Proverbial Sayings

Milsem cormae cétdeoch.

Milsem cormae cétdeoch.

(sweetest * of ale * first-drink)

The first drink of ale is the sweetest.

One of the many maxims in "Tecosca Cormaic". A slightly less terse version is found in the Book of Leinster (345d58): "Milsem cacha corma a cét-deog." = The sweetest of every ale is its first drink.

Is banna ría frais ón.

Is banna ría frais ón.

(is * a drop * before * a shower * that)

That is a drop before a shower.

"That is a sign of things to come," says Medb in "Fled Bricrenn".

Is ithi lochad coa lloss.

Is ithi lochad coa lloss.

(it is * eating * of a mouse * with its * tail-end)

Eating a mouse includes the tail!

In a memorable scene in "Cath Maige Mucrama", the king of Alba serves Lugaid Mac Con (who is incognito) and his men whole raw mice for dinner, and threatens them with death if they do not eat them! One poor man vomits every time he starts to put his mouse in his mouth, which prompts Lugaid, who has already complied, to order his man to get it down, tail and all. By this strategem the king is able to discover which one of the men is Luagaid, since he is necessarily the one who would have the authority to enforce such a revolting mouthful.

Fó cach tan teine.

Fó cach tan teine.

(good * every * time * a fire)

A fire is fine anytime.

A maxim from "Tecosca Cormaic", one of the "speculum principum" texts, full of good advice for rulers. This sentiment is actually put in a woman's mouth and seems to be intended to illustrate what the author perceives to be women's excessive love of comfort. This tangentially calls to mind a modern saying:

Áit a mbíonn toit bíonn teine.
Áit a mbíonn teine bíonn teas.
Áit a mbíonn teas bíonn mná.
Áit a mbíonn mná bíonn geab.

(Where there's smoke there's fire.
Where there's fire there's heat.
Where there's heat there are women.
Where there are women there's gab.)

Noco modmar cach n-óenbró.

Noco modmar cach n-óenbró.

(is not * effective * each * one millstone)

A single millstone is useless.

This is one of the proverbial images that Cú Chulainn uses in the LL "Táin" to convey the difficulty of defending Ulster against the invaders entirely on his own, during the period that the other warriors were suffering a magical debility. See also: "Ní lassamain..." and "Cuit in tslóig..." in this collection.

Ailbe uses the same proverb ("Ní nodmar [sic] dina nach aenbro") in "Tochmarc Ailbe" in explaining to Finn, her new husband, why she always has a retort for his words of sage advice. She tells him that she is not answering back just to annoy him or to be contrary, "acht nama as aerlabru duit -si labra t'oenur gin nech do triaaccaillim frit" (but just that it's empty eloquence for you to speak all alone without anyone to answer you back). The image of marriage as a pairing of two millstones is found in "Dia·fagbainn-se bróin úachtair" in this collection.

Ba deól mela a mecnaib ibair.

Ba deól mela a mecnaib ibair.

(was * sucking * of honey * out of * roots * of yew)

It would be like sucking honey from yew roots.

A proverbial expression for the impossible, found in "Aislinge Meic Con Glinne". A slightly different version found in the Book of Ballymote runs "Is do dechraib in domain buain mela ar mecnaib ibair" ("harvesting honey from yew roots is one of the difficult things of the world").

Ba gat imm gainem.

Ba gat imm gainem.

(was * a withe * around * sand)

It would be like tying sand with a willow shoot.

This is one of a surprisingly large repertory of images of the impossible, pointless or fruitless found in Early Irish literature. A fairly exhaustive list of them can be found in the satirical Middle Irish text "Aislinge Meic Con Glinne". Others in this collection include "Ba deól mela...", "Is cuinchid smera...", and "Ba robad do throich." A modern quatrain that O'Rahilly gives as #207 in "Dánfhocail" begins with this image:

Lán gaid do ghaineamh thrágha,
nó beart gaoithe ar ghualainn,
greann dá chur i gcoidreamh
idir bhoidrisg do dhaoine duairce.

Nít lia Lagin rúni.

Nít lia Lagin rúni.

(they are not * more numerous * Leinstermen * than secrets)

There are as many secrets as there are Leinstermen. The secrets of the Leinstermen are as numerous as they are.

This is a proverbial saying imbedded in the tale "Orgain Denna Ríg". Its true origin is a bit mysterious, but it is interesting that versions of this formula have persisted down to the present day in Irish:

Ní lia duine ná barúil. = There are as many opinions as there are people. So many men, so many minds.

Ní lia tír ná nós. = There are as many customs as countries.

But then, the Roman comic playwright Terence wrote "Quot homines tot sententiae" (There are as many opinions as there are people) more than two thousand years ago!

Ní lassamain cech n-óenchrand.

Ní lassamain cech n-óenchrand.

(not * inflammable * each * one log)

A single log does not catch fire.

This is one of a series of images, found in a poem in the LL Táin, that Cú Chulainn, weary and dejected, uses to lament the strain of carrying on the fight against the invaders single-handed. The image of trying to light a fire with just one log as a metaphor for the difficulty of trying to go it alone in the world is found eslewhere in the literature. Suibne Geilt says that living without a wife is like rowing a boat with one oar (see "Tigedhus do bheith gan mnaoi"). He ends the quatrain by comparing his condition to "adúdh re hénoires" (= igniting a fire with one faggot).

See also in this collection: "Noco modmar..." and "Cuit in tslóig..."

Ba cloch i n-inad uigi sin.

Ba cloch i n-inad uigi sin.

(was * stone * in * place * of egg * that)

That was a stone in place of an egg.

A proverbial expression for a bad exchange, found the Book of Fenagh, the Annals of Connacht, and elsewhere. DIL quotes, s.v. "sop", an extended version from "Cogadh Gaedhel re Gallaibh" where it refers to the quality of a person: "nir bo cloch in inad ugi sen 7 nir bo sop in inad largi" (that was not a stone instead of an egg or a whisp instead of a stout stick).

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