Eggs, chickens, and hens played a vital economic role in Irish rural life over the centuries. We Irish even claim to have invented bacon and eggs.
Many old Irish sayings are peppered with poultry references. Today, let's explore some clucking wise words of old.
How the Irish first paired eggs with bacon:
In the 18th and 19th centuries the Irish poor seldom ate their own hens' eggs, but instead sold them to help pay the landlord's rent on their small holdings.
Cohabiting with hens was common. By day the fowl foraged outside by themselves, but at night it was vital to protect them from wandering foxes.
Since a hen house required payment of additional rent, it was cheaper to bring the whole flock inside the family home at night. There they rested along with the family pig (the gentleman who paid the rent).
This habit of keeping poultry indoors gave rise to the Irish legendary claim to being the first people to pair eggs with bacon. The old tale tells how an Irish peasant was frying bacon in a pan over an open fire one day.
A lazy hen was roosting on the cross-beams above. The hen supposedly dropped an egg, which fell against the side of the pan.
The shell split, spilling into the pan on top of the bacon. Rather than wasting the bacon the woman served it, egg and all, to her hungry husband. He returned to work, proclaiming the deliciousness of the fried combination. Word spread far and wide, and soon the perfect pairing of bacon and eggs was known the world over.
Fowl-proof guidance on choosing a wife:
The importance of hens in the daily lives and existence of the rural Irish poor, is clearly evident in the vast number of old sayings which feature our feathered friends and women. Here are a few:
"It's a bad hen that won't scratch herself."
This means to watch out for a lazy woman.
"A whistling woman and a crowing hen
will bring no luck to the house they are in."
In years gone by it was deemed ill-mannered for a woman to whistle. Only a man should whistle, and only a rooster, or cock as they are called in Ireland, should crow.
When a hen crows she is assuming the role of her male partner and going against nature. So the saying is warning against women who try to assume a man's role.
"The cocks crow, but the hens lay the eggs."
Whistling women and crowing hens would also be considered attention-seekers, an attribute not appreciated in a hard working wife. In today's modern age of equality and liberated women, these last two sayings reveal how oppressed women were long ago, and how silencing women was deemed important.
"Even black hens lay white eggs."
In Ireland brown eggs were deemed to be of higher quality than white eggs. This saying is equivalent to "don't judge a book by its cover" or "don't be deceived by looks".
"There are three kinds of women:
a woman as shameless as a pig,
a woman as contrary as a hen,
and a woman as gentle as a lamb."
The poor women of Ireland got little respect in bygone days. I think I'd prefer to be considered "as contrary as a hen," than to be a pushover and "as gentle as a lamb".
"The hen has ruffled feathers until she rears her brood."
I can relate to this one. When a hen sits in the sun and gets hot she ruffles her feathers, but a busy mom has little time to relax. "To ruffle someone's feathers" also means to annoy a person.
A hen will ruffle her feathers in fear and excitement. The saying is telling us that age and grown-up children bring wisdom and calm to a woman.
"It's the second clutch that kills the old hen."
As an older mother, I should perhaps worry about this one. A clutch is a brood of chickens.
Hopefully my second clutch of triplets won't knock the stuffing out of me. It can also be a warning to grandmothers. Boisterous grandchildren can be tiring.
"You can’t expect a big egg from a little hen."
Big children were healthier children, so a good, round woman with child bearing hips was considered the best choice for a wife.
Advice About In-Laws:
There's no shortage of marriage advice to be found in old Irish sayings, and one of the favorite topics of all is the in-laws.
"The three sharpest things on earth:
A hen's eye after grain
A blacksmith's eye after a nail and
An old woman's eye after her son's wife."
Few poor Irish girls moved into a home of their own upon marrying. Instead they shared the same roof with their husband's mother, who probably didn't appreciate the new woman's traits as much as the newlywed son.
"....as scarce as hens' teeth."
I love this simile. It might be used like this - "money is as scarce as hens' teeth around here."
Money was probably as scarce as mother-in-laws' teeth too. Most, like hens, were toothless. With no tooth brushes, many cleaned their teeth by rubbing them with cold ashes from the fire.
"As the old cock crows, the young cock learns."
This one is equivalent to "like father, like son." And remeber a rooster is called a cock in Ireland.
"She's like a hen with an egg."
Some hens like to lay their eggs in private, while more social hens lay in a coop.
A hen in search of a private nest will fuss and cackle until she finds it. This saying aptly describes a bothersome, interfering mother-in-law.
"She never sells her hen on a wet day."
This is a sign of a shrewd, clever woman. A hen with wet feathers appears much smaller than a dry one and would not fetch as good a price.
A mother-in-law seeking a good dowry for her son's hand in marriage would "never sell her hen on a wet day."
Wisdom For Life:
Here are some life lessons, told through the power of hen and egg stories.
"He'd offer you an egg if you promised not to break the shell."
This one tells us to beware of the man who makes false and useless promises.
"Never ask a fox to mind the hens."
A fox in the hen house is never a good thing.
"A hen is heavy over a long distance."
A physical burden, no matter how light initially, can grow exhausting with time. So remember, if something appears easy at first, it may still grow tiring with time.
"It is better to have a hen tomorrow
than an egg today."
An egg provides instant gratification, but once it is eaten it is gone forever. Owning a hen means you have to be patient and wait for everything you want.
Other nationalities cite a similar saying but in reverse. "It is better to have an egg today than a hen tomorrow." In this case, it is better to go with a sure thing today than wait for a possibility of more tomorrow.
Perhaps the Irish saw things in reverse after enduring the hardship and devastation of the Great Hunger. Many ate their hens in desperation, but then had no eggs to depend upon.
And finally, one of the most famous chicken sayings which many nations may claim.
"Don't count your chickens before they are hatched."
which Oscar Wilde countered with:
“People who count their chickens
before they are hatched, act very wisely,
because chickens run about so absurdly
that it is impossible to count them accurately.”
- Oscar Wilde
And so, if you enjoyed this little post about wise old Irish hens, don't forget we have a whole farmyard of animal sayings to work our way through over the coming months.
There are plenty of old Irish sayings about dogs, cats, geese, ducks, horses and cows which we will explore in future posts.