (one type of sharp-tongued people) should be good to sandpipers and listen to cuckoos.

Is maith an capall a tharraingíos a charr féin.

Is maith an capall a tharraingíos a charr féin.

It is a good horse that pulls its own cart.

Note: Theodore Roosevelt extolled this virtue of self-reliance in a speech given in New York on November 11, 1903: “The first requisite of a good citizen in this Republic of ours is that he shall able and willing to pull his own weight.” Almost two decades later, Micheal Collins argued that this kind of economic independence was a hallmark of ancient Irish culture:

The pertinacity of Irish civilization was due to the democratic basis of its economic system, and the aristocracy of its culture.

It was the reverse of Roman civilization in which the state was held together by a central authority, controlling and defending it, the people being left to themselves in all social and intellectual matters. Highly organized, Roman civilization was powerful, especially for subduing and dominating other races, for a time. But not being rooted in the interests and respect of the people themeselves, it could not survive.

Gaelic civilization was quite different. The people of the whole nation were united, not by material forces, but by spirtitual ones. Their unity was not of any military solidarity. It came from sharing the same traditions. It came form honouring the same heroes, from inheriting the same literature, from willing obedience to the same law, the law which was their own law and reverenced by them.

They never exalted a central authority. Economically they were divided up into a number of larger and smaller units. Spiritually and socially they were one people.

Each community was independent and complete within its own boundaries. The land belonged to the people. It was held for the people by the Chief of the Clann. He was their trustee. He secured his position by the will of the people only. His successor was elected by the people.

Michael Collins, The Path to Freedom, Mercier Press, 1996, pp. 103-4.

In effect, Collins was arguing that the Irish had a federal Republic thousands of years before the United States of America and would return to it soon again. A few months later he was killed by those who thought he had betrayed the Republic.

Bíonn adharca fada ar na ba i gcéin.

Bíonn adharca fada ar na ba i gcéin.

Long horns are [always] on the cows abroad.

Note: It is no wonder that this proverb can be heard all across Ireland in one form or another. This variant is from Connacht. In Ulster, you might hear the more alliterative, “Bíonn adharca móra ar bha i bhad ó bhaile.” Whereas, in Munster, one is more likely to hear an older form, “”Bíonn adharca móra ar na buaibh tharr lear,” which retains a dative form not used commonly today. In that ancient agrarian society cows were a form of currency, a measure of one’s wealth. A poor tentant farmer with no cows would, therefore, find the lure of emmigration compelling.

However, this proverb uses the present habitual form of the verb to be, ‘bíonn,’ as an ironic warning that it may not be so. This syntax is used to convey the sense that something is usually the case. We took a little poetic liberty and inserted the word ‘always’ to emphasize this subtle meaning. It is the same meaning as the American proverb, “The grass is always greener in the other fellow’s yard.”

Note also: This seanfhocal is not necessarily a paean to Texas longhorns either. Both the Ulster and the Munster versions use the nominative plural form of the adjective ‘mór’ to describe the horns. It means big. Big horns mean big cows. ‘Long horns’ is just another metaphor for big cows. While the Irish did emmigrate to Texas, others emmigrated to Africa, especially South Africa, and still others to Australia. All these Irish emmigrants would have written home about long horned cattle.

Má bhuaileann tú mo mhadra buailfidh tú mé féin.

Má bhuaileann tú mo mhadra buailfidh tú mé féin.

If you hit my dog, [then] you hit me.

Note: St. Bernard of Clairvaux coined an English proverb similar to this week’s seanfhocal, “Love me, love my dog.” (The Saint Bernard dog was named after another Saint Bernard.) This Irish proverb has the same roots as the story of Cú Chulainn.

Sédanda was the son of the God Lugh, nephew of Conor mac Nessa, King of Ulster. One day Conor rode by while the boy, Sédanda, was playing with a bat and a ball. He asked the King where he was going. The King told him he was going to a feast held by the chief smith, Cullan, and invited the boy to join him. Sédanda said he would follow him later after he finished playing ball.

Conor and the other guests were feasting by the fire when Cullan asked the King if there were any other guests coming. Forgetting about Sédanda, the King said no. To this Cullan explained that it was his custom to unleash his hound at night to protect his property from thieves and robbers. It was a brave hound and a fierce fighter. Cullan feared no man when the hound was out. The King gave him permission to release his hound.

