Ní féasta go rósta, ‘is ní céasta go pósta
There is no feast like a roast, and no torment like a marriage.
Note: Although your spouse might not like this seanfhocal, it is socially acceptable because it rhymes so nicely.
There is no feast like a roast, and no torment like a marriage.
Note: Although your spouse might not like this seanfhocal, it is socially acceptable because it rhymes so nicely.
Do not take a wife without fault.
Note: This proverb seems to be exclusive to Goidelic Celts. It has only been found in Irish and Scots Gaelic. “Na gabh tè air bith mar mhnaoi ach tè air am bi athais agad. (Take no woman for a wife in whom you can not find a flaw.)” The reason is simple; a woman without fault does not exist. It is better to find the fault before the wedding than after. By the way, a man without fault does not exist either. Even a wise man has faults. “Ní bhíonn saoi gan locht.”
She is a good wife, but she has not taken off her shoes yet.
Note: She is a good woman, but it is still quite early in the marriage. She has not taken off her shoes yet from the wedding. She has not yet gotten comfortable in her new situation. The wedding is still on her. Many Irish had only one pair of shoes in their possession. To preserve them, these poor people would only wear shoes at wakes, weddings, baptisms, fairs, and other special occasions. Other normal times, they would go about barefoot. Therefore, when a wife took off her shoes, it was a sign that she had settled in to normal times. When she is truly settled is the time to say whether she is a good woman or not. But the Scots have another proverb, “Am fear a labhras olc mu mhnaoi, tha e cur mi-cliù air fhèin.” (Who speaks ill of his wife dishonors himself.)
There is no cure for love but marriage.
(The only cure for love is marriage.).
Note: This comes in handy as a wedding toast. The double meaning is sure to both please and bemuse simultaneously.
The raven thinks its own nestling fair.
Note: This week’s seanfhocal is a generalization of the English proverb, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” (Margaret Wolfe Hungerford, Molly Bawn, 1878.) Perhaps, closer to the mark is the aphorism, “A mother’s pride, a father’s joy.” (Sir Walter Scott, Rokeby, 1813, canto III, st. 15.) Nature blinds the parent to any imperfections of its offspring. This is a lesson every teacher learns early in a career.
For a demonstration of this phenomenon, visit any sporting event organized for children and watch the parents. Parents have been known to assault other parents at such games over wrongs perceived upon their progeny. One youth league even requires the parents to sign a parental code of conduct before they will admit a child to the program.
Note also: An ancient Druid idiom is embedded in this week’s seanfhocal. Druids worshipped the sun. Nothing could be more pleasing to Druids then to have the sun shine on them. Therefore, to express pleasure with something, it is customary in the Irish language to say that it is bright with you, i.e., like the sun, it shines on you. For example, this week’s proverb literally says, “Its own nestling is bright with the raven.”
Consider other examples. Is geal an scéal liom é. (It is glad news to me. Literally: The story, it [is] bright with me.) Ní geal leat é. (You don’t like him. Literally: He is not bright with you.) Is geal leis a bhfeiceann sé. (He likes what he sees. Literally: What he sees is bright with him.) Note the pattern, “Is geal le …” (Is bright with …)
The same pattern is also used with the Irish verb for shine, taitin. With the preposition ‘le’ (with), taitin is used to express pleasure. Thaitin do theach liom. (I liked your house. Literally: Your house shined on me.) Taitníonn sé leis na daoine. (The people are fond of him. Literally: He shines on the people.) Another way of expressing pleasure is to use the verbal noun of taitin, teatneamh. Níl sé i mo thaitneamh. (I don’t like it. Literally: It is not in my shining [or brightness].) Finally, one of the many ways to say, “I love you.” in Irish is “Mo thaitneamh thú.” (Literally: My brightness [is] for you.)
Love veils ugliness.
Note: The ancient Romans often depicted Cupid, their god of love, as blindfolded because love was thought to be blind. The more common image of Cupid as a winged boy shooting arrows was actually taken from earlier Greek images of Eros, their god of love. But the Greeks also knew that love was blind. Eros was thought to randomly fire his arrows into the hearts of lovers. So no one could explain where their heart led them.
