Cart

Recent Posts

Featured Products

Personal Qualities/Types of People

Bíonn gach duine go lách go dtéann bó ina gharraí.

Bíonn gach duine go lách go dtéann bó ina gharraí.

b’iːn gax di’n-ə gə deːn boː in- ə É£ar-iː

Everybody is good natured until a cow goes into his garden.

Note: Dorothy Parker, the American journalist, once described ‘guts’ as grace under pressure. Goethe said a talent is formed in stillness, a character in the world’s torrent. In a similar vein, this week’s proverb points out that the real test of one’s character comes in times of adversity. Anyone can be good natured when times are good. Only those with ‘guts,’ will remain good natured when their garden has been destroyed by errant bovine behavior.

Cuir síoda ar ghabhar agus is gabhar i gcónaí é.

Cuir síoda ar ghabhar agus is gabhar i gcónaí é.

kir’ s’iː-də er É£aur ag-əs
is gaur i goːn-iː eː

Put silk on a goat and it is still a goat.

Note: You can not make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. This English proverb was more about class distinction than our Irish proverb. It goes back to the sixteenth century where purses were actually made for the masses out of pigs’ ears. Only the nobility could afford a purse made out of silk. Hence, a silk purse became an earmark of nobility.

Our Irish proverb is more about accepting who you are, than about discriminating between classes. An ape’s an ape, a varlet’s a varlet, though they be clad in silk or scarlet. The higher the monkey climbs the more he shows his tail. Pretending to be who you are not, exposes your weaknesses, as the poet Alexander Pope wrote,

The higher you climb, the more you shew your A__. Verified in no instance more than Dulness aspiring. Emblematized also by an Ape climbing and exposing his posteriors.
     Dunciad 1743.

Pretending to be who you are not, exposes you to ridicule, as the director Woody Allen makes clear in his film, Small Time Crooks.

Is glas iad na cnoc i bhfad uainn.

Is glas iad na cnoc i bhfad uainn.

is glas iəd nə knik i vad uən’

Distant hills look green.

Note: An American variant of this week’s proverb is, “The grass is always greener in the other fellow’s yard”. We saw a similar seanfhocal earlier, “Bíonn adharca fada ar na ba i gcéin”. (Long horns are [always] on the cows abroad.) Both of these express a cynicism that was justified, at least with respect to America. For most Irish immigrants, America, especially in the nineteenth century, was just a different horror from the one they left behind. Many would escape early death in Ireland to find it in America; excavating the Erie canal, mining coal in Pennsylvania, laying track for the railroads, fighting for the Army, or succumbing to disease in the squalid Irish tenements of New York and Boston.

Note also: The pronunciation of the word ‘cnoic’ (hills) strays a bit from ‘an Lárchanúint’ (the core dialect). ‘An Lárchanúint’ was created for teaching purposes in the early 1980s from the three major dialects of Irish: Munster, Connacht, and Ulster. It is an amalgam of these dialects, containing pronunciations common to them all. Under the spelling conventions of ‘an Lárchanúint’, the letters ‘oi’ are usually pronounced as the short vowel sound o, e.g., coill, soir, goic. So the ‘Lárchanúint’ pronunciation of ‘cnoic’ should be knok´ or knoik. The second k sound is slender, and, therefore, is usually preceded with a barely perceptible short vowel sound i, called a y-glide. However, speakers from all the major dialects have promoted the y-glide to the medial vowel to form knik´. This is to emphasize the plural number of ‘cnoic’. ‘Cnoc’ (knok) is the singular form.

And still, if you listen carefully, you will hear the speaker deviate further from ‘an Lárchanúint’, saying krik instead of knik. This is a regional variation. Speakers of the Munster dialect will tend to say knik while speakers from Ulster and Connacht will tend to say krik. This is true of these dialects for all words with the letter ‘n’ following any another consonant except the letter s, e.g.:

  • cnámh (cra:v) bone
  • gnaoi (gri:) liking
  • gníomh (g´r´i:v) deed
  • mná (mra:) women
  • tnúth (tru:h) envy.

Some samples of how this regional rule does not change the sound of ‘sn’ are: snámh (sna:v) swim, snáth (sna:h) thread, sníomh (s´n´i:v) spin, snoíodóir (sni:-do:r´) sculptor. Linguists call this phenomenon denasalization, replacing the alveolar nasal phoneme with the corresponding nonlateral alveolar liquid phoneme. There is a reverse phenomenon in Old Irish called nasalization, ach sin scéal eile.

Aithníonn ciaróg ciaróg eile.

Aithníonn ciaróg ciaróg eile.

ah-n’iːən k’iər-oːg k’iər-oːg el’-ə

A beetle recognizes another beetle.

Note: This seanfhocal can be used dismissively (as in “It takes one to know one”), or as a sign of comraderie (as in “Birds of a feather flock together”).

Is minic cuma aingeal ar an Diabhal féin.

Is minic cuma aingeal ar an Diabhal féin.

is m’in-ək’ kum-ə aŋ-g’el
er’ ən d’iə-vəl f’em’

There is often the look of an angel on the Devil himself.

Note: A familiar English expression with a similar meaning would be the reference to someone as a wolf in sheep’s clothing. The Irish word cuma has the meaning of shape, form or appearance. Although the camera may not lie, the usage here amounts to an outright affirmation of the fact that appearances are deceiving.

Is é an duine an t-éadach.

Is é an duine an t-éadach.

s’ə en din’ -ə ən t’e-dəx

The man (person) is the clothes.

Note: A familiar English language equivalent would be “The clothes make the man”. Of course, since this seanfhocal originated at a time when the clothing was all made by women, this is also a subtle way of saying that a man is only as good as the women in his life.

Nuair a bhíonn an fíon istigh, bíonn an ciall amuigh.

Nuair a bhíonn an fíon istigh, bíonn an ciall amuigh.

nuər’ ə v’iː-ən
ən f’iːn ə-s’t’iɣ
b’iː-ən ən k’iəl ə-miɣ

When the wine is in(side), the sense is out(side).

Note: Clearly this is an admonition about the dangers of consuming alcohol. Most people accept it in good humor, however, since it only mentions “fíon” (wine) and leaves stout, beer and “uisce beatha” unscathed.

Note also: The seanfhocal employs the words “istigh” (the state of being inside) and “amuigh” (the state of being outside). Irish generally makes distinctions between movement towards a location and presence in that location. In English, one could sat that a person went “in” the door and then was “in” the room. In Irish, on the other hand, “istigh” would be used when saying that someone was “in” the room. To indicate the action of going “in”, a different word (isteach) would have to be used. These distinctions are made throughout the language in ways that are sure to delight a Béarla-trained mind.

Ní fearr bia ná ciall.

Ní fearr bia ná ciall.

Ní fearr bia ná ciall

Food is not better than sense.

Note: The sense of this seanfhocal is that it is better to have sense (good judgment) which is permanent than food for just today. With enough good sense, you can always get more of what you need, such as food.

Is doimhin é poll an amhrais.

Is doimhin é poll an amhrais.

Deep is the hole of doubt.

Note: “Doubts are more cruel that the worst of truths.” Jean Baptiste Poquelin Moliére, Le Misanthrope, Act III, Scene vii. Doubts can cripple you. They can freeze you into inaction. Falling into doubt can be like falling into a deep hole; it is hard to get out.

Attempt the end, and never stand to doubt;
Nothing’s so hard but search won’t find out.
     Robert Herrick, Heperides

Or in the words of copy writer for a more modern sneaker manufacturer, “Just do it.”

Note also: Proverbs are like fossils. They tend to preserve old forms. This week’s proverb is no exception with the spelling of the word “doimhin.” This was the most common spelling for the Irish word for ‘deep,’ before the official standard spelling was introduced in the 1940’s. The official spelling is ‘domhain.’ However, the official spelling for the genitive form is the more retrograde ‘doimhne.’

Seachnaíonn súil ní nach bhfeiceann.

Seachnaíonn súil ní nach bhfeiceann.

An eye evades a thing it does not see.

Note: There are a number of English versions of this proverb.

  • What the eye sees not, the heart craves not.
  • What the eye does not see, the heart does not grieve over.
  • Ignorance is bliss.
  • Out of sight, out of mind.