Sédanda arrived before the feast to be confronted by the savage hound. The hound lunged at Sédanda but the boy drove the ball with his stick into the skull of the dog, instantly killing the creature.

Upon arriving at the sight of his dead hound, the smith wept in grief and fear. He argued to the King that the boy’s family must pay a blood fine for such an egregiously inhospitable act. Who would now protect him, his clan, and his property?

The boy agreed to find a pup of a breed superior to the one he had killed and raise it into an even more fearsome defender of the smith’s home. Until the pup was old enough to do this, however, Sédanda said that he himself would replace the hound. He would become the Hound of Cullan, or Cú Chulainn in Irish.

Is iad ná muca ciúine a itheas an mhin.


Is iad ná muca ciúine a itheas an mhin.

It is the quiet pigs that eat the meal.

Note: Spinoza was almost as eloquent as this week’s seanfhocal when he wrote,

Surely human affairs would be far happier if the power in men to be silent were the same as that to speak. But experience more than teaches that men govern nothing with more difficulty than their tongues.

Ethics, pt. III, proposition 2, note.

Silence may be golden, metaphorically, but this seanfhocal alludes to the more tangible rewards of being quiet.

Note also: This week’s seanfhocal strays a bit from the Caighdeán Oifigiúil (the official standard) Irish grammar. According to the official standard, the direct relative clause of the sentence would be “a itheann an mhin” (that [he] eats the meal). However, a special form is widely used in the present and future tenses which appends a broad ‘s’ to the verb. So in this case, the direct relative clause becomes “a itheas an mhin.” The penultimate letter, or the last vowel, ‘a’ in ‘itheas’ is simply an indicator vowel that tells the reader this is a broad ‘s.’ We strayed here because this special form is very often found in conversation, literature, prayers, and in seanfhocail.

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.

Is maith sú bó, beo nó marbh.

Is maith sú bó, beo nó marbh.

The juice of the cow is good, alive or dead.

Note: With apologies to our vegetarian friends, cows are among those few animals who provide us nourishment both when alive (milk) and when departed (a nice juicy steak). Some things in life are unfailingly good, no matter what the circumstances.

Note also: The pronunciation of the words “bó” and “beo” are different. The only phonetic difference between the two pronunciations is that “bó” is pronounced with a broad “b,” while “beo” is pronounced with a slender “b.” If you listen closely to the speaker, you should hear a short i-sound, like the “i” in the English word “hit,” after the “b” of “beo” that is not spoken after the “b” in “bó.” This short, slight, trailing i-sound is characteristic of slender consonants. Slender consonants are indicated when either the vowel “i” or “e” appears next to a consonant.

Marbh le tae agus marbh gan é.

Marbh le tae agus marbh gan é.

Dead with tea and dead without it.

Note: This week’s proverb is testimony to the indisputable fact that the Irish are mad for tea. Citizens of the Irish Republic drink more tea than anyone else in the world. Every man, women, and child drinks about six cups of tea a day on average, consuming about 3.2 kilograms (7 pounds) per year. That is over 20% more tea consumed than the average British tea drinker. Moreover, Irish tea consumption is currently increasing while British tea consumption is declining. America, which revolted against England because of the British tax on tea, drinks eight times less per capita than the Irish.

