11-3 literature

The Center for Literate Values ~ Defending the Western tradition of responsible individualism, disciplined freedom, tasteful creativity, common sense, and faith in a supreme moral being.


A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis

11.3 (Summer 2011)




courtesy of artrenewal.org


“Its Beginning Is Better Than Its End”: Proverbs, Pessimism, and the Oral Mind

John R. Harris

I.  The Proverb and Oral Tradition
         Proverbs enjoy a wide popularity (if I may open with a tautology) that would seem to exclude any need of justifying their existence.  The casual consumer of them will likely rebut the would-be analyst, in fact, with what appears to be transparent common sense.  Of course such sayings entertain and fascinate!  They are the crystallization of a culture’s profoundest wisdom into highly economical form, often rhymed, alliterated, or brightened by a rare turn of phrase for good measure.  Who doesn’t want to be wise, and who would refuse wisdom packaged in such a memorable wrapper?

     Yet the casual enthusiast makes the error common to all “purely literate” people who have no preparation to study oral tradition: he applies a single standard to all phases of human culture.  Folklore, for instance (which is closely related to the proverb, as we shall see), has often been perversely recruited by such curious-minded literati as the Brothers Grimm to amuse the nursery.  Its style is so simple, and its contents so replete with talking animals and fairy godmothers, that at first glance it seems tailor-made for a child’s intelligence.  Those of us who have ever browsed the original Grimm’s Fairy Tales, however, know that Cinderella’s (or Aschenputtel’s) wicked sisters mutilate their feet in a bid to have the slipper fit, that their eyes are pecked out by pigeons in the end, and that similar carnage abounds throughout the collection.  Even children raised on video games are not submitted to such a baptism of fire! 

     Proverbs, too, do not appear unconditionally wise if we view them under the magnifying glass.  They are wise in certain circumstances and on the basis of certain assumptions–but they are not necessarily a satisfactory terminus for a Sunday School lesson.  Their moral assumptions can indeed differ radically from ours.  They belong to the spoken world–the pre-literate world where rhyme, alliteration, and the rest indeed made sayings memorable, because such sayings were said.  To remark of a proverb that it enjoys wide popularity is really not tautological at all in a literate setting; for in our world of fixed, permanent records susceptible to ongoing close analysis, we neither remember very many rhymed couplets nor revere them with a reflexive obeisance offered to all things past.  “Birds of a feather flock together” sounds nice… but it flies in the face of our cultural conviction that individuals have free will and are uniquely responsible for such social choices as the company they keep.  We consider the person who would walk away from a complex dispute about proper motives with the sententious warble, “All’s well that ends well,” to be an imbecile.  An oft-repeated phrase proves no more to us than that those who utter it are easily programmed.

     In a tribal society held together by oral communication alone, this is not so.  Proverbs and other lore, rather, are the ballast that keeps the ship upright, the foundation upon which the settlement rests secure.  Such cultures are virtually obsessed with their own fragility: a plague that swept away most of the elders, or an enemy raid escaped by fleet-footed youths but not by reverend sires, would approximate the effect of a literate society’s losing all of its libraries to a conflagration (or of an electronic society’s losing all of its hard drives in a storm of solar flares).  The only means of communication is the tongue, and tongues must remain ever active in the task of transmitting what older people know to younger people.  An utterance that both encodes a valuable nugget of wisdom and does so in a fashion easily entrusted to memory is thus truly as good as gold.  So admired and respected are the observations and examples of the clan’s progenitors, indeed, that one need scarcely do more than mention them to score rhetorical points.  Argument proceeds less by constructing a logical chain than by forging ties between one’s position and known referents in the past.  When the ancient Nestor seeks to mollify Achilles and Agamemnon in Iliad 1, he gives them to understand that he recalls such heroes as Theseus, Peirithoüs, and Kaineus; and when old Phoinix takes another crack at swaying Achilles in book 9, he tells the long tale of Meleager.  It is difficult to discern how many proverbs may be embedded in Homeric exchanges (which are themselves woven from verbal formulas, of course).  Certainly numerous proverbs are implied in such narratives, which are often their actual point of origin.

     In other traditional settings, a heated debate often appears to be a volley of proverbial expressions.  The N. K. Sandars translation of Gilgamesh (an incredibly challenging text to reassemble) has the mighty hero and his comrade Enkida deliberate thus upon Humbaba’s fate: “O Enkidu, should not the snared bird return to its nest and the captive man return to his mother’s arms?”  To which Enkidu replies, “First entrap the bird, and where shall the chicks run then?”  We might well imagine two yokels of our own culture engaging in a dispute something like this: “‘The chickens will come home to roost…’ ‘Yes, but a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.'”  Walter Ong remarks in his classic little book that the highly traditional characters in Chinua Achebe’s No Longer at Ease arbitrate difficult issues in the manner just described.