Many languages also have a version or two of this proverb.

  • Celtic Languages:
    • I bhfad as amharc, i gcian as intinn. Irish
      (Out of sight, out of mind.) Béarlachas?
    • An rud ná cloieseann an chluas ní chuireann sé buairt ar an gcroí. Irish
      (What the ear does not hear does not worry the heart.)
    • An té a bhíos amuigh fuaraíonn a chuid. Irish
      (Whoever is often out, his part grows cold.)
    • Fada bhon t-sùil, fada bhon chride. Scots Gaelic
      (Far from the eye, far from the heart.)
    • As an t-sealladh, às a chuimhne. Scots Gaelic
      (Out of sight, out of mind.)
    • Ass shiley, ass smooinagtyn. Manx
      (Out of sight, out of mind.)
    • Allan o olwg, allan o feddwl. Welch
      (Out of sight, out of mind.)
  • Germanic Languages:
    • Was ich nicht weiss macht mich nicht heiss. German
      (What I don’t know does not make me hot.)
    • Aus den Augen, aus dem Sinn. German
      (Out of sight, out of mind.)
    • Langt fra Öine, snart af Sinde. Danish
      (Out of sight, out of mind.)
    • Uit het oog, uit het hart. Dutch
      (Out of sight, out of mind.)
  • Romance Languages:
    • Loin des yeux, loin de coeur. French
      (Out of sight, out of mind.)
    • Qui procul ab oculis, procul a limite cordis. Latin (Out of sight, out of mind.)

We may never know in which language this proverb originated, but we must admit that the Irish version above is original. Using the verb, seachain (meaning avoid, evade, or shun), suggests that the eye is pulled to things it can see and is pushed from things it can not see. It is a bit more mystical than the expression, “Out of sight, out of mind.”

Mol an lá um thránóna.

Mol an lá um thránóna.

Praise the day in the evening.

Note: This popular proverb has been encapsulated in the English expression, “At the end of the day, …” Do not be hasty to praise or even comment on an event, a life, or a period of time while it is in progress. It could change later and make you wrong.

  • Mol an latha math mu oidhche. — Scots Gaelic
  • Moyle y laa mie fastyr (mu fheasgar). — Manx
  • Ruse the fair day at night. — Scots
  • Praise day and night, and life at the end. — English
  • La vita il fine e ‘l dì loda la sera — Italian
  • Schönen Tag soll man loben, wenn es Nacht ist. — German

Perhaps, Alexander Pope said it best. “Some praise at morning what they blame at night, But always think the last opinion right.” An Essay on Criticism. 1711.

Ní hiad na fir mhóra a bhaineas an fomhar i gcónaí.

Ní hiad na fir mhóra a bhaineas an fomhar i gcónaí.

It is not the great men that always reap the harvest.

Note: Strength is not everything. Even though the bards sing about the exploits of great men, like Fionn and the Fianna, the warrior class of ancient Irish society would not have existed without the farmer. It is the farmer, who reaps the harvest. It is the farmer who was the foundation of the ancient Irish political unit, the tuath. While the tuath was dominated by the neimhidh, the privileged people, i.e., warriors, artisans, bards, priests, etc. it was the farmers who had the greatest numbers. It was the farmer who counted most. This proverb recognizes their unheralded greatness.

Is trom an rud cearc i bhfad.

Is trom an rud cearc i bhfad.

A hen [carried] far is a heavy thing.

Note: Anything carried a long distance becomes a heavy burden. The notion that easy physical burdens can become exhausting over time would be obvious to any rural farmer. What is not so obvious is that psychological burdens carried a long time can be a heavy thing too. Guilt, anger, fear, hate, and such are natural emotions that come upon us from time to time. In fact, Irish idiom recognizes that these emotions are a burden. For example, in Irish one would literally say, ‘Fear is on you.’ But at some point, you need to let go of these burdens. This proverb could used as a gentle nudge to someone who has carried such a burden too long, to give it up. Lighten up.

Más cam nó díreach an ród, ‘s é an bothar mór an t-aicearra.

Más cam nó díreach an ród, ‘s é an bothar mór an t-aicearra.

Whether the road is crooked or straight,the main road is the short cut.

(Alternatively: The longest way round is the shortest way home.)

Note: For the Gael, the short cut is always supreme, but for the Gall (foreigner) it is to be avoided. Another Irish version of this week’s proverb has the same meaning, “Cam díreach an ród is é an bealach mór.” Through the centuries, the Gaels’ peripatetic journeys tended to be on feet unencumbered by shoes. Even in the twentieth century, a Donegal man living all his life in Clonmany, in the northeast corner of the Inishowen peninsula, recalled,

My father hardly wore shoes or boots about the house in the summer-time. And it wasn’t him alone but everybody else of his time. I knew a man in my time to get married in the second pair of shoes ever went on his feet. I wore no shoes myself when I was young. The men and women used to carry the shoes on their shoulder when going to the chapel until they got as far as Skeeog, and then they would put them on. They would take them off again on their way home.

Charles McGlinchey, The Last of the Name, The Blackstaff Press, 1986, p. 17.

Given this penchant of the Gael for perambulation unfettered by pedal protection, any path that minimizes foot falls is to be preferred.

The Gall, on the other hand, shod in boots, sandals, or shoes, prefers the safest way to the shortest path. This preference can be inferred in the English proverb, “The longest way round is the shortest way home.” The Viscount of St. Albans, the English philosopher Francis Bacon, was more explicit. “It is in life, as it is in ways, the shortest way is commonly the foulest, and surely the faire way is not much about.” (The Advancement of Learning, 1605.) Another English proverb warns, “Better go about than fall into a ditch.” These sentiments were expressed in an ancient Latin proverb, “Short cuts are long ways around.”

Is deacair a bheith ag feadaíl agus ag ithe mine.

Is deacair a bheith ag feadaíl agus ag ithe mine.

It is hard to whistle and eat at the same time.

Note: Every year on the fourth Thursday in November people in the United States of America, wherever they may live, gather their clans together for a great feast, called Thanksgiving. It celebrates the first harvest of the Puritans in the New World. Traditionally, a large turkey is roasted and eaten along with potatoes, turnips, carrots, onions, and other garden delicacies. After dinner, it is customary for the family to root for their favorite American football team. A snack during the game is not unusual. Those who snack during the game would do well to keep this proverb in mind.

Of course, this week’s seanfhocal is actually to remind you that you can not do two things at once. Perhaps, the more widely known version of this seanfhocal is “Ní féidir le aon duine a bheith ag feadaíl agus ag ithe mine.” (One can’t whistle and drink at the same time.) However, this version comes from the West of Ireland, where, apparently, people are more confident of their capabilities. It may be hard to whistle and eat simultaneously, but it is not impossible for someone from the West.

Note also: The genitive case is used after a verbal noun, i.e., “ag ithe mine”. The word ‘mine’ is the genitive singular of ‘min,’ the word for ‘meal’ as in corn meal (min bhuí), oatmeal (min choirce), wheatmeal (min chruithneachta), barley meal (min eorna), rye-meal (min seagail). So, literally, this seanfhocal translates “It is hard to be whistling and eating meal.” There are three verbal nouns in this proverb, ‘bheith’ (be), ‘feadaíl’ (whistle), and ‘ithe’ (eat). Put the preposition ‘ag’ in front of a verbal noun and it becomes a gerund, e.g., ‘ag feadaíl’ (whistling), ‘ag ithe’ (eating). In any case, a verbal noun acts like a noun. So whether it is two nouns, e.g., ‘min choirce’ (literally, ‘meal of oats’) or a verbal noun and another noun, ‘ag ithe mine’ (literally, ‘eating of meal’), the modifying noun must be in the genitive case.

Is déirce dá chuid féin don amadán.

Is déirce dá chuid féin don amadán.

His own share is charity to the fool.

Note: This oxymoron is also loosely translated as the Hiberno-English expression “feeding the dog his tail.” It is an absurdity used to lampoon circular arguments and those who make them. In the Irish, it has the subtle recursive property of imputing that the person making such a specious argument is, of course, a fool. The fool is saying that something he gave himself is charity. It is a most uncharitable rejoinder.

