English as we speak it in Ireland/VIII

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CHAPTER VIII.[edit]

PROVERBS.[edit]

The Irish delighted in sententious maxims and apt illustrations compressed into the fewest possible words. Many of their proverbs were evolved in the Irish language, of which a collection with translations by John O'Donovan may be seen in the 'Dublin Penny Journal,' I. 258; another in the Rev. Ulick Bourke's Irish Grammar; and still another in the Ulster Journ. of Archæology (old series) by Mr. Robert MacAdam, the Editor. The same tendency continued when the people adopted the English language. Those that I give here in collected form were taken from the living lips of the people during the last thirty or forty years.

'Be first in a wood and last in a bog.' If two persons are making their way, one behind the other, through a wood, the hinder man gets slashed in the face by the springy boughs pushed aside by the first: if through a bog, the man behind can always avoid the dangerous holes by seeing the first sink into them. This proverb preserves the memory of a time when there were more woods and bogs than there are now: it is translated from Irish.

In some cases a small amount added on or taken off makes a great difference in the result: 'An inch is a great deal in a man's nose.' In the Crimean war an officer happened to be walking past an Irish soldier on duty, who raised hand to cap to salute. But the hand was only half way when a stray bullet whizzed by and knocked off the cap without doing any injury. Whereupon Paddy, perfectly unmoved, stooped down, replaced the cap and completed the salute. The officer, admiring his coolness, said 'That was a narrow shave my man!' 'Yes your honour: an inch is as good as a mile.' This is one of our commonest sayings.

A person is reproved for some trifling harmless liberty, and replies:—'Oh a cat can look at a king.' (A translation from Irish.)

A person who fails to get what he was striving after is often glad to accept something very inferior: 'When all fruit fails welcome haws.'

When a person shows no sign of gratitude for a good turn as if it passed completely from his memory, people say 'Eaten bread is soon forgotten.'

A person is sent upon some dangerous mission, as when the persons he is going to are his deadly enemies:—that is 'Sending the goose on a message to the fox's den.'

If a dishonest avaricious man is put in a position of authority over people from whom he has the power to extort money; that is 'putting the fox to mind the geese.'

'You have as many kinds of potatoes on the table as if you took them from a beggarman's bag': referring to the good old time when beggarmen went about and usually got a lyre of potatoes in each house.

'No one can tell what he is able to do till he tries,' as the duck said when she swallowed a dead kitten.

You say to a man who is suffering under some continued hardship:—'This distress is only temporary: have patience and things will come round soon again.' 'O yes indeed; Live horse till you get grass.'

A person in your employment is not giving satisfaction; and yet you are loth to part with him for another: 'Better is the devil you know than the devil you don't know.'

'Least said, soonest mended.'

'You spoke too late,' as the fool said when he swallowed a bad egg, and heard the chicken chirp going down his throat.

'Good soles bad uppers.' Applied to a person raised from a low to a high station, who did well enough while low, but in his present position is overbearing and offensive.

I have done a person some service: and now he ill-naturedly refuses some reasonable request. I say: 'Oh wait: apples will grow again.' He answers—'Yes if the trees baint cut'—a defiant and ungrateful answer, as much as to say—you may not have the opportunity to serve me, or I may not want it.

Turf or peat was scarce in Kilmallock (Co. Limerick): whence the proverb, 'A Kilmallock fire—two sods and a kyraun' (a bit broken off of a sod).

People are often punished even in this world for their misdeeds: 'God Almighty often pays debts without money.' (Wicklow.)

I advise you not to do so without the master's permission:—'Leave is light.' A very general saying.

When a person gives much civil talk, makes plausible excuses or fair promises, the remark is made 'Soft words butter no parsnips.' Sometimes also 'Talk is cheap.'

A person who is too complaisant—over anxious to please everyone—is 'like Lanna Mochree's dog—he will go a part of the road with everyone.' (Moran Carlow.) (A witness said this of a policeman in the Celbridge courthouse—Kildare—last year, showing that it is still alive.)

'The first drop of the broth is the hottest': the first step in any enterprise is usually the hardest. (Westmeath.)

The light, consisting of a single candle, or the jug of punch from which the company fill their tumblers, ought always to be placed on the middle of the table when people are sitting round it:—'Put the priest in the middle of the parish.'

'After a gathering comes a scattering.' 'A narrow gathering, a broad scattering.' Both allude to the case of a thrifty man who gathers up a fortune during a lifetime, and is succeeded by a spendthrift son who soon makes ducks and drakes of the property.

No matter how old a man is he can get a wife if he wants one: 'There never was an old slipper but there was an old stocking to match it.' (Carlow.)

'You might as well go to hell with a load as with a pahil': 'You might as well hang for a sheep as for a lamb': both explain themselves. A pahil or paghil is a bundle of anything. (Derry.)