The law itself in oral cultures is enshrined in formulaic sayings, proverbs, which are not mere jurisprudential decorations, but themselves constitute the law.  A judge in an oral culture is often called on to articulate sets of relevant proverbs out of which he can produce equitable decisions in the cases under formal litigation before him. 1

     Proverbial sayings, let me stress, are certainly not lacking in insight.  We literates incline to disparage them mostly because the focus of oral argumentation is upon building some allegorical bridge between the proverb or tale and the disputants’ present circumstances rather than upon the anatomy of the circumstances themselves.  Thus, in our own time, the highly educated are apt to scoff at a naive believer’s pondering the Gospel injunction, “If thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out!”  Better to ponder the specific weak will and its specific offense (situational ethics, a projection of empirical analysis into the realm of duty): colorful tropes can only obscure the critical issues.  As such cases suggest, a friction exists between the oral and the literate to this day and in this, our Western world–a time and a place where we fancy ourselves all literate.  Predominantly oral sub-communities (such as rural church congregations) continue to favor distinctly oral habits: e.g., accepting the past’s authority without question and approaching persuasion as an exercise in drawing on the past wherever possible (as in the incessant citing of biblical verses, some of very strained relevance).  Fairness would compel any thoughtful person to admit, as well, that if past answers are not preemptively and unimpeachably right, neither are they always wrong–and the literate scholar will put his own arrogance on display, all too often, in ridiculing a view merely because it obediently extends the previous age’s views.  His bigoted predilection for the not-past is but the proverbial flip-side of the rude rustic’s atavism.

     All the same, proverbial wisdom indeed tends to reflect the pessimism and resignation of times when technological alternatives were few and creative endeavor rare.  It is rather bleak, taken as a whole.  In that respect, as I implied above, some of its facets suggest moral positions marred by flaws to the more literate mind, which holds individual initiative and the inner light of conscience in much higher regard.  (The sayings of Jesus, remarkably, partake far more of the literate’s voluntarism than of the tribesman’s surrender to destiny; for like Socrates, Jesus was trying to stir semi- or pre-literate minds with inklings of yet scarcely divined truth.)  For readers within our historical niche, therefore, a large cross-section of proverbs often describes a kind of pendulum-swing between dreary defeatism and sublime reconciliation to life’s limits.  At one moment, we hear that apples don’t fall far from their parent tree; at another, we are reassured that the wicked shall reap what they sow.  The experience can be profitable if not “swallowed whole”–if, that is, we apply timeless wisdom to the inherited sort.  We need, especially, some degree of cyclicity in our outlook to court happiness, and perhaps to preserve sanity: the progressive’s ever-upward vector charts a course to chaos.  If this is not so in objective, “scientific” terms, then it is surely so in human terms.  We require, as human beings, the type of groundedness that lingers in the proverb.

II.  Munster and “The Hawk” 

        With that in mind, I should like to offer up some of my favorite proverbs culled from southwestern Ireland–an area archaically referred to as Munster–by Pádraig Ua Siochfhrada (Patrick Sherrod?).  Seanfhocail na Muimhneach (Proverbs of Munster) was first published in 1926.  A new edition (1984) of the little book recently came my way after I had happened upon many admiring references to An Seabhac (“The Hawk”), as the author was wont to sign himself colorfully in literary settings.  The back-inside flap of my volume’s dust jacket provides the following biographical information.



The panel reads: “Pádraig Ua Siochfhrada (The Hawk) was born and raised in Baile an Góilín, a couple of miles west of Dingle in County Kerry, in the year 1883.  Gaelic was the mother tongue of this region’s people at that time.  The boy learned to read and write the language from O’Growney’s primer and from his neighborhood school-master.

“He passed a considerable time as a traveling instructor in the Gaelic League.  He achieved high office in the Youth of Ireland chapter in Cork, was a District Judge in the courts established by Sinn Fein, became Chairman on the Kerry County Council, and was appointed Secretary of Education in the first Parliament of Ireland..  He remained in the service of the new nation from its inception to 1932, when he accepted a post as editor for the Educational Cooperative of Ireland.

Yet it is as a writer that Pádraig Ua Siochfhrada built a reputation.  He composed several memorable works.  His credits include school books, short dramatic works, short stories, and updated collections of old tales.  He survives with particular force in the mind of the Irish rank and file as the author of Jimeen and This Village of Ours.  He died in 1964.


Since all proverb traditions, like all politics, are local, Munster is as good a place to find a representative portrait of the genre as anywhere, and perhaps better than almost anywhere.2  It is farm country flanked by the ancient ports of Cork (to the south) and Limerick (to the north) and by the Lakes of Killarney, whose rugged mountains continue rising even in the stormy Atlantic to give us one of Gaeldom’s last strongholds, the Blasket Islands.  European tourists love the wild, wasted, windswept west for some reason.  For my money, however, the Blackwater and Suir River Valleys must rank among the most beautiful spots on earth.  Stone bridges arch over quiet waters in a hunched sleep that has lasted for centuries, cows bellow wearily as the sun plays hide and seek behind thin clouds, and the mingled fields and forests seem to stain the lower atmosphere with their green.  Ordinary people have been able to scratch out an existence here for a very long time as more rapacious visitors, drawn by rich harvests, have sought to exact tributes epoch after epoch.  Just to the east of the busy, dusty, musically immortal Tipperary rises the sacred city of Cashel–and among its promontories rests the Blarney Stone.  One senses that a lot of talk has grown in this soil, perhaps more prolifically than barley and cabbage.

