Maxims & Wise Counsel

Is ferr ecna cen suíthi...

Is ferr ecna cen suíthi oldás suíthi cen ecna.

(is * better * wisdom * without * learning * than * learning * without * wisdom)

Wisdom without learning is better than learning without wisdom.

A maxim incorporated into "Apgitir Crábaid" from the MS Harleian 5280, in ZCP iii (p. 454)

Messam fine fonn fledach.

Messam fine fonn fledach.

(worst * of family * fondness * feast-loving)

The worst for a family is fondness for feasting.

This maxim from "Aibidil Cuigni maic hEmoin" seems to advise that too much partying will deplete the resources of the "fine" or extended family, the members of which were responsible for the group's well-being. Simply getting fat from too much food and drink was probably not a concern then, however, unlike today!

Cé messam do menmain?

Cé messam do menmain? Cóili & cróidhi & cumce. Ar ní talla nach maith for menmoin cóil crúaidh cumaing.

(what * worst * for * mind ? thinness & hardness & narrowness * for * not * is room for * any * goodness * on * mind * thin * hard * narrow)

What is worst for a mind?
Thinness and hardness and narrowness.
For there is no room for any good in a thin, hard, narrow mind.

This maxim comes from "Apgitir Crábaid", a text attributed to Colmán maccu Béognae, and found in ZCP 3.454, and on line at CELT.

Doberar béimm n-etargaire ina chinn.

Doberar béimm n-etargaire ina chinn.

(is given * blow * of mediator * in his * head)

The mediator gets a blow on the head.

Triad # 135 in "Trecheng Breth Féne" lists three unlucky undertakings: ráthaiges (acting as a "paying surety" -- something like co-signing a loan), etargaire (acting as a mediator or peace-maker), and fíadnaise (giving evidence as a witness). The above statement explains just why getting between two quarreling parties is not such a good idea!

A much later proverb from "A Miscellany" makes the same point in these words: "Bé théid as nó ná téid, ní théid fear na h-eadaragála. = No matter who comes off well, the peace maker is sure to come off ill." A Scottish version from the same collection say "Is minig a fhuair fear h-eadraiginn buille."

Sinn ag loighe ar in lucht romhainn...

Sinn ag loighe ar in lucht romhainn,
lucht oile orainn san úaigh.

(we * at * lying * on * the * people * before us /
people * other * on us * in the * grave)

We rest on those who came before us,
and others will rest on us in the grave.

This half stanza is quoted in §72 of the "Irish Grammatical Tracts", edited by Osborn Bergin in "Ériu" (vol. 9, part 2, p. 118). A similar idea is expressed, somewhat less morbidly, in the saying "In bith-sa is bith cáich ar uair" in this collection.

Mad comairle duit do ben...

Mad comairle duit do ben,
nítbia talam, nítbia nem;
is mairg tréces na huili
ar grád anma óenduini.

(if would be * counsel * for you * your * wife/
you will not have * earth * you will not have * heaven/
is * pitiful * that abandons * the * all/
for * love * of soul * of one person)

If your wife would be your counsel,
you will have neither earth nor heaven;
woe to him who forsakes the whole
for the love of a single soul.

This severe little verse, conventionally attributed to Saint Brigit, is quoted in ZCP 7 (p. 298).

Nírba crúaid ar ná ba áertha...

Nírba crúaid arná ba áertha.
Nírba timm arná ba máelchend.

(I was not * hard * so that not * I might be * satirized.
I was not * soft * so that not * I might be * shorn-headed)

I wasn't hard, lest I be jeered.
I wasn't soft, lest I be fleeced.

This balanced pair of lines is found in "Tecosca Cormaic" (§7.16-17), where Cormac is counseling the middle path between being a harsh ruler and a push-over. The full implications of the last word are hard to convey briefly in English, but the jist is that having one's hair shaved off implied either submission in a religious calling, servant status in the lay world, or a punishment or humiliation. In the latter aspect, I'm grateful to Patrick Brown for calling my attention to the Etarcomal episode in the Táin, in which Cú Chulainn tries to discourage an unwanted challenger by making him look successively bad, then worse, then ridiculous, by first literally cutting the ground out from under him with one sword stroke, then stripping his clothes off with another, and finally by shearing off his hair with the third! And I'm equally grateful to Neil McLeod for suggesting the translation "fleeced", and to David Stifter for pointing out the reverse parallel between getting shorn and ending up weak in the story of Samson in the Old Testament.

Níbi lesach nach súanach.

Níbi lesach nach súanach.

(not-is * successful * anyone * sleepy)

No one who is sleepy is successful.

This maxim is quoted in the Laws (CIH 362.35-36, 887.13, 1442.12-25, 1899.3-4) in discussions of distraint. One of the glosses on it explains it in terms of that legal procedure: "nocha bi les og don tí bis ina suan can fasc na hathgabala do breith" (whoever remains asleep without serving notice of distrained animals does not get complete redress). As Neil McLeod has suggested, the maxim in general use was probably equivalent to "the early bird gets the worm".

Is comaithech cach combúasach.

Is comaithech cach combúasach.

(is * neighbor * every * equally-wealthy)

Something of equal value is close enough.

Neil McLeod explained and translated this maxim, found in "Bretha Nemed Toísech" (CIH 2227.10-11). It describes the cattle that a claimant (a poet in this case) is legally entitled to seize in substitution for a debt that is owed to him.

Sruithiu feb áes.

Sruithiu feb áes.

(more esteemed * excellence * than age)

Excellence is more honored than age.

This maxim is found in "Bretha Nemed Toísech" (CIH 2214.2). A gloss on it says "is uaisle inti occa mbi eolus, cid ócc, oldas in sen ocna bia" (one who has knowledge, although young, is more noble than an old person who does not). A modern quatrain ("Dánfhocail", p. 23) expresses the idea in these words:

Ná meas m'eagna ar m'óige,
's go meallfainn fear féasóige;
mo chridhe gan baois im bruinn,
is sine ná m'aois m'fhoghluim.

Syndicate content