Annual Per Capita Consumption of Tea
In Kilograms

Country 1987-89 1988-90 1989-91 1990-92 1991-93 1993-95 average
Ireland
3.00
3.09
3.14
3.00
3.17
3.21
3.10
United Kingdom
2.81
2.74
2.65
2.56
2.62
2.53
2.65
Turkey
2.64
2.33
2.08
2.25
2.15
2.08
2.26
Kuwait
2.12
1.73
1.18
0.99
1.79
2.52
1.72
Iran 
– 
1.62
1.63
1.83
1.74
1.46
1.66
Iraq 
2.54
2.23
1.24
0.53
– 
– 
1.64
New Zealand
1.59
1.58
1.54
1.51
1.38
1.23
1.47
Syria
1.15
1.36
1.36
1.36
1.66
1.55
1.41
Egypt
1.32
1.39
1.32
1.40
1.25
1.04
1.29
Saudi Arabia 
1.17
1.14
1.16
1.24
1.00
0.82
1.09
Australia 
1.12
1.07
1.01
0.96
0.96
0.96
1.01
Japan 
0.97
0.97
0.99
1.02
1.04
1.03
1.00
Pakistan 
0.93
0.95
0.99
0.97
0.99
0.95
0.96
Russia 
0.97
1.10
1.15
0.90
0.73
0.63
0.91
Chile 
0.86
0.85
0.87
0.88
0.89
0.97
0.89
Poland 
0.87
0.78
0.64
0.58
0.69
0.87
0.74
Netherland 
0.65
0.66
0.67
0.66
0.63
0.58
0.64
Canada 
0.55
0.53
0.51
0.49
0.49
0.48
0.51
U.S.A. 
0.34
0.34
0.33
0.33
0.34
0.35
0.34
Germany
0.24
0.23
0.24
0.20
0.22
0.21
0.22
France
0.18
0.19
0.19
0.20
0.21
0.22
0.20
Italy 
0.06
0.07
0.08
0.08
0.09
0.09
0.08

International Tea Committee, Ltd., Annual Bulletin of Statistics; Tea Brokers’ Publications, London (1995)

The Irish lust for tea comes from the British. Originally, all tea came to Ireland from the East India Company, a British trading company established under Queen Elizabeth I in 1600. In 1835, Charles Bewley broke that monopoly when he landed a ship in Dublin with over 2000 chests of tea from Canton. While the monopoly was broken, the Irish continued to buy tea exclusively from British concerns until World War II. In response to the British rationing of tea, the Irish government formed a private company, Tea Importers (Éire) to satisfy their thirst. The Irish Tea Act of 1958 granted this firm a monopoly franchise, not unlike the East India Company. This franchise had to be abolished in 1973 so that Ireland could enter the European Economic Community.

Is minic a lean maidin bhrónach oíche shúgach.

Is minic a lean maidin bhrónach oíche shúgach.

‘Tis many a sad morning followed a merry night.

Note: While the English translation of this week’s proverb could be subject to interpetation, the Irish is unequivocal. Most would infer that the English version is alluding to a hangover. However, it could be interpretted differently. It could mean that bad news follows good times. Alcohol is not necessary in this latter inference.

This is not true for the Irish word ‘súgach’ (merry). It does, in fact, allude to alcohol. ‘Súgach’ is derivative of the Irish verb ‘súigh’ which means ‘suck,’ or ‘absorb.’ The verbal noun of ‘súigh’ is ‘sú’ which means ‘juice.’ Therefore, one who is súgach has gotten merry from absorbing the juice of the barley.

Note also: Both the adjectives in this proverb are lenited. In a Roman font, this is indicated by adding an ‘h’ after the first letter, e.g., bhrónach, shúgach. Lenition is called ‘séimhiú’ in Irish. It literally means softening. In this case, lenition is required because both of the nouns being modified are feminine. Feminine nouns require the adjectives that modify them to be softened.

Is fearr leath builín ná bheith gan arán.

Is fearr leath builín ná bheith gan arán.

Half a loaf is better than to be without bread.

Note: Half a loaf is better than none. Half an egg is better than an empty shell. Mar a deirtear i nGaeilge na hAlban, “Is fheàrr fuine thana na bhith uile falamh.” (As they say in Scots Gaelic, “Thin kneading is better than no bread.) As the Lowland Scots say, “Bannocks are better than nae bread.”

Note also: This weeks seanfhocal uses a negative form after the verbal noun, i.e., [verbal noun.] + gan. In contrast, there is another Irish grammar form that uses the opposite sequence, namely, gan + [verbal noun]. Consider these examples:

Abair leis gan teacht isteach.
Tell him not to come in.

Dúirt sé léi gan dul ansin.
He told her not to go in there.

Bhí an bád gan imeacht fós.
The boat has not left yet.

This form is used to express a negative infintive in English, e.g., not to come, not to go, not to leave. The last example could literally be translated as, “The boat has not to leave yet.” However, that would be incorrect English syntax. In English the two verbs must agree on tense. So the infinitive “to leave” was changed in the example to the Enlgish past perfect, “left.”

Is túisce deoch ná scéal.

Is túisce deoch ná scéal.

A drink comes before a story.