I have heard of reasons manifold
Why love must needs be blind,
But this the best of all I hold —
His eyes are in his mind.
Coleridge, Reason for Love’s Blindness, 1828.
Some pundits have noted that love is blind but marrage restores sight.
The people live in one another’s shadows.
Note: An English language saying expressing a similar thought is John Donne’s “No man is an island”. Human beings are by nature communal, and what happens to one member affects each member of the community. Although this relationship is not a physical manifestation of nature and can be as ephemeral as a shadow, its strenght and power are pervasive and profound.
Two people shorten a road.
Note: The Irish are a deeply communal people. If a trip is necessary, be it long or short, it is always preferable to have companionship.
Note also: The Irish word “beirt” refers to “two people”. The Irish language uses personal numbers to designate from one to ten persons (and sometimes twelve). When counting people these special numbers must be used. The common numbers which are used to count mere things are not acceptable!
A friend’s eye is a good mirror.
Note: There is another seanfhocal that expresses a similar sentiment. “Ní cara gach bladaire.” (Every flatterer is not a friend.) It is expected that one will often flatter a friend. Yet another seanfhocal tells us that: “Gineann bladar cradas”. (Flattery begets friendship.) But a true friend will reflect our errors, our misjudgments, our shortcomings, … when necessary.
Warning: If grammar makes your head hurt, just enjoy this seanfhocal as it is, and DO NOT read any further!
The word order in this seanfhocal is not the usual verb–subject–predicate, but verb–predicate–subject. This is because the copula, i.e., the verb ‘is’, is used with an indefinite predicate.
For example, in this case the predicate, ‘a good mirror’, is not specific. It does not tell the reader exactly which mirror is being discussed. Like many proverbs, this one is a metaphor, so it can be any good mirror. Since the predicate is indefinite, and the verb is the copula, then the “classification” rule for the copula requires that the predicate precedes the subject.
All forms of the copula with indefinite predicates put the predicate before the subject. We see this is in the negative form of this seanfhocal, “Ní cara gach bladaire.” (Every flatterer is not a friend.)
On the other hand, when the copula is used with a definite predicate then the usual Irish word order applies.
[Both] your friend and your enemy think you will never die.
Note: You are immortal to your friends because they wish it. So it is that one wishes one’s friend a common blessing in Ireland, “Go maire tú an céad.” (May you live to a hundred.)
On the other hand, every instant of your existence is anathema to your enemies. As the Romans used to say, “The body of a dead enemy smells sweet.” Even though it may seem an interminable wait, a Spanish proverb suggests patience. “El que se sienta en la puerta de su casa verá pasar el cadáver de su enemigo.” (He who sits by the door of his house will watch his enemy’s corpse go by.)
Note also: This week’s seanfhocal uses the word ‘choíche’ which means ‘ever’ or ‘never’ depending on the context. It is only used with a verb in the future tense, e.g., … nach bhfaighfidh tú bás choíche. (… that you will never die). Otherwise the synonym ‘riamh’ is used, e.g., “Níor chuala mé an ráfla sin riamh.” (I never heard that rumor.)
Seeing you is like seeing the new (season’s) barley.
Note: This is a very enthusiastic expression one would use to greet a favorite friend or relation not seen for a while. Although we translated this seanfhocal as a simile, it is actually a metaphor. (A more literal translation is: “You are the new barley to see.”) This agrarian metaphor is a reminder of the time when the harvest was anticipated by the whole community. Homegrown barley bread would be a welcome change from the usual potatoes and Indian meal. Of course, the “juice of the barley “, poteen (poitín as Gaeilge), would be enjoyed at the harvest celebration of Lughnasa.
Note also: This is another example of fronting. Fronting is a grammatical structure where the copula, ‘is’, is used with an inverted word order to emphasize one part of a sentence over another part. We saw a fronted adjective, ‘Is TEANN gach madra gearr . . .’ (i.e.: ‘It’s BOLD that every terrier is . . .’), emphasized before. Here we have a fronted noun, ‘eorna’. But it is a definite noun, “an eorna”. The copula is never followed immediately by a definite noun. The correct pronoun must separate them. In this case, the definite noun is feminine, so the pronoun must be feminine. “Is í an eorna nua tú a fheiciáil.”