If a man treats you badly in any way, you threaten to pay him back in his own coin by saying, 'The cat hasn't eaten the year yet.' (Carlow.)

'A fool and his money are easily parted.'

'A dumb priest never got a parish,' as much as to say if a man wants a thing he must ask and strive for it.

'A slip of the tongue is no fault of the mind.' (Munster.)

You merely hint at something requiring no further explanation:—'A nod is as good as a wink to a blind horse.' (Sam Lover: but heard everywhere.)

A very wise proverb often heard among us is:—'Let well enough alone.'

'When a man is down, down with him': a bitter allusion to the tendency of the world to trample down the unfortunate and helpless.

'The friend that can be bought is not worth buying.' (Moran: Carlow.)

'The life of an old hat is to cock it.' To cock an old hat is to set it jauntingly on the head with the leaf turned up at one side. (S. E. counties.)

'The man that wears the shoe knows where it pinches.' It is only the person holding any position that knows the troubles connected with it.

'Enough and no waste is as good as a faist.'

'There are more ways of killing a dog than by choking him with butter.' Applied when some insidious cunning attempt that looks innocent is made to injure another.

'Well James are you quite recovered now?' 'Oh yes, I'm on the baker's list again': i.e., I am well and have recovered my appetite.

'An Irishman before answering a question always asks another': he wants to know why he is asked.

Dan O'Loghlin, a working man, drove up to our house one day on an outside car. It was a sixpenny drive, but rather a long one; and the carman began to grumble. Whereupon Dan, in the utmost good humour, replied:—'Oh you must take the little potato with the big potato.' A very apt maxim in many of life's affairs, and often heard in and around Dublin.

'Good goods are tied up in small parcels': said of a little man or a little woman, in praise or mitigation. (Moran: Carlow.)

'Easy with the hay, there are boys on the ladder.' When a man is on the top of the stack forking down hay, he is warned to look out and be careful if other boys are mounting up the ladder, lest he may pitch it on their heads. The proverb is uttered when a person is incautiously giving expression to words likely to offend some one present. (Moran: Carlow.)

Be cautious about believing the words of a man speaking ill of another against whom he has a grudge: 'Spite never spoke well.' (Moran: Carlow.)

Don't encroach too much on a privilege or it may be withdrawn: don't ask too much or you may get nothing at all:—'Covetousness bursts the bag.'

Three things not to be trusted—a cow's horn, a dog's tooth, and a horse's hoof.

Three disagreeable things at home:—a scolding wife; a squalling child; and a smoky chimney.

Three good things to have. I heard this given as a toast exactly as I give it here, by a fine old gentleman of the old times:—'Here's that we may always have a clane shirt; a clane conscience; and a guinea in our pocket.'

Here is another toast. A happy little family party round the farmer's fire with a big jug on the table (a jug of what, do you think?) The old blind piper is the happiest of all, and holding up his glass says:—'Here's, if this be war may we never have peace.' (Edw. Walsh.)

Three things no person ever saw:—a highlander's kneebuckle, a dead ass, a tinker's funeral.

'Take care to lay by for the sore foot': i.e., Provide against accidents, against adversity or want; against the rainy day.

When you impute another person's actions to evil or unworthy motives: that is 'measuring other people's corn in your own bushel.'

A person has taken some unwise step: another expresses his intention to do a similar thing, and you say:—'One fool is enough in a parish.'

In the middle of last century, the people of Carlow and its neighbourhood prided themselves on being able to give, on the spur of the moment, toasts suitable to the occasion. Here is one such: 'Here's to the herring that never took a bait'; a toast reflecting on some person present who had been made a fool of in some transaction. (Moran: Carlow.)

'A man cannot grow rich without his wife's leave': as much as to say, a farmer's wife must co-operate to ensure success and prosperity. (Moran: Carlow.)

When something is said that has a meaning under the surface the remark is made 'There's gravel in that.'

'Pity people barefoot in cold frosty weather,
But don't make them boots with other people's leather.'

That is to say: don't be generous at other people's expense. Many years ago this proverb was quoted by the late Serjeant Armstrong in addressing a jury in Wicklow.

'A wet night: a dry morning': said to a man who is craw-sick—thirsty and sick—after a night's boozing. (Moran: Carlow.)

This last reminds me of an invitation I once got from a country gentleman to go on a visit, holding out as an inducement that he would give me 'a dry bed and a wet bottle.'

'If he's not fishing he's mending his nets': said of a man who always makes careful preparations and lays down plans for any enterprise he may have in view.

'If he had a shilling in his pocket it would burn a hole through it': said of a man who cannot keep his money together—a spendthrift.

'A bird with one wing can't fly': said to a person to make him take a second glass. (Moran: Carlow.)