The sting of this week’s seanfhocal hinges on the idiomatic expression “dá chuid,” which is a contraction of “de a chuid” (literally: from his share). Ancient Celts where a communal people who operated as a tribe or clann. All members of the clann contributed to the wealth of the clann, from the farmers, to the warriors, to the druids. Each was therefore deserving of a share.

Hence the Irish word for share, portion, or part, ‘cuid’ is used in many expressions, especially those involving possession. There are no possessive pronouns in Irish, e.g., there is no direct Irish word for ‘mine’ or ‘yours.’ The Irish equivalent for ‘mine’ is ‘mo chuid’ while ‘yours’ is ‘do chuid.’ So, technically, this seanfhocal uses ‘a chuid’ to mean ‘his,’ the possessive pronoun, not the possessive adjective ‘his’ as in ‘his books.’ Possessive adjectives in Irish also require the use of ‘cuid’ when modifying certain nouns, . . . ach sin scéal eile.

Ní thagann ciall roimh aois.

Ní thagann ciall roimh aois.

n’iː hag-ən k’iəl riv’ iːs’

Sense does not come before age.

Note: This is not meant to insult the young by implying that youthfulness always equates to foolishness. Rather, it is a reminder that life’s most important lessons can only be truly “learned” from experience. They cannot be absorbed by merely hearing or reading about the exploits of others. In the end, there is no better training academy than the proverbial “School of Hard Knocks”.

Is fearr filleadh as lár an áthe ná bá sa tuile.


Is fearr filleadh as lár an áthe ná bá sa tuile.

It is better to back out of the middle of the ford than to be drowned in the flood.

Note: This week’s proverb, like many others, may have come from Scotland. The Scots Gaelic version is strikingly similar to the Irish one above. “Is fheàrr tilleadh am meadhan an àtha nà bàthadh uile.” (Better turn mid-ford than be drowned.) “Better wade back mid-water than gang forrat and droun.” — Scots. Better safe than sorry. In any case, this is a proverb that the Gaels share with the Dutch. “Beter ten halve gekeerd dan ten heele gedwaald.”

Note also: Scots Gaelic is nearer to the Ulster Irish dialect than any other. For example, the Ulster version of this proverb is as follows. “Is fearr pilleadh as lár an atha ná bathadh ‘sa tuile.” One of Grimm’s Law states that as languages evolve there is a tendency for the voiceless bilabial stop, p, to change to the voiceless labiodental fricative, f. This implies that the Irish word ‘pilleadh’ is an older form than the standard (caidhgeán) Irish word ‘filleadh.’

The Ulster word is pronounced p’ilu: while the Scots equivalent is pronounced t’ilu:. Both begin with a slender voiceless stop and end with the exact same sound, ilu:. On the other hand ‘filleadh’ begins with a fricative and ends with a schwa, both different from the Ulster and Scots pronunciations. In phonetic spelling given under the seanfhocal above, the schwa looks like an upside down ‘e.’ All three words have the stress placed on the first syllable, typical of Scots Gaelic, caidhgeán Irish, and Ulster Irish. The caidhgeán word, ‘filleadh,’is mostly used in Munster and Connnacht dialects.

Glaonn gach coileach go dána ar a atrainn fhéin.

Glaonn gach coileach go dána ar a atrainn fhéin.

Every cock crows boldly in his own farmyard.

Note: We have run into this notion of being bold in your own home before. Is teann gach madra gearr i ndoras a thí féin. It is a common proverb across Europe. For example, “Is ladarna coileach air ótrach fhéin.” — Scots Gaelic. “Every cock craws crousest on his ain midden.” — Scots. “Chein sur son fumier est gardi.” — French. “Cada gallo canta en su muladar.” — Spanish. “Een haan is stout op zijn eigen erf.” — Dutch. “Gallus in suo sterquilinio plurimum potest.” — Latin (Seneca). All of these would translate into English as, “A cock is bold on his own dunghill.”

Note also: Compare the Scots Gaelic (Gàidhlig) proverb to its Irish Gaelic (Gaeilge) equivalent.

Gàidlig: Is ladarna coileach air ótrach fhéin.
Gaeilge: Is dána coileach ar a atrainn fhéin.

The Scots adapted the Scots Gaelic word “ladarna” for bold or audiacious from the roman word “latro.” Another Scots Gaelic word for bold is ‘dána.’ The Irish Gaelic word ‘atrainn’ is an archaic dative form. Its standard nominative spelling is ‘otrann,’ which also means dungyard as well as farmyard. So you could substitute these words into these proverbs.

Gàidhlig: Is dána coileach air ótrach fhéin.
Gaeilge: Is dána coileach ar a otrann fhéin.

This illustrates that at one time these two Gaelic languages were the same language, with minor dialectical variations.

Is teann gach madra gearr i ndoras a thí féin.

Is teann gach madra gearr i ndoras a thí féin.

Every terrier is bold in the door of its house.

Note: This seanfhocal is very similar to the English proverb, ‘Every dog is a lion at home.’ There are two ways to interpet it. The extreme lion metaphor conjures an image of bravado, a false courage, as in the lion in “The Wizard of Oz,” or Christy Mann in “The Playboy of the Western World.” However, the terrier (madra gearr: literally short dog) subject, a breed known for its intelligence, courage, and tenacity, suggests someone who will defend home and hearth to the death where discretion might prevail elsewhere.

Note also: One could rewrite this seanfhocal, ‘Bíonn gach madra gearr teann i ndoras a thí féin.’ The first few words of this more usual grammatical form tell you that this sentence is about terriers. Suppose, however, you use this week’s alternative grammatical construct, ‘Is [adjective] [noun]…’ Now the first words you hear are ‘Is teann …’ You immediately know that this alternative sentence is about boldness. Therefore, by shifting word order you have naturally shifted emphasis. This method of combining the verb ‘Is’ with a word at the begining of a sentence to show emphasis is called ‘fronting’.

Is fearr rith maith ná droch-sheasamh.

Is fearr rith maith ná droch-sheasamh.

A good run(ning) is better than a bad stand(ing).

Note: The English language equivalent is “It is better to turn and run away and live to fight another day”. This seanfhocal is handy justification once one has already decided to flee the field of battle. Whatever happened to the concepts of a glorious defeat and death with honor?

Ní bhíonn saoi gan locht.

Ní bhíonn saoi gan locht.

There is no wise man without fault.

Note: A comparable English proverb is “Homer sometimes nods.” Perhaps Pliny said it best, “No man is wise at all times.” Pliny deliberately uses the word “man” to talk about wisdom. Like most ancient Romans, he thought wisdom was an exclusive attribute of men. In contrast, the Irish word “saoi” used to mean one who was the head of a monastic order. For Roman Catholics, that position could only be held by a man. However, for earlier druids, the word could be used to refer to a male or a female who attained such a position reserved for those of great wisdom.

Note also: The habitual present form of the verb “to be” is used, namely “bíonn.” This tense is used to describe situations that are usually the case. So the nuance of the verb for this proverb is that it is usually the case that there is no wise person without fault. (This truth is at the heart of the attack campaign which has become such an integral part of American politics.) A negative particle demands the following verb be lenited, hence the form, “Ní bhíonn…

Níor chuaigh fial riamh go hIfreann.

Níor chuaigh fial riamh go hIfreann.

No generous person ever went to hell.

Note: Generosity is a saving virtue. The subject of this week’s proverb, “fial,” is more often translated as an adjective than a noun. As an adjective, it literally means seemly, proper, or noble, but its more usual meaning is generous or hospitable. As a substantive noun, it takes the meaning given here, a generous person.

Consider however, the equivocal nature of this adjective. It could mean generous or it could mean proper. Implicit in the equivocality this Irish word is an Irish cultural value; it is proper and noble to be generous and hospitable.

Dineen also translates “fial” as “liberal,” both as an adjective and as a noun. The word liberal used to be an English synonym for generous or one who is generous, one who understands what the French have called noblesse oblige. In spite of the fact that no liberal ever went to hell, however, a liberal has become a political bete noire. Is mora trua é sin.