A showy Christmas Day and begging on the Feast of St. Stephen.
Note: St. Stephen was the first Christian martyr whose feast day is the day after Christmas. It is a national holiday in Ireland, but its roots go back beyond Chritianity. The tradition is for children to go “hunting the wren” on St. Stephen’s Day. It is killed and its corpse, or its effigy, is put on a pole, or sometimes in a basket. “The wren boys” go from home to home displaying the dead bird and begging for money “to bury the wren.” At the door step of each home the ‘Bean an Tí’ (the woman of the house), is beseeched,
The wren, the wren, the King of all birds,
St. Stephen’s Day was caught in the furze.
So up with the kettel and down with the pan,
and give us a penny to bury the wren.
The house that is least generous is likely to have the wren buried under their door step. Killing the wren is considered a good omen, because the wren is believed to be a treacherous bird. Some believe that it was a chattering wren who betrayed St. Stephan’s hiding place. An old Druid story tells of how the birds had a contest to determine who was king of the birds. Whoever flew the highest would be coronated. The wren hid in the back of the eagle. When it was his turn, the eagle soared higher than any other bird. However, when fatigue would let him climb no higher, the wren emerged rested and climbed to the greatest height. So by treachery, the wren became “the king of all birds.”
Your son is your son today, but your daughter is your daughter forever.
Note: A familiar English language equivalent might be: “Your son is your son until he takes a wife, but your daughter is your daughter for the rest of her life.”
There’s no hearth like your own hearth.
Note: This is almost certainly the most widely known of all the Irish proverbs. It has the same meaning as the English version: “There’s no place like home”; although it is not considered trite. Perhaps it is best that there is no ‘as Gaeilge’ version of The Wizard of Oz. If you only learn one seanfhocal this week, this should be the one.
There’s no sore ass like your own sore ass.
Note: The previous editor thought that this was an appropriate offering because it is a play on last week’s seanfhocal: “Níl aon tinteán mar do thinteán féin”. In his defense he noted that this is the most popularly known mock seanfhocal in Ireland. You will be pleased to know that the defense was unsuccessful, and he was stripped of his fáinne. The new editor is a Gaeilgeoir of impeccable moral character, and there will be no repeat of this indiscretion. Gabhaigí ár leithscéal.
The mother (sides) with the son, and the daughter with the father.
Note: This is a reference to the alleged tendency of Irish mothers to dote over their sons. It is even felt in some quarters that this tendency still prevails in Irish American families! Likewise, the seanfhocal notes a daughter’s likelihood to side with her father. It is interesting to note that the seanfhocal speaks in terms of females, the mother and daughter. No mention is made of how the males behave in such situations, or even if the males are aware that such interpersonal dynamics exist.
Praise the child and you praise the mother.
Note: So, the mother gets all of the credit when the child turns out well. Presumably fathers are entitled to all of the fault when children go bad.
Note also: The two verbs in this seanfhocal are in the  imperative/order form (mol) and  the present habitual (molann). Although in Béarla these forms are identical (praise), Irish maintains very distinctive forms.
A little kinship is better than a lot of charity.
Note: Charles Dickens wrote, “But charity begins at home, and justice begins next door”(Martin Chuzzelwit 1850). John Ray wrote down the English proverb equivalent to this seanfhocal in his opus English Proverbs (1670), “Blood is thicker than water.” John Wycliffe in his 1380 work Of Prelates ascribes to Theocritus the proverb “Charity begins at home.”
Perhaps this seanfhocal came from Saint Patricks’ bringing the Bible to the Irish. In Paul’s First Epistle to Timothy he says,
“Ach má tá clann nó clann chlainne ag baintreach, tuigidís sin gurb é céad dualgas atá orthu cuidiú lena dteaghlach féin agus cúiteamh a dhéanamh lena dtuismitheoirí, mar gurb áil le Dia é sin.” (If a widow has any children or grandchildren, let these learn that piety begins at home and that they should fittingly support their parents and grandparents; this is the way God wants it to be.) Tiomóid, 5:4.