Protect your rights: 'Don't let your bone go with the dog.'

'An old dog for a hard road': said in commendation of a wary person who has overcome some difficulty. Hard in this proverb means 'difficult.' (Moran: Carlow.)

'No use sending a boy on a man's errand': Don't be satisfied with inadequate steps when undertaking a difficult work: employ a sure person to carry out a hard task.

Oh however he may have acted towards you he has been a good friend to me at any rate; and I go by the old saying, 'Praise the ford as you find it.' This proverb is a translation from the Irish. It refers to a time when bridges were less general than now; and rivers were commonly crossed by fords—which were sometimes safe, sometimes dangerous, according to the weather.

'Threatened dogs live long.' Abuses often go on for a long time, though people are constantly complaining and threatening to correct them. (Ulster.)

He who expects a legacy when another man dies thinks the time long. 'It is long waiting for a dead man's boots.' (Moran: Carlow.)

A person waiting impatiently for something to come on always thinks the time longer than usual:—'A watched pot never boils.'

'A poor man must have a poor wedding': people must live according to their means.

'I could carry my wet finger to him': i.e. he is here present, but I won't name him.

'Oh that's all as I roved out': to express unbelief in what someone says as quite unworthy of credit. In allusion to songs beginning 'As I roved out,' which are generally fictitious.

'Your father was a bad glazier': said to a person who is standing in one's light.

'As the old cock crows the young cock learns': generally applied to a son who follows the evil example of his father.

A person remarks that the precautions you are taking in regard to a certain matter are unnecessary or excessive, and you reply 'Better be sure than sorry.'

'She has a good many nicks in her horn': said of a girl who is becoming an old maid. A cow is said to have a nick in her horn for every year.

A man of property gets into hopeless debt and difficulty by neglecting his business, and his creditors sell him out. 'Well, how did he get out of it?' asks a neighbour. 'Oh, he got out of it just by a break-up, as Katty got out of the pot.' This is how Katty got out of the pot. One day at dinner in the kitchen Katty Murphy the servant girl sat down on a big pot (as I often saw women do)—for seats were scarce; and in the middle of the dinner, through some incautious movement, down she went. She struggled to get up, but failed. Then the others came to help her, and tugged and pulled and tried in every way, but had to give it up; till at last one of them brought a heavy hammer, and with one blow made smithereens of the pot.

'Putting a thing on the long finger' means postponing it.

On the evil of procrastination:—'Time enough lost the ducks.' The ducks should have been secured at once as it was known that a fox was prowling about. But they were not, and——

'Will you was never a good fellow.' The bad fellow says 'Will you have some lunch?' (while there is as yet nothing on the table), on the chance that the visitor will say 'No, thank you.' The good hospitable man asks no questions, but has the food brought up and placed before the guest.

'Cut the gad next the throat': that is to say, attend to the most urgent need first. You find a man hanging by a gad (withe), and you cut him down to save him. Cutting the gad next the throat explains itself.

When a work must be done slowly:—'I will do it by degrees as lawyers go to heaven.' (Moran: Carlow.)

'That's not a good fit,' as the serpent said when he swallowed a buck goat, horns and all.

Time and patience would bring a snail to America.

'The cold stone leaves the water on St. Patrick's Day.' About the 17th March (St. Patrick's Day), the winter's cold is nearly gone, and the weather generally takes a milder turn.

'There are more turners than dishmakers'; meaning, there may be many members of a profession, but only few of them excel in it: usually pointed at some particular professional man, who is considered not clever. It is only the most skilful turners that can make wooden dishes.

A person who talks too much cannot escape saying things now and then that would be better left unsaid:—'The mill that is always going grinds coarse and fine.'

'If you lie down with dogs you will get up with fleas': if you keep company with bad people you will contract their evil habits. (Moran: Carlow.)

If you do a kindness don't mar it by any unpleasant drawback: in other words do a kind act graciously:—'If you give away an old coat don't cut off the buttons.'

Two good things:—A young man courting, an old man smoking: Two bad things:—An old man courting, a young man smoking. (MacCall: Wexford.)

What is the world to a man when his wife is a widow.

Giving help where it is needed is 'helping the lame dog over the stile.'

'Leave him to God': meaning don't you attempt to punish him for the injury he has done you: let God deal with him. Often carried too far among us.

A hard man at driving a bargain:—'He always wants an egg in the penn'orth.' (Kildare.)

A satirical expression regarding a close-fisted ungenerous man:—'If he had only an egg he'd give you the shell.' (Kildare.)

A man wishes to say to another that they are both of about the same age; and this is how he expresses it:—'When I die of old age you may quake with fear.' (Kildare.)

Speaking of a man with more resources than one:—'It wasn't on one leg St. Patrick came to Ireland.'