Ní thuigeann an sách an seang.

Ní thuigeann an sách an seang.

The well-fed (person) does not understand the slender (person).

Note: This is a tragic seanfhocal. There are a couple of variants of it that suggest that its meaning is deeper than the literal one given above. It is about more than a misunderstanding by the corpulent of the cadaverous. One variant is, “Ní thuigeann an sách an seang, nuair a bhíonn a bholg féin teann.” This literally means, the well-fed one does not understand the slender one, when his stomach is usually taut. In other words, the well-fed do not understand hunger.

Another variant is, “Ní mhothaíonn an sách an seang.” The verb ‘mothaigh’ can be translated as either ‘feel’ or ‘hear.’ Use either English transitive verb and it suggests that the satiated simply do not care about the starved. This attitude is, perhaps, epitomized in the historical figure of Sir Charles Edward Trevelyan, K.C.B., who in 1846 dismantled Peele’s relief scheme for famine-stricken Ireland because he said, “It was the only way to prevent the people from becoming habitually dependent on the government.”

Aithnítear cara i gcruatán.

Aithnítear cara i gcruatán.

A friend is known in hardship.

Note: Unlike a “fair weather friend” (who is no real friend at all), a true friend is one who stands by you in hard times.

Note also: If the verb tense here strikes you as being unfamiliar, it is the ever popular independent form of the present habitual.

Is fearr greim de choinín ná dhá ghreim de chat.

Is fearr greim de choinín ná dhá ghreim de chat.

On bite of a rabbit is better than two bites of a cat.

Note: This week’s proverb may seem at first glance to be obscure as well as macabre. You might ask yourself what sort of barbarian would eat a cat? With our tongue only slightly in our cheek, we can suggest that the answer is a hungry barbarian. Is maith an t-anlann an t-ocras. Of course, that is hard for us to understand in this Industrial Age. Ní thuigeann an sách an seang. Hunger will make a barbarian of us all. In any case, a rabbit is surely more tasty that a cat.

Perhaps, a less barbaric way to make this point is to use the English proverb, “Quality is better than quantity.” This proverb probably came from the Latin. Non multa sed multum. (Not quantity, but quality. Literally Not many, but much.) Lucius Annaeus Seneca wrote a letter in the first century of the last millennium that said, “It is quality rather than quantity that matters.” This is true in our case since a bite of a tasty rabbit is clearly preferable to two bites of a less tasty cat.

Trí saghas incheann: inchinn reatha, inchinn cloiche, inchinn chéarach.

Trí saghas incheann: inchinn reatha, inchinn cloiche, inchinn chéarach.

Three kinds of brains:
a running brain,
a rock brain,
a wax brain.

Note: Here is another Irish triplet. One could paraphrase this proverb. There are three kinds of brains; a working brain, a stubborn brain, and a receptive brain. A working brain is one that objectively, critically, and rationally analyses inputs to logically draw new conclusions. It can also intuitively create new concepts, new constructs, and new constructions.

On the other hand, a stubborn brain is like a rock. It does not change for anything. It does not change as circumstances change. It is fixed and immovable.

A receptive brain is like one made of wax. It can retain an impression of anything it comes into contact. A wax brain today might be called a photgraphic memory. It can dredge up any impression from the past. Unforetunately, it can not create any new ones. It can reproduce but it can not create.

What kind of brain do you have? Make it a working brain. Study Irish. Exercise your cerebrum regularly at an Irish class near you. You will be glad you did. Labhair Gaeilge linn.

Is iomaí fear fada a bhíonns lag ina lár.

Is iomaí fear fada a bhíonns lag ina lár.

Many a tall man has a weak middle.

Note: In English one might say, “The bigger they are, the harder they fall.” Ironically, this English aphorism was made popular in the 1900s by a Celtic fighter named Robert Fitzsimmons, born May 26, 1863 in the town of Helston in Cornwall. Fitzsimmons was a middleweight with a height of 5 feet, 11 3/4 inches. He weighed between 150 and 175 in his fighting days. Fitzsimmons took the heavyweight crown from a larger Gentlemen Jim Corbett, with a height of 6 feet and 1 1/2 inches. Corbett boxed at a weight between 173 and 190 pounds.

However, Fitzsimmons later discovered , “The bigger they are, the harder they hit.” Fitzsimmons lost the crown to an even larger James J. Jeffries. He knocked Fitzsimmons out in the eighth round. Jeffries was a tall man, 6 foot, 2 1/2 inches. His weight varied from between 206 to 280 pounds during his career. Jeffries won 18 fights to only one loss, to Jack Johnson, the first African American Heavyweight Champion. Jeffries won fifteen of his eighteen fights by knockouts.

This week’s Irish proverb is a little more practical then Fitzsimmons aphorism. It points out that the powerful can be defeated, not that they will. But, there is a chance. An té nach bhfuil láidir ní folair dó a bheith glic. For a Celtic warrior facing a taller opponent, it even suggests where to attack. Fitzsimmons defeated Corbett by creating the solar plexus punch. In other words, Fitzsimmons knocked out the taller Corbett by hitting him in his weak middle. However, in the case of an opponent like Jeffries, perhaps Fitzsimmons should have heeded another Irish proverb. Is fearr rith maith ná droch-sheasamh.

Dá fhada an lá tagann an tráthnóna.

Dá fhada an lá tagann an tráthnóna.

However long the day, the evening will come.

Variants: “Más fada an á tig an oíche faoi dheireadh.” (If the day is long, the night will come at last.) “Dá fhaid é an lá, tagann an oíche.” (However long the day, night will come.) “Dá fhada samhradh, tagann an geimhreadh.” (However long summer, winter will come.) Everything must come to an end. All good things must come to an end. The longest day must have an end. Non vien dì, che non venga sera. – Italian (There is no day without an evening.)

Note: In a sense, this Irish proverb can not be directly translated into English. This is because the Celt has a different world view than the Saxon. Each of these world views is embedded in each language. For the Saxon, night is the end of day. From the given English translation of this proverb, an English speaker might infer that no matter how good the day is, it will end. Or at least, the English speaker must infer that all things must end. However, for the Celt, night is the beginning of the day. Therefore, this proverb actually implies that no matter how bad the day is, a new one is coming, or, at least, tomorrow will be a new day.

Note also: There are four fundamental meanings of the initial word of this proverb, dá.

dá + eclipsed verb in the conditional mood
if, e.g., dá mbeadh an lá fada (if the day were long)
dá + eclipsed verb in the active mood
combination of preposition ‘do’ or ‘de’ + relative article ‘a’ — to or for or on whom or which, e.g., lá dá bhfaca mé é (day on which I saw it/him)
dá + noun
1. combination of preposition ‘do’ + possesive adjective ‘a,’ to or for his, hers, its, or theirs, e.g., dá lá (for his/her/its/their day), dá mhac (for his son)
2. combination of preposition ‘de’ + possesive adjective ‘a,’ of or from or off his, hers, its, or theirs, e.g., dá ceann (from her head)
dá + lenited abstract noun denoting degree
however, .e.g., dá mhéad (however much).

Of course, this last form appears in our proverb. ‘Fada’ is an abstract noun meaning length, distance, or duration, so ‘dá fhada’ means ‘however long.’

Na ceithre rud is measa amú; ceann tinn, béal seirbh, intinn bhuartha, agus poca folamh.

Na ceithre rud is measa amú; ceann tinn, béal seirbh, intinn bhuartha, agus poca folamh.

The four least useful things;
a headache, a bitter mouth,
a worried mind, and an empty pocket.

Note: What good is a headache? It doesn’t get you the riches of muscles aching from work.

When you’re lying awake with a dismal headache,
and repose is taboo’d by anxiety,
I conceive you may use, any language you choose
to indulge in, without impropriety.
     Gilbert & Sullivan, Iolanthe [1882], Act II.

What good is a bitter mouth? People will only dismiss what you say as sour grapes.

The Land of Faery,
…,
Where nobody gets old and bitter of tongue.
     W.B. Yeats, The Land of Heart’s Desire [1894].

What good is a worried mind? It won’t change things.