Note: Jonathan Swift, the Dean of St. Patrick’s, wrote disparagingly of the drink. “We were to do more business after dinner; but after dinner is after dinner — an old saying and true, ‘much drinking, little thinking.” (Journal to Stella February 26, 1712.) On the other hand, Gore Vidal commented on one the most common past times of storytellers. “Some writers take to drink, others take to audiences.” (Interview in the Paris Review, 1981). This week’s proverb points out that the storyteller will usually find both at a pub, a fair, or a party. One could say that these are the best venues for story telling.

However, the word “túisce” has a sense of preference or priority. It means “sooner,” not as an antonym to “later” but as “rather,” as shown in the following sentences. Ba thúisce liom mo bhás. (I would sooner/rather die) . Ba thúisce liom suí ná seasamh. (I would sooner/rather sit than stand). In spite of this meaning, it would be a mistake to interpret this proverb as meaning “A drink sooner/rather than a story.”

This is because “túisce” also means “first.” For example, “an té is túisce a labhair” means “the person who spoke first.” Here the word ‘is’ before an adjective of comparative degree marks the adverb as being in the superlative degree. By itself, ” túisce” is the comparative form. It does not need the word “níos” before it as do other adjectives and adverbs of the comparative degree. “Túisce” has no positive form. “Soon” in Irish is another word, “go luath.” Therefore, “is túisce” essentially means “soonest,” i.e., first. Therefore, this week’s proverb means the drink comes first, then the story.

Cibé cé olfhas ‘s é Domhnall a íocfhas.

Cibé cé olfhas ‘s é Domhnall a íocfhas.

Whoever will drink, ’tis Domhnall will pay.

Note: Not that most people would ever need encouragement to go to the pub, but this week’s seanfhocal is just that. The drink tastes sweeter when someone else pays. Domhnall could be anybody who is tricked or cajoled into picking up the tab. Perhaps, the most famous Domhnall is Anthony Raftery (Antoine Ó Reachtabhra), the itinerent, blind poet who lived from 1739 to 1819. The legend is that he was tricked into picking up the tab in a pub in Loughrea (Baile Locha Riach), a town in the middle of County Galway. Never play a joke on a bard; Raftery immortalized the tale in a comic poem called “Baile Locha Riach”:


Chas Dia aon scilling amháin chugam
     agus shíl mé go raibh mo dhíol ann,
Nuair a shíl mé nár ghlaos ach dhá chárta
     bhí ag Conúr im aghaidh trí is bonn.

Fear an Tábhairne
“Is é an dlí a bhíos againn ins an áit seo
     an reicneáil nach n-íoctar in am,
Má éiríonn na daoine ón gclá —
     An fear deiridh bheith síos leis an leann.”


With a shilling that the good God provided
     I thought I’d enough and to spare,
What a shock then when Conor confided
     for two quarts three-and-six I must pay.

Publican
“The rule that in this house we favour
     any reckoning not paid as they sup,
Whoever is last at the table —
     for all that they drank must pay up.”

Blind Raftery; Poems Selected and Translated by Chriostoir O’Flynn, Cló Iar-Chonnachta, 1998, pp. 88-89.

Raftery goes on to curse the publican for taking his hat in payment. According to the legend, Raftery was later told of the joke. His hat and his shilling were returned. After a good laugh was had by all, he was given another drop or two on the house. However, Raftery had the last laugh, omitting this part of the story from his poem.

Ní cheileann meisce rún.

Ní cheileann meisce rún.

Drunkenness hides no secret[s].

Note: The ancient Greeks first said “Truth in wine,” and the Romans later adopted it as the more-widely known, “In vino veritas.” Romans also added, “Drunkenness reveals what soberness conceals.” Chaucer took up this strand of thought when he wrote “For dronkenesse is verray sepulture of mannes wit and his discrecion.” Cantebury Tales. The Pardoner’s Tale, l. 558.

The seanfhocal itself uses the singular number in the object, rún (secret). It is meant to convey the sense that no individual secret is safe when one is drunk. However, some translate this seanfhocal into the plural form, secrets, to convey the vulnerability of all secrets in the possession of the drunk. It was for this reason that when Michael Collins recruited the “Cairo Gang,” the strong arm of his secret service, he looked for men who did not drink.