When there is a prospect of a good harvest, or any mark of prosperity:—'That's no sign of small potatoes.' (Kildare.)

Your friend is in your pocket. (Kildare.)

[As a safe general principle]:—'If anybody asks you, say you don't know.'

'A good run is better than a bad stand.' When it becomes obvious that you cannot defend your position (whatever it is), better yield than encounter certain defeat by continuing to resist. (Queenstown.)

A man depending for success on a very uncertain contingency:—'God give you better meat than a running hare.' (Tyrone.)

To express the impossibility of doing two inconsistent things at the same time:—'You can't whistle and chaw meal.'

A man who has an excess of smooth plausible talk is 'too sweet to be wholesome.'

'The fox has a good name in his own parish.' They say that a fox does not prey on the fowls in his own neighbourhood. Often said of a rogue whose friends are trying to whitewash him.

'A black hen lays white eggs.' A man with rough manners often has a gentle heart and does kindly actions.

Much in the same sense:—'A crabtree has a sweet blossom.'

A person who has smooth words and kind professions for others, but never acts up to them, 'has a hand for everybody but a heart for nobody.' (Munster.)

A person readily finds a lost article when it is missed, and is suspected to have hidden it himself:—'What the Pooka writes he can read.' (Munster.)

A man is making no improvement in his character or circumstances but rather the reverse as he advances in life:—'A year older and a year worse.'

'A shut mouth catches no flies.' Much the same as the English 'Speech is silvern, silence is golden.'

To the same effect is 'Hear and see and say nothing.'

A fool and his money are easily parted.

Oh I see you expect that Jack (a false friend) will stand at your back. Yes, indeed, 'he'll stand at your back while your nose is breaking.'

'You wouldn't do that to your match' as Mick Sheedy said to the fox. Mick Sheedy the gamekeeper had a hut in the woods where he often took shelter and rested and smoked. One day when he had arrived at the doorway he saw a fox sitting at the little fire warming himself. Mick instantly spread himself out in the doorway to prevent escape. And so they continued to look at each other. At last Reynard, perceiving that some master-stroke was necessary, took up in his mouth one of a fine pair of shoes that were lying in a corner, brought it over, and deliberately placed it on the top of the fire. We know the rest! (Limerick.)

'There's a hole in the house'; meant to convey that there is a tell-tale listening. (Meath.)

We are inclined to magnify distant or only half known things: 'Cows far off have long horns.'

'He'll make Dungarvan shake': meaning he will do great things, cut a great figure. Now generally said in ridicule. (Munster.)

A man is told something extraordinary:—'That takes the coal off my pipe'; i.e. it surpasses all I have seen or heard.

A man fails to obtain something he was looking after—a house or a farm to rent—a cow to buy—a girl he wished to marry, &c.—and consoles himself by reflecting or saying:—'There's as good fish in the say as ever was caught.'

Well, you were at the dance yesterday—who were there? Oh 'all the world and Garrett Reilly' were there. (Wicklow and Waterford.)

When a fellow puts on empty airs of great consequence, you say to him, 'Why you're as grand as Mat Flanagan with the cat': always said contemptuously. Mat Flanagan went to London one time. After two years he came home on a visit; but he was now transformed into such a mass of grandeur that he did not recognise any of the old surroundings. He didn't know what the old cat was. 'Hallo, mother,' said he with a lofty air and a killing Cockney accent, 'What's yon long-tailed fellow in yon cawner?'

A person reproaching another for something wrong says:—'The back of my hand to you,' as much as to say 'I refuse to shake hands with you.'

To a person hesitating to enter on a doubtful enterprise which looks fairly hopeful, another says:—Go on Jack, try your fortune: 'faint heart never won fair lady.'

A person who is about to make a third and determined attempt at anything exclaims (in assonantal rhyme):—

'First and second go alike:
The third throw takes the bite.'

I express myself confident of outwitting or circumventing a certain man who is notoriously cautious and wide-awake, and the listener says to me:—'Oh, what a chance you have—catch a weasel asleep' (general).

In connexion with this may be given another proverb: of a notoriously wide-awake cautious man, it is said:—'He sleeps a hare's sleep—with one eye open.' For it was said one time that weasels were in the habit of sucking the blood of hares in their sleep; and as weasels had much increased, the hares took to the plan of sleeping with one eye at a time; 'and when that's rested and slep enough, they open it and shut the other.' (From 'The Building of Mourne,' by Dr. Robert Dwyer Joyce.)

This last perpetuates a legend as old as our literature. In one of the ancient Irish classical tales, the story is told of a young lady so beautiful that all the young chiefs of the territory were in love with her and laying plans to take her off. So her father, to defeat them, slept with only one eye at a time.