You’re only here for a short visit. Don’t hurry. Don’t worry. And be sure to smell the roses along the way.
     W.C. Hagen, The Walter Hagen Story [1956].

What good is an empty pocket? Yours isn’t the only one.

Mise Raifteirí an file
Lán dóchais agus grá
Le súile gan solas,
Le ciúnas gan chrá.

Ag dul siar ar m’aistear
Le solas mo chroí
Fann agus tuirseach
Go deireadh mo shlí.

Féach anois mé
Agus m’aghaidh ar bhalla
Ag seinm ceoil
Do phócaí folamh’.
     Antaine Raifeirí, [1784-1835] Raifeirí an File.

Note also: In the expression “na ceithre rud” the article, “na”, is plural while the noun, “rud”, is singular. When counting things, the rule is that the noun is usually in the singular, e.g., rud amháin, dhá rud, trí rud, ceithre rud, … However, the plural article is used to modify things counted from three to nineteen, e.g., na trí rud, na ceithre rud, … na naoi rud déag. Every other counted thing uses the singular particle, e.g., an rud amháin, an dhá rud, … an fiche rud, an ceithre chéad rud.

Trí ní is deacair a thuiscint; intleacht na mban, obair na mbeach, teacht agus imeacht na taoide.

Trí ní is deacair a thuiscint; intleacht na mban, obair na mbeach, teacht agus imeacht na taoide.

Three things hardest to understand;
the intellect of women, the work of the bees,
the coming and going of the tide.

Note: This is our first triad, a usually rhythmical form of seanfhocal that revolves around the mystical number three. Ancient Celts revered the number three. There were three cornerstones of the Druid universe; the earth, the water, and the sky. Three spiral designs appear in Celtic iconography as triskels (An example is shown here on the left). St. Patrick reinforced the sacred character of the number three when he introduced the theological concept of the Holy Trinity to the Irish.

Ní dhéanfadh an domhan capall rása d’asal.

Ní dhéanfadh an domhan capall rása d’asal.

The world would not make a race horse out of an ass (donkey).

Note: Perhaps, the most comparable English proverb is “Horses for courses.” People, like animals, have talents better suited for one thing than another. One has to accept the talents that a person has been given, and not try to make that person do something for which they are ill-suited. This should also be considered when assessing your own talents. As it was inscribed at the Delphic Oracle, “Know thyself.”

Note also: The verb in this week’s seanfhocal is in the conditional mood. Like the future tense of the indicative mood, the conditional mood is used to describe a state of being that has not occured. Therefore, the conditional form,

“Ní dhéanfadh an domhan … (The world could not …),”

is almost the same as the indicative future form,

“Ní dhéanfaidh an domhan … (The world will not …).”

Take the ‘i,’ as in indicative future, out the indicative future form and you get the conditional, at least in the second person (singular and plural) and third person singular.

Bíonn blás ar an mbeagán.

Bíonn blás ar an mbeagán.

Little things tend to be tasty.

Note: This seanfhocal runs counter to the concept that “bigger is better”. It brings to mind the English language proverb: “Good things come in small packages”. Of course, in this age of conspicuous consumption, if little things are tasty one might just be tempted to eat lots and lots of them.

Ní bhíonn beag bog.

Ní bhíonn beag bog.

Little (things) tend not to be soft.

Note: Small things (and people) are often thought of as being compact and hard. In Julius Caesar, for instance, portly men were felt to be complacent, while those who had a “lean and hungry look” were hard and dangerous.

Note also the slender “b” (written as b´ in the pronunciation key) in the word “beag” followed by a broad “b” (written as b in the pronunciation key) in the word “bog.” Listen after the slender b-sound in beag for a very weak i-sound (as in “sit”). It could be written phonetically as “bieg.” In contrast, the broad b in bog could be written phonetically as “buog.” The u-sound (as in “rule”) in bog is harder to hear because it is magnified and assimilated by the o-sound. This weak i-sound is typical after slender consonants while the weak u-sound is typical after broadz

Is minic a chealg briathra míne cailín críonna.

Is minic a chealg briathra míne cailín críonna.

Many a prudent girl was led astray with honeyed words.

Note: The translation given above of this week’s proverb may have been been influenced by the English poet, Elinor Hoyt Wylie. She wrote a poem in 1923 called Pretty Words with a more subtle warning;

Honeyed words like bees,
Gilded and sticky, with a little sting.

The above translation was given in Ó Dónaill’s Foclóir Gaeilge – Béarla. It appears to have softened the tone. The verb ‘cealg’ means ‘deceive’ while ‘led astray’ is more of a euphemism. Ironically, ‘cealg’ also means ‘sting,’ as when an insect bites. Is this the reason the translator in Ó Dónaill led the reader astray with a loose translation?

Honey is not actually mentioned in this proverb. Poetic license was apparently taken translating ‘míne.’ It does not mean honeyed. Maybe, the translator used it as a metphor for the genitive form of the noun ‘gentleness.’ Or perhaps it was a word play on the other meaning of ‘caelg.’ “Words of gentleness stung many a prudent girl.”

The given translation is in the passive voice which does not exist in Modern Irish. Maybe, the translator preserved an Old Irish form, which had a passive voice. Maybe, he used the passive voice to accentuate the woman as a victim. In any case, a more literal translation would be in the active voice. “Words of gentleness deceived many a prudent girl.”

Is í an dias is troime is ísle a chromas a cheann.

Is í an dias is troime is ísle a chromas a cheann.

The heaviest ear of grain bends its head the lowest.

Note: The ancient Greeks wrote something similar to this week’s proverb in the Apocrypha, “The greater thou art, the more humble thyself.” Perhaps, the metaphor is a recognition that the greater one’s knowledge becomes, the more one realises how ignorant one is. The more one strives for perfection, the more apparent becomes the futility of such a pursuit. For most of us,

“Buaic na baoise a deir Cóheilit, buaic na baoise! Níl in aon ní ach baois! … Ritheann na haibhneacha go léir isteach san fharraige ach ní líontar í choíche; mar sin féin coinníonn na haibhneacha orthu ag déanamh ar a gceann cúrsa go brách.” (“Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, Vanity of vanities! All things are vanity! … All rivers go to the sea, yet never does the sea become full. To the place where they go, the rivers keep on going.” )

Cóheilit 1:2,7 (Ecclesiastes 1:2,7)

Ní chaitheann an chaint an t-éadach.

Ní chaitheann an chaint an t-éadach.

(The) talk doesn’t wear the clothes.

Note: In Béarla they might say “Put up or shut up”. Regardless of the language, however, there are few things more annoying than someone who “talks a good game” but “never lifts a finger” to help.

Is minic a bhíonn ciúin ciontach.

Is minic a bhíonn ciúin ciontach.

The quiet one is often guilty.

Note: “Secret guilt by silence is betrayed.” — John Dryden, The Hind and the Panther [1687]. It takes great skill and strong nerve to tell a lie, even a lie of omission. Consequently, the guilty will often hold their tongue.

Sometimes the guilty conscience will hold one’s tongue. “One that will not plead that cause wherein his tongue must be confuted by his conscience.” — Thomas Fuller, The Holy State and the Profane State. The Good Advocate [1642].

Sometimes the guilty hold their tongue as a matter of jurisprudence. In the United States, for example, the guilty have an absolute right to remain silent.

Is binn béal ina thost.

Is binn béal ina thost.

A silent mouth is sweet.

Note: Silence is golden. — English Proverb. Sprechen is silbern, Schweigen is gelden. (Speech is silver, silence is golden.) — German Proverb. If a word be worth a shekel, silence is worth two. — Hebrew Proverb. Is minic a bhris béal duine a shrón. Is minic a ghearr teanga duine a scornach. Cùm do theanga ‘nad chuimse. (Keep your tongue in hand.) — Scots Gaelic Proverb. The mouth is the tongue’s prison. — Arabic Proverb.

Note also. There is a subtlety in this week’s proverb that is not evident in any of the comparable proverbs above. The phrase ‘ina thost’ is a common idiomatic form. In this case, it literally means ‘in his silence’ with the word ‘his’ a grammatical reference to the masculine noun ‘béal’ (mouth).