Note also: This seanfhocal is an example of another interesting difference between Irish and English syntax. English syntax can negate nouns and verbs. In the English translation given above, the noun is negated. “Drunkenness hides no secret[s].” However, Irish syntax can only negate verbs. The negative particle at the beginning of this seanfhocal, “Ní,” negates the verb, “cheileann,” as indicated by the séimhiú. So a more literal but less fluid English translation would negate the verb, i.e., “Drunkness does not hide a secret.”

Is maith an t-anlann an t-ocras.

Is maith an t-anlann an t-ocras.

Hunger is a good sauce.

Note: Dies Alliensis — 18 July, 390 B.C. — was a day of infamy for the Roman state. It was the day the Roman Army was routed by a band of pagan Celts at the banks of the river Allia. This defeat led to the subsequent sack of Rome by these “barbarians”. Almost four centuries later, Julius Caesar would take Rome’s revenge on the clans of the continental Celts. Ceasar’s victory over Vercingetorex marked the beginning of the end of “the First Golden Age of the Celts” (p. 21, Alexei Kondratiev, The Apple Branch: A Path to Celtic Ritual,Collins Press, 1998). Meanwhile, Marcus Tullius Cicero may have borrowed this week’s seanfhocal when he wrote, “Optimum condimentum fames.” (Hunger is the best sauce.)

Note also: The definite article ‘an’ prefixes a ‘t’ in the nominative and accusative case before all singular masculine nouns that begin with a vowel. So the words ‘anlann’ and ‘ocras’ which are masculine gender, singular number, require a ‘t’ before them when they are modified by the definite article ‘an.’

How does one know that these words are masculine gender? Endings can give a clue. Nouns ending in ‘…as’ are almost always masculine. In general, nouns ending with broad consonants are usually masculine. However, there are exceptions. For example, unlike the word anlann, most words ending in ‘…lann’ are feminine like amharclann (theatre), bialann (restaurant), dánlann (art gallery), leabharlann (library), and pictiúirlann (cinema). To be certain, therefore, it is a good idea to memorize the noun’s gender when you learn the noun.

Déanann tart tart.

Déanann tart tart.

Thirst makes (for) thirst.

Note: Thirst leads one to drink which often increases one’s desire for yet another drink. This pattern is often continued on the morning after when “cotton mouth” stimulates one’s desire for a ‘drink’ of the softer variety. This vicious cycle is one of nature’s little jokes.

‘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 atá thuas óltar deoch air. An té atá thíos buailtear cos air.

An té atá thuas óltar deoch air. An té atá thíos buailtear cos air.

The one who succeeds is toasted. The one who fails is kicked.

Note: Success has many fathers but failure is an orphan. The whole world loves a winner. Show me a good loser and I’ll show you a loser. Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing. These are universal sentiments, although the Irish language does not have a single word for toast, as in a toast to your health. The literal translation of the first sentence is, “The one who is up, somebody drinks a drink to him.”

Note also: The literal translation in the last sentence is in the active voice, while the poetic translation above is in the passive voice. Somebody drinks — active voice: the subject of this sentence, somebody, performs an action. One … is toasted — passive voice: the subject of this sentence, one, has an action done to him. This points out an interesting feature of Irish.

Irish has no passive voice. In Irish, the subject of a sentence must commit an action; an action can not be committed on the subject. By implication, nothing happens unless somebody does it. Perhaps, this view of the world remains from Celtic times when every event, every season, every occurrence had a natural or a supernatural cause.

The Irish equivalent of the passive voice is the autonomous form of the verb. It is autonomous in that some nameless being commits the action. That nameless being is the implied subject of the sentence. In our case, the verb “óltar” is the present tense autonomous form of ól, meaning “someone drinks.” The someone is implied by the “-tar” ending.

Similarly, “buailtear” is the present tense autonomous form of buail, meaning “someone strikes.” The someone is implied by the “-tear” ending. The second sentence of our proverb literally means, “the one who is down, someone strikes a foot on him.” Why the two different spellings of the endings? Caol le caol agus leathan le leathan ach sin scéal eile.

Is maith an athbhliain a dtig Nollaig i dTús gealaí.

Is maith an athbhliain a dtig Nollaig i dTús gealaí.

The year is good when Christmas comes during the first phase of the moon.