a) stasis or decline–never progress

The Hawk’s collection brings together some 2607 proverbs under rubrics–“mankind”, “the body”, “love and marriage”, “food and drink”, etc.–that are very nearly arbitrary; for to class a proverb by its subject matter is often to play dull before its trope.  We need hardly suppose that the shrewd utterance, Glaonn gach coileach go dána ar a charn aoiligh–“Every cock crows loudly on the hill of his own droppings” (p. 187, no. 2242)–is intended to instruct children about the habits of birds!  Likewise, Is cuma le fear na mbróg cá gcuireann sé a chos (p. 85, no. 1036) isn’t really about shoes or dress at all: “It’s all the same to a man with shoes where he puts his feet” surely has to do with the insulation afforded by socio-economic wellbeing, political power, or the like.  The saying refers to shoes because a short word and a clear image can capture so much more in its loop than a scholarly abstraction.  The proverb directly preceding this one is yet more tantalizing, in that its degree of vagueness is far greater: Is mór an mhaise ar sheanbhróig búcla–“Great is the beauty of the old buckled shoes” (no. 1035).  This observation would be pointless to memorize as a judgment of style and mode, for people make their own judgments about such things.  Its intent, rather, must be either a) that the old times were better times–more quaint and elegant; or b) that the elite few capable of preserving the grand fashion are the kind of strutting peacock who, with Marie Antoinette, might confuse bread with cake.  In the former case we have nostalgic fondness, in the latter sardonic class envy.

Both of these values most certainly belong to the world of proverbs: i.e., the cherishing of a lost or moribund past and the bitter but accepting awareness of socio-economic divisions.  One of my favorite sayings has a haunting simplicity that Thomas Gray or Oliver Goldsmith would have cherished: Maireann an chraobh ar an bhfál, is ní mhaireann an lámh a chuir–“The tree lives atop the hill, and the hand that planted it lives not” (p. 16, no. 186).  We too often forget that Romanticism’s progenitors were less such devoted progressives as we fancy ourselves than students of simple peasant ways left behind by industrialization.  Proverbs often display such resignation to natural cycle, if rarely in quite so sepulchral a vein.  Ní lia ísleán sona ná ardán dona–“Happy lowlands are not more numerous than dreary heights” (p. 79, no, 979)–opens a fascinating window into the proverb-maker’s soul in this regard.  High places are assumed not to be pleasant places: the image of the summit so beloved to the child of progress represents to the clannish, earthy peasant a confluence of strong winds, little shelter, and (perhaps) exposure to the tyrant’s scouts and spies.  Better to stay low… but even when crawling on one’s belly, dangerous rises are about as many as safe pockets.  Plenty of proverbs echo the sentiment.  Consider the following, which Pádraig classes under “Fortune and Misfortune”:

Níl aon tsólás ná go leannan a dhólás féin é. ~ “There’s no comfort that isn’t followed by its own kind of misery.” (p. 121, no. 1465)

Is é lár do leasa é an tráth is measa leat. ~ “The worst times await you in the midst of prosperity.” (p. 123, no. 1483)

Ní tháinig trioblóid riamh ina h-aonar. ~ “No trouble ever came alone.”  (p. 125, no. 1522)

Is olc an ghaoth ná séideann maith do dhuine éigin. ~  “It’s an ill wind that doesn’t blow fair for someone.” (p. 127, no. 1541)

Mac an duine shona abhar an duine dhona. ~ “The son of a happy man has the makings of a sad man.” (p. 128, no. 1562)

        If we may recur to the saying that began this chain–concerning how highs and lows offset one another–we must not ignore that The Hawk places it in the context of a fable.  The wily fox is speaking: on this occasion, he is trying to get a goose down his throat, beak and all.  Naturally, the swallowing of the head is almost a killer, thanks to the lofty projection.  Pádraig insists that in Munster, the proverb typically wears the fable’s frame, explicitly or implicitly.  Yet the five sayings I have cited in quick succession (and dozens of others I might have cited) strongly indicate that no narrative framework is necessary.  The good folk of Munster seem firmly convinced that fortune is a roller-coaster ride whose net rise or fall comes out close to zero.  Only one of the proverbs couches the insight in positive terms–the ill wind that is surely blowing fair for someone somewhere.  Such “wisdom”, I suppose, would strike any human culture as depressing on the balance, since all people tend to hope for something better rather than to be relieved in the absence of something worse.  I have perhaps misrepresented the degree of gloom involved, for gems of the ensuing sort may also be found: Nuair is mó í an anfa is ea is giorra í an chabhair–“When the storm is worst, help is nearest” (p. 121, no. 1463).

Nevertheless, while not having conducted a statistical survey of the whole collection, I would maintain confidently that fortune’s level “sameness” does indeed have a pessimistic twist in most contexts: one is beaten down from foolish aspirations more often than uplifted from despair–far more often.  For instance, the proverbs about “Love and Marriage” accommodate such brooding thoughts as, “Love weakens as the hand [i.e., bodily strength] weakens” (Nuair a lagaíonn an lámh, lagaíonn an ghrá), and “My road ahead, my love behind” (Soir atá mo thriall is siar atá mo ghrá [p. 25, nos. 306 and 308]).  Another proverb gloomily opines, “Dá fhaid é an lá is é dán na h-oíche teacht–“However long the day, night is bound to come at last” (p. 165, no. 1988), even though the same remark might have been made about day succeeding night!  And in a fascinating case of parallel evolution, one saying echoes the proverb which concludes the Oedipus of Sophocles (ll. 1527-1530) and which Herodotus attributed to Solon.  The Irish version simply runs, Mol an lá um thráthnóna–“Praise the day in the evening” (p. 156, no. 1897).  As Solon would have said, don’t account a man happy until after he dies, when life can no longer hatch sudden disasters upon him; for all too often in human affairs, Is fearr a thúis ná a dheireadh–“Its beginning is better than its end” (p. 210, no. 2536).