It is a noun phrase that is used to convey a temporary sense. For example, if you want to say I am teacher now, but want to infer that it is a temporary state of affairs, you might say, “Tá mé i mo mhúinteoir.” (Literally I am in my teacher(ness).) If you want to convey a sense of permanence then you might say “Is mhúinteoir mé.” (I am a teacher.)

Similarly, if you wanted to infer that silence is always sweet, you could use the adjective for silent, tostach. Is binn béal tostach. Since it was not used, and since the tempory form was used, then we can infer that silence is not always golden.

Mórán cainte ar bheagán cúise.

Mórán cainte ar bheagán cúise.

Much talk with little reason.

Note: One could use the title of Shakespeare’s comedy, “Much Ado About Nothing,” as a loose translation of this week’s proverb. Shakespeare’s play is about various slanderous and deceitful conversations concerning two pairs of lovers, Hero and Claudio and Beatrice and Benedick.

Don Pedro tries to help Claudio win Hero by posing as Claudio. However, Don Paedro’s deceptions are mistaken as an expression of his own love for Hero. Don John, Don Pedro’s illegitimate brother, tries to spoil the pursuit by spreading slander about Hero’s reputation.

Meanwhile, Beatrice and Benedick berate each other and each vows never to marry. Both are then led to believe that the other has fallen in love with him/her. The play has much talk with little reason.

Note also: This proverb consists of four nouns and one preposition. Two of the nouns are in the common case (i.e., the nominative, accusative, and dative cases are all the same in Modern Irish.), while the other two are in the genitive case.

Both of the nominative case nouns are in the first declension, namely, móran and beagán . All nouns in this group form the genitive by making the last consonant slender, e.g., mórain and beagáin.

Both of the genitive case nouns are in the second declension, caint and cúis. All nouns in this group form the genitive by adding -e after the last consonant, e.g., e.g., cainte and cúise.

An té is mó a osclaíonn a bhéal is é is lú a osclaíonn a sparán.


An té is mó a osclaíonn a bhéal is é is lú a osclaíonn a sparán.

The one who opens his mouth the most, ’tis he who opens his purse the least.

Note: This week’s proverb probably came from the Scots, “Am fear nach fhosgail a sporan, fosglaidh e bheul.” — Gaeilge na hAlban. (The man who won’t open his purse will open his mouth.) Some say the Scots are renown for their frugality. This is evident in a similar Scots proverb, “Am fear air am bi beul, bidh sporan.” (He that has a mouth will also have a purse.)

An American might express this idea using the common, if rude, expression, “Put up or shut up!” Another Scots proverb practically makes this sentiment an obligation, “Cha déan fear an sporain fhalaimh ach beag faraim san taigh-òsda.” (The man of empty purse will make but little noise in the inn.)

Note also: The speaker does not pronounce the relative particle, “a,” that appears before each instance of the verb “osclaíonn.” The particle is usually pronounced as a neutral vowel, what linquists call a “schwa.” It is, perhaps, the most common phoneme in Irish. However, when it appears before another word that begins with a vowel, it usually drops out.

Beagán a rá agus é a rá go maith.

Beagán a rá agus é a rá go maith.

Say little but say it well.

Note: Sometimes you will see this proverb in a contracted form, “Beagán, agus a rá go maith.” Others have conveyed the meaning of this seanfhocal better than we can.

  • “Is le barr baoise a osclaíonn Iób a bhéal, Agus le teann aineolais a labhraíonn sé chomh fadálach sin.” – An Bíobla Níofa, Leabhar Iób, 35:16. (Yet Job to no purpose opens his mouth, and without knowledge multiplies words.)
  • “Brevity is the soul of wit.” – Shakespeare, Hamlet Act II, Scene ii, Verse 97 [circa 1600].
  • “Words are like leaves; and where they most abound, Much fruit of sense is rarely found.” – Alexander Pope, The Temple of Fame, line 109 [1711].
  • “Here comes the orator! with his flood of words and drop of reason.” – Benjamin Franklin, Poor Richard’s Almanac, October [1733].
  • “Blessed is the man who, having nothing to say, abstains from giving in words evidence of the fact.” – George Eliot, Daniel Deronda Book IV, Chapter 31 [1876].
  • “Brevity is the soul of lingerie.” – Dorothy Parker [1893 – 1967].

Dá bhrí sin, éistimid ár mbéala, sula mbeidh amaidí ar fad orainn.

Ná bíodh do theanga faoi do chrios.

Ná bíodh do theanga faoi do chrios.

Don’t keep your tongue under your belt.

Note: Do not be afraid to speak. This is practically the motto of Daltaí na Gaeilge’s Irish Language immersion weekends. We encourage everyone to speak. We ask people to speak in as much Irish as they have. If one can not speak any Irish, we have a crash phrase course that should get one through the weekend. It is also a great opportunity to listen to the fluent speakers. People are encouraged to eavesdrop on the conversations among Gaelgeoirí. It is the best way to acquire the language. Is fearr Gaeilge bhriste ná Béarla cliste.

An áit a mbíonn mná bíonn caint agus an áit a mbíonn géanna bíonn callán.

An áit a mbíonn mná bíonn caint agus an áit a mbíonn géanna bíonn callán.

Where there are women there is talk,and where there are geese there is cackling.

Note: We continue last week’s debate about who the real gabbers are, men or women. This week’s proverb obviously posits the contention that it is women who ‘do be’ the gabbers. The point is made bluntly with the metaphor comparing women to cackling geese. The point is also made subtly with the choice of the last word, ‘callán.’ Our translation takes a bit of poetic license to try and capture this nuance of word. The word ‘callán’ does not actually mean ‘cackling.’ In Irish, the word for cackling would be ‘grágaíl,’ or one of its variants; grágadail, grágáil, grágalach, or grágalíocht. ‘Callán’ actually means noise, or more specifically, a clamor of voices. Therefore, whenever there are geese, then are is a clamor of unintelligible voices, just as whenever there are women.

This allegation is not exclusively Irish. There is a similar Italian proverb, “Dove sono donne ed ocche, non vi sono parole poche.” (Wherever there are women and geese, the words are not few.) A Native American proverbs says, “A squaw’s tongue runs faster than the wind’s legs.” The French have a saying, “Foxes are all tail and women are all tongue.” A German proverb says, “Woman never spoiled anything through silence.” A Spanish proverb says, “The nightingale will run out of songs before the woman runs out of conversation.” A Russian proverb says “A woman’s hair is long; her tongue is longer.” There are a number of these misogynic proverbs in English. “Many women, many words.” “A woman’s strength is her tongue.” “Women’s tongues wag like lambs’ tails.” Charles Dickens wrote in the Pickwick Papers “Tongue; well that’s a very good thing when it an’t a woman’s.” “Silence is a fine jewel for a woman, but it is seldom worn.” “A woman’s heart and her tongue are not related.” “A woman’s tongue is the last thing about her that dies.”

Inis do Mháire i gcógar é, is inseoidh Máire dó phóbal é.

Inis do Mháire i gcógar é, is inseoidh Máire dó phóbal é.

Tell it to Mary in a whisper, and Mary will tell it to the parish.

Note: The world is full of blabbers, or gabbers, like Máire in this week’s proverb.

She was worse than a blabber; she was a hinter. It gave her great pleasure to rouse curiosity and speculation about dangerous things.

Robertson Davies, What’s Bred in the Bone, 1985.

However, for most people in the English speaking world, when they hear the phrase “gift of gab,” they think of the Irish.

Suppose you wanted to say “that boy has the gift of the gab,” in Irish. According to Tomás de Bhaldraithe’s dictionary, one way would be to say “Tá an bhean dhearg go maith ag an mac sin.” Literally, this means “That son has the red woman well.” (English ~ Irish Dictionary, An Gúm, 1992, p. 286, under the word ‘gab.’)

From this, one might infer that our Máire is a ‘bean dhearg’, a red woman. Nonetheless, in the sense used here, ‘dearg’ would actually mean ‘real.’ For example,

Bhí an t-ádh dearg air. He was in real luck.
Tá an diabhal dearg air. He is a real devil.

This interpretation leads to the conclusion, in the Irish language at least, that a ‘real woman’ is a gabber.

