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Last blog we looked at the expression “ar muin (ar dhroim) na muice” (being “on the pig’s back,” i.e. well off). The blog before that also referred to several other examples of figurative speech, including “madraí bána.” As with the ‘dromanna muc” (or “muiní muc”), that general reference to “madraí bána” was in the plural, just for the sake of being generic. In real-life usage, the phrase “saol an mhadaidh bháin” would almost always be in the singular. Literally, it means “the life of the white dog,” but is understood as “the good life.” So, for “You (singular) are living the good life,” you’d say, “Tá saol an mhadaidh bháin agat.” For you (plural), it’s still one, all-encompassing white dog, “Tá saol an mhadaidh bháin agaibh.”
If we really wanted to talk about white dogs (plural) , we’d say “madraí bána,” and if we really wanted to say “lives,” we’d say “saolta.” But, as I said, the “white dog” phrase is, fad m’eolais, always in the singular, no matter how many livers of the good life you’re referring to.
We could also consider the phrase to be pretty much the same as “living the life of Riley” (or “Reilly”), but I’ve never heard that expression in a natural Irish-language context, only in a sort of self-conscious, deliberate translaton. Fun, though!
Curiously, one of my Irish language students does have a dog named Riley. Hmm, I’ll have to find out if that Riley is “bán,” or if “dath éigin eile” (some other color) is “air” (on him). At any rate, I do hope they’re both enjoying “saol an mhadaidh bháin.”
Mostly I’ve heard the expression simply used with no particular explanation as to why the white dog has such a good thing going. However, I finally found a passing reference to the idea that a white dog would be exempt from sheep-herding duty. So that sort of makes sense, but there are always those black sheep. White dog herding black sheep? Works for me! On the other hand, there usually seems to be just a few black sheep per herd, so I guess the general image still works. After all, most of these folk expressions don’t necessarily have a logical explanation. Why does Riley also symbolize the good life? Why is Larry always so happy, but not Lawrence? Or Gary? And who’s happier, Larry or that perennially joyful clam? If there are specific origins to these phrases, I certainly didn’t learn them growing up.
Dialect note: As I think about it, it seems I’ve mostly heard the word “madadh” ([MAH-doo], dog) used for this phrase. Of course, it’s changed to “an tuiseal ginideach” (the genitive case), so it becomes “mhadaidh” [WAH-dee]. “Madadh” is the usual word for “dog” in Donegal Irish. However, Googling the phrase also shows a fairly wide usage of “saol an mhadra bháin,” a more standard form. Someday I’ll check out which is more prevalent. Or if “gadhar,” another word for “dog,” is ever used. Or “cú,” but of course, that’s really a “hound.” And I don’t suppose hounds, for all their prestige, ever really lived a life of Riley, as such. Mostly, I imagine, they hunted or were used for racing.
The word for “white” (bán) is also in the genitive case in the “white dog” phrase, so it has changed to “bháin” [waw-in]. But that, at least, would stay the same in all dialects.
So that’s it for this blog, dogs, good life, genitive case, Riley, and all. Hoping there’s plenty of “saol an mhadaidh (or “mhadra”) bháin” to go around. SGF, Róislín