Paul goes to warn
“an duine nach ndéanann aon chúram dá mhuintir agus do lucht a theaghlaigh féin go háirithe, tá an creideamh séanta aige agus is measa é ná an díchreidmheach. (If anyone does not provide for his own relatives and especially for members of his immediate family; he has denied the faith; he is worse than an unbeliever.) Tiomóid, 5:8.
Maybe Timothy brought this idea directly to the ancient Irish. Timothy ministered to the Ephesians. Ephesus was a city on the Aegean coast of modern Turkey. It was at the edge of an ancient Celtic community centered around what is now the city of Ankara.
A house without a woman is empty [and] cold.
Note: This is not to be confused with the English aphorism, “A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle”. The word “man” does not appear in this week’s seanfhocal. It is more a recognition that in Ireland women, traditionally, run the house. “Bean an tí” (the lady of the house, the mistress) made a house a home. The expression, “Bean an tí” is so laden with power and responsibility that it can also mean landlady. It would be an anomaly for a house to be without one. Without one, the turf fire might go out. Without one, the furniture might not exist. Without one, the groceries might not be gotten. Without one, the house would, indeed, be a cold and empty place.
Note also: This week’s seanfhocal has two successive adjectives without a comma and without a conjunction like ‘and’, ‘but’ or ‘or’ between them. “Is folamh fuar é …” This would be grammatically incorrect if it were to occur in an English sentence. However, in Irish, it is actually good form. This is especially true if you want to emphasize something by repeating adjectives that are synonyms, e.g., “Bhí sé beag mion”. (It was small little.) The redundancy would be considered poor style in English. Perhaps this proscription is an expression of British reserve. On the other hand, in Irish, some traits are worth repeating.
A black hen often has a white egg.
Note: This week’s proverb is a little tongue in cheek. Of course, a black hen always lays a white egg. That is why you might hear a slight variant of this proverb, “Beireann cearc dhubh ubh bhán.” (A black hen lays a white egg.) There is a similar Spanish proverb, “Tierra negra buen pan lleva.” (Black land produces good bread.) Perhaps the closest English aphorism comes from Thomas Paine, “Whenever we are planning for posterity, we ought to remember that virtue is not hereditary.” Common Sense, 1776.
Proverbs need not be consistent. Compare this week’s proverb to “Briseann an dúchas trí shúile an chait. (Heredity breaks out in the eyes of the cat.) “Like father, like son.” “The acorn never falls far from the tree.” “The gods visit the sins of the fathers upon the children.” Euripedes. In contrast to all these, this week’s proverb makes the point that virtuous people can spring forth from un-virtuous ancestors.
This idea of good descended from evil is central to the 11th Century Irish epic, Caithe Maige Tuired (The Battle of Mag Tuired). It describes the primordial struggle in Ireland between good and evil, between a divine people, the Tuatha Dé Dannan, and the demonic band, the Fomhóire. Balor of the Evil Eye was the king of the Fomhóire. He gave his daughter, Eithne, to Cian, a young warrior of the Tuatha Dé Dannan. They had a son they named Lugh.
Under Balor, the Fomhóire were massing a formidable army to seize control of Ireland from the Tuatha Dé Dannan. Nuadhu, the King of the Tuatha Dé Dannan, was mustering an Army to resist them at Tara. Young Lugh went to Tara to join the warriors. He so impressed the king with his diverse skills as a warrior, poet, and artisan that Nuadhu gave Lugh command of his army.
Noble Lugh confronted his evil grandfather at Moytirra (in County Sligo). Balor only opened his evil eye in battle. Anyone who looked into it was destroyed. Before Balor could train his evil eye on him, Lugh hit the eye with a stone from his sling. It turned Balor’s eye inward, immediately killing him, winning the battle and the war.
It does not get worse than a dear son that pleases himself.
Note: There is nothing so exasperating to parents then to have their wishes ignored by a beloved child. Parents want the best for their children. They want their children to benefit from their experience in the harsh realities of life. They want them to go to the right schools. They want them to enter the right profession. Then they want to kill them when they demonstrate a mind of their own.