On the other hand, one could argue the opposite conclusion. In Irish, real men are the gabbers. This is evident in the fact that virtually every other synonym in Irish for the word ‘gabber’ is in the masculine gender, i.e., ‘cabaire’, ‘plobaire’, ‘clabaire’, ‘duine bÈaloscailte’, ‘duine bÈalscaoilte’, and ‘duine rÛchainteach’. All of these are fourth declension, masculine. Therefore, a ‘real man’ is a gabber.

Some might counter that gender has almost no connection to the meaning of a word. In this case, all these words end in a vowel that just happens to be a hallmark of fourth declension, masculine words. These words are masculine only because of their spelling, or only because of their pronunciation. ‘Bean dhearg’, on the other hand is an idiom that embraces the Irish belief that a ‘real woman’ is a gabber.

In rebuttal, one could counter that there are fourth declension nouns, nouns ending in a vowel, that are feminine, e.g., ‘nóta’, ‘gloine’, ‘sláinte’, ‘taibhse’, … So the bulk of Irish words for ‘gabber’ could have been lumped in the fourth declension but have been viewed as feminine. They were not. Therefore, a ‘real man’ is a gabber.

Ní scéal rúin é ó tá a fhios ag triúr é.

Ní scéal rúin é ó tá a fhios ag triúr é.

It is not a secret after three people know it.

Note: An English variant is “The secrets of two no further will go, the secret of three a hundred will know.” Benjamin Franklin may have been paraphrasing this when he wrote, “Three may keep a secret if two of them are dead.” Shakespeare wasn’t sure even two could keep a secret:

Is your man secret? Did you ne’er hear say
Two may keep counsel, putting one away?

Romeo & Juliet

Gossip is such an integral part of Ireland’s oral tradition that this proverb is widely known in one of several variations, e.g.,

Ní scéal rúin é más fios do thiúr é.
(It is not a secret if three people know it.)

Chan scéal rúin a chluinneas triúr.
(A story that three people hear is not a secret.)

‘Rúin’ is the genitive singular case of ‘rún,’ meaning secret, mystery, purpose, intention, love, or affection. Obviously, it is an ambiguous noun. On the other hand, ‘scéal rúin’ is an idiomatic expression that unambiguously means secret. A secret story (the literal meaning of ‘scéal rúin’) is the stuff of gossip, not the usual arcane grist of espionage.

Ní féidir an seanfhocal a shárú.

Ní féidir an seanfhocal a shárú.

A proverb can not be refuted.

Note: Proverbs capture the wisdom of a culture. They are culled from everyday experience over thousands of years. One can not argue with the collected wisdom of the ages. The word for proverb in Irish, seanfhocal, literally means old word or saying.

Celts subcribe to the wisdom of proverbs. “Ged dh’eignichear an seanfhacal, cha breugaichear e.” (Though the old saying be strained, it can not be belied.)– Scots Gaelic. “Plant gwirionedd yw hen diarhebion.” (Old proverbs are children of the truth.) — Welch

The ancient people of Israel subcribed to the wisdom of proverbs, to the wisdom of Solomon:

Leabhar na Leabhar na SEANFHOCAL Teideal agus Cuspóir an Leabhair
1 Seanfhocail Sholaimh mac Dháiví rí Iosrael:
2 Le go mba eol céard iad an eagna agus an teagasc; le go dtuigfí briathra ciallmhara;
3 Le go bhfaighfí oiliúint in iompar críonna, san fhíréantacht, sa chóir, agus sa cheart.
4 Le críonnacht a thabhairt don saonta, agus eolas agus tuiscint don óg;
5 Le ciall an tseanfhocail agus na solaoide a cheapadh, briathra na saoithe agus a nathanna –
6 éisteadh an t-eagnaí freisin agus beidh breis eolais aige, agus beidh cumas dea-chomhairle ag an bhfear tuisceanach.

Purpose of the Proverbs of Solomon
1 The Proverbs of Solomon, the son of David, king of Israel:
2 The men may appreciate wisdom and discipline, may understand the words of intelligence;
3 May receive training in wise conduct, in what is right, just, and honest;
4 That resourcefulness may be imparted to the simple, to the young man knowledge and discretion.
5 A wise man by hearing them will advance in learning, an intelligent man will gain sound and guidance,
6 That he may comprehend proverb and parable, the words of the wise and their riddles.

We hope these pages bring you, gentle reader, some measure of this ancient wisdom. We also hope it gives you some insight into the the basic truths of Irish culture. You could also use these pearls of wisdom to win an argument or two.

Ní fiú scéal gan údar.


Ní fiú scéal gan údar.

There’s no worth to a story without an author.

Note: This seanfhocal is an admonition not to accept anonymous gossip. If the original source of the “information” is not willing to reveal himself/herself, perhaps it’s because the alleged “facts” are fictious.

Note also: The word “Ní” which begins this seanfhocal is the negative form of the verb “Is”. This is the second form of the verb ‘to be’, the other form being “Tá” and its variants.

Bíonn an fhírinne searbh.

Bíonn an fhírinne searbh.

The truth is bitter.

Note: There is no mistake in the phonetics for the third word. When the letter ‘f’ is lenited or aspirated (séimhiú), the result is that the lenited ‘f'(written as in gaelic font and as ‘fh’ in roman font) becomes silent. This is clear when you listen to the audio file for this seanfhocal.

Note also the phonetics of the fourth and final word. The phonetic spelling added a neutral vowel after the “r” and before the “bh” in searbh. So the third word dropped a consonant sound while the fourth word added a vowel sound.

Fiche bliain ag teacht, Fiche bliain go maith, Fiche bliain ag meath, is Fiche bliain gan rath.

Fiche bliain ag teacht, Fiche bliain go maith, Fiche bliain ag meath, is Fiche bliain gan rath.

Twenty years coming,
Twenty years good,
Twenty years declining, and
Twenty years useless.

Note: This week’s proverb looks at the stages of life. A person will spend the first score of life coming of age. When one comes to that magic age of 21, one begins the second score of life. It is the prime of your life. It is marked by the mystical number 21, the multiple of two powerful prime numbers, the three of the trinity and the seven days of creation. Some say that life begins at forty. That is not true here. At forty, you begin your third score, an epoch of decline. By sixty, you will have declined to the point of being useless. You will also see an alternative form of this bleak proverb:

 

Fiche bliain ag fás. Twenty years growing.
Fiche bliain faoi bhláth. Twenty years in bloom.
Fiche bliain ag cromadh. Twenty years declining.
Fiche bliain gur cuma ann nó as. Twenty years when it doesn’t matter
whether you’re there or not.

One of the classics of Irish literature takes its title form this alternative proverb, Fiche bliain ag fás. It is a memoir written in 1933 by Muiris Ó Súilleabháin. He was born on Great Blasket Island in 1902. Ó Súilleabháin tells a touching story of life in the islands. It was translated into English as Twenty Years A-Growing the same year it was published in Irish. It was later published into many other languages and has been acclaimed by international critics as a jewel of Irish culture. Ó Súilleabháin died in Connemara in 1950. We hope you get a chance to read this gem in its original language.

Téann an saol thart mar bheadh eiteoga air agus cuireann gach aon Nollaig bliain eile ar do ghualai

Téann an saol thart mar bheadh eiteoga air agus cuireann gach aon Nollaig bliain eile ar do ghualai

Life goes by as if it had wings,
and every Christmas puts
another year on your shoulder.

Note: A Russian poet named Andrei Andreevich Voznesenski paraphrased this proverb for the modern age:

Along a parabola life like a rocket flies,
Mainly in darkness, now and then on a rainbow.
     Parabolic Ballad [1960]

This week’s seanfhocal uses the metaphor that each year of life adds to the burden. Thomas Hobbes built his philosophy around a similar notion in his famous aphorism “the life of man [is] solitary, nasty, brutish, and short.” Hobbes’ axiom was adopted by the X-generation bumper sticker, “Life sucks, then you die.” But the Celtic world-view does not accept such a fatalistic attitude towards life. For example, an unknown medieval Irish poet wrote an epigram:

Avoiding death
takes too much time, and too much care
when at the very end of all,
Death catches each one unaware.
     Peter Berresford Ellis, The Druids 1994, p. 209

Daltaí na Gaeilge wishes that you are burdened by nothing but gifts as this holiday season arrives to close out the year.

