Irish Language Blog

Between a Rock and a … May Day Fire? (or Life on the Horns of a Dilemma — as Gaeilge) Posted by on May 1, 2012 in Irish Language

Whose horns? What dilemma?

(le Róislín)

Amongst the numerous phrases in English for being, essentially, stuck between two difficult choices, we have “between Scylla and Charybdis,” “between the devil and the deep blue sea,” and, perhaps most widely used of all, “between a rock and a hard place.”  Irish, natch, has its equivalents.  One is, fairly straightforwardly, “rogha an dá dhíogha a bheith agat” (to have the choice of two “worsts”).  That one’s pretty much like saying “to choose between the lesser of two evils.”

But let it not be thought that English has cornered the market for figurative speech.  Irish keeps pace handily, metaphor by metaphor, simile by simile, and tagairt liteartha by tagairt liteartha.  Just think of all those madraí bána, dromanna muc, liúdair (a iompraíodh go Toraigh) and, of course, na laethanta go léir a bhí ag na Paoraigh ó thús ama.   If that has you a bit mystified, let’s just say those are fodder for future blogs.

So, while “Sciolla” and “Cairíbdis” may be an ancient analogy, so is the popular (and seasonal) Irish phrase, “a bheith idir dhá thine Bhealtaine” (to be between two May Day fires), which is considered the Irish equivalent of being “on the horns of a dilemma.”  The Irish phrase works quite well in a literal interpretation, as long as one has a basic understanding of the importance of tinte cnámh in ancient Irish ritual (and even into relatively recent modern times, as for example, in Brian Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa, admittedly a fictionalized treatment).

To be “between two May Day fires” refers to the traditional practice of driving a cow between two bonfires lit for this purpose on Lá Bealtaine (May Day).  This is presumed to be a purification ritual and may have had further religious significance.  I’ve also been wondering whether this cattle-driving ritual also had something to do with preparation for taking the cattle up to the higher hills for the summer pasture (the formal name for the practice being “transhumance”).  May 1 is the beginning of summer in the Celtic calendar, so perhaps the cows could not be driven up to summer pasture until they had been purified?

The phrase “a bheith idir dhá thine Bealtaine” actually breaks down quite literally:

a bheith [uh veh, with a short “e” pronounced, like “vet”], to be

idir, between

dhá, two, causes lenition to the following word (if lenitable)

tine, fire; lenited after “dhá” so it becomes “thine” [HIN-yuh]

Bealtaine, May; lenited after “thine” because the phrase is really “of May” (lenition indicates the ‘of” aspect)

One can also be “gafa idir dhá thine Bhealtaine” (lit. caught between two May Day fires, i.e. caught on the horns of a dilemma)

Anyway, getting back to the English word “dilemma,” the usual Irish equivalent to “dilemma,” as such, is “aincheist” ([an-hyesht] ain-, bad, unnatural, over-, intense  + ceist [kyesht], question).  That’s a fine word, but it doesn’t really deal with the two-pronged aspect of the situation.  There are a few other choices, “cruachás” (lit. hard situation), “achrann” (entanglement, tangled growth, strife) and “sáinn” (trap, fix, predicament), but again none of these use any of the prefixes for “two-“ or “bi-“ in Irish.  So be it.  I tried every combination I could think of combining “-“ or “-“ with “leama” but got nothing.  A fhealsúnaithe, cad iad bhur mbarúlacha (since all this di-lemmatizing started with philosophy anyway)?

It does seem a convenient figure of speech, though, to be on the horns of a dilemma as we drive cattle through the tinte Bealtaine.  Not, of course, one of your muley-headed (i.e. hornless) cows, at least for present purposes.  That’s “muley-headed” in its original, or at least agricultural sense, i.e. a polled or hornless cow.  “Muley” here is based on a Celtic word for “bald” (Irish: maol, Welsh: moel), of course, otherwise I wouldn’t bring it up.  Actually that’s not true.  I’m equally interested in loanwords from languages as diverse as Narragansett, Basque, and Klingon (such as succotash, chaparral, and qep’a’). I’ll assume the last one qualifies as English now since I see it embedded in English sentences.

“Muley-headed” can, of course, also mean plain ol’ ornery stubborn (aka bull-/hard-/pig-headed), in which case it’s not connected to “maol/moel,” but in these cases, it is simply comparing a person to a mule.  Bhuel, come to think of it, I guess a “muley-headed” calf could be both hornless and stubborn.  If the “muley-headed” calf has been missing for two days, as the song “The Old Chisholm Trail” tells us, maybe it has a stubborn streak as well.  Remember?  “Spent two days lookin’ for muley-headed calf / Ain’t been to sleep in a week and a half /Come a ti yi yippy yay yippy yay come a ti yi yippy yippy yay.”  Hmm, cén Ghaeilge a bheadh ar an gcurfá sin? Comataidhaigh-ghippí-é-ghippí-é, comataidhaigh-ghippíghippí-é?  (Fuaimniú?  Thíos!)

Cows, horns, and dilemmas notwithstanding, what I’d really like to know is why heelless shoes are called “mules.”  Eolas ag duine ar bith?  Ábhar blag eile, b’fhéidir?

I do wonder, since we’re talking about cattle and all, how the situation would pan out if we were driving a four-horned cow through the fire, in which case, would we be on the horns of a tetralemma?  Although I can’t find any attested Irish for that, I assume it’d be “teitrileama (teitri-, tetra- + leama, lemma).  At least the territory hasn’t already been claimed with the more general words for dilemma (just to review: aincheist, cruachás, achrann, sáinn).

Bhuel, a lán ábhar do bhlaganna eile as a bheith ag caint faoi aincheisteanna, faoi thinte, faoi Bhealtaine, agus faoi nósanna cainte.  Deacair an chéad ábhar eile a roghnú, ach dóigh amháin nó dóigh eile, déanfaidh mé é.  SGF, Róislín

P.S. Speaking of “liúdair” (coalfish), you might remember the brief “tagairt” to them in the blog of 23 February 2010, .  As I recall, no one actually responded re: the presence of coalfish in the waters around Tory, but the comments section is always open.  A iascairí?  A iasceolaithe?  A Rí Thoraí (i. A Phatsy Dan Mhic Ruairí)?  Eolas ar bith agaibhse?

P.P.S.  In writing this blog, I diligently searched for any examples I could find of a more literal approach to those old dilemmatic horns, but I didn’t find anything using both “adharca” (horns) and “aincheist”, or any related forms, except as a very occasional calque.

Fuaimniú do churfá an amhráin “The Old Chisholm Trail”? Go díreach mar atá sé i mBéarla: Comataidhaigh [Come a ti yi] -ghippí-é- [yippy yay] ghippí-é [yippy yay], comataidhaigh [Come a ti yi]-ghippíghippí- é [yippy-yippy yay]

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  1. Mise Áine:

    Níl leid dá laghad agam faoi na ‘mules’, a Róislín, ach tá an leagan ‘ar charraig’ cloiste agam don nath sin ‘between a rock and a hard place’..:-)

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