There is little play on words in the Irish of this proverb. Literally, this proverbs means, “His own council for a dear son and it never got worse.” “A chomhairle féin a dhéanamh” is an idiomatic way of saying “he does what he pleases.” He only takes his own advice. Of course, from a parent’s perspective, this is the worst advise he could get. He who takes his own council has a fool for a councilor.
Two people see a thing that an individual does not see.
Note: This can be taken on a superficial, physical level such as when people elicit the help of others to find a lost object or person. On another level, this seanfhocal refers to the deeper understanding which can be obtained when multiple people examine (consider) a problem or situation. “Two heads are better than one” as they say. The sharing of ideas and perspectives among a group of people can often develop insights which would otherwise have been missed by an individual.
Note also: In normal “running” speech, neutral vowel sounds tend to get “swallowed up”. For instance, although the speaker here is pronouncing the words here deliberately and distinctly for your benefit, conversational speech would sound somewhat different. For example, the vowel sound at the end of the word “duine” and the vowel sound at the begining of the word “amháin” would overlap and be pronounced as a single sound. As a result the two words would sound almost like one word, “duin-a-mhain.” This change is proper in Irish, and is not in any way equivalent to slurring in English. In general, neutral vowels tend to fall off the end of words that are followed by words beginning with another vowel.
May the devil make a ladder of your backbone [and] pluck apples in the garden of hell.
Note: A great curse seeks to conjure the worst fate that can be conceived for the cursed. This week’s proverb goes beyond the common curse, “Go to hell.” May you go to hell and may you become a living ladder for the devil to climb in his garden. May his evil hooves crush your spine as he picks apples to lure your friends and relations to join you.
If Adam and Eve could not resist the devil’s apples, what chance does your loved ones have? In addition to the pain, you would bear the guilt of being an instrument of the devil. Compared to this curse, simply going to hell would be a walk in the park.
Note also: The verb ‘go ndeine’ is the subjunctive form of the irregular verb ‘dein.’ ‘Dein’ is a variant of ‘déan,’ the standard form of the Irish verb meaning ‘make’ or ‘do.’ Its standard subjunctive form is ‘go ndéana.’ The subjunctive mood is used to the indicate situatuations that are contrary to fact. Consequently, the subjunctive mood is most often used to curse, to bless, and to pray.
May God spare you your health.
Note: Literally, this proverbs means, “May God leave your health at you.” This implies that if you lose your health it is because God has taken it away from you. God is an active agent in one’s life. Please God and your health is spared. Anger God and your health could be withdrawn. According to an earlier proverb, live long enough and God will take it away from you in the Fiche bliain ag meath.
This idea of supernatural cause and natural effect goes back to the ancient Druids. Druids never composed anything comparable to the Book of Job. They never wondered why there is misery in life. Every thing in nature happens for a supernatural reason. Gods of the underworld controlled the seasons. Planting began only after asking these gods for permission. Harvesting had to be completed before the end of the season when the gods would take back the land. That is why is is still considered bad luck in some part of Ireland to eat wild berries after Lughnasa.
Make the fence or you will pay the plundering.
Note: Robert Frost quoted an old English proverb similar to this week’s seanfhocal:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, ‘Good fences make good neighbors’.
Frost lived in New Hampshire where the fences are like those of Ireland, made over a long period of time from rocks without mortar. The rocks were extracted from a stony soil by persistent farmers. Frost goes on to wonder:
‘Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it
Where there are cows?
But here there are no cows.
But there are cows in Ireland. Is it fences that will prevent plunder? Read The Táin and discover that no fence can protect a cow from the Celt. There is another meaning of “foghail”, trespass. Considering the current politics of Northern Ireland, Frost was correct when he concluded that:
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down…
“Mending Fences,” from North of Boston, 1914.
Don’t interfere with [any] thing that doesn’t concern you.
