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Seanfhocal na Seachtaine

Seanfhocal na Seachtaine

Is maith an bhean í ach níor bhain sí a broga di go foill.

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.)

Ná gabh bean gan locht.

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."

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.

Folaíonn grá gráin.

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.

Is geal leis an bhfiach dubh a ghearrcach féin.

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.)

Níl aon leigheas ar an ngrá ach pósadh.

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.

Lá Nollaig go péacach is Lá Féile na Stiofáin ag iarraidh déirce.

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."

Is í an eorna nua tú a fheiceáil.

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."

Síleann do chara agus do namhaid nach bhfaighidh tú bás choíce.

[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.)

Is maith an scáthán súil charad.

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.

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.

Giorraíonn beirt bóthar.

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!

Castar na daoine ar a chéile, ach ní chastar na cnoic (ná na sléibhte).

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.

Maireann na daoine ar scáil a chéile.

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.

A chomhairle féin do mhac árann ‘s ní bhfuair sé ariamh níos measa.

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.

Is minic ubh bhán ag cearc dhubh.

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.

Is folamh fuar é teach gan bean.

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.

Is fearr beagán den ghaol ná mórán den charthanas.

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.

Mol an páiste agus molann tú an mháthair.

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 [1] imperative/order form (mol) and [2] the present habitual (molann). Although in Béarla these forms are identical (praise), Irish maintains very distinctive forms.

An mháthair leis an mac agus an iníon leis an athair.

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.

Bíonn caora dhubh ar an tréad is gile.

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).

Níl aon tóin tinn mar do thóin tinn féin.

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.

Níl aon tinteán mar do thinteán féin.

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.

Is é do mhac do mhac inniú, ach is í d’iníon d’iníon go deo.

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."

Chíonn beirt rud nach bhfeiceann duine amháin.

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.

Ní neart go cur le chéile.

There is no strength without unity.

Note: In Béarla the saying is that "A chain is only as strong as its weakest link". Since at least the time of Strongbow (and probably longer) disunity has left Ireland open to her enemies. This seanfhocal expresses the still unfulfilled dream of Irish unity, be it political or cultural.a

Go bhfága Dia do shláinte agat.

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.

Ní bhíonn an rath, ach mara mbíonn an smacht.

There is no prosperity unless there is discipline.

Note: Irish makes frequent use of the definite article "the" before nouns which do not refer to physical/tangible objects. Here, for instance, the seanfhocal refers to "an rath" (literally "the prosperity") and "an smacht" (literally "the discipline/control"). Likewise, even when speaking English, it is often said that someone has "the Irish" (meaning the Irish language), which mirrors the Irish reference to "an Ghaeilge".


Go ndeine an diabhal dréimire de cnámh do dhroma ag piocadh úll i ngairdín Ifrinn.

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.

Dia linn is deoch is ní raibh mé riamh bocht.

God with us and a drink, and may I never be poor.

Note: It has been said that Irish toasts are like prayers. This week's seanfhocal is a toast that follows in that tradition. Like most prayers it asks God for something. Like most prayers it uses the subjunctive mood to do this, i.e., 'go raibh' is the subjunctive mood for the verb 'be,' 'tá.' The subjunctive is used to express contra-factual ideas, like wishes.

For many Irish who emigrated to America, the wish to never be poor came true.

In the National Opinion Research Center's (NORC) 1977 and 1978 General Social Survey, 26% of families in America reported an annual income in excess of $20,000; of those who describe themselves as British Protestants, 30% reported more than $20,000 income; and 47% of the Irish-Catholic families reported more than $20,000 in income, a little higher than the 46% of Jewish families and 43% of Italian families.
Andrew M. Greely, The Irish Americans: The Rise to Money and Power, Warner Books, 1993, p.137.

The wish for a drink has come true too. Ach sin scéal eile.

Sláinte chuig na fir agus go maire na mná go deo!

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.

Ná bris do loirgín ar stól nach bhfuil i do shlí.

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.

Ná nocht d’fhiacla go bhféadair an greim do bhreith.

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.

Bhí clog sa chill is níor bhinn clog é. Ach tháinig clog eile ‘on cill is rinne clog binn den…

Bhí clog sa chill is níor bhinn clog é.
Ach tháinig clog eile 'on cill is rinne clog binn den chlog sin.

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.

Fóireann spallaí do bhallaí chomh maith le clocha móra.

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.

An té nach bhfuil láidir ní folair dó a bheith glic.

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.

Más maith leat siocháin, cairdeas, agus moladh, éist, feic, agus fan balbh.

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.)

Ni théann cuileog san mbéal a bhíos dúnta.

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.

An rud nach mbaineann duit ná bain dó.

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:

  • bain amach, 1. Take out ... 7. Spend ...
  • bain anuas, Take down ...
  • bain ar, 1. Induce, ... 2. Lit: (a) Deprive of ...
  • bain as, 1. Take, remove, from, ... 6. Gut ... draw ... castrate...
  • bain chuig, chun, Start
  • bain de, 1. Take off, remove ... 5. Deprive
  • bain do, 1. Touch, interfere with ... 2. Concern, relate to ... 3. happen to ...
  • bain faoi, 1. Settle; stay, ... 4. Lit: Undertake
  • bain le, 1. Touch, interfere with ... 2. Concern, relate to ...
  • bain ó,1. Take from ... 2. Pacify control ...
  • bain siar as, 1. ~ siar as an airgead, use the money sparingly ...

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.

Déan an fál nó iocfaidh tú foghail.

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.

Is minic a ghearr teanga duine a scornach.

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.

Is minic a bhris beál duine a shrón.

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.

Cleachtadh a dhéanann maistreacht.

Practice makes mastery.

Note: Most people are familiar with the Modern English proverb, "Practice makes perfect." It connotes the trials and tribulations of repeated efforts to learn a new task well. It conjures up the image of the beginning musician struggling to learn the cords of her instrument. Perhaps, it evokes the scene of a budding Gaeilgeoir listening to a tape of spoken set phrases and repeating them over and over again.

But there is another subtle semantic variation of this week's proverb that is better captured in the Old English version of this proverb, "Use maketh mastery." Here the English word 'practice' like the Irish word 'cleachtadh' has another meaning. It also means experience. In this sense, mastery comes from doing. The maestro masters his instrument by performance, not just through the repetition of practice exercises. The Gaeilgeoir becomes fluent not from just doing her lessons regularly but by using the language.

In this spirit, we at Daltaí na Gaeilge invite you to do Irish. Join us at an immersion weekend. Use the language you are practicing and you will gain mastery.

Ní chruinníonn cloch reatha caonach.

A rolling stone gathers no moss.

Note: This week's proverb appears in almost every European language. The first known writing of it is attributed to Puplilius Syrus, a first century Latin writer, "Saxum volutum non obducitur musco." There is a Spanish version of it, "Piedra movediza nunca moho la cobija."

Italian -- "Pietra mossa non fa musco." French -- "Pierre qui rolle n' amasse point de mousse." German -- "Wälzender Stein wird nicht mossig." Dutch -- "Een rollende steen neemt geen mos mede." Danish -- "Den Steen der ofte flyttes, bliver ikke mossegroet. Scots Gaelic -- "Cha chinn còinneach air clach an udalain." Welch -- "Y maen a dreigla ni fysygla."

The idea is that if you keep yourself busy, if you keep moving, you will be free of the hindrances and distractions that afflict the sedentary. Like the rolling stone, you will not be swallowed up in useless moss. In the parlance of the Television Age, you will not become a couch potato.

Note also: You are not likely to find the word 'reatha' in an Irish dictionary, at least not directly. It is not a headword. The head word in this case is 'rith' which means 'run.' The verbal noun is also 'rith.' However, this verbal noun is modifying the noun 'cloch,' so it needs to be in the Genitive Case, which is 'reatha.'