Note: The first phase of the moon is the new moon. A new moon occurs about every 29 1/2 days, the time it takes for the moon to orbit the earth. More specifically, it occurs precisely when the excess of the apparent ecliptic (celestial) longitude of the Moon over that of the Sun is 0 degrees. In other words, it occurs when the moon is exactly between the sun and the earth. At this point no light is reflected off the moon’s surface to the earth. Therefore, when you look at a new moon in a clear night sky, you see no moon, or a completely shaded moon. Ancient Celts knew this precise moment.

A new moon had cosmic significance for the Gael. For the ancient Druids, it is believed that the moon and the planets represented Celtic gods. For this reason, there was a geis, a proscription against speaking or writing their names. Anyone who violated a geis was cursed with an evil spell. So the moon and the planets were referred to with euphemisms. That is why the Irish word for the moon is ‘gealach’ (‘Gealaí’ is the genitive singular form.), a euphemism that literally means ‘brightness.’

When Christianity supplanted Druidism, the new moon took on a new cosmic significance. Jesus Christ was born under a new moon. The beginning of the Savior’s life corresponded with the beginning of the life of the moon. So it is obvious that it is good luck whenever Christmas corresponds with the new moon. The next time the new moon occurs on Christmas will be December 25, 2000 at exactly 5:22 P.M. GMT. However, the good year will mostly be in 2001 since the Irish year begins in November and ends in October.

Tuar maith don athbhlianin na píobairí teallaigh a chloisteáil Lá Nollaig.

Tuar maith don athbhlianin na píobairí teallaigh a chloisteáil Lá Nollaig.

It is a good omen for the coming year to hear crickets on Christmas Day.

Note: If an American heard crickets on Christmas Day, then she would probably make a note to call the exterminator. However, the Irish have a tradition of augury going back to the ancient Druids.

When Dio Chrysostom [born AD 40, died AD 111] said that the Druids were ‘well versed in the art of seers and prophets’ he was simply stating general knowledge of his day. From the earliest Greek and Roman sources it was claimed that the Druids practiced auguries, could foretell the future and ‘interpret nature’. The reputation of the Druids as seers, prophets, diviners and augurers is confirmed by a Celtic writer of the first century B.C. Trogus [The Celtic word ‘Trog’ evolved into the modern Irish word ‘trua’ meaning ‘miserable’.] Pompeius … who wrote … in Latin … with some obvious personal pride and authority, ‘the Gauls excel all others in the skill of augury’.

Peter Berresford Ellis, The Druids, Willam B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1994, pp. 220-221.

That crickets would be a good omen on Christmas Day is hinted at by the Irish word for cricket, ‘píobaire an teallaigh,’ which literally means ‘the piper of the fireplace.’ (‘Teallaigh’ is the genitive singular form of ‘teallach.’) Another word for cricket is ‘píobaire gríosí’ which literally means ‘the piper of the hot ashes (embers)’, i.e., meaning the same as the other word for cricket. ‘ (‘Gríosaí’ is the genitive singular form of ‘gríosach.’) It is, therefore, natural to believe that it is good luck to have a band of insect pipers around your hearth celebrating the birth of the Saviour.

Súil le cúiteamh a mhilleas an cearrbhac.

Súil le cúiteamh a mhilleas an cearrbhac.

Hoping to recoup ruins the gambler.

Note: There is a theological position and a set of mathematical theorems implicit in this week’s proverb. This proverb is not a call to ban gambling. The word ‘cearrbhach’ also means card player. Compare this seanfhocal to a popular English proverb, “Cards are the Devil’s books,” a word play on the seventeenth century name for a deck of cards, “the King’s books” from the French livre des quatre. Presbyterian preachers of the era used this proverb to convey their proscription against card playing. In contrast, this week’s seanfhocal is a proscription against dumb card playing.

This proverb expresses the mathematical certainty that if you gamble against the house long enough, then you will lose, and lose everything. The eminent French, seventeenth-century mathematicians Blaise Pascal and Pierre de Fermat failed in efforts to determine a gambling technique to beat the Casinos at Monte Carlo. (As a by-product of trying to beat the house, they created the mathematical discipline known as Probability Theory.) The famous nineteenth century Russian mathematician, A. Ya. Khintchine showed how the house’s advantage in terms of relative stake ultimately leads to a “gambler’s ruin”. Khintchine was also the first to discover the Law of Large Numbers. Ludwig von Mises, the famous ninteenth century economist, showed how no gambling strategy, other than to exit shortly after entering a game, could overcome the house’s odds.