Note: This week’s seanfhocal is universal, as many proverbs are. “Is onóir do dhuine aighneas a sheachaint, ach beidh gach amadán ag achrann.” An Bíobla Naofa: Leabhar na Seanfhocal 20:3. (It is an honor for a person to cease from strife: but every fool will be meddling. The Holy Bible: The Book of Proverbs 20:3) “Let every man mind his own business.” Don Quixote de la Mancha, Miguel de Cervantes 1605-1615. “‘If everybody minded their own business,’ said the Duchess in a hoarse growl, ‘the world would go round a deal faster than it does.'” Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll 1865. “Dirt nosed folks always want to wipe other people’s noses.” French proverb. “He who tastes everymans’ broth sometimes burns his mouth.” Danish proverb “It’s ill meddling between the bark and the rind.” Scottish proverb.
Note also: This seanfhocal exhibits the wide semantic range of Irish verbs and their semantic extension under the influence of prepositions. One of the difficulties students of Irish encounter early in their studies is the different semantic range of Irish and English words, i.e., the different meanings of a word. In this case the verb ‘bain’ has many different meanings. By itself, Ó Dónnaill’s Foclóir Geailge-Béarla lists nine different meanings for ‘bain’, from “1. Extract from bed in the ground, dig out” to “8. Win.” and “9. Become due.” Combining the verb with a preposition creates even more varied meanings for the verb. For example, Ó Dónnaill gives additional meanings for ‘bain’ when combined with the set of prepositions below:
This seanfhocal plays with two equivocal meanings of ‘bain do,’ namely ‘interfere with’ and ‘concern’. The prepositions here are fused into prepositional pronouns, ach sin scéal eile.
A fly will not go into a mouth that is closed.
Note: The oral tradition of Ireland has always maintained that the Gael came to Ireland from Spain. Perhaps this week’s proverb has the same author as this Spanish proverb, “En boca cerrada no entran moscas.” (The closed mouth swallows no flies.) A similar Spanish proverb may have its origin in the bible, “El pez muere la boca.” (The fish dies because he opens his mouth.)
Ní hé an machnamh is geal leis an amadán,
ach bheith ag tabhairt a thuairime os ard.
Tarraingíonn caint an amadáin aighneas air féin,
agus tugann a bhéal cuireadh chun é a léasadh.
Scriosann béal an amadáin é féin,
agus is gaiste dó a bheola.
Leabhar na Seanfhocal, 18;2,7,8.
The fool takes no delight in understanding,
but rather in displayng what he thinks.
The fool’s lips lead him into strife,
and his mouth provokes a beating.
The fool’s mouth is his ruin;
His lips are a snare to his life.
The Book of Proverbs, 18;2,7,8.
We have seen the idea of a mouth provoking a beating before. Is minic a bhris beál duine a shrón. (It’s often that a person’s mouth broke his nose.) Is minic a ghearr teanga duine a scornach. (It is often that a person’s tongue cut his throat.) George Bernard Shaw adapted this theme to the English mouth. “It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth, without making some other Englishman hate or despise him; English is not accessible, even to Englishmen.” Pygmalion, preface, 1913.
Whoever is not strong must be clever.
Note: The Scots have a similar proverb, “Wiles help weak folk.” Celtic folklore is rich with stories of the clever overcoming the strong. Consider two other proverbs. Ní bhíonn tréan buan. (Strength is not enduring.) Ní thagann ciall roimh aois. (Sense does not come before age.) Given these cultural beliefs, it is not surprising that most of these tales involve clever old seers. The tradition spans centuries from the ancient mythic personification of wisdom, the sear Find in the Fionn mac Cumhaill sagas, to the later tales of Merlin the Magician.
If you hear this proverb, you might want to respond with a popular play on words, “Agus an tae nach bhfuil ládir ní folair dó a bheith te.” (And the tea that is not strong must be hot.) In the original proverb, “an té” means “whoever,” while in the rejoinder, the homophone, “an tae” means “the tea.”