An t-ualach is mó ar an gcapall is míne.

The heaviest load [is] on the gentlest horse.

Note: This proverb, like many, is equivocal. It could be interpreted in two different ways. On the one hand, it could be used as a indicator of a good worker. She doesn't complain. She gets the job done. Is fearr obair ná caint.

On the other hand, this could also mean that unless one speaks up one is likely to be exploited. Like the horse in George Orwell's "Animal Farm", he can passively accept more and more work until his health fails him. He needs to know when to say no. He can not do everything. Ní féidir leis an ngobadán an dá thrá a fhreastal.

Ní dhéanfaidh smaoineamh an treabhadh duit.

You'll never plough a field turning it over in your mind.

Note: This proverb is akin to the American one, "Wishes won't wash dishes." Some people may be daunted by a particular task. While it is wise to plan ahead, to think of the best way to accomplish a task, it can be foolish to dwell upon it. Pondering an unpleasant task only makes it worse. If one has to eat a toad, it is best not to stare at it for too long. Thanks and a Daltaí tip of the hat to Gus O Gormain for contributing this proverb.

Cuid Pháidín don mheacain an t-eireaballín caol.

The slender little end is the smallest part of anything.

Note: First things first. This proverb is also an Irish version of the 80-20 rule. The 80-20 rule is based on the Pareto Distribution. Wilfredo Pareto discovered in the later part of the nineteenth century that about 80% of the wealth of a country is usually controlled by about 20% to 40% of the population. This skewed distribution of wealth has been generalized into other areas, e.g., 60% to 80% of revenues are generated by 20% to 40% of one's customers, 60% to 80% of any job is completed with the first 20 to 40% of effort. So don't start with the end of a job, with the tail of any job; jump into the meat of it first.

Note also: This weeks' proverb contains an idiomatic homage to St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland and the first bishop of Armagh. The phrase "cuid Pháidín don mheacain" is translated as "the smallest part (or share) of anything." It literally means "Patrick's share of the root." Páid is an abbreviated form of Patrick. Páidín is the diminutive form. So the allusion is to a young St. Patrick.

Young St. Patrick was a slave of an Antrim chieftain named Miliucc, who ruled an area around Slemish Mountain. Tending the flocks, far from his home in Celtic Britannia, he prayed and fasted for redemption. In Patrick's Confession, he wrote of a dream in which a voice told him "Thou fastest well, soon thy will go to thy Fatherland." He fled to Wexford where he convinced a sea captain to allow him to escape to the continent. In northern Gaul, young Patrick and his party wandered in a dessert on the verge of starvation. All were amazed that Patrick always eat less than his comrades. On the verge of starvation, Patrick convinced his party to pray for redemption. Shortly afterward, they chanced upon a wild herd of pigs.

Patrick brought this fasting devotion back to Ireland to his ministry of the Gaels. Each Lent, he would fast in solitude at "the places where no man dwells." In 441 B.C., for example, he climbed a steep mountain on the shores of Clew Bay in what is now County Mayo. There he abstained from meat and fasted, living on meager roots, for forty days and nights. Since then the mountain has been called Croagh Phádraig. Pilgrims climb this mountain every March 17 in his memory, some barefoot, others on their knees. His memory is further honored in the Irish idiom that equates "Patrick's share of the root" with the "smallest part of anything."

Ní féidir leis an ngobadán an dá thrá a fhreastal.

The sandpiper can not attend to the two beaches (ebb-tides).

Note: One cannot be at two places at once. This is the usual English translation for this week's proverb. It has become an idiomatic expression in the Irish language. For example, suppose one wanted to say in Irish, "He is trying to do two things at once." Then one could say, "Tá sé ag iarraidh an dá thrá a fhreastal." (Literally: He is trying to attend to the two beaches.) Another form of the proverb uses an older present tense form of the verb 'tar,' namely 'tig.' "Ní thig leis an ngobadán an dá thrá a fhreastal."

In addition to spatial limitations, there is also a sense of temporal limitations in this week's proverb. This other interpretation hinges on another meaning of the word 'trá.' 'Trá' is also the verbal noun form for the verb 'tráigh,' which means ebb or abate. Consequently, the verbal noun 'an trá' means 'the ebb' or 'the ebb-tide.' Therefore, you can also translate this week's proverb as, "The sandpiper can not attend to the two ebb-tides." In other words, one can not work day and night.

Birds, especially marine birds like the sandpiper, had a mystical, almost divine place, in most ancient European cultures. They lived in the four Greek elements of nature; earth, air, fire, and water. They could walk on the earth. They could fly through the air. They could swim in the water. Some believed they flew into the sun at dusk and out of it at dawn. Ancient Celts shared this Greek world view. Druids believed nature's elements could be reduced to fire and water. Birds, like the Phoenix, could live in either. In any case, one could thus 'divine' truth from the observation of these ornithological 'divinities.'

Gheibheann cos ar siúl rud éigin.

A moving leg gets something.

Note: You will never get anything accomplished (like mastering 'an Ghaeilge') by just sitting around thinking about it. Active people reap the benefits of their exertions.

Note also: The Irish language has terms for parts and areas of the body which go nameless in other languages. That being said, it is curious that the word "cos" can refer to either the leg or the foot; and it is often used without really differentiating which portion of the appendage is in question.

Gheibheann pingin pingin eile.

A penny gets another penny.

Note: A person with a positive attitude might say that "A penny saved is a penny earned" while a cynic might say that "Money comes to money". This seanfhocal, in any event, encourages saving, whether it be in a mattress, piggy bank or with your friendly nieghborhood banker.

Note also: It is uncertain whether this seanfhocal will be "devalued" when Ireland switches her currency to the Euro.

Imíonn an tuirse ach fanann an tairbhe.

The tiredness leaves but the profit remains.

Note: This seanfhocal serves to encourage hard work. The Irish as a people much prefer working with family and friends as opposed to solitary labor. A group of people which comes together to help a neighbor or to accomplish some community project is known as a "meitheal". It would put one in mind of the "barn raisings" which were common in American pioneer days.

Ní neart go cur le chéile.

There is no strength without unity.

Note: In Béarla the saying is that "A chain is only as strong as its weakest link". Since at least the time of Strongbow (and probably longer) disunity has left Ireland open to her enemies. This seanfhocal expresses the still unfulfilled dream of Irish unity, be it political or cultural.

Molann an obair an fear.

The work praises the man.

Note: An English language saying with a similar theme might be "Anything worth doing is worth doing well". Especially in rural areas, the people are very conscious of who accomplished particular pieces of work. It is common in Connemara, for instance, for people to refer to whose father, great-grandfather, etc., constructed this or that stone wall.

Luigh leis an uan, agus éirigh leis an éan.

Lie with the lamb, and rise with the bird.

Note: This is reminiscent of the English language proverb "Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise". One obvious difference, however, is that the seanfhocal only gives advice on when to sleep, but does not go on to say what the benefits will be (such as health, wealth and wisdom). Perhaps this is indicative of a lack of conviction about the true value of the advice. The Irish reputation for enjoying the benefits of late night revelry certainly runs contrary to the dour advice offered in this seanfhocal.

Ní bhíonn an rath, ach mara mbíonn an smacht.

There is no prosperity unless there is discipline.

Note: Irish makes frequent use of the definite article "the" before nouns which do not refer to physical/tangible objects. Here, for instance, the seanfhocal refers to "an rath" (literally "the prosperity") and "an smacht" (literally "the discipline/control"). Likewise, even when speaking English, it is often said that someone has "the Irish" (meaning the Irish language), which mirrors the Irish reference to "an Ghaeilge".

Buail an iarann te.

Strike the hot iron.