Is minic a rinne bromach gioblach capall cumasach.

Is minic a rinne bromach gioblach capall cumasach.

A ragged colt often made a powerful horse.

Note: Parents everywhere are always worried about how their offspring will turn out. This week’s seanfhocal, of course, is meant to soothe those fears, especially for a child whose prospects appear limited. In English, a father may be mollified about the appearance of a daughter’s braces with a reference to the story of the ugly duckling that turned into a swan. A troubled mother with a son having difficulty in school may hear how Albert Einstein’s teachers thought he was slow, or how Thomas Aquinas was called a “dumb ox” in his youth. Unfortunately, children usually grow to become those difficult creatures known as teenagers. To make it worse, in Irish one becomes a teenager (déagóir) sooner than in English, ag a haon bliana déag d’aois.

Note also: This week’s seanfhocal has used the Irish suffix ‘-(e)ach’ to make an adjective out of a noun. ‘Giobal’ is a first declension noun that means ‘rag’. Add the suffix ‘-ach’ and you get ‘gioblach’, a first declension adjective meaning ‘raggy’ or ‘tattered’. Similarly, ‘cumas’ means ‘ability, capacity, talent’, while ‘cumasach’ means ‘able, capable, powerful’. We add ‘-ach’ when the last consonant of the noun is broad. We add the suffix ‘-each’ when the last consonant in the noun is slender, e.g., ‘cruit’ (hump) becomes ‘cruiteach’ (hump-backed). In essence, then, the Irish suffix ‘-(e)ach’ acts like the English suffix ‘-ish’, e.g., the English noun ‘book’ becomes the adjective ‘bookish’.

Is cum leis an óige cá leagann sí a cos.

Is cum leis an óige cá leagann sí a cos.

Youth does not care where it sets its foot.

Note: Shakespeare had Hamlet argue the inexorable compulsion of youth:

To flaming youth let virtue be as wax,
And melt in her own fire; proclaim no shame
When the compulsive ardor gives the charge,
Since frost itself as actively doth burn,
And reason panders will.

There is an American proverb that compares this youthful impetuosity to the prudence of the aged, “Old age considers; youth ventures.” Similarly, Henry Estienne said, “Si jeunesse savait, si vieillesse pouvait.” (If youth but knew, if old age but could do.) Compare this to an earlier seanfhocal. Henry James wrote, “… I think I don’t regret a single ‘excess’ of my responsive youth — I regret, in my chilled age, certain occasions and possibilities I didn’t embrace.”

Note also: Irish grammar is full of exceptions, and this seanfhocal exhibits one of them. The word ‘oige’ is feminine gender. Therefore, for gender agreement, all pronouns referring to ‘youth’ must also be feminine. However, the prepositional pronoun ‘leis’ (with him/it) is masculine. This is because whenever the preposition ‘le’ is followed by the definite article ‘an,’ the preposition must always take the masculine form of the prepositional pronoun ‘leis an.’ It is translated as simply, ‘with the’ or ‘to the.’ So, literally, this seanfhocal is translated as ‘[It] is [all] the same to youth where she sets her foot.’

Mol an óige agus tiocfaidh sí.

Mol an óige agus tiocfaidh sí.

Praise a youth and she will come.

Note: This proverb was coined many centuries before Dr. Benjamin Spock offered similar advice. Spock advised parents to encourage their children to behave, not to beat them. However, according to the Old Testament, Proverbs, 13:24, “An té a choigleann an tslat, fuathaíonn a mhac; an té a bhíonn fial ag ceartú, bíonn grá aige dó.” (He who spares his rod hates his son, but he who loves him, takes care to chastise him.) One can express this Biblical sentiment with a common, ridiculing retort to the above seanfhocal:

Mol an óige agus tiocfaidh sí.

Bual sa tóin í agus titfidh sí.

In less poetic English, “Praise the youth and she will come. Kick her in the butt and she will fall.”

Note also: The pronoun ‘sí’ in this proverb refers, of course, to the noun ‘óige.’ This noun is feminine for no semantic reason. A ‘youth’ in Irish is not necessarily female. However, the feminine pronoun ‘sí’ is required here to agree with the feminine noun. Agreement is one of the grammatical reasons it is a good idea to memorize the gender of Irish nouns when learning them.

An rud a théann i bhfad, téann sé i bhfuaire.

An rud a théann i bhfad, téann sé i bhfuaire.

What drags on grows cold.

Note: Get the job done. Buail an iarann te. Do not get distracted and let the effort linger. Do not procrastinate. As the Scots say, “An rud anns a thèid dàil , thèid dearmad.” (Delay brings neglect.) As the romans said, “Periculum in mora.” (Delays breed dangers.) So don’t delay. Start to learn Irish today. If you did, then you would know that this proverb literally means, “The thing that comes in long (duration), it comes in(to) coldness.”

Note also: This week’s proverb has two eclipsed words, “bhfad” and “bhfuaire.” Both are caused by the preposition “i,” which, of course, means “in.” This is the only preposition in Irish that always requires eclipsis of the following noun. There are some other prepositions, especially “ar,” that only require eclipsis in common set phrases, e.g., ar dtús, ar ndóigh, go bhfios dom, …, ar gcúl.

Éist le fuaim na habhann agus gheobhfaidh tú breac.

Éist le fuaim na habhann agus gheobhfaidh tú breac.

Listen to the sound of the river and you will get a trout.

Note: Catching fish is not the whole of fishing. (An English Proverb) Any pursuit, like fishing, requires preparation, education, and experience to be proficient. For example, if the object of the pursuit is to catch a fish, one has to learn everthing one can about the fish. One has to learn where it lives, how it behaves, how it reacts to changes in its environment, what it eats, what it prefers, … Only after one has done all this work, can one listen to river and know how to catch it.

Ireland has some of the the best trout fishing in the world. The mild rains, the moderate climate, and thousands of brooks and streams make an ideal environment for trout. Brown trout is the native fish found in most parts of Ireland. Fishing season starts at the end of February and runs to the end of September. Fly fishing is all that is allowed. Live bait is prohibited. Rod and line is the only legal way to fish in Ireland’s freshwater. Anglers are limited to a maximum of two lines. Go n-éirí iascaireacht an bhric leat!

An té nach gcuireann san earrach ní bhaineann sé san fhómhar.

An té nach gcuireann san earrach ní bhaineann sé san fhómhar.

Whoever does not plant in the spring does not reap in the fall.

Note: This proverb probably came to the Irish language from St. Paul. St. Paul visited the Galatian community about 48 A.D. Galatia was an ancient Celtic community. They lived in the north of what is presently Turkey, in and around the city of Ankara. Galatians would have spoken a Continental Celtic language similar to Insular Celtic. Irish evolved from Insular Celtic. Paul wrote in his letter to the Galatians, “Mar a chuireann duine an síol is ea a bhainfidh sé an fómhar.” (A man will reap only what he sows.) Litir Naomh Pól chuig na Galataigh 6:7

You will hear a dialectical variation in grammar from the native speaker of this seanfhocal. As is our custom, we have written the seanfhocal in the official standard (caighdeán oifigiúil) form. However, the offical form is “san fhómhair” while the speaker says “sa bhfómhair.” Most dialects lenite the word after ‘sa,’ unless it it begins with a d, t, or s. (Dentals resist lenition ach sin scéal eile.)

However some speakers will eclipse the word after ‘sa’ in certain set phrases. Perhaps, this is a carry over for the preposition ‘i.”Sa’ is the combination of the preposition ‘i’ and the definite article ‘an.’ In Old Irish, the compound word was ‘insan.’ In Modern Irish, only the ‘sa’ survived. The preposition ‘i’ causes the noun that follows it to be eclipsed, e.g., ‘i dtús.’

Ní sheasaíonn sac folamh.

Ní sheasaíonn sac folamh.

An empty sack does not stand.

Note: This seanfhocal can refer to “hollow promises”, arguments that “won’t hold water” or people lacking substance. It is by no means a compliment.