Irish people have a long history of hard work and amazing creativity. Irish Monks crafted the Book of Kells back in 800CE before self-publishing was cool. Irish farmers for centuries have worked hard and thrived to feed a nation on potatoes alone, and when that failed, on other crops too. We have our own language, Gaeilge, that dates back to the 4th century and allows our ancestors to speak to us through seanfhocail, or proverbs. I am incredibly proud to be Irish, but also to understand our language and the vast amounts of knowledge that the rich language of Gaeilge can provide.
Some proverbs have not aged so well, such as:
Is maith an bhean í ach níor bhain sí a broga di go foill.
She is a good woman (wife), but she has yet to take off her shoes. Used to suggest that something would need more time before any results would be visible.
The odd outdated phrase aside, many of the sayings and lessons passed down from generation to generation bring with them useful advice that can be applied to work and life in the modern world. Some of the phrases, are what my parents use to tell me they love me at the best of times, or to remind me to behave at the worst. But they can provide more than a love language, they are a language of work, of self-improvement and creativity. I’m here to give you the translation of some of the most useful Irish seanfhocail that can bring benefits in the modern world too.
Most ancient cultures have similar phrases, and many of them are used in English and other languages alike — no culture is totally unique and Irish sentiments have traveled far and wide around the world with our many emigrants. The sentiment may not be totally new, but hopefully benefit can still be found in hearing a culturally different take.
Fóireann spallaí do bhallaí chomh maith le clocha móra.
Walls require spalls as well as large stones.
A spall is a small stone chip made when the bigger rocks are split. In Ancient Ireland, ‘dry’ stone walls were made without cement, mud or anything holding them together except some serious feng shui. Without the small stones balancing the large ones, keeping them in their exact equilibrium, the whole wall would collapse. Many miles of wall are still standing today in Ireland, despite being built approximately 5,800 years ago.
Since the beginning of time, it has always been important to recognize the power of the little guy. In all work, regardless of field, key people will always seem large, looming and instrumental in keeping the business functioning. But without the support staff, without the intern bringing the tired boss coffee, without those who feel like their job is a cog in a bigger machine and without the people who answer the phone and post the mail, there is little more to any great business than a good idea.
On a personal level, we can see in the small stones as the importance of taking care of the little things in our lives. The events that allow you to set up your day, your work life, for success. In modern hustle culture, it can be hard to justify doing anything during your supposed ‘productive time’ that doesn’t directly produce output. In reality doing something that supports your mental health, fitness or general mood, will likely make you more productive in the long run by preventing fatigue and burnout. Even if that is watching an episode of Friends or scrolling through Twitter.
An té a thabharfas scéal chugat tabharfaidh sé dhá scéal uait.
The person who will bring you a story, will take two stories from you.
This phrase is all about balancing expectations and generosity. Do you want a favor from someone? Expect two back in return. Nothing is done for free, and you should not go into any situation, work or personal life-related, without the awareness that generosity will likely be asked of you. In Ireland, this means that Irish people often try to out-generous each other in social situations in order to gain the moral upper hand. In a workplace, this can more be reflected in the common saying that ‘you shouldn’t expect anything for nothing’.
My modern application does not mean you have to expect everyone will be trying to take advantage of your willingness to work, or get an unfair deal from you. It’s all about maintaining awareness of expectations so that you can manage them appropriately. How far your generosity extends, in any situation, is up to you.
An t-ualach is mó ar an gcapall is míne.
The load that is biggest (will be) on the horse that is finest.
There are two translations for this one. Either, the gentlest horse gets the biggest load, or the finest horse gets the biggest load. Considering the modern workplace application, this could be a compliment — that the best worker completes the most work because they excel at what they do. Less positively, and perhaps more likely, is that the person who complains least will get lumped with the most and worst work.
As someone who has seen both of these alternate scenarios end badly, I think we can take away a lesson in balance, and speaking up for yourself. When I worked in an airport, I was that person who took more than her fair share of the boring, dirty jobs simply because I was the least willing to push back. When I worked in IT, I saw very talented, probably overqualified colleagues burn out and quit because they were so good at their jobs, the workload put on them was insurmountable.
If there is an imbalance in the workload you’re receiving, whether because of your skill or because you find it difficult to refuse, learning to say no is an important tool for any modern-day worker in today’s burnout age. Treat yourself like your own finest horse, and say nay.
An rud a ghoilleas ar an gcroí caithfidh an t-súil é a shileas.
The thing that stirs the heart, must be drained by the eye. In other words, you must show emotion about that which upsets you.
The ancient Irish did not mess around when it comes to sharing emotions. Perhaps more so than other cultures, we are open to sharing emotions and being collectively vulnerable. In our ancient myths, characters such as Queen Maebh went into wild battle over their deepest emotions. In a modern world focused on professionalism and strategic career moves, perhaps there’s a lesson to be learned from Queen Maebh’s fierce go-getting attitude, even if it centered on a particularly fine cow.
Maebh wanted the finest cow in the land so that she would be exactly equal in wealth to her husband. So she did everything in her power to make that happen, even if it meant literally going to war. Maebh’s exact success in securing her desires are lost to time and legend. I imagine, that she sure got more success and notoriety from declaring her emotions, putting it all out on the table and chasing down that cow than she would have gotten if she had just been quietly sad for a while. Be like Maebh and chase your cow.
History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.
If these seanfhocail are anything to go by, it seems wise people have been saying similar things about life for millennia at this point. Perhaps in a thousand years there will be people dissecting the meaning of ‘Stay Humble, Hustle Hard’. In some ways, I hope they do dissect our modern sayings, because I know they will largely come to the same conclusion as I have, and as my ancestors have before me.
That as humans, we struggle to remember our significance in the world, to say no, to express emotions and chase our desires. These are very modern problems, but they were equally ancient problems, before our time. Struggling with these problems is hard, but it is also our heritage, as ongoing members of the human race.
Whether it be to find balance in our lives, say no, or express emotions to chase our desires, implementing these sayings in your daily life will bring you one step closer to an ancient Irish warrior. If you feel no more warrior-like than before, then hopefully they can remind you that you are significant and most importantly, the only person who can treat you like your finest horse, is you.