Note: The English language equivalent, obviously, is "Strike while the iron is hot." It is interesting to note that the Irish word word "te" translates as both "warm" and "hot". It is not as though the Irish lack the capacity to be descriptive. The language has, for instance, many words for the various shades of green (much like the Eskimos who have many words to describe the various kinds of snow). Apparently there is not much call for words describing variations in warmth in a country where an 80° F (27° C) day represents an unbearable heat wave.

Is fearr obair ná caint.

Work is better than talk.

Note: A familiar English language equivalent might be: "Put your money where your mouth is". Note also that although the Irish word "Is" looks exactly like the English word "Is", the pronunciation is not the same. The Irish sound rhymes with "hiss", as when you let the air out of a tire.

Bíonn gach tosach lag.

Every beginning is weak.

Note: A familiar English language equivalent might be: "You have to learn to crawl before you learn to walk."

Is annamh earrach gan fuacht.

Seldom is Spring without cold.

Note: You have to take the bad with the good. Even the Spring has cold. You can not have one without the other. You can not have good without bad. You can not have cold without hot. This is a Celtic duality alluded to an in a Scots variant of this week's proverb, "Cha tig fuachd gu 'n tig Earrach." Cold comes not until Sring. The Celtic year begins in winter when it is cold. But in a sense, you can not know it is cold because you do not have warm to compare it with. In the Spring, however, you have both, warm and cold, and each acts as a point of reference for the other. Each allows you to know the other.

Ní hé lá na báistí lá na bpáistí.

The day of rain is not the day of children.

Note: The wisdom of this proverb is self-evident to many. This is true of any caregiver, any parent, any babysitter, who has been imprisoned with children due to inclement weather. These people have discovered that the walls of any enclosure are not capable of releasing the vast stores of energy pent-up in every child.

Note also: This proverb is also a word-play on the genitive case. Irish is an inflected language. This means that the role a noun plays in a sentence is determined by a case ending. For example, if a noun is the subject of the sentence, it would require a nominative case ending. If it were the object of the sentence, it would require the accusative case ending. Consider the following sentence. "The car hit the wall." A car is doing the action so it is the subject of the sentence. The sentence is about the car. On the other hand, the wall was the object of the action of the car. Therefore, it is the object of the sentence.

English lost all its case endings, except one for the genitive case. Let us modify our earlier example. "John's car hit the wall." The noun "John" is said to be in the genitive case, where the "'s" acts as a genitive case ending. Nouns in the genitive case imply the preposition "of." We could make this explicit on our example. "The car of John's hit the wall." Both examples mean exactly the same thing.

The genitive case is the most important case in Irish. It is used to group nouns into classes called declensions. The declensions all have the same or similar genitive case endings. In our proverb, we have two uses of the genitive case. The first is genitive singular, "lá na báistí" -- the day of rain. Báistí is the genitive singular of báisteach. The second is genitive plural, " lá na bpáistí" -- day of the children. "Na bpáistí" is the genitive plural of "an páiste." The definite article before a genitive plural noun triggers eclipses. Therefore, in this case, the two genitive phrases are pronounced exactly the same.a

Is iomaí athrú a chuireann lá Márta dhe.

There is a lot of weather in a March day.

Note: One meaning of this week's proverb is the obvious one about the variations of weather in March. "March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb."

Charming and fascinating he resolved to be. Like March, having come in like a lion, he purposed to go out like a lamb.
          Charlotte Brontë, Shirley, 1849
New England has this variety of weather all year long.
There is a sumptious variety about the New England weather that compels the strangers admiration -- and regret. The weather is always doing something there; always attending strictly to business; always getting up new designs and trying them on people to see how they will go. ... Yes, one of the brightest gems in the New England weather is the dazzling uncertainty of it.
          Mark Twain, Speech, The Weather, 1876
It has been said that if you don't like New England weather, just wait a minute.

There is another more sublte meaning in this week's proverb. It is a metaphor for the fickleness of youth. This is hinted at in the use of the word 'athrú' which actually means change. The seanfhocal literally means, "'Tis many a change that a day gets done [in] March." The word 'cuir' used with the preposition 'd(h)e' means, among other things, 'accomplish' or 'get done.' The word 'March' is the actual metaphor for youth.

This metaphor is, perhaps, more apparent in a variation of this proverb that comes from the north of Ireland. "Is iomaÌ taghd a thagann i lá earraigh." ('Tis many a change that comes in a spring day.) It is implicit in the use of the word 'taghd' which usually means 'fit' or 'impulse.' "Tá taghd ann." (He is impulsive. Literally: There is impulse in him.) Spring may be a more familiar metaphor for youth than March.

Note also: The speaker pronounces the word 'iomaí' as umi: while we represent it above as imi:. The pronunciation umi: is more common in the south and west of Ireland, while imi: is more common in the north. However, the pronunciation imi: was proposed as the Lárchanúint (Core dialect) pronunciation that is used in Foclóir Póca. The "Pronunciation Guide" in Collins Pocket Irish Dictionary also uses the Lárchanúint pronunciation, saying that the spelling 'io' is pronunced as a short 'i,' e.g., 'fionn' where the short 'i' is pronounced like the 'i' in the English word 'shin.'

Olc síon an sioc, is fearr sioc ná sneachta agus is fearr sneachta ná síorbháisteach.

Frost is bad weather,[but] frost is better than snow, and snow is better than eternal rain.

Note: Your editor took a bus tour of Dublin once. During the tour, the bus driver was heard to comment on the local climate, a common Irish pastime: "Oh, the weather was grand this week last. It only rained twice. Once for three days and once for four days."

From the lament in this week's proverb, you would think that Ireland gets a lot of rain. As you will see in the table below, Dublin has an average annual rainfall of 29.7 inches. But, the average annual rainfall for New York City, over the same points in time, is significantly greater at 47.5 inches.


Station 1962
Cork Airport 1,042.4
Dublin Airport 654.2
Kerry 1,232.3
Kilkenny 790.5
Malin Head 991.3
Mullingar 968.2
Shannon Airport 921.2
Central Park,
New York
Sources: Irish Meteorological Service
U.S. National Weather Service

It rains with about the same frequency in New York and Dublin, about 11 days a month, on average. Yet, it is not common to hear complaints in New York about "eternal rain." The difference can be attributed to the fact that when the rain is over in New York, the sun comes out and tends to stay out. In Dublin, however, it seems to be eternally overcast, with the sun peeking out of the clouds for only a few hours each month. In New York, when it rains it usually pours. By contrast, Dublin rains tend to be more of a gentle mist. Dublin's perpetual cloudiness permits this mist to linger in the air indefinitely. This tends to give the impression of "eternal rain".

Is fearr clú ná conach.

A good name is better than riches.

Note: This week's proverb comes to us from the Old Testament's Book of Proverbs, "Tá dea-cháil le roghnú thar bhreis maoine, agus is fearr dea-mheas ort ná airgead nó ór." (A good name is to be chosen above riches, and a good reputation is better than silver or gold.) Proverbs 22:1 This aphorism appears again in the Book of Ecclesiastes, "Is fearr dea-ainm ná dea-ola agus lá báis ná lá breithe." (A good name is better than good oinment, and the day of death than the day of birth.) Ecclesiastes 7:1 The word 'ointment' here refers to the oils applied to a child at birth. It is a metaphor that means a good name survives even death. There is a Japanese proverb along the same lines. "When a tiger dies it leaves its skin; when a man dies it leaves its name."

William Shakespeare probably composed the greatest ironic tale about a good name in the English language. The evil lieutenant Iago tells his general, Othello,

Good name in man, and woman, dear my lord,
Is the immediate jewel of our souls.
Who steals my purse steals trash. 'Tis something, nothing;
'Twas mine, 'tis his, and has been slave to thousands;
But he that filches from my good name
Robs me of that which not enriches him,
And makes me poor indeed.
The Tragedy of Othello, Act III, Scene III, Verses 178-184.

as he is plotting to besmirch the name of Desdemona, Othello's wife. Not much is known about Shakespeare's origins but his genius as a seanchaí (story teller) is indisputable. Consequently, some believe that he is an offspring of an ancient mystical Celtic clann, "Seach-an-spéir" (Beyond the sky).