b) human foibles turned into humor

This distinct tendency to gloom in the proverbs’ content begs that a further point be made about humor.  To be sure, the image of Reynard trying to be philosophical as he chokes down a large meal adds nothing to Proverb 979’s moral evaluation; it infuses a light-heartedness, however, into the generally sobering prospect of existence.  The affection for wry amusement, too, is common to the genre.  Life is hard in the pre-literate world of few machines and much manual labor, of few medicines and much weariness; and its bitter lessons are best served up with a seasoning of wit, whenever possible.  The effect is easiest to achieve when the natural limit under discussion is purely human.  Sickness, age, and death stalk us all amid shadows that our mortal eyes cannot penetrate–shadows nowhere thicker than in a society without scientific learning.  Our own special contributions to life’s snags and snarls, though–our vanity, our ambition, our blind folly, and the like–are well within our grasp.  We see them in our homes, and even in our mirrors.  More than likely, they are best observed by witnesses not embedded in gismos and gadgets–by people who actually to talk to each other.  Societies that fashion proverbs indeed seem to enjoy the irony surrounding the grandee, the bravo, or the imposter who considers himself beyond fortune’s vagaries, while the literate person often finds these subtle sayings especially “worth keeping” as the traditional heap slides into oblivion.   Take the bombastic swell fond of sounding off for all to hear rather than keeping his own counsel–a type sure to concern people who can only communicate through speech.  Several sayings about the superiority of silence to jabber draw a smile:

Ná clois a gcloisir. ~ He who is being heard isn’t hearing.” (p. 18, no. 221)

Bíonn cluas bhodhar ar fhear na foghla. ~ A deaf ear sits upon the man of learning.” (p. 19, no. 224)

Is binn béal ina thost. ~ “Sweet is a mouth that’s silent.” (p. 45, no. 540)

Ní fearr cainte ná éisteacht. ~ “Speaking is not better than listening.” (p. 46, no. 555)

         The second of these proverbs is especially interesting in that it equates the loudmouth with the scholar.  Is there not implicit here a mild tension related to social class?  The traditionalist who lives close to the earth has an almost universal–one might well say natural–mistrust of those who trespass upon his world, usually from the city, armed with “book-learning”.  Such suspicion, once again, is readily found in rural sections of contemporary America.  Would not many staunch blue-collar laborers among us agree with the assertion, “It’s from work that learning comes” (As an obair a fhaightear an fhoghlaim [p. 135, no. 1629])?  One of the Munster proverbs goes so far as to use the area’s reigning illiteracy as an allegory for the wretch whose meager abilities are overmatched by circumstances: Nuair a bhíonn an leabhar againn ní bhíonn an léann againn–“Though we have the book, we don’t have the reading” (p. 134, no. 1621).  This particular jewel, of course, appears to hold literacy in esteem–a wonderful power acquired by very few; but note that “reading” is, after all, a mere trope for any necessary skill that one might lack (or even any necessary object: e.g., in the case of a man who owns a cart but no horse).

         More routine is the sentiment expressed in the bland utterance, Nílim im scoláire is ní h-áil liom a bheith–“I’m no scholar and I have no wish to be” (p. 134, no. 1625).  As with the proverb about “highs and lows”, Pádraig appends an animal fable for the sake of context (though he does not suggest this time that the fable is always understood behind the proverb’s allusion).  A fox and an ass are having an argument, and the ass foolishly claims greater learning than he possesses.  The fox then challenges him to read the writing on a horse’s hoof.  The ass says, “Read it for yourself,” whereupon the fox answers, “I’m no scholar and I’ve no wish to be.”  Reassured by the fox’s inability to catch him in a lie, the ass proceeds to stick his big nose down the horse’s backside.  The horse, spooked, kicks the ass’s brains out.

        If all Munstermen were not familiar with this particular fable, they must have had similar tales about pseudo-learning sure to elicit a smile.  The literate person’s “book smarts” generally qualifies as such learning.  We shall return to the matter of inter-class tension shortly.

         Other subtle sayings involve  (as we might suppose inevitable) subjects like carousing and gossiping.  Toigh do chuideachta sula raghair ag ól, runs one: “Choose your company before you go to drinking” (p. 41, no. 497).  The in vino vero vein of humor, if it fails to appear in any proverb tradition, certainly does not neglect Ireland’s shores!  So for the activity of busy-bodies: Ní scéal rún é más fios do thriúr é–“No story is a secret if three people know about it” (p. 53, no. 645).  The third time is frequently the charm in folk genres: ancient Irish, like pre-literate Latin and early Greek, reserved plural endings for numbers greater than two.  A coy, canny cynicism also lurks in the expression, however.  The best friend you ever had might just keep a secret.  As for the second-best… as well to tell the town crier.  From the same mold comes, Bíonn cluasa ar na claitheacha agus súile ar an machaire–“The fences have ears and the field has eyes” (p. 19, no. 228).  While the imagery here may seem less witty than paranoid, it actually captures with great aptitude the precise “threat” posed by a land of many, many stone walls and waving fields of thick grass.  The eavesdropper might well quite literally use wall, hedge, and tall grazing to stalk his (or her) prey.  The amusement, then, lies atypically in the degree of realism: the proverb takes snapshots of actual scenes from rural life. 

