The science behind Irish proverbs

Irish proverbs (seanfhocail) are one of the main things I remember from Irish class in school. This week, I’m going to attempt to prove the literal meaning of some of these by using science. I’ll leave the actual ‘life-lessons’ meaning to the historians and sociologists!

Aithníonn ciaróg ciaróg eileA  beetle recognizes another beetle

This was my favourite proverb in school as it’s short, repetitive and easy to remember! Insects need to recognize mates from their own species in order to breed and they use visual (butterflies), auditory (grasshoppers, crickets) and chemical means to do this.  Pheromones are chemical signals emitted by insects such as beetles in various social situations such as alarm signals to indicate attack and sex signals to attract a mate. Beetles can recognize mates by these chemical signals.

Recent studies have shown that beetles also use other recognition mechanisms. Rove beetles recognize family members by matching unique characteristics in their own body with close relatives. Burying beetles can distinguish between an intruder beetle and their own breeding partner while guarding their young by detecting a chemical on the male’s surface.

Maireann croí éadrom i bhfad – A light heart lives longest

About 90,000 people in Ireland are living with heart failure which can cause premature mortality. Heart failure is classed as the heart having difficulty meeting the needs of the body. Systolic heart failure is the most common type and is caused by the left side of the heart not working properly. This side pumps oxygen-filled blood around the body. If there is a failure on this side of the heart, the muscles sometimes try to compensate by growing larger. This symptom of heart disease is called an enlarged heart or cardiomegaly. Unfortunately due to the extra muscle mass (which makes the heart heavier), extra stress is added to the entire cardiovascular system.

Is fearr greim de choinín ná dhá ghreim de chat – One bite of a rabbit is better than two bites of a cat

A bit of a random proverb but it actually bears some fact. Cats have a vast amount of bacteria in their mouths which can be transmitted to humans by biting. The deep puncture wound caused by cat’s teeth spreads the bacteria into deeper tissues. Two well-known examples of bacterial infections caused by cat bites are Pasteurella and Cat Scratch Fever. Ireland is considered rabies free but if bitten abroad, cats infected with rabies can transmit this virus to humans through their saliva. In contrast, rabbit bites can cause fewer bacterial infections. Their bites are not as deep as they are herbivores so do not have teeth designed to tear flesh. So it could even be said that one bite of a rabbit is better than one bite of a cat and definitely better than two!

Ní dhéanfadh an domhan capall rása d’asal – The world would not make a race horse out of a donkey

Traits of one animal can now be inserted into the DNA of another animal leading to the birth of a transgenic animal. Donkeys have some traits that could be desirable in horses e.g. they are less prone to colic (abdominal pain). In the future, this or other traits could be inserted into racehorses to improve their health.

Is maith an scéalaí an aimsir – Time is a good storyteller

These proverbs are a great example of how stories can be enhanced over time. By looking at their literal meaning in the 21st century, they are interesting in an unintended way. The advances of science will continue to change the world we live in but can also provide new perspectives on the past.

Image: Thomas Bresson / Wikimedia Commons

6 thoughts on “The science behind Irish proverbs

  1. That’s deadly ree, love the scientific twist, I learn more on Friday than I do the rest of the week! :-D

  2. Pingback: 2011: Rats attracted to cats, prion-killing lichen & mimicry « Science Calling!

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