Filleann an feall ar an bhfeallaire.

The treachery returns to the betrayer.

Note: In the United States the equivalent would be "What comes around goes around". This seanfhocal is best delivered with a curled lip and menace in the voice.

Níor bhris focal maith fiacail riamh.

A good word never broke a tooth.

Note: A kind word is always welcome. Another variation of this week's proverb says, "Ní mhillean dea-ghlór fiacail." (A sweet voice does not injure the teeth.) One's mother might tell you, "It won't kill you to be nice." A French speaker may say, "Douces paroles n'écorchent pas la langue." (Sweet words will not scrape the tongue.) "Good words are worth much, and cost little." George Herbert, Jacula Prudentum [1651] no. 155. However, Myles na Gopaleen has reserved his store of kind words for all kinds of Irish words, leaving few kind words to say about the few words in the English lexicon:

     A lady lecturing on the Irish language drew attention to the fact (I mentioned it myself as long ago as 1925) that while the average English speaker gets along with a mere 400 words, the Irish-speaking peasant uses 4,000. Considering what most English speakers can achieve with their tiny fund of noises, it is a nice speculation to what extremity one would be reduced if one were locked up for a day with an Irish-speaking bore and bereft of all means of committing murder or suicide.
     My point, however, is this. The 400/4,000 ratio is fallacious; 400/400,000 would be more like it.
... [For example]
     Your paltry English speaker apprehends sea-going craft through the infantile cognition which merely distinguishes the small from the big. If it's small, it's a boat, and if it's large, it's a ship. In his great book, An tOileánach, however, the uneducated Tomás Ó Criomhthain uses perhaps a dozen words to convey the concept of varying super-marinity -- áthrach long, soitheach, bád, namohóg, bád raice, galbhád, púcán and whatever your having yourself.
     The plight of the English speaker with his wretched box of 400 vocal beads may be imagined when I say that a really good Irish speaker would blurt out the whole 400 in one cosmic grunt. In Donegal there are native speakers who know so many million words that it is a matter of pride with them never to use the same word twice in a life-time. Their life (not to say their language) becomes very complex at the century mark; but there you are.
The Best of Myles, Flann O'Brien, Dalkey Archive Press, 1999, pp. 278-279.

Myles na gCopaleen is the Irish-language pseudonym of Brian Ó Nuallain. Flann O'Brien is the English-language pseudonym of Brian Ó Nuallain. Ó Nuallain was born in Strabane, County Tyrone, in 1911 and he died in Dublin in 1966. He wrote a column called "Cruishkeen Lawn" in the Irish Times, first in Irish, and later in English. The excerpt above is reprinted from one of those columns. Ó Nuallain wrote a classic satire in Irish, An Béal Bocht (The Poor Mouth), in 1941. He wrote several plays and novels in English, most notably, At Swim-Two-Birds in 1939.

Na trí cairde is fearr agus na trí naimhde is measa: tine, gaoth, is uisce.

The three best friends and the three worst enemies:
fire, wind, and water.

Note: This triad reveals the fundamental duality of nature. For the Gael, like the Greek, the four elements of nature were earth, air, fire, and water. We can only speculate why earth was chosen not to appear in this triad. Perhaps, it is neutral, a home for the people above the ground and the gods below the ground.

But, everything else in the universe can be either good or bad for you. Fire can keep you from freezing to death. It can also kill you. The wind is a manifestation of the air. Air is necessary for life. A gale wind, on the other hand, can kill you. Nothing can live without water. On the other hand, you can drown in water.

Note also: There is an exception to a counting rule in Irish grammar in this week's parable. When counting things, one should use the singular number for the noun, e.g., trí chara, trí namhaid. However, one exception is when using the plural definite article 'na.' Then one uses the plural form of the noun, e.g., na trí chairde, na trí naimhde.

An rud a ghoilleas ar an gcroí caithfidh an t-súil é a shileas.

What pains the heart must be washed away with tears.

Note: It is interesting to contrast this Celtic sentiment with the Saxon stiff upper lip. It is very British to respond to grief by taking control over it, by suppressing the emotion. Real men do not cry. It is an Imperial attitude. Even the language reflects this emotional Imperialism. In English, one says, "I am sorry," as if you were telling someone your name, as if it were part of your identity. Since I am rational being, "sorry" is my rational response to the situation.

On the other hand, the Gael says, "Tá brón orm," for "I am sorry." Literally, it means "Sorrow is on me." It is something with which I have no control. It is a burden from beyond, like a sickness. The only way to unload this burden is to let the tears flow. A more literal translations of this week's proverb would be: The eye must drain what pains the heart. The phrase "sileadh súl" (literally draining an eye) is a common idiom for "weeping." Koobler-Ross and others have shown that this attitude towards grief is more healthy than to remain in denial indefinitely.

Is treise dúchas ná oiliúint.

Instinct is stronger than upbringing.

Note: The word "dúchas" is difficult to translate into English, making this proverb open to interpetation. In the English form above, this proverb gives the nod to nature over nurture. You are your genes. Heredity overcomes education. Dr. Henry Higgins never had a chance with Eliza Doolittle. Briseann an dúchas trí shúile an chait.

However, "dúchas" also means hertitage. Hertitage is stronger than upbringing. For the Irish diaspora, this could mean that one's Irish roots provide a greater part of one's identity than the land in which one was raised. The Japanese have a proverb along these lines, "breeding rather than birth." You may be an Irish American, but you are more Irish than American.

Putóga dubha na bliana ó Nollaig go Lá Fhéile Bríde.

The darkest part of the year, from Christmas until the Feast of St. Bridgit.

Note: The significance of this proverb stems from ancient Celtic mythology, which divided the year into halves, and those halves into halves . . . ad infinitum. It begins with the dark half, the Night side of the year, called Giamos in Old Celtic. This runs from Samhain to Bealtaine, from November 1 to May 1. The other half is the light or sun half, the Day side of the year, called Samos in Old Celtic. Samhain, the midpoint between the fall equinox and the winter solstice, and Imbolc, the midpoint of the winter solstice and the spring equinox, are the beginning and ending dates of the first half of the Giamos half of the year. The second half of this first half of the Giamos half of the year runs from the winter solstice to Imbolc, i.e., from about Christmas to the Feast of St. Bridgit, Febuary 1.

This eighth of the year marks the victory of Giamos over Samos, of the night over the day, of the dark over the light. However, according to the ancient Celtic Cycle, the seeds of the destruction of the Night are sown at this darkest of times. Samos is conceived and growing in the guts of Giamos. It will one day be born and vanquish the dark. This is implied in the seanfhocal with the use of the words 'putóga dubha', which literally means 'dark guts.' Some naturally believe that the word 'Imbolc' is related to the modern Irish 'i mbolg', which means in the belly. However, 'Imbolc' actually is derived from the Middle Irish root 'm(b)lig' which means 'lactation'. Imbolc was a time to celebrate the lactation of the ewes. Lactation is a nuturing manifestation of spring, when the lambs are born. So if you are getting depressed by the cold of winter, take heart in the fact that the days are getting longer. Take a cue from the Celtic cosmos and celebrate the imminent potential of sunny, warm weather.

Briseann an dúchas trí shúile an chait.

Heredity breaks out in the eyes of the cat.