Note also: This proverb uses a common Irish idiom “ní foláir dó” which means “he must.” If you look up the word “foláir” in your foclóir, you are likely to find it coupled with the negative particle “ní.” It would probably translate “ní folair” as meaning “it is necessary.” So “ní folair dó é” means “it is necessary for him” or more tersely, “he needs it.” The phrase “a bheith glic” means “to be clever.” Put these two together, “ní folair dó a bheith glic,” and you literally get “it is necessary for him to be clever” or “he needs to be clever,” or “he must be clever.”
However, some may be troubled by this negative particle. To understand the negative particle, you need to know that ‘folair’ is a synonym for the noun “foráil” which means “superabundance, excess; too much.” Therefore, “ní foláir dó é” then literally means “it is not too much for him.” This is an indirect way of saying that he really needs it.
There was a bell in the church and it wasn’t very sweet sounding.
But another bell came to the church and made a sweet bell of the first one.
Note: This week’s seanfhocal is a play on words and a parable. The word bell appears in two sentences as both the subject and the object of the sentence. In the first sentence, the clock in the church is not sweet. In the second it is. This word play seems designed to confuse. It begs the speaker to say it again.
The parable has a simple moral. No matter what the situation, it could always be worse. Or on this case, we have an example of Robert Burns’ adage, “The best laid schemes o’ mice and men gang aft a-gley.” After all their planning, the parishioners are now saddled with another clinker.
If you wish for peace, friendship, and praise, listen, look, and stay mute.
Note: Continuing last week’s theme that silence is golden, we present a proverb that goes back to Roman times. The Latin version is, “Audi, vide, tace; si vis vivere in pace.” (Listen, see, be silent; if you wish to live in peace.) It becomes apparent that French derived from Latin in this Gallic proverb, “Oye, vois, et te taise, Si tu veux vivre en paix.” (Listen, look, and keep quiet, if you wish to live in peace.) Spanish has a more curt, imperative variation, “Ver, Oir, y callar.” (Look, listen, and keep quiet.) Benjamin Franklin put a little twist on the theme,”He that speaks much, is much mistaken.” (Poor Richard’s Almanac.)
Walls require spalls as well as large stones.
Note: Our thanks go to Brendan McSherry for this week’s proverb. In is simplest sense it is a lesson in masonry. A spall or gallet is a small flake or chip of stone produced by splitting a larger stone. Practiced masons can create any size and shape chip they want. A deft blow of the hammer will create a chip to fit any whole in a wall. In fact, the word spall comes from the Old German word spell which means to split. Therefore, walls, especially walls made without mortar, need many of these chips if they are to stand for any length of time.
On a deeper level, it is a metaphor about society and about life. There is the American expression “all chiefs and no Indians” used to deride a group with all leaders and no followers. Such a situation is comically doomed to failure. You obviously need more of the latter than the former to be successful.
Wars may be fought with weapons, but they are won by men. It is the spirit of the men who follow and of the man who leads that gains victory.
George S. Patton, In the Cavalry Journal, 1933.
Another interpretation of this metaphor concerns a healthy balance in life. It is easy to focus all of our attention on the big things in life and forget the little things. For example, many spend all their energy on advancing their careers. They lose sight of the little things in life, like watching your daughter’s first goal in a soccer match, taking your son to the museum, or simply enjoying a quiet sunset. Their lives, like walls without spalls, will soon collapse under their own weight.
There tends to be a black sheep (even) in the whitest flock.
Note: This seanfhocal brings to mind the familiar expression: “There’s one in every crowd”. It also softens the concept of someone as being “the black sheep of the family”, since it implies that every family has one (if not several).
It is often that a person’s tongue cut his throat.
Note: This might be more colorfully be said as: “It is often that a man’s tongue slit his own throat”. Note also that although the seanfhocal speaks of a “person” (duine), it goes on to refer to “his throat”. Much as in English (in the days before political correctness), when it is necessary to ascribe gender to a person or people, the masculine gender is used. This can be viewed as either giving the subject “the benefit of the doubt”, or as a subtle statement that males come closest to the non-descript (neuter) gender.
It is often that a person’s mouth broke his nose.
Note: This is a play on the multiple meanings of words. In this case the mouth does not physically break the nose in question. Rather, the mouth sets a chain of events in motion by speaking offensive words (by being “mouthy”) which results in injury to its neighbor, the nose.