        Many proverbs acknowledge relatively harmless kinds of human perversity with similar subtlety–with just the touch of succinct compression needed to stir a smile.  Below are some examples:

An luibh ná faightear is í a fhóireann. ~ “The herb not found is the one that cures” (p. 13, no. 147); cf. “The grass is always greener…”

Fear ag lorg an chapaill bháin agus an capall bán faoina thóin. ~ “A man looking for his white horse and the white horse right under his arse!” (p. 137, no. 1667); cf. “If it were a snake, it would have bitten you!”

Ná téigh ach go h-annamh go tigh do charad is gheobhair fáilte. ~ “Go to your friend’s house but rarely and you will receive a warm welcome” (p. 213, no. 2593); cf. “Good fences make good neighbors.” 

To label such humor cynical would be excessive.  Idealism scarcely suffers any setback if we admit merely that people are drawn to what lies out of reach (cf. Tacitus’s omne ignotum pro magnifico est), that they fail to notice what sits just under their nose, and that even the most amicable of them need a degree of privacy.  We consider a person who does not understand such basic facts about his fellows to be childish, obtuse, or even psychologically troubled.  The amusing feature of all such conditions lies in the paradox they pose (summarized in the popular admonition, “Be careful what you pray for”).  We would have and have not; we already have, yet know it not.  We are a tangle of contradictions… as well to laugh at that as brood over it.

c) hard work and square dealing

Yet proverbs, as I have stressed repeatedly, are not a steadily gurgling fount of universal human truth.  It is high time now to weigh their moral content with more discrimination.  I find The Hawk’s collection really to have rather few “dog eat dog, devil take the hindmost” words of observation and advice.  A few crop up here and there, especially under the rubric, “Justice and Injustice”.  Cloíonn neart ceart, claims one–“Might trumps right” (p. 142, no. 1717)–and another warns, Is maith an dlíodóir an cúiseadóir–“The persecutor knows his law” (p. 142, no. 1726).  At least Pádraig’s Munstermen do not seem to have introduced him to a grim proverb current in other parts of Ireland: An duine lag mar a fhéadfidh, an duine láidir mar a shaintóidh–“The weak man how he must, the strong man how he will”!

On the whole, however, this tradition indeed sticks up for what we would call a strong work ethic rather than bemoaning the world’s Machiavellian power structure.  “A man’s work is his praise” (Molann an obair an fear, p. 107, no. 1278) clearly exhorts the laborer to take pride in his product.  Is túisce tuilleamh ná tuarastal–“Sooner a reward than a wage” (p. 103, no. 1217)–is far more obscure to me, but it seems to affirm that satisfaction comes more from within than without.  A deficient work ethic naturally has the negative consequences that one would assume of this view: Fear óg díomhaoin abhar an tseanduine bhuain–“A lazy young man makes for a lingering old man” (p. 2, no. 12).  The person who would escape such a pitiful tomorrow must not rest upon yesterday’s accomplishments, but rather remain industrious today, for “no one remembers bread already eaten” (Ní bhíonn cuimhne ar an arán a h-itear [p. 33, no. 397]). 

Sometimes one hard-working artisan is lauded at another’s expense, as in Is cruinne súil ghabha ná miosúr táilliúra–“The smithy’s eye is sharper than the tailor’s measure” (p. 100, no. 1186).  The hapless tailor is often shortchanged in such formulas, for his duties were sedentary and viewed as somewhere in the vicinity of slacking.  Men who were physically incapable of heavy labor might well turn to tailoring as their only resort.  They would travel from village to village, receiving room and board as well as the cost of their manufactures from the families that employed them.3  The extent of this temporary dependency must also have inspired a little resentment.  Pádraig even remarks after one such disparaging reference (Sin í an obair is ní hí an táilliúreacht!–“This is work, not tailoring!” [p. 99, no. 1173]) that “the locals never held tailors or shoemakers in great esteem.”

From a reversed perspective, the proverbs seem to endorse the notion that foul play invites long-lasting misery.  “A trace of evil-doing goes a long way,” warns one saying (Is fada siar a théann iarsma an drochbhirt, p. 136, no. 1653).  As if to clarify that the “long way” of misdeeds can only lead to ruin, another aphorism insists that “what is ill acquired will come to no good” (An rud a bailítear go bocht imíonn sé go h-olc [p. 116, no. 1394]).  This confidence is seconded in the reflection, ní raibh feall riamh ná fillfeadh–“Never is a lie told that doesn’t return to its teller” (p. 141, no. 1713).  Yet another counsels patience in the wait for truth to prevail: “Falsehood rides in on the wind, and truth comes in its own good time” (Imíonn an t-éitheach leis an gaoith agus tagann an fírinne ina tan féin, p. 55, no. 662).  This vein of advice, while scarcely partaking of the rosy or naive, plainly does not condone surrender to the wicked ways of the world.  Societies that incubate proverbs are essentially conservative: they cling to a cultural memory of small, tight-knit communities, and they would lose their vital spark if they were to give up on square-dealing.  Yet they warn with a sad smile that justice often comes neither swiftly nor clearly.  To endure in the old ways is a struggle.

