Proverbial Sayings

cenn i mbolg

cenn i mbolg

(head * in * bag)

head in a bag

This proverbial metaphor for ignorance is found in "In Tenga Bithnua" a sermon for the vigil of Easter composed around 1000 A.D, where it is paired with the similar expression "bith i tig dorcha" (being in a dark house). The full context is:

"ar ba cenn i mbolg 7 ba bth i tigh dhorcha do sil Adhuimh iarsindi na fes riam cissi dealbh ro bai forsin domun nó cia dhorigne" (for it was "head in a bag" and "being in a dark house" for the seed of Adam, since it had never been known what shape the world had or who made it).

barae fri búire

barae fri búire

(wrath * against * rage)

anger in answer to anger

This alliterative formula is found in "Tochmarc Étaíne", where Mider tells Echaid that he is furious with him. Eochaid replies placatingly that he will not return anger for anger: "Ní bara fri búre daitsiu ón" in the LU spelling.

Ní maith senóir gan seinsceoil.

Ní maith senóir gan seinsceoil.

(not * good * elder * without * old-story)

An old person should have tales to tell.

This proverb is found in "Acallam na Senórach" at line 1385.

Is garit mo lorg latt.

Is garit mo lorg latt.

(is * short * my * club * with you)

My club is short in your opinion.

Fergus is furious at Cú Chulainn for having just killed Etarcomal, a persistent challenger who goaded Cú past his limit, even though Fergus had asked Cú not to harm the arrogant young man. Thomas Kinsella translated this line as "You must think my cudgel is very short." The sense of this proverbial expression is "You must think that you're beyond my authority and can do as you please. We'll just see about that!"

Gablánach in rét in scéluighecht.

Gablánach in rét in scéluighecht.

(branching * the * thing * the * storytelling)

Storytelling is an intricate business.

This proverb is found in "Acallam na Senórach" (3669), where it is attributed to St. Patrick, who remarks "As gablánach in scélaigecht-sin" after hearing a tale in which Manannán's wife falls in love with Aillén, and Aillén's sister falls in love with Manannán. The partnerships get re-arranged accordingly and everyone is happy in the end.

Daimid ána for lindib.

Daimid ána for lindib.

(he endures/allows * cups * on * pools)

He risks silver cups at wells.

The implication is "he puts his authority to the test". "Sanas Cormaic" (No. 48) explains that kings used to test their power to maintain law and order by placing valuable cups, usually made of silver, at wells so that thirsty people could refresh themselves. Needless to say, no theft of cups was clear evidence that the king's law was strong.

In "Acallam na Senórach", a much later text, Caílte tells Coscrach na Cét about a stone with a hollow in it that contained, during the reigns of Conn and Art and Cormac and Cairbre Lifechair, an arm-band made of 160 ounces of red gold. "Do bói d' fhebus rígi na ríg na lamad nech a breith leis," explained Caílte. ("So excellent was the reign of the kings that no one dared steal it.")

Ba gleith ech nDedad.

Ba gleith ech nDedad.

(was * grazing * of horses * of Ded)

It was the grazing of Ded's horses.

That is, the place was picked clean, with nothing left behind. In the tale "Airec Menman Uraird Maic Coise" the leading character, a poet, uses three metaphorical images to express how completely the enemies of Máel Milscothach pillaged and despoiled his house and lands. He explains this one by telling us that when the horses of Ded grazed at Temair Luachra they ate not just the grass but the earth and gravel beneath it. I haven't been able to locate the tale in which that particular grazing took place, but that sort of voracious grazing is attributed also to Cú Chulainn's horses in the LU Táin, and to three destructive red deer in "Acallam na Senórach".

The second image that the poet Urard mac Coise deploys is similar in style: "Ba tenga bó Goibnenn" (It was the tongue of Gobniu's cow). This cow was apparently the same sort of voracious eater as the animals mentined above.

The third vivid image does not require a mythological explanation to be understood: "Ba diglaim dergtheined" (It was a gleaning of red fire).

Is deibedach in raet in Gaeidel.

Is deibedach in raet in Gaeidel.

(is * hasty * the * thing * the * Irishman)

The Irish are impetuous.

The proverb is quoted in "Acallam na Senórach" (line 4480), where it is put into the mouth of Caílte. A crowd is urging him to turn over a boulder so that the can see a marvel on the underside of it, and he says "Léicid-si cairde dam-sa" (Give me a little time), and then comments on their impatience with this proverb.

Saethar ecnada 'na gin...

Saethar ecnada 'na gin, saethar buirb 'na láim.

(labor * of scholar * in his * mouth * labor * of * ignorant one * in his * hand)

The educated man works with his mouth, the unschooled works with his hand.

This proverb is quoted in the "Archiv für celtische Lexicographie" and in DIL s.v. "ecnaid".

Muiredach cecha mennata.

Muiredach cecha mennata.

(master * of every * locality)

A lord over every locality.

It is a sign of lawless times when every little locality has its own independent ruler (as is currently the case in Somalia, for example). This expression is found in a poem by Beg mac Dé (edited by Meyer in ZCP 9, 169) which catalogues the sorry state of law and order in Ireland. A manuscript gloss clarifies the meaning as follows: ".i. tigerna for cech feronn .i. ni tibri nech tigernus diaraili" (i.e. a lord over each territory, i.e. no one will give (over)lordship to another).

The expression gets a positive spin in "Erchoitmed Ingine Gulidi", where it appears in the form "Is muiredaig caich a menduta" (All are masters of their (own) locality). The implication here is "Every man's home is his castle."

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