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.
Health to the men and may the women live forever!
Note: This is a popular toast that is often given in two parts. Typically the men will toast themselves first, “Sláinte chuig na fir.” (Health to the men.) Irish protocol requires the women to give themselves a greater toast. So they wish themselves eternal health, “Go maire na mná go deo.” (May the women live forever.) Some bodach (lout), who never has suffered the pain and never will, will often offer this play on words, this very proximate homophone, as a retort, “Go mbeire na mná go deo.” (May the women give birth forever.)
In the south, one is more likely to hear a Munster version of this seanfhocal, “Sláinte na bhfear is go maire na mná go deo.” In this version, the genitive plural is used, ‘na bhfear’ (of the men). The version above used the older dative plural, ‘chuig na fir’ (to the men), which used to be required by the preposition ‘chuig’ or ‘chun’. However, to the delight of beginners and the despondency of purists, the dative form of the noun has practically disappeared from the Irish language. It survives in some old sayings.
Note also: The bodach’s retort sounds almost like the woman’s toast because of the Irish inflection called urú (eclipsis). Eclipsis occurs in certain grammatical contexts when an initial consonant is phonetically replaced by another consonant. For example, to form the subjunctive form of the verb ‘beir’ (give birth to), it is eclipsed, the vowel ‘e’ is appended, and the particle ‘go’ is put in front. The consonant ‘b’ is always eclipsed by the consonant ‘m’. Eclipsis means that the ‘m’ is now pronounced instead of the ‘b’ in ‘go mbeire’ making the eclipsed ‘b’ silent. Therefore, ‘go mbeire’ is almost pronounced like ‘go maire’. The verb ‘go maire’ is also in the subjunctive form. However, the letter ‘m’ is never eclipsed.
The people encounter one another, but the hills never meet (nor the mountains).
Note: This is a bit ironic. The hills have all of the time in the world and spend their entire existence in sight of one another, but never get to consort with their own kind. Although we mere mortals may have our days numbered, we can pass them in the warmth of one another’s company.
Do not break your shin on a stool that is not in your way.
Note: Don’t go out of your way to get in trouble. Never trouble trouble until trouble troubles you. Do not meet troubles half way.
Are you come to meet your trouble?
The fashion of the world is to avoid cost, and you encounter it.
William Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing.
Troubles are like the rough in golf; the trick is not staying out, but getting out after we are in.
Note also: This proverb has two negative verbal particles, ná and nach. Ná is used to give negative commands and does not require the following verb to be lenited or eclipsed. It will put an h before a following verb that begins with a vowel. Ná hól bainne géar. (Don’t drink sour milk.) Nach can be used either as an interogatory verbal particle or as a relative verbal particle. In either case, it requires the following verb to be eclipsed.
Don’t bare your teeth until you can bite.
Note: There is another variation to this week’s proverb. “Ná taispeáin d’fhiacail san áit nach dtig leat greim a bhaint amach.” (Don’t show your teeth where cannot give a bite. Literally: Don’t show your teeth in a place you may not be able to take a bite out.) In Scots Gaelic, there is a slight variation. “Mur comas dut teumadh, na rùisg do dheudach.” (If you cannot bite, don’t show your teeth.) Sun Tzu knew this in 500 B.C. “He who knows when he can fight and when he cannot will be victorious.” — Sun Tzu, The Art of War, III, 25.
Note also: In the two Irish versions of this week’s proverb, there are two different plural forms of the word ‘fiacail,’ namely ‘fiacla’ and ‘fiacail.’ The first is the official standard plural, ‘fiacla.’ You will see this standard in the Chois Fharraige dialect in county Galway. In parts of Donegal, you will see the non-standard plural, ‘fiacail.’ In these non-standard cases, the nominative sinular form is ‘fiacal,’ not ‘fiacail.’ This is not to say that Galway speakers always use the official standard. Such is not the case. In fact, nobody speaks the official standard. The official standard is a standard for spelling and grammar, not pronunciation. A standard pronounciation was proposed later called ‘an Lárchanúint’ (the core dialect), ach sin scéal eile.