Maxims & Wise Counsel

Mairg faemas a anfine.

Mairg faemas a anfine.
Mairg móras a mogduine.

(woe betide * (who) accepts * his * outsiders)
(woe betide * (who) exhalts * his * vassal)

Woe to him who welcomes outsiders.
Woe to him who raises the status of his serf.

This harsh prescription is found at LL 48a17 in a thoroughly pessimistic doomsaying poem.

Nárbat soithiuch senáruscc.

Nárbat soithiuch senáruscc.

(be-not • vessel • of old-maxims)

Don't be a bowl of old saws!

This piece of advice comes from a poem about how to be a poet in the Book of Rights, which Kuno Meyer edited in ZCP iv, 238.

An tan is caeine an cluiti…

An tan is caeine an cluiti is and dlegur a discur.

(the * time * is * more beautiful * the * game * is * then * it is proper * its * ceasing)

The best time to give up the game is when it's at its best.

This maxim is found in “Lorgaireacht an tSoidhigh Naomhtha”, the 15th century Irish version of “La Queste del Saint Graal” (The Quest for the Holy Grail). A more standard spelling of the sentence would be “An tan is caoine an cluiche is and dlegar a díscor.” “Quit when you're ahead” may come close to it in today's English. In Modern Irish I'd say “Nuair is fearr an cluiche, is ansan ba chóir éirí as.”

Nípa deoladacht acht bid fiach.

Nípa deoladacht acht bid fiach.

(will-not-be * favour * but * will-be * debt)

There are no favours without debts.

This is found in the Würzburg Glosses (ca. 750 AD), where it glosses “non secundum gratiam sed secundum debitum”. A modern take on this might be “there are no free lunches.”

Is doescair cach can etach n-imbe.

Is doescair cach can etach n-imbe.

(is * common * everyone * without * clothing * around-him)

No one is noble in the nude.

In other words, "clothes make the man." This proverb is quoted in item #462 in O'Mulconry's Glossary. See also "Eochair úaisle étach" in this collection.

Ad·fenar fó fíu...

Ad·fenar fó fíu.
Ad·fenar olcc anmoínib.
Ad·fenar maith moínib.

(is repayed * good * (by) worthiness
is repayed * evil * (by) un-treasures
is repayed * goodness * (by) treasures)

Value repays virtue.
Waste repays wickedness.
Gain repays goodness.

This triad of maxims is found in the Laws (Cethairshlicht Athgabálae) at CIH ii 408.13f.

Is bé carnae cluas cáich.

Is bé carnae cluas cáich.

(is * woman * of flesh * hearing/ear * of everyone)

Everyone's hearing is a whore.

This colorful legal maxim warns that hearsay evidence is unreliable. It is found in Berrad Airechta §59 (CIH ii 596.14). Robin Stacey ("Lawyers and Laymen", Cardiff, 1986; p. 220) has translated the immediate text as follows:

"Why is a report that is heard [about an event which occurred] in the absence [of the ... witness] a dead opinion? For everyone's hearing is a whore, so that a report that is heard is invalid, whether the matter concerning which a rumour is heard be true or untrue."

Is bun baisi ai cin toga...

Is bun baisi ai cin toga.
Is gnim for gaineam toga gin asta.
Is uball a nairear fasta gin cuindrech.

(is * base * of foolishness * lawsuit * without * agreement
is * deed * on * sand * agreement * without * binding
is * apple * in * borderland * binding * without * power)

This triad of alliterating lines is found in CIH 1921.41f (= Trinity College MS H 3.17, p 433). Neil McLeod rid the five-line grouping in the MS of two interloping lines, and provided the following translation, which tracks much of the structure of the original:

The pit of stupidity is a claim without an agreement.
A structure on sand is an agreement without a guarantee.
An apple out-of-reach is a guarantee without any power.

This is a more standardized spelling of the same lines:

Is bun baíse áe cen toga.
Is gním for gainem toga cen astud.
Is uball i n-airer astud cen cuindrech.

Nirbat dergnat chuirmthigi...

Nirbat dergnat chuirmthigi
nir·fhácba do chlothaige;
nirbat muichnech i n-úathad
nirbat búaibnech sochaide.

(you should not be * flea * of ale house
you should not leave * your * fame
you should not be * melancholy * in * solitude
you should not be * boastful (one) * of crowd)

You should not be an ale-house flea.
You should not give up your reputation.
You should not mope in solitude.
You should not boast in a crowd.

This quatrain was jotted down by a scribe in the upper margin of folio 124a in the Book of Leinster. The expression "ale-house flea" is found elsewhere and seems to refer to someone who is annoying in a social gathering. In "Bríatharthecosc Con Culainn", which is inserted into "Serglige Con Culainn" in LU, we find "Nibat dergnat colla coirme hi tig rurech" (You should not be a 'drunken flesh flea' in the house of a king). The translation "drunken flesh flea" is suggested in DIL, but the phrase is probably intended simply as a variation on the "dergnat cuirmthigi" found above.

I have normalized the spelling slightly. The original is:

Nirbat dergnat chormthigi
nir fhacba do chlothuide;
nirbat muichnech i n-uathiud
nirbat búafnech sochaide.

Mairg abélaiges do dháinib.

Mairg abélaiges do dháinib.

(woe betide * (he) that flatters * to * people)

Woe to the one who flatters people.

This line was jotted by a scribe in the lower margin of page 12 of An Leabhar Breac, and is quoted in DIL s.v. "aipélaigid". The sentiment may be admirable, but it is completely at odds with the workings of the venerable poetic professional in medieval Ireland.

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