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Traditional Irish Sayings and their meanings

Updated on July 1, 2013

St Patrick's Day. Celebrating being Irish

The home of the O Connor Kerry Clan. Carrigafoyle Castle in Ballylongford, Co Kerry.
The home of the O Connor Kerry Clan. Carrigafoyle Castle in Ballylongford, Co Kerry.
Bertie our former leader and Father Ted. Two Irish men who could charm the birds from the trees.
Bertie our former leader and Father Ted. Two Irish men who could charm the birds from the trees.
Earl of Desmond Castle. Askeaton, Co. Limerick.
Earl of Desmond Castle. Askeaton, Co. Limerick.
Fine day in Dingle
Fine day in Dingle
Carrigifoyle church, Ballylongford, Co. Kerry.
Carrigifoyle church, Ballylongford, Co. Kerry.

Ireland's Dingle Peninsula

Irish saying collection

Cork version of Irish Sayings

Ireland’s traditional sayings for St. Patricks Day

As I mentioned in my last article about traditional Irish sayings i.e. Make Hay While the Sun Shines. I grew up listening to a lot of traditional Irish sayings. So I have always been fascinated with how one simple phrase can say so much in such a short space of time.

With the greatest of all Irish festivals almost upon us again i.e. St. Patricks Day which on March 17 every year sees Ireland almost ruling the world in a sea of green Guinness, bacon and cabbage dinners and worldwide parade’s. I thought I would write my own little dedication to some of the greatest, wisest, most sarcastic and insightful sayings that have come out of Ireland over the centuries. So here are ten of my favourites in no particular order.

Irish Saying No 1:

Irish Diplomacy is…..the ability to tell a man to go to hell so that he looks forward to making the trip.

Now until I read this saying I wondered where Irish Politicians got their sheer neck from i.e. how was it that they could win a general election on the foot of making all sorts of fanciful promises to their voters that quite frankly they never have a hope of delivering on.

Why also was it that we fall for it every time and vote in these chameleons and absolute fraudsters to run our country yet again (into the ground it would seem but that is just my personal opinion and I will refrain from ranting on this occasion as this is not what this article is supposed to be about).

It all made sense to me though when I realized that Irish Politicians have quite simply based all their policies upon this simple Irish saying which speaks volumes all by itself.

Irish Saying No 2: They are doing a line

I would just like to firstly clarify that ‘Doing a line,’ has nothing at all to do with the use of any illegal substances whatsoever. Instead it was a perfectly innocent activity that young Irish couples partook of as part of a rite of passage to becoming a respectable married couple.

‘Doing a line,’ refers to a couple who are going out together i.e. my reckoning of it is that back in the day it was considered proper procedure for the matchmaker to always supervise a couple who had just met and the first stage of their courtship would always involve ‘walking out together.’ This ritual of courting someone would begin after a suitable introduction was performed by the matchmaker.

Once the couple had met under the matchmaker’s watchful eye of course then it was expected that they would then go for a nice stroll together down a green country lane. At this stage they were always closely followed by the matchmaker himself. The matchmaker for those of you not familiar with one was usually a local man living in the area whose job it was to introduce eligible young girls to what he deemed to be suitable men for a fee on their marriage. He did this of course for a fee and a big part of his job was negotiating with the potential bride and groom’s families as to what kind of a fortune the young woman in question would be bringing with her into her marriage. This could and often did include any manner of livestock, money or other possessions.

Irish Saying No 3:

How would you like to tie the old knot?

This folks is often as romantic as it got in those days. Forget moonlight dances or romantic candlelit dinners. Instead in those days the finest marriage proposal a girl could often expect to get was for her potential husband to be to mutter hopefully to her. ‘How would you like to tie the old knot?’

Now I am sure when a country gentleman made this type of suggestion he was not not referring to the potential future use of any actual bondage materials but instead was completely sincere in his romantic marriage proposal.

Irish Saying No. 4:

Your son is your son today,
but your daughter is your daughter forever.

It has often been said that the ‘Irish Mammy,’ was always out on her own when it came to the complete and utter ability to totally spoil her white haired boys completely. Nothing was ever too good for her son’s and often this included a potential wife too.

However it has to be noted too that when one of these much cosseted sons finally found a woman brave enough to marry him that she would now also become an Irish mammy in her own right. Once the gold band became comfortable on her finger she often took over the roll previously performed by the Irish mother in law. So now the new wife would let everyone know that she was boss now and would finally get her husband to put her and his new family first.