Edward Thorp, an American mathematician, showed in the 1950s, that the odds (when you include vigorish) of all the games in the Casino favor the Casino. Thorp and others combined this empirical fact with von Mises Theorem, with the Law of Large Numbers, and the theory of “Gambler’s Ruin” to prove that if you play against the house long enough, then you will with certainty, eventually, lose everything.

Since this seanfhocal obviously predates Thorp, than we can assume that Irish folk wisdom acquired this axiomatic truth the hard way, by losing. So if you are gambling and losing, cut your losses and quit playing before you lose everything. There is a variation of this seanfhocal that looks at winning, “Súil le breis a mhilleann an cearrbhac.” (Hoping for more ruins the gambler.) In other words, if you are gambling and winning, take the money and run. Otherwise, you will eventually lose it all. In the long run, you simply can not beat the house.

Ní huasal ná íseal ach thuas seal agus thíos seal.

Ní huasal ná íseal ach thuas seal agus thíos seal.

It is not upper class or lower class, but up a while and down awhile.

Note: Ancient Irish society had a caste system where birth determined your social class. For example, the son of a Druid, i.e., a member of the intelligensia, was deemed to be a Druid, just as the son of Brahmin in Hindu culture was a Brahmin. Unlike other cast societies, however, Irish individuals could move between classes. The son, or daughter for that matter, of a peasant could become a Druid. This cultural value of social mobility is combined with a sense of luck or fortune in this proverb. It warns the well-off and comforts the not-so-well-off that their good (bad) fortune could be reversed soon.

Note also: There is an interesting play on the words ‘up’ and ‘down’ in this proverb. While the seanfhocal suggests that one’s socio-economic position is constantly changing, it uses adverbs that describe fixed positions. Your position in life may be fixed for now, but it can change later.

‘Thuas’ means ‘up’ in the sense that something is fixed above the position of the speaker, while ‘thíos’ has the same fixed sense but in the opposite direction. For example, if someone is standing at the top of the stairs, and you are at the bottom of the stairs, then you might say,”Tá sé thuas an staighre.” (He is up the stairs.)

In all, Irish has three words for ‘up’ and three words for ‘down’. The “extra” words are used to show movement either towards or away from the speaker. For example, if you are downstairs and someone is going upstairs, then you would say “Tá sí ag dul suas an staighre.” (She is going up the stairs.)

Is iomaí cor sa tsaol.

Is iomaí cor sa tsaol.

There is many a twist in life.

Note: The French might say “C’est la vie” to express the same idea. One must accept what has already happened as “fate”; but everything is subject to change. The ups and downs of our fortunes are natural and part of the fabric of life.

Niorbh a fhiú a dhath ariamh a bhfuarthas in aisgidh.

Niorbh a fhiú a dhath ariamh a bhfuarthas in aisgidh.

Nothing free is ever appreciated.

Note: Thanks and a Daltaí tip of the cap to Ciarán Ó Duibhín for this week’s proverb. It is a good example of Irish idiom. The first idiom is the common expression “a dhath,” which literally means “its color.” However, it translates into English as “any,” “anything,” or, with the negative — “nothing.” So “Niorbh fhiú a dhath” could be translated as “Nothing would be [of] worth.”

The word ‘ariamh’ is an older form of the word ‘riamh’ which means ‘ever’ in this context. “Niorbh fhiú a dhath ariamh” = “Nothing would ever be [of] worth.”.

Next follows an indirect relative clause, “a bhfuarthas in aisgidh.” It is indirect because it is in a genitive relation to the subject of this proverb, ‘nothing.’ “Fuarthas” is the past impersonal (or autonomous) form of the verb ‘faigh.’ The relative article, ‘a,’ causes the eclipsis, “a bhfuarthas.” It means “which one got.”

Finally, the last idiom is given here in a petrified form, “in aisgidh.” The modern form is ‘in aisce.’ ‘Asice’ usually means a ‘favor,’ a ‘request,’ or a ‘gift.’ However, ‘in aisce’ means ‘for nothing’ or ‘gratis.’ So we have the following more literal translation, “Nothing which one got for nothing would ever be [of] worth .”