d) the literate city’s cultural assault

This is so not simply because people are always inclined to cheat and scheme, I would argue: when proverbs exude such pessimism about fair play in daily exchanges, that is, they do not bluntly advertise the universal moral insight we noted in many of the more humorous sayings.  Instead, they are beginning to reveal a cultural seam–a rough transition between the oral and the literate.  We have seen in Pádraig’s collection the general mistrust of the scholar’s highly artificial education.  Such wariness extends to the city itself.  Ní cathair mar a tuairisc í, observes one saying wistfully: “The city isn’t as it’s reported” (p. 131, no. 1600).  Population concentrates in cities when commerce becomes lively and profitable–and in just such circumstances does literacy acquire the power of a valuable tool.  The growing urban middle class, unfortunately, constructs its own set of standards and measures for life–and these may pose a stark contrast to clannish rural existence.  Things change very, very quickly in the merchant’s world.  People travel more, families become less extended and more nuclear, trusted friends are fewer, temptations of all sorts multiply, and the return upon a successful act of malfeasance may be immense.

The semi-literate or non-literate yokel must take extreme care around such types.  He has no desire to imitate them and betray his forefathers’ values… but neither does he wish to be annihilated in his dealings with them.  He knows the value of a schilling, to be sure, and he can drive a very hard bargain at market.  After all, money makes the world go ’round (very nearly a precise translation of Is é an t-airgead an saol go léir [p. 112, no. 1342]).  Yet his tribal past also warns him that wealth may be very costly: Saibreas a ní fon, uireasa a ní cumha–“Riches produce happiness, and sometimes misery” (p. 112, no. 1340).  A penny-pincher but not a Scrooge, a good host but not a wastrel, an expert haggler but not a cheat, he is well accustomed to walking the fine line between failure to pay the bills and failure to abide by the community’s unwritten laws.  In literate city-slickers, however, he recognizes adversaries who may drive him to the former condition through their utter contempt of the latter.

The proverbs reflect this rising tension in traditional existence: it is from such friction, indeed, that a few proverbs acquire the jagged “might makes right” edge that we observed above.  Yet in The Hawk’s little book of Munster sayings, I believe the disruptive influence of urban, literate culture assumes two forms much more notable than sheer disillusioned nihilism: a) a distaste for vast riches and for the miseries which attend them, and b) a paradoxical relaxing of the robust work ethic discussed earlier.  Traditional people are, of course, awed by wealth, as are the representatives of any cultural stage; yet they are much more acutely aware than those adrift from tradition that wealth introduces social turbulence.  The dynamic forces that generate riches literally change the landscape; who would better understand this than a person whose progenitors have worked the land for centuries?

One of the traditionalist’s most predictable reactions, then, is an equation of wealth with abandonment of moral principle.  Dhá trian sainte ag lucht saibhris, sniffs one proverb in high disdain: “Two thirds of [all] greed belongs to rich people” (p. 119, no. 1437).  The wealthy are also often regarded as insulated from the facts of life, rather like the scholar with his stuffy, ineffectual knowledge.  I interpret in this vein the slightly obscure saying, An té ar cúng leis a bhróg is beag leis an saol–“The man who wears narrow shoes lives in a small world” (p. 84, no. 1029).  We have already examined a case where shoes are associated with the ability to strut through life’s problems relatively unscathed (no. 1036), the image being one of safe insulation rather than of ruthless trampling.  I must say that Pádraig’s Munstermen indeed stand out in their magnanimous tendency to view the rich as misguided wretches rather than as brutal bullies.  The contrast between “haves” and “have-nots”, if stark enough in this region, was perhaps less poisoned with animosity than elsewhere.  Most of Ireland (and certainly Munster) was not nearly as industrialized as, say, southern Wales or central England by the beginning of the twentieth century.  A landed gentry of alien conquerors had also grown somewhat integrated into local life with the passage of generations, as seems to be reflected in the proverb, Ós na tithe beaga téitear sna tithe móra–“It’s through small houses that one enters big ones” (p. 115, 1374).  As usual, this saying could sustain a great many interpretations, most of them guided by a hint of subversion rather than of connubial mingling.  I stress only that the local imagination has not drawn a rigid line between high and low, however treacherous the channels from one to the other may be.

At any rate, the Gaelic-speaking underclass was obviously capable of reflecting with both pity and finesse, An té is mó airgead is é is mó dúil ann–“The man who has the most money is he who has the most cravings” (p. 115, no. 1384).  These words do not merely restate the proverb opening the previous paragraph, it seems to me: they divine a little something of the soul’s self-tortures.  An abundance of other proverbs confirms the point.  Take this one: Ní raibh duán riamh ag duine ab fhearr ná duán airgid–“There was never a better hook for a man [i.e., to catch a man] than a silver one” (p. 112, no. 1341).  The message is pretty clear: money is necessary, but servile devotion to money is deadly.