Note: The argument of nature vs. nurture has been raging for centuries. Here is a seanfhocal for those on the nature side of the debate. It can be argued that at least some of the attributes of the cat must me ascribed to nature, like the feline eye. The cat clearly has a predatory instinct to kill. Like the cat, man's propensity for cruelty and savagery has been imputed by Tennyson to "Nature, red in tooth and claw." In Memoriam, (1850), Conclusion, 56, st.4. Unfortunately, current events may be proving Tennyson's thesis.

Note also: The dative case has all but disappeared from Modern Irish conversation. A few years ago, this seanfhocal would have used the dative plural case of the word 'eye,' 'shúilibh.' A number of prepositions used to require the dative case in Old Irish, e.g., the precursors of de, do, ag, and ó. These prepositions are typical of indirect object constructions requiring the dative case in a number of Indo-European languages. The accusative case that used to govern the direct object of a sentence is also gone from the Irish language. All that is left is the nominative, genitive and vocative cases. Be grateful that there are not as many inflections of Irish nouns to learn as there used to be.

Fearthain don lao agus grian don tsearrach; uisce don gé agus déirc don bhacach.

Rain to the calf and sun to the foal; water to the goose and alms to the beggar(man).

Note: Every one of God's creatures has its needs. Although their requirements may differ, it is fitting that the needs of each be fulfilled. On another level, this seanfhocal is a reminder that no one is self-sufficient; and we all lack something to make us whole. It is up to the human community to satisfy the needs of its members.

Neantóg a dhóigh mé, copóg a leigheas mé.

A nettle burns (stings) me. Dock will cure me.

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 tír gan teanga.

There is no nation without a language.

Note: This is not so much a seanfhocal as it is a modern affirmation of the importance of the Irish language in defining Irish identity. The thought is that if a "nation" expresses itself using some other nation's tongue, then it really has no seperate identity at all.

Note also: The Irish word "teanga" has the primary meaning of "tongue". For obvious reasons it has the secondary meaning of "language" as also occurs in English.

Ní hé lá na gaoithe lá na scolb.

A windy day is not a day for thatching.

Note: There week's seanfhocal is common in many cultures. It is similar to an Italian proverb. Chi piscia contra il vento si bagna la commiscia. (He that pisseth against the wind, wets his shirt.) In other words, go with the flow. Don't spit into the wind. An older English equivalent proverb is "A reed before the wind lives on, but the mighty oak falls." An older and more general version of this proverb appears in the Bible, Ecclesiastes, 3:1, Tá a ionú féin ag gach uile ní agus tá a thráth ann don uile ghnó faoin spéir: tráth breithe, tráth báis, tráth curtha síl, tráth bainte fómhair, ... (There is an appointed time for everything, and a time for every affair under the heavens, A time to be born, and a time to die; A time to plant, and a time to uproot the plant, ...)

Note also: The Irish definite article, 'na', appears twice in the seanfhocal, while the English definite article, 'the', does not appear at all. Irish will put the definite article before a noun to make it an abstract noun. In other words, the construction used here, 'lá na gaoithe', is used to connote any windy day. Whereas, 'the windy day', while literally correct in English, could technically be misconstrued as a specific day. Q: When did you go? A: It was on the windy day last week. This construction is common with seanfhocals since the subject matter is often abstract. Take, for example, the last two proverbs,

Is maith an scáthán súil charad.
(A friend's eye is a good mirror.)

Mol an óige agus tiocfaidh sí.
(Praise a youth and she will come.)

Ní fhanann trá le fear mall.

An ebb(tide) does not wait for a slow man.

Note: The Béarla equivalent for this seahfhocal would be "Time and tide wait for no man".

Note also: There are two meanings to "trá" in Irish. The more common meaning is "beach" and in that case "trá" is feminine. For the other usage (such as in this seanfhocal) the noun is masculine and means "ebb" (as in tide).

Note also how the negative particle "Ní" causes the verb that follows it to be lenited. (Lenition or "séimhiú" is represented with a dot over the lenited letter in gaelic font and a trailing "h" in roman font.) Look at the other proverbs (Seanfhocail Eile) that begin with "ní." Some appear to violate this rule. Look closer and you will see that words that are not lenited are not verbs at all, but nouns. In all of those sentences "Ní:" is the entire verb (not just a particle), and it is just the negative form of the copula "Is." Please don't be confused by the fact that "Ní" can do double duty.

Is trom an t-ualach an t-aineaolas.

Ignorance is a heavy burden.

Note: Compare this to the popular English proverb, "Ignorance is bliss."

To each his suff'rings: are all men,
Condemn'd alike to groan,
The tender of another's pain,
Th' unfeeling for his own.
Yet ah! why should they know their fate,
Since sorrow never comes too late,
And happiness too swiftly flies?
Thought would destroy their paradise.
No more: where ignorance is bliss,
'Tis folly to be wise.

This was from Thomas Grey's poem, "Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College," 1742. This sentiment had been expressed in the Old Testament, "Óir, dá mhéad í ár n-eagna is ea is mó ár gcrá agus dá leithne é ár n-eolas is ea is géire ár bpianpháis. Cóheilt 1,18. (For in much widom there is much sorrow, and he who stores up knowledge stores up grief. Ecclesiastes 1,18)

However true this may be, consider another English proverb, "Knowledge is power." Again, this second proverb comes from the Old Testament, "Is fearr an críonna ná an tréan, fear na gaoise ná fear [an ghaisce]." Seanfhocail 24,5. (A wise man is more powerful than a strong man, and a man of knowledge than a man of might. Proverbs 24,5.)

We at Daltaí na Gaeilge subscribe to the latter proverb. Knowledge of your language gives you power. It gives you an identity, a pride in a rich heritage. We would encourage you to explore your heritage, your culture, your roots. Dip into the oldest literary tradition in Europe. Enroll at an Irish language course in your area. Sign up for an Irish immersion weekend.

Do not burden yourself with ignorance of an Ghaeilge any longer. Bí linn anois. (Join us now.)

Ní heolas go haontíos.

You must live with a person to know a person.

Note: Literal translation -- 'No knowledge until cohabitation.' Ancient Roman citizens learned this wisdom from conscription into the Roman legions. "Homini ne fidas, nisi cum quo modium salis absumperis." (Do not trust a man unless it is one with whom you have consumed a measure of salt.) The measure of salt is a reference to the preserved meat a soldier would consume in the field. Over a long campaign, one learned whom one could trust in the intimacy of close quarters. Living together over long periods of time naturally reveals one's true character. Ask anyone who has been married for a while.

Note also: You might expect this proverb to be written, 'Ní haithne go haontíos.' This is because the Irish idiom for 'I don't know someone' is 'Ní aithne agam ar duine éigin.' But the word 'aithne' literally means 'acquaintaince.' So 'knowing' in this sense is possession of superficial information about a person, like a person's name and occupation. A deeper 'knowing' is conveyed by the word 'eolas.' Tá aithne agus eolas agam air. (I know and understand him.) There is a third type of 'knowing' in Irish. 'Tá a fhios agam.' Ach sin scéal eile.

Is maith an scéalaí an aimsir.

Time is a good storyteller.

Note: The English language equivalent of this seanfhocal is: "Time will tell". In this age of "hype" and "spin doctors" it is good to remember that truth can only be masked for a brief time. In the end, reality cannot be denied.

Note Also: The most common meaning of "aimsir" is "weather", but it also has a secondary meaning of time (as in a period of history).

Ní tír gan teanga.

There is no nation without a language.

Note: This is not so much a seanfhocal as it is a modern affirmation of the importance of the Irish language in defining Irish identity. The thought is that if a "nation" expresses itself using some other nation's tongue, then it really has no seperate identity at all.

Note also: The Irish word "teanga" has the primary meaning of "tongue". For obvious reasons it has the secondary meaning of "language" as also occurs in English.

Is fearr Gaeilge bhriste, ná Béarla cliste.