So that was why it was always good to have a couple of daughters too as they didn’t have this kind of competitive streak with their own mother but just with their mother in laws. So they would still involve their mother as much as before.

Irish Saying number 5:

There’s no hearth

like your own hearth.

Or as Gaeilge for the Irish day that’s in it:

Níl aon tintéan mar do thintéan féin.

This one is universal really and is self explanatory and as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz put it, it means, ‘there’s no place like home.’ The hearth referred to is the burning embers of your fire blazing away in your fireplace. As everyone I am sure would agree this is the essence of what reminds us of being snuggled up on our sofa in front of a blazing fire. It is an especially relevant saying now as so many Irish are on the move again and are heading for Australia and Canada due to the collapse of the Irish economy.

Irish Saying No: 6: Far away cows grow longer horns

Another version of: ‘the grass is always greener over there.’ A saying that must have had a lot of relevance to the Irish who emigrated all over the world, many who left during the great famine of 1845 did so on the called coffin ships while hoping to find a better life in another country. Obviously they were known as coffin ships because many never made it to the new promised land but instead they died before getting there from disease or hunger. While undoubtedly many did get there and were successful there were also a great number who ended up living in very squalid conditions and died alone.

Irish Saying No 7: The best goods come in small parcels

If you are a person of modest height like me then you will understand this saying. Many Irish people do appear to be of a more compact stature but never underestimate the more petite individual when it comes to getting through life. Just because we may not be towering over you does not mean we are in anyway less capable than anyone else. So like a diamond ring or other piece of precious jewelry us small ladies and gentlemen can sparkle, shine and be quite valuable.

Irish Saying No 8: Black Cat, Black Kitten

If you have a black cat genetically she is more likely to have black offspring too. Another popular version of this theory is, ‘the apple never falls far from the tree.’ At the end of the day this saying would reiterate the theory that we are mostly likely to turn out like our parents as we age and get set in our ways. Whether this is purely down to nature or nurture though it really is hard to tell and it is quite likely too that it is actually a mixture of traits we have inherited from our parents and habits that have been ingrained into out psyche as we grew up.

Irish Saying No 9: She couldn’t fry an egg

This was usually a scathing mother in laws way of telling her white haired boy that that scarlet lady he had just married was so useless that she couldn’t even fry an egg let alone cook a good Irish dinner. Which us modern ladies think is a totally unfair comment because lets face it frying an egg is not all that easy really. Getting that bloody yolk to stay in place and not run all over the frying pan is an acquired art and as far as I am concerned it is actually one of the hardest cooking skills to learn. Fortunately for me my better half is somewhat more skilled at this particular task than I am anyway.

Irish Saying No 10: A stitch in time saves nine

Another common saying which means the same as the above is: ‘never put off until tomorrow what you can do today.’ Basically get on with the task at hand and don’t be putting it off because the longer you leave it for the harder it is likely to be in the longer term. Something such as cleaning the cooker is a good example of this kind of avoidance strategy. So do it today before the grease gets caked on and you now need Gordon Ramsay to come in and give you a good talking to and shame you into cleaning it because now it is just such a momentous task that you want to face but just can’t.

I can't do it this weekend of course because its St Patrick's weekend and its time to get out and just be Irish.


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    • thewritingowl profile imageAUTHOR

      Mary Kelly Godley 

      6 years ago from Ireland

      Thanks Island Bites.

    • IslandBites profile image


      6 years ago from Puerto Rico

      Nice hub!

    • thewritingowl profile imageAUTHOR

      Mary Kelly Godley 

      6 years ago from Ireland

      Thanks for comment. I understand what you are saying even though we think we are talking English it is our own unique take on it.

    • liswilliams profile image


      6 years ago from South Africa

      These are great - I stayed in Dublin for 8 months and I had quite a hard time working out what was going on in a conversation at first -kinda confusing when someone says something like "what's the craic?", but you guys do have the finest sayings :)

    • Amanda108 profile image


      6 years ago from Michigan, United States

      How interesting! I'd never heard of most of these. New vocab to use for St. Patrick's Day!

    • thewritingowl profile imageAUTHOR

      Mary Kelly Godley 

      6 years ago from Ireland

      Thanks to you too for stopping by do you have Irish connections? Have a good day tomorrow.

    • torrilynn profile image


      6 years ago


      Thanks for this hub

      St. Patrick's Day is tomorrow and Im always interested in learning more about the Irish culture and traditions due to my own heritage.

      Voted up and shared


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