For if the peasant wants to hear the jingle of coins in his pocket, he does not want them to rust there.  Tuill ór is caith é, urges one aphorism–“Make money and spend it” (p. 114, no. 1359).  The extremely cryptic little saying, Is fearr leath ná meath–“Better half than rot” (p. 118, no. 1416: the words for “half” and “rot” happen to rhyme, making the sentence much more felicitous in Gaelic), may be painting for us this very pair of offsetting pictures: i.e., a half-reduced hoard versus a pot of gold gone rusty from lack of use.  Communal obligations must be fulfilled, of course… but these proverbs are not didactic lectures.  They appear, instead, primarily concerned about preserving a certain spontaneous joie de vivreImíonn gach maith le mionchaitheamh, warns one“Every good thing vanishes if neglected” (p. 116, no. 1400).  The Hawk chooses to place this saying under the rubric of “Wealth and Poverty”, indicating that he had heard it specifically in the context of hoarding material wealth.

        The rustic traditionalist, then, has been put on his guard against chasing after loot by his ancestral wisdom.  Among other ways, he seems to understand these admonitions as encouraging him to slow down–to live like a man rather than a machine.  We have seen that he admires hard work and, indeed, fears the grave long-term consequences of laziness.  Yet his distaste for an unbounded craving after possessions also leaves him stubbornly working at his own sweet pace.  Má tá céad gné againn tó céad ló againn, sings one saying triumphantly: “If we have a hundred things to do, we have a hundred days to do them” (p. 107, no. 1280).  No doubt, the lurking pessimism that we studied earlier–the confidence, as we might call it, that all things even out and that permanent real improvement is thus impossible–feeds into such contentment in surprising fashion.  For if the lie returns to the liar and if gold mixes misery with joy, why torment oneself to be rich?  Is minic a bhí fear maith i seanbhriste–“Many’s the time that a good man was in ragged pants”  (p. 2, no. 13).  Isn’t it better to be good and not rich than rich and not good?  The latter type ends up being neither.  We may be sure of this, since another proverb observes (in exuberant immorality), Goid ó gadaí goid gan pheaca–“Theft from a thief is theft without fault” (p. 143, no. 1732).


An ornamental castle on the outskirts of Lismore, along the Blackwater River.  The locals told me years

ago (with what veracity I do not know) that Fred Astaire once owned this idyllic property.

III.  Social Conservatism: An Unlikely Path to Utopian Progressivism

It seems beyond question that the lore of an oral-traditional culture should change as literacy works its way into that culture, equipping some to prosper in a newly complex economy and to explore a newly introverted spirituality, leaving others behind in a world of speech alone that grows increasingly small, poor, and frail about them.  Naturally, the manner in which literacy is introduced into the tribal setting would heavily influence its consequences to the tribe.  If the literates were outsiders who had invaded, conquered, and colonized the culture, we could expect the land’s previous ways and customs to endure more robustly and persistently in a united effort against the oppressor.  On the other hand, if trade routes, commerce, and urban centers were allowed to mature at their own rate from within the society’s mechanism, then those left entirely behind in the pre-literate way of life would seem more forlorn and forgotten.

As common-sense as such categories appear to be, I am unaware of any serious and sustained scholarly effort to objectify and examine them.  The development of oral-traditional studies has followed a “two steps forward, one step back” pattern throughout its brief history, often producing more questions than answers.4  Many scholars, for instance, refuse even to distinguish between myth and folklore, though the latter very often implies some element of class friction which virtually never penetrates the former.5  Without opening that proverbial can of worms, I would merely remark that many of Pádraig’s proverbs can be connected with folktales–never myths, but often simple lore of the land.  Two of our examples above involved animal fables, a genre well known to conceal expressions of social or political dissent safely beneath furry disguises.  Another popular utterance–a favorite curse, in fact–calls for the further explanation supplied by a folktale: Íde Clainne Mhóire ort–“The fate of Clan More upon you!” (p. 69, no. 855).  The Hawk obliges by succinctly recounting the story of several men from said clan who boarded an unmanned ship under full sail.  The only living creature they found was a mysterious black cat.  The ship thereupon spirited them away under its own power, and they were never heard from again.  Could such a tale as this be completely unrelated to the ravages of pirates (including Islamic slavers) along the coasts fished dangerously by Irishmen in simple currachs, or to later random impressments into the Royal Navy’s service?

Or consider another equally opaque saying, Cor in aghaidh an chaim is cam in aghaidh an choir–“Right against wrong and wrong against right” (p. 146, no. 1774).  Pádraig supplements this curiosity with the tale of the master craftsman who is constructing an impregnable castle for a foreign king when he learns that his employer intends to slay him after the job’s completion (lest he later reveal any of its secrets).  The builder coolly informs His Highness that the final touch requires a tool accidentally left back home, called Right-Against-Wrong-and-Wrong-Against-Right.  The king, unwilling to release the craftsman from his clutches, sends his own son to fetch the instrument.  The young prince requests the tool of the craftsman’s wife, who–alerted by the preposterous name–takes him to a large chest, opens it up, waves him forward, and then pushes him in and throws on the lock.  The prince is set free only when the clever builder is restored to his family.6

Need I waste further comment upon the socio-political tensions working not only beneath, but fully at, the surface of that vignette?