Broken Irish is better than clever English.

Note: Although somewhat chauvinistic, this seanfhocal is acceptable in polite company because it rhymes so nicely.

Note also: The Irish word for the English Language is Béarla. Unlike most other cases, the name of the language (Béarla) is not based on the name of the country (Sasana). It is said that the word 'Béarla' was originally 'béalra' meaning literally 'mouth speak' or gibberish. But, that's enough said on the subject.

Ag dul chun dlí leis an ndiabhal is an chúirt i n-ifreann.

Going to the law with the devil and the court is in hell.

Note: "Going to the law with the devil" was a common metaphor for the system of jurisprudence in Ireland when she was under British rule. Until the 1840's, most people in the countryside spoke Irish exclusively. The English language was indigenous to the cities only. Being an agrarian economy, Ireland was a country where most of her citizens lived in the countryside. In other words, most peoples' only tongue was Irish. However, the British installed a legal system where the proceedings were exclusively in English. Thus, any accused Irish defendants found themselves being charged, tried, and convicted in a foreign tongue. Since most could not afford to hire an English-speaking barrister, most would never know why they were imprisoned. The Penal Laws only made the situation worse.

However, there were rare occasions when the Irish successfully defended themselves. The author had a distant cousin, fadó, fadó, (long, long ago) who was walking by the landlord's castle one day when he smelled the succulent aroma of His Lordship's breakfast being cooked. He lingered to savor the sweet smell of sausages sizzling in the mouth-watering company of eggs and biscuits. His Honor, the Lord of the Manor, spied the wretch standing stupefied near his kitchen. He asked the cook who the man was and what he was doing. She told His Lordship that he was just one of his tenants vicariously enjoying His Lordship's breakfast. Then the landlord sent his tenant an invoice for the pleasure.

The tenant refused to pay and was dragged into court. Knowing the danger of the English court, the tenant went begging his friends, relations, and all the other tenants for money to pay a British barrister to defend him. He collected a tidy pile of pennies and half-pennies and put them into a small purse made of pig skin. With it, he got himself a first-rate defender.

The plaintiff's counsel argued before the local magistrate that his client had provided a service to the tenant. He had given his tenant a measure of joy that now required a measure of payment.

The defendant's counsel called the landlord to the stand. Throwing the pig's skin purse full of pennies and half-pennies on the table before him, the lawyer asked, "Is this the recompense you seek?"

"It is," says the landlord.

"And does the sound of this give you pleasure?" The lawyer shook the purse, clinking the coins inside.

"It does," says the landlord.

Whereupon, the lawyer petitioned the magistrate that his client's payment had been made in full. The landlord had given his tenant a measure of joy. Now the tenant has given the landlord a like measure of joy. The debt is paid in kind. The judge agreed. Some thought the tenant had got out of hell by hiring a better devil.

Nuair a bhíonn an cat amuigh, bíonn an luch ag rince.

When the cat is outside, the mouse does be dancing.

Note: The English language parallel is "When the cat's away, the mice will play". Notice that Irish mice don't just play - they dance (although the seanfhocal does not dare tread into the political minefield of specifying whether mice prefer céilí or set dances).

Dia linn is deoch is ní ráibh mé riamh bocht.

God with us and a drink, and may I never be poor.


Note: It has been said that Irish toasts are like prayers. This week's seanfhocal is a toast that follows in that tradition. Like most prayers it asks God for something. Like most prayers it uses the subjunctive mood to do this, i.e., 'go raibh' is the subjunctive mood for the verb 'be,' 'tá.' The subjunctive is used to express contra-factual ideas, like wishes.

For many Irish who emigrated to America, the wish to never be poor came true.

In the National Opinion Research Center's (NORC) 1977 and 1978 General Social Survey, 26% of families in America reported an annual income in excess of $20,000; of those who describe themselves as British Protestants, 30% reported more than $20,000 income; and 47% of the Irish-Catholic families reported more than $20,000 in income, a little higher than the 46% of Jewish families and 43% of Italian families.
Andrew M. Greely, The Irish Americans: The Rise to Money and Power, Warner Books, 1993, p.137.

The wish for a drink has come true too. Ach sin scéal eile.

Bíonn grásta Dé idir an diallait agus an talamh.

The grace of God is found between the saddle and the ground.

Note: This week's proverb is a positive way of saying that God hates a coward. His grace is available to those with the courage to jump on a horse and risk falling off. "Great deeds are usually wrought at great risk." Herodotus.

Keep the faculty of effort alive in you by a little gratuitous exercise every day. That is, be systematically ascetic or heroic in little unnecessary points, do something every day or two something for no other reason than that you would rather not do it, so that when the hour of dire need draws nigh, it may find you not unnerved and untrained to stand the test.
William James,The Sentiment of Rationality (1882)

Tá Dia láidir is máthair mhaith aige.

God is strong and He has a good mother.

Note: The Irish language, like the Irish people, has a special place for Mary, the Mother of God. Her name is "Muire" in Irish. This is not to be confused with the other Irish word for Mary, which is "Máire." In Irish there is only one "Muire," Máthair Dé (Mother of God), Muire Mháthair (Our Lady, Literally: Mother Mary), An Mhaighean Mhuire (the Virgin Mary), An Mhaighdean Bheannaithe (the Blessed Virgin). All other women named Mary have the name "Máire" on them.

Sé do bheatha, a Mhuire, Hail Mary
atá lán de ghrásta, full of grace,
Tá an Tiarna leat. The Lord is with thee.
Is beannaithe thú idir mná, Blessed art thou amongst women,
Agus is beannaithe toradh
do bhroinne, Íosa.
And blessed is the fruit
of thy womb, Jesus.
A Naomh-Mhuire,
a Mháthair Dé,
Holy Mary,
Mother of God,
Guigh orainn na peacaigh, Pray for us sinners,
Anois agus ar uair ár mbáis.    Now and at the hour of our death.
Amen. Amen

Níor dhún Dia doras riamh nár oscail Sé ceann eile.

God never closed one door without opening another.

Note: There is a Spanish version of this week's proverb, "Dios que da la llaga, da la medicina." (God who gives the wound, gives the cure.) Neither the Spanish nor the Irish version expresses a Calvinist notion of predetermination. God may open another door, or offer the cure, but one does not have to go through the door, or accept the cure. The notion of free will is preserved in both proverbs.

Note also: Both verbs in this week's seanfhocal are in the past tense. We took some poetic license translating the second verb into the English gerund form, 'opening.' A more literal translation would be "God never closed a door, He did not open another one."

Irish has a widely used verb form comparable to the gerund called the progressive form of the verb. It is formed by putting the preposition 'ag' before the verbal noun form with the verb to be. So the negative past progressive form is 'ní raibh Sé ag oscailt' (He was not opening), while the negative present progressive form is 'níl Sé ag oscailt' (He is not opening), and the negative future progressive form is 'ní bheidh Sé ag oscailt' (He will not be opening). Each is used to express an ephemeral action, one that is in progress.

Is giorra cabhair Dé ná an doras.

The help of God is closer than the door.

Note: This week's seanfhocal is a reminder of the nearness of God and his mercy. He is the loving father, always ready to help his children, if only they would but ask Him. In cotrast is the stern English proverb, "God helps those who help themselves."

Many have helped themselves to its authorship. Benjamin Franklin published this adage in 1735 in Poor Richard's Almanac. In 1689, Algernon Sidney published it in his Discourses on Government. George Herbert wrote "Help thyself, and God will help thee." (Jacula Prudentum 1651) Perhaps, each borrowed the idea from Aesop's Hercules and the Wagoner, written around 550 B.C. He may have borrowed the idea from Aeschylus who wrote, "God loves to help him who strives to help himself." Euripides wrote, "Try first thyself, and after call in God; For to the worker God himself lends aid." Sophocles wrote "Heaven helps not the men who will not act." While this proverb was lifted from one pen to another in the Greco-Roman-English tradition, the Celtic tradition passed this week's seanfhocal from one voice to another without any concern about authorship.

