How proverbs connect us with our ancestors
Ahead of St Patrick's Day, Garry Bannister reflects on the special place proverbs hold in Irish culture and why these intricate phrases won't die out
You would be ill-advised to pepper your Leaving Certificate English composition with traditional English proverbs. It would be considered somewhat clichéd and is unlikely to impress any English examiner. On the other hand, however, and in sharp contrast, you would be wise to throw in the odd proverb when writing an Irish essay you intend handing up.
In fact, ending with a proverb would be considered a plus in any Leaving Certificate Irish essay. And why? Well, the Irish tradition is still profoundly rooted in a deep deference to our ancestors and here, I'm not talking about the high-flung axioms of classical literature, but of the common voice of previous generations; the thoughts and feelings of our parents and grandparents.
Whenever we quote a proverb in Irish, it is a recognition, a greeting, a nod if you like, to those who went before us, that what we do and say today has been built on what they have said and done before us. In a way, it is a means of placing ourselves within an Irish community of souls who adhere to certain commonly accepted values and traditions that are both treasured and to be promoted.
While many of the most well-known proverbs date back to the old Gaelic tradition, new ones are emerging all the time. There is a wealth of sayings which have come into frequent use over the past 50 years, such as Mé-féineachas (My-selfness), Níl aon amadán mar sheanamadán (There is no fool like an old fool) or Baile, scoil, paróiste (Home, school, parish!).
When people ask me why I devoted my life to teaching Irish I simply reply that it is, for me, one of the greatest gifts that any Irish person can offer to the next generation. And this is because, embedded in the Irish language, there's a whole universe that cannot be heard, spoken or experienced through any other language.
If music gives us a glimpse of heaven, then proverbs give non-Irish speakers a glimpse into an experiential universe hidden from them by their not knowing and being able to speak the Irish language. Ah, I hear you mutter, another insane Gaeilgeoir! Well, before you rush to judgement, please read me out.
To a certain extent, proverbs are similar to small turns of phrase that remind us of a people or experiences we have had. 'I'll be back' might remind us all of a gravelly Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Terminator, while 'I have a cunning plan' recalls Baldrick in Blackadder, or perhaps for people of my own vintage: 'Roll it there, Colette!' which would bring back memories of Gay Byrne and The Late, Late Show.
Proverbs can also capture a time, a mood, and a way of seeing the world - súil eile, as TG4 constantly reminds us.
For example, there are many Irish proverbs that reveal the shimmering soul of the common Irish woman or man, our ingrained and abiding sense of sorrow that is part and parcel of who we are: Bíonn an bás mar leigheas ar an saol (Death is the cure for life), or Ní sonas seanaois aois, ní bainis bás (Old age isn't happiness and death isn't a wedding).
Very often with Irish proverbs, death is merrily introduced into a wide variety of topics, such as fishing: Bíonn súil le muir ach ní bhíonn súil le huaigh (There is hope [of coming home] from the sea but none from the grave), or drinking: Is iomaí lá sa reilig orainn ([Have another drink] because we will be in the graveyard for many the day), or even when innocently drinking tea: Marbh le tae agus marbh gan é (Dead with the tea and dead without it).
This preoccupation with death and the troubles of life has been widely and colourfully fossilized in many small nuggets of Irish folk-wisdom, more commonly known as proverbs. Other examples show our quirky Irish sense of humour: Is maith Dia agus níl an diabhal ró-olc (God is good and the devil isn't too bad), or our disdain for authority: Má tá an cheart ag Dia, tá an dá cheart ag an Eaglais (However right God is, the Church is twice as right), and often reveal details of ancient crafts and forgotten traditional skills: Ní hé lá na gaoithe lá na scolb (The windy day isn't the day for thatching).
Even those who have forgotten all the Irish they ever learnt at school can still recall some of the proverbs that their tenacious teachers once taught them, like: Níl aon tinteán ná do thinteán féin (There is no fireside like your own fireside), or Is maith an scéalaí an aimsir (Time is a good storyteller).
Proverbs stay with us independent of whether the zeitgeist of any particular era may value or scorn them and so surely in Seachtain na Gaeilge 2017 we should honour their singular importance and place in our native language.
Proverbs in Irish by Garry Bannister is out now (New Island, €11.95)