Political theorists (or literary theorists with political fixations, if there is any difference) do not help to clarify the issues when they dwell exclusively upon the class struggle in folklore–a struggle which plainly intrudes into several of our proverbs, as well.  A defensive reaction of oppressed to oppressor indeed animates some of what is happening in hard-pressed oral traditions surrounded by rising literacy: I am here arguing on behalf of that insight myself.  To view this phenomenon, however, as but one step up the progressive staircase to an eventually classless society–a fully liberated humanity–brushes aside so many relevant facts that it must leave us more ignorant than ever.  The world of proverbs and folktales, being an oral-traditional world under siege, is essentially conservative: it is clannish, reverent of the past, suspicious of the future, intolerant of strange ways, enamored of its own possessions and places, and convinced of human nature’s ironclad limitations.  No soil could be less fertile to progressive visions.7

In trying to commandeer such people for his nouveau régime, then, the revolutionary overlooks the basic fact that they are not resisting capitalism per se: they are resisting progress.  The emerging middle class represents progress in methods of production, transportation, storage, bookkeeping, etc., etc.; the post-bourgeois utopia represents (or dreams of representing) progress in medicine, public morals, reproductive choices, diffusion of technology, etc., etc.  That Pádraig Ua Siochfhrada shared in the latter dream, with its centralized authority of benign, elite experts, is more than suggested by his membership in Sinn Fein and his lifelong activity in reformative government enterprises.  Yet this great-souled man and accomplished scholar must have remained something of an outsider to his beloved Munster folk.  Tenant farmers in County Cork surely would have welcomed a visionary Irish Republic’s giving them back the land their forefathers had worked: to that extent, they would have embraced the new.  They would have blessed the Easter 1916 “Rising Out”–the Éirí Amach.  For the rest of it, however… as a very ancient Irish proverb tells us, “Beautiful is all that’s red, bright is all that’s new.”  A wise man knows better than to be tricked so easily.


1  See p. 35 of Walter J. Ong, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (London: Rutledge, 1989).     return

2  All ensuing citations of proverbs by page and number refer to “An Seabhac”, Seanfhocail na Mumhan (Baile Átha Cliath [Dublin]: An Gúm, 1984).  The translations are mine, without exception, and any erroneous interpretation is thus entirely my own fault.     return

3  My source for this information is Seanchas an Táilliúra, ed. Aindreas Ó Muimhneachán (Baile  Átha Cliath [Dulbin] and Corcaigh: Mercier, 1978),  a book of lore and personal experience collected by  Seán Ô Cróinin from traveling tailor Taidhg Ó Buachalla.  Taidhg was born with a club foot and hence was destined from childhood for some non-ambulatory trade.     return

4  A. B. Lord asserted confidently in Singer of Tales (Cambridge, Mass., and London: Harvard UP, 1960) that the psychic shift from oral to literate thought patterns must proceed inexorably within about a generation once reading and writing are introduced into a culture, though he was later to qualify this position considerably.  Ong (op. cit.) seems often of the same mind, as when he approvingly discusses the work of Aleksandr Luria.  Recent scholars have shown themselves more receptive to the notion that infant literacy can in fact be used to reinforce certain oral habits: e.g., Alain Renoir, A Key to Old Poems (University Park and London: Pennsylvania State UP, 1988).  Yet even such less aggressive theses tend to have as their subject the major literary productions of periods like the European Middle Ages–situations, that is, where authors were free to figure out ways of combining written texts and oral performances more or less at their leisure.  The case of folklore–and sometimes proverbs–differs.  During their formation, a powerful segment of society has already grown substantially literate; and indeed, it is a member of the literate segment that always ends up recording spoken lore as a charming curiosity, not as a reverend body of truths that define his core values.     return

5  Cf. the discussion in G. S. Kirk, Myth: Its Meanings and Functions in Ancient and Other Cultures (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Cambridge UP, 1970), 34-37.  Kirk himself holds out for the distinction, tentatively defining it as a de-emphasis of supernatural elements and a consequent attention to the mundane and the entertaining..    return

6  For a much expanded version of the same tale, see “Gobán Saor”, pp. 190-194, in Scéalta Mháirtín Neile (Baile Átha Clitah [Dublin]: Comhairle Bhéaloideas Éireann, 1994)–a collection of stories first told to Holger Pedersen in 1895.      return

7  Scholars have long been aware of this connection between folktale and social tension in certain genres, such as the animal fable.  I have in my possession a French handbook of literary history over half a century old: Manuel Illustré de la Littérature Française, ed. C. Lanson and P. Tuffrau (Paris: Classiques Hachette, 1953).  The editors’ analysis of the Roman de Renard proceeds from the assumption (if I may translate), “This is an entire world organized on the model of human society” (48); and they convincingly lay out various social allegories at work behind each animal’s character and relationship to other animals.  Yet the rigid recourse to class struggle as the alpha and omega of literary narrative restricts further insight into any genre, I believe.  Cf. José Limón, himself a devoted Marxist, chastises folklorists of his persuasion for the “view [of] folklore as collective behavior whose fundamental character is in some way inherently opposed to the dominant social order of state capitalism,” p. 34 of “Western Marxism and Folklore,” Journal of American Folklore 96 (1983): 34-52.  Limón grasps that the tastes and values of traditional people are profoundly conservative.      return


Dr. John Harris, The Center’s founder, is Senior Lecturer in English at the University of Texas at Tyler, where he teaches World Literature and Latin.