Speak Irish: More Seanfhocail

By Bob Carney

“If you’re gonna stand there and moo, you’d better give milk!”

I remember my grandfather saying that to me when I was young. I was complaining about something trivial, although at the time I didn’t think so. It’s a funny saying, but true and has stuck with me for over fifty years.

Irish is full of old sayings or proverbs, known as seanfhocail (shan-oh-kel), and sometime back I shared a few of my favorite,s but barely scratched the surface. This month I’d like to share some others that show the wit and wisdom of the Irish mind in all its splendor.

Most of these are quite old, after all seanfhocail means old words, and sometimes require a bit of thought to decipher the actual meaning of the phrase. For example; “Ba é chéad bhia ar an sliogán dó na scéalta sin.” Translates to “The first food on the shell for him were those tales” meaning he was nurtured on those tales.

Also , be aware that these translations are not word for word, instead they are the meaning of the phrase, just as, go raibh maith agat, is the phrase used for thank you, but translates to “may there be good at you.” I hope you find one or two that you like and can pass them down as my grandfather did for me.

“Caora mhór an t-uan i bhfad” (kweera whor ahn too-in wahd)

“To carry a lamb is no great load, but it’s a sheep you’ll have a mile down the road”

“Sceitheann fíon fírinne” (shkih-inn fee-un feer-ih-neh)

“Truth is spilled when wine is swilled” or “Wine in, truth out”

“Táimid caillte sa cheo chéanna” (taw-midge kahl-cha sa kyo kyen-ah)

“We’re lost in the same mist”

“Is minic a bhris béal duine a shrón” (iss min-ick ah vrish bay-al dinn-uh ah hrone)

“Many a time a man’s mouth broke his nose”

“Ní féidir gan ceann a chrochadh” (nee fay-dure gan kyawn a krowk-ah)

“You can’t hang a headless man”

“Imíonn an méanfach ó dhuine go duine”  (ih-me-un ahn me-un-fach oh gin-uh guh din-uh)

“Mar a imíonn an spideog ó bhile go bile” (mahr ah ih-me-un anh spih-doeg oh vih-le guh bih-le)

“A yawn can pass from you to me, like a robin from tree to tree”

“Ná bí abhus is a bheith thall” (naw bee uhwuss iss ah vay hull)

“Ná bi thall is a bheith abhus” (naw bee hull iss ah vay uhwuss)

“Nó má bhíonn  tú abhus is a bheith thall” (no mah vee-un too uhwuss iss ah vay hull)

“Ní bheidh tú thall ná abhus”  (nee vay too hull naw uhwuss)

“Don’t be here when you should be there, don’t be there when you should here, because if you’re here and there, you won’t be anywhere.”

“Chomh ríméadach le cat a mbeadh póca air” (cove ree-may-dach leh caht ah made po-ka ayre)

“As happy as a cat with a pocket”

“Imionn gach maith le mionchaitheamh” (ih-me-un gach mah leh min-uh-uv)

“Constant dripping wears away the stone”

“Más maith leat do mholadh faigh bás” (mahs mah lyat duh wo-lahg fah boss)

“Más maith leat do cháineadh pós” (mahs mah lyat duh kah-nayg poss)

“If you want praise die, if you want blame marry”

“Ní beag a beith go dona, ach gan a bheith go dona faoi” (nee beeyog a bay guh duh-na ach gan vay guh duh-na fwee) “It’s bad enough being miserable without being miserable about it”

“Trí shórt ban nach féider le fear a dtuiscint” (tree hort bahn nach fay-dure leh far a dish-kint)

“Bean óg” (bahn oeg)

“Bean mheánaosta” (bahn vahn-easta)

“Seanbhean” (shan-vahn)

“Three types of women a man can’t understand, a young woman, a middle aged woman, an old woman”

“Ní sheasann sac folamh” (nee shesh-ahn sac fohl-uv)

“An empty sack won’t stand” meaning it’s hard to work on an empty stomach

“Codladh an ghiorria” (kuhl-ah ahn yih-ree-uh)

“The sleep of the hare” to sleep with one eye open

“Ná trí héisc is mire” (naw tree iss meerr-ah)

Rotha (row-ha)

Ranga (wrang-ah)

Agus rón (ah-gus rown)

“The three fastest things in the sea, the ray, the mackrel and the seal” the literal translation is the three fastest fish in the sea even though a seal is not a fish

“Tógfaidh dath dubh ach ní thógfaidh dubh dath” (toeg-ah dah duv ach nee hoe-ah duv dah)

“Color will take black but black will not take color” It’s easier to damage someones reputation than it is to restore it.

“Chomh dall ar meisce le coinín” (cove dahl ar mish-ka leh kwih-neen)

“As blind drunk as a rabbit”

“Chomh trom sin go n-íosfá le spúnóg é” (cove trom shin guh nees-feh leh spoon-ug ay)

“ You could eat it with a spoon it’s so heavy” speaking of a heavy fog

“An rud nach binn le duine ní chuineann sé é” (ahn rud nach bihn leh din-uh nee klin-inn shay ay)

“ What’s not sweet to the ear, we simply don’t hear”

“Ní dhéanfadh an saol capall rása d’asal” (nee yen-fah ahn say-ul kah-pull raw-sa dah-sul)

“Whatever else might come to pass, you’ll never make a racehorse of an ass”

“Ní troimide an loch an lacha” (nee trim-ih-da ahn loch ahn lach-ah)

“The lake is no heavier for having the duck on it”

This last one I’ve shared in class, when we want to practice translations. Everyone seems to get the translation itself correct, but then we get all manner of interpretations as to its meaning. It is a rather unique way to remind us not to worry about the little things in life.

There are many books out there that share seanfhocail, some are regional, such as “Seanfhocaill as Acaill”. This one is in Irish only and can be a nice challenge as you translate and then attempt to understand the meanings. There are also many in English and Irish, and I have one that has the original old Irish, English and Irish versions in it.

I hope you enjoy them as much as I do.

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See this and all of Bob’s columns HERE

Bob Carney

Bob Carney

*Bob Carney is a student of Irish language and history and teaches the Speak Irish Cleveland class held every Tuesday at PJ McIntyre’s. He is also active in the Irish Wolfhound and Irish dogs organizations in and around Cleveland. Wife Mary, hounds Rían, Aisling and Draoi and terrier Doolin keep the house jumping. He can be reached at [email protected]


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