Note also: The native speaker this week talks at a coversational pace. So you hear in this proverb how Irish words get fused together in normal discourse. Here the words 'ná' and 'an' get fused together in speech as if they were spelled 'nán.' The rule concerns consecutive words where the first ends in a vowel and the second begins with a vowel. If either of them is the neutral vowel, represented above as an upside-down 'e', then that vowel is 'swallowed up' in pronunciation. In this case, the article 'an' begins with a neutral vowel, so it is not heard.

Bíonn dhá insint ar scéal agus dhá leagan déag ar amhrán.

There are two versions to a story and twelve arrangements to a song.

Note: There are two sides to a story. This classic intepretation of our proverb of the week is the basis of western jurisprudence. Disputes can not be settled in a modern court until both sides of the story are told. This wisdom goes back to the ancient Greeks. Euripides said, "In a case of dissension, never dare to judge until you've heard the other side." Protagoras extended Eurpides' idea from points of fact to points of law, "There are two sides to every question." St. Augustine, who built his philosophy on the Greeks, wrote, "Audi partem alteram." (Hear the other side.) De Duabus Animabus, XIV, 2.

However, the rejoinder to the proverb, "and there are twelve arrangements (versions) to a song" suggests a uniquely Irish interpretation. Irish literature originated in an oral tradition. A Seanchaí (traditional story teller), when telling an old story, would usually personalize the tale as if it happened to him or her self. Local facts might be added to give the yarn a little color. Consequently, stories told in such a way often evolved into two or more versions.

For example, consider the ancient story of the selkie. In the John Sayle's film, "The Secret Of Roan Inish", he has the character, Tadhg Conneelly played by John Lynch, retell it to his young cousin. He begins by saying, "Do you know why I am dark?" He goes on to say he is dark because he is descended from a skelkie, a creature that is half seal, half human. Éamonn Kelly tells the begining of the story differently.

As ye all know I'm a stonemason by trade and its behind in Ballinskelligs I was one time building a pier. Tough enough work too, and you'd want to be well paid for it. And in a job like that, down on the brink of the tide, there are times when the shoes'd have to come off. Well, one day I noticed that the man tending me had webbed toes and of course I remarked on it. But it wasn't until the night above in Main's Pub that I came by the whole story.
Éamonn Kelly, "The Mermaid," Ireland's Master Storyteller: The Collected Stories of Éamonn Kelly, Marino Books, 1998, p. 196.

Kelly then explains that his attendant had webbed toes because he had a selkie in his family line. Both Conneelly and Kelly go on to tell the same story. Each differs only in a few minor details. Every story has two versions.

There is second rejoinder to this week's proverb, "Bíonn dhá insint ar scéal agus dhá leagan déag ar amhrán agus dhá éiscint fhicid ar riail gramadaí." (... and there are twenty-two exceptions to a rule of grammar.) Ach sin scéal eile.

Seacht seachtaine ramhra ó Shamhain go Nollaig.

Seven fat weeks from Samhain to Christmas.

Note: It is ironic how this seanfhocal could mark a period using both Christian and Druid feast days. Samhain is one of the four fire festivals in the Druid calendar, marking the end of the year. Halloween originated from it. Christmas marks the beginning of the life of Jesus Christ.

Also ironic is the application of this seanfhocal to both an agrarian past and an urban present. These seven weeks would be considered fat to the ancient Irish farmer because they follow the harvest time. These seven weeks would be considered fat to the urban present because it is the season of good food, good drink, and good company. Two out of the last three of these are rich in calories. Go on a binge now and go on a diet in the New Year.

Forgive us, but the editor can not go another week without mentioning Irish grammar. (It has been four weeks since our last syntactic discourse.) Note that this week's seanfhocal has an exception to the rule for counting things in the Irish language. Usually, when counting things in Irish you use the nominative singular form of the noun, e.g., cúig mhadra (five dogs), naoi gcapall (nine horses), where English uses the plural form. The word seachtain, however, like other words for time, e.g., bliain (year), uair (hour, time), is an exception, e.g., seacht seachtaine, trí bliana, ceithre uaire.

An té a thabharfas scéal chugat tabharfaidh sé dhá scéal uait.

Whoever will bring a story to you will take two stories from you.

Note: This is more an Irish protocol than a proverb. If someone tells you a story, then you are expected to tell two in return. It is similar to the Irish greeting protocol; if someone greets you with a blessing, "Dia duit" (God to you) then you are expected to return a greater blessing, "Dia's Muire duit" (God and the Blessed Virgin Mary to you). Another interpretation suggests that the two stories taken from you are the one you told and the one the story-teller told. In any case, you are expected to give at least as good as you got.

John Millington Synge discovered this cardinal principle of Irish hospitality when he visited the Aran Islands. His muse had deserted him in Paris when Yeats suggested he seek her in these remote islands in the Gaeltacht. Synge spent the next four summers learning Irish on Inishmaan (Inis Meáin). His Island hosts wanted to hear his stories about the continent. In return, they regaled him with the folk tales of the Islands. At least four of them ended up as plots in his plays.

"The Playboy of the Western World", for example, was based on a story Synge heard of a young Connaught man who had actually murdered his Father with a spade in a wild rage. He fled to Inishmaan and asked the Islanders to save him from the despised English law. They hid him in a hole for several weeks until they could arrange his clandestine passage to America. "If a man has killed his father, and is already sick and broken with remorse, they can see no reason why he should be dragged away and killed by the law."1

1John M. Synge, The Aran Islands, republished by Dover, 1998, p. 44.

Bíonn siúlach scéalach.

Travellers have tales to tell.

Note: This week's seanfhocal is subject to two seemingly opposing interpretations. One interpretation is a variation of the American proverb, "Travel broadens the mind," and the English axiom, "He that travels much knows much." Such a traveller returns with a great store of sagas about his peripatetic exploits. On the other hand, there is another interpretation explicit in the English language proverb that says, "A traveller can lie with authority." In this case, the travelling storyteller can weave the wildest yarns without fear of being challenged by the untravelled audience. Maybe there is a middle ground. Isn't it the story itself that is important to the Irish, to every literate person, in fact? Was it any good? Whether it was fiction or non-fiction is of secondary interest.

Note also: Here we have an interesting grammatical case of nouns being converted to adjectives to be used as nouns. The words 'siúlach' and 'scéalach' are adjectives derived from the nouns 'siúl' (walk) and 'scéal' (story), respecitvely. Many nouns can be made into adjectives by adding the suffix -lach. As adjectives, they are hard to translate out of context. Ó Dónaill translates 'siúlach' using gerunds, "Walking, strolling, roaming," and a noun clause, "inclined to travel." However, in this sentence, the adjectives are not modifying any nouns. So the listener has to infer that a traveller is one who is "walking" or "inclined to travel." The same is true for 'scéalach.' In other words, the adjectives are used as nouns.

Nuair a bhíonn an cat amuigh, bíonn an luch ag rince.

When the cat is outside, the mouse does be dancing.

Note: The English language parallel is "When the cat's away, the mice will play". Notice that Irish mice don't just play - they dance (although the seanfhocal does not dare tread into the political minefield of specifying whether mice prefer céilí or set dances).

Ná bí róbheag is ná bí rómhór leis an gcléir.

Don't be too small and don't be too big with the clergy.

Note: Do not be too small with the clergy. They have answered a call from God. They have sacrificed everything to serve God and minister to God's community. They deserve respect. Do not be too big with the clergy either. Do not expect them to be without sin. After all, members of the clergy are human, and therefore subject to the same foibles that afflict all human beings. In his writings, St. Patrick reveals both his devotion and his shortcomings.