Ná comhair do chuid sicíní sula dtagann siad amach.

Ná comhair do chuid sicíní sula dtagann siad amach.

Don’t count your chickens before they are hatched.

Note: Obviously, the English borrowed this proverb from the Irish. This reminds us of the story about the travelling salesman who was driving through the Irish countryside. Suddenly he heard a thump. Immediately, he stopped the car and got out to see what had happened. To his utter chagrin, he realized he had killed someone’s prize rooster. Looking down the road, he saw a woman hanging wash in front of her house. He approached the woman with the rooster’s corpse in his hand. He said, “I’m sorry, a Bhean Uasal. I killed you rooster and I’d like to replace him.” “Suit yourself,” said the woman, “the hen house is in the back.”

Is buaine focal ná toice an tsaoil.

Is buaine focal ná toice an tsaoil.

A word is more enduring than worldy wealth.

Note: This proverb is to be expected of a culture that has the oldest continuous literary tradition in Western Europe. The ancient Celtic culture held the Seanchaí (story-teller) in highest esteem. The word ‘seanchaí’ literally means ‘custodian of tradition.’ In the dark ages of Europe, Irish monks’ love of the word preserved the great works of the ancient world, including writings of the Greeks, Romans, Hebrews, and Arabs.

The Irish tradition of valuing words above wealth is well known in the English speaking world. For example, James Joyce has two books in the top ten of the Modern Libary’s 100 Best Twentieth Century English Novels; #1. Ulysses, and #3. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Joyce had a third book make the top 100, #77. Finnegans Wake. Joyce was born in Rathgar in 1882 and died virtually penniless in Zurich in 1941. Joyce is but one of a galaxy of Irish stars in the English literary universe.

But there is another universe of Irish writers for whom this seanfhocal is most apt, those who choose to write for the smaller body of contemporary Irish language readers. Some wrote in both the English and Irish languages, like Brendan Behan, Mícheál Mac Liamóir, Brian Nualláin (nee Myles na gCopaleen) and Liam Ó Flaherty. Others chose to write exclusively in the language of their heritage, like Seosamh Mac Grianna, Máirtin Ó Cadhain, Pádraic Ó Conaire, Séamus Ó Grianna, and Muiris Ó Súilleabháin. And these are just some of the novelists. Tá ár mbuíochas is mo tuillte acu!

Déanann seilbh sásamh.

Déanann seilbh sásamh.

Possession makes (for) satisfaction.

Note: An English language saying which expresses a similar thought would be “possession is nine-tenths of the law”. When ownership is disputed, he or she who has possession will enjoy the benefits of the property.The other claimants can only comfort themselves with dreams of dispossessing their rivals and claiming the prize for themselves. Everyone wants to be “king of the hill”, even if for just a fleeting moment.

Déanann sparán trom croí éadrom.

Déanann sparán trom croí éadrom.

A heavy purse makes (for) a light heart.

Note: This seanfhocal celebrates the things that money can buy, particularly freedom from material want. Perhaps “money can’t buy happiness”, but poverty is surely no guarantee of bliss.

Note also: The Irish antonyms (opposites) for “heavy” and “light” are obviously related. The basic form is “trom” (heavy) which is converted to its opposite by prefixing “éa…” yielding “éadrom” (light). The change of the ‘t’ in “trom” to a ‘d’ in “éadrom” is just due to a normal shift in pronunciation, and does not occur in some dialects.

Is fearr an tsláinte ná na táinte.

Is fearr an tsláinte ná na táinte.

Health is better than wealth.

Note: The two ryhming words in this seanfhocal are both of interest. The word “sláinte” (the “t” is prefixed in the above phrase for grammatical reasons) is also the traditional toast, meaning “To your health”. It is claimed that this is the original toast from which all others on the planet descended. The word “táinte”, meaning wealth, originally referred to (a herd of) cattle which was the basis of wealth in ancient Ireland.

Ní baol don bhacach an gadaí.

Ní baol don bhacach an gadaí.

The thief is no threat to the beggar(man).

Note: This seanfhocal notes one of the “simple joys” of the poor. One of the disadvantages of wealth is that it can be taken from you. The poor are blissfully free of such anxieties, although there are perhaps other worries which can trouble them.