Text: “May you be in heaven 15 minutes before the devil knows you’re dead”
Background: M is an American of Irish ethnicity that, during her childhood, enjoyed the bountiful wisdom of her Irish grandmother. M was also raised in an Irish Catholic household.
Context: M recalls this proverb being said by her grandmother when she would commit venial (small) sins. It means that you can commit these venial sins and enjoy your life to the fullest extent as long as you are cunning enough to slip past the devil on Judgement Day and make your way to heaven.
Analysis: Like many other Irish proverbs, this proverb takes on a more comedic perspective of the Catholic faith. Rather than taking Catholic doctrine seriously, it proposes an excuse for sinful behavior. Although based in and in reference to Catholic theology, the proverb advises sin if you are able to escape the ultimate punishment: hell. Such a perspective can be explained by a more modern and ethnic-approach to Catholicism. Since Irish Catholics have a long history of fighting for religious freedom against Protestant forces, present day Irish Catholics have implemented their religious history as part of their identity. Therefore, although many may no longer be truly devout in their faith, they still identify with Catholicism almost as an ethnicity of sorts.
Background: The informant is a woman in her late fifties who grew up in downstate New York in Queens and on Long Island before moving to upstate New York for college. In her mid 20s, she moved out to Southern California and she had lived there ever since. She comes from a large family of Catholic Irish-Americans.
“If you don’t clean out your ears or bellybutton, you’ll
grow potatoes there.”
Context: Typically, this warning is told to children as a way to incentivize them into proper hygiene. As the informant explained it, there was an association between the dirt that gathered when someone didn’t clean their body and the dirt that potatoes grow in. The saying came directly from her grandmother, who emigrated from Ireland to New York as a young adult. However, the saying seemed to backfire for the informant—she admits that she never wanted to clean her ears or bellybutton after being told this hyperbole, just so she could see if potatoes actually grew.
Thoughts: The informant happens to be my mother, so I also grew up with this saying. Similar to her, I found the lie to be more interesting than scary, and as a young child I also avoided cleaning my bellybutton just to see what would happen. It’s interesting how these types of rumors can actually backfire on gullible children, instead encouraging them to do the opposite of what they’re told. I wonder if my great-grandmother knew that when she used the phrase, and only repeated it to her children and her children’s children because she found it amusing. This phrase also reminds me of another popular schoolyard rumor, where supposedly if you swallow a watermelon seed it will grow inside of you. The Irish Potato warning seems to be somewhat less widespread in the United States. None of my friends can recall a similar warning, and the only other place I’ve encountered it being used it in Frank McCourt’s book Angela’s Ashes, a memoir about Irish-American immigrants.
McCourt, Frank. Angela’s Ashes. Scribner, 1996.
The informant is a substitute teacher who went to college in Florida. While she was there, she roomed with an international student from Ireland. This roommate is the person who first said that it was, “raining green paint”. When Winter would to turn to Spring and the trees and leaves started growing, the informant’s roommate would say that it was “raining green paint”. The friend was from Ireland, and the saying supposedly comes from there. This saying stuck with the informant because it is a somewhat poetic notion. It suggests that nature is being designed for our viewing pleasure and gives a positive outlook on the changing of seasons.