Mise Pádraig, peacach gan oiliúint ag cur fúm in Éirinn, fógraím gur easpag me.Táim lándeimhin de gur ó Dhia a fuaireas a mbaineann liom. Dá bhrí sin is ar son grá Dé atá cónaí orm i measc na nginte barbaracha, i mo choimhthíoch agus i mo dheoraí. Is finné é Dia gur mar sin atá. Ní hé gur mhian liom aon ní a scaoileadh thar mo bheola ar shlí chomh dian ná chomh géar sin, ach tá dúthracht do Dhia do mo thiomáint agus spreag fírinne Chríost mé de bharr grá comharsan agus clainne, ar thréig mé mo thír dhúchais agus mo thuismitheoirí agus mo shaol go bás ar a son. Más fiú mé é, mairim do mo Dhia, d'fhonn na ginte a theagasc cé gur beag é meas roinnt daoine orm.
     An Litir ag Coinnealbhá Corotícus.

I, Patrick the sinner, unlearned as everybody knows, avow that I have been established as a bishop of Ireland. Most assuredly I believe that I have received from God what I am. And so I dwell in the midst of barbarbous heathens, a stranger and an exile for the love of God. He is witness that this is so. Not that I desired to utter from my mouth anything so harshly and so roughly, but I am compelled, roused as I am by zeal for God and for the truth of Christ; and by love for my nearest friends and sons, for whom I have given up my fatherland and parents, yea and my life to the point of death. I vowed to my God to teach the heathens if I am worthy, though I be despised by some.
     Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus

Irish was probably Patrick's third tongue. His first was Latin. Patrick's father was a decurion, a roman government official in a remote part of Roman Britain. Patrick writes that he had a misspent youth and associated with other wayward youth. Patrick probably spoke a Britannic Celtic language with these youth. It was a language more akin to Welch than Irish. Patrick learned Irish after he was sold into slavery in Ireland in 401 ACE.

Deireadh gach soiscéal an t-airgead.

[At the] end of every gospel [is] a collection.

Note: It is a precept of the Church that members must contribute to its support. "Íocaigí le Céasar na nithe is le Céasar agus le Dia na nithe is le Dia." (Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's and unto God the things that are God's.) Matha (Mark) 22:21. This includes Peter's Pence, a tithe created for the Pope in eighth century England. One penny was due from anyone with income greater than thirty pennies per year. It was payable on the Feast of St. Peter.

Peter's Pence was not paid by medevial Ireland, marking the beginning of an epoch of English rule. Henry II, the King of England, invaded Ireland in 1171 with a Papal Bull, "Laudabiliter," from Adrian IV, the only English Pope. It authorized the invasion to reform the Irish Church and to collect Peter's Pence. The Archbishops of Tuam and Cashel and the Kings of Waterford and Dublin met at the Synod of Cashel in late 1171. There it was decreed to submit to the tithe and to conform to the customs of the continental Church. It also recognized Henry as the King of Ireland.

Note also: Both the Irish word 'soiscéal' and the equivalent English word 'gospel' are translated literally from the Greek word 'eaungelion,' which means good tidings. 'Gospel' evolved from the Middle English 'godspell' that comes from the older Anglo Saxon word 'gödspel' which meant 'good news.' The Irish prefix 'so-' means 'easy to' or 'good' while 'scéal' means 'news' or 'story.' Hence 'soiscéal' literally means 'good news.'

Ráithe ó Fhéile Mhichíl go Nollaig.

'Tis three months from the Feast of St. Michael to Christmas.

Note: From the Middle Ages to the ninteenth century, the Feast of St. Michael the Archangel, September 29, was a great holiday. Mayors across Ireland would take office on that day. A messenger from Drogheda would walk to Dublin to tell the Dublin Mayor's office that the Drogheda mayor had been sworn in. Apparently, it was a custom for the Dublin mayor to be sworn in after the Drogheda mayor.

It was literally a day for a great feast. It was called Fomhar na nGé, the goose harvest, because geese hatched in the spring were now deemed ready for market. So a sumptious goose dinner was the bill of fare for many familes. Others had lamb in deference to an old legend about St. Patrick.

St. Patrick prayed to St. Michael to save the life of Lewey, son of Leary -- King of all Ireland, who had taken deathly ill. When Lewey recovered, his grateful mother vowed to sacrifice one sheep from each of her flocks for the poor on behalf of St. Michael. It was called cuid Mhichíl, St. Micheal's share. Hence, St. Michaels Feast day is a day to feed the poor.

St. Michael's Feast Day, or Michelmas as the Anglo-Normans called it, was also a day to settle rents for the quarter, an ráithe. If the harvest was good this would not be a problem. On the other hand, if the harvest was bad, and Michelmas passed without paying the rent, eviction would often follow. Michelmas also marked the beginning of the hunting season. If the hunting was good, tenants would be able to pay rent for the next quarter, due around Christmas. Otherwise, it often meant eviction.

Consequently, there is a bright and a dark side to this week's proverb. On the bright side, it marks two great feast days in the Irish calendar. On the dark side it marks two days when the rent is due. It could either mark feast or frost, i.e., being thrown out into the cold.

D’áiteodh sé muc ar shagart (is banbh ar chléireach).

He could sell a priest a pig (and the parish clerk a piglet).

Note: This is said of someone with great powers of persuasion. He could sell ice to Eskimos. He could sell sand to Arabs. He could could even convince the most learned person in the parish, the priest, to buy a pig. A priest needs a pig like an Eskimo needs ice, like an Arab needs sand.

Note also: The Irish word 'ar' is a simple preposition. A preposition combines with a noun or pronoun to form a phrase, e.g., 'ar shagart' (literally: on a priest). A prepositional phrase can modify the meaning of a noun, e.g., 'muc ar shagart' (literally: a pig on a priest).

A preposition can also modify the meaning of a verb. In this case, the verb 'áitigh' means 'occupy, settle down to,' or 'argue.' However, the preposition 'ar' modifies the verb 'áitigh' to mean persuade or convince.

This week's proverb literally means, "he could argue a pig on a priest." That is, he could get the priest to take the argument on him, i.e., he could 'sell' the priest. This is 'sell' in the sense of persuade. 'Sell' in the sense of transact' is 'díol.' Dhíolfadh mé muc leis, má tá aon airgead aige. (I would sell him a pig, if he has any money.) 'Díol' also means 'sell out = betray' or 'pay.'

Bia is deoch i gcomhair na Nollaig; éadach nua i gcomhair na Cásca.

Food and drink for Christmas; new clothes for Easter.

Note: This proverb posits the cyclicality of life as a duality on the liturgical calendar. Food and drink mark the celebration of Christmas, the beginning of the life of Jesus of Nazareth. This is the food and drink earned from the recent harvest. In contrast to the beginning of life inherent in the Nativity, harvest occurs at the end of life, at the death of plants. Something must die that we may live. In contrast, Easter commemorates the resurrection of Christ. At the same time, new clothes are possble because of the spring shearing of sheep. Spring sheering is a sign of the beginning of life.

On a more practical level, feasting is one of the hallmarks of Christmas while a good suit or a fine dress is a hallmark of Easter. Recall an earlier proverb, "Seacht seachtaine ramhra ó Shamhain go Nollaig." That tradition is evidenced by the fact that for candy companies the two greatest sales days in the year are Samhain and Christmas. There is a variation of this week's proverb that says, "Bia is deoch na Nollaig, édach glan na Cásca." The adjective 'glan' usually means 'clean' but it also means 'well-made' or 'distinct'. In either case, fine clothes are associated with Easter.

Niorbh a fhiú a dhath ariamh a bhfuarthas in aisgidh.

Nothing free is ever appreciated.

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

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

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

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