People who visit Irish language forums often ask to have this or that “traditional Irish saying” translated into Irish. Sadly, most of the “sayings” they bring us have a closer relationship with Hallmark than with Ireland.
In fact, a lot of things that are represented as “traditional Irish sayings” are about as “traditionally Irish” as green beer and four-leafed shamrocks.
That being said, Ireland really does have a lot of traditional sayings (known as seanfhocail: proverbs — pronounced SHAN-uh-kill)…and, not surprisingly, most of them are in Irish to begin with!
Not all rainbows and shamrocks
Real Irish proverbs lack the hyper-sentimentality of much of the stuff that is represented as “Irish.” A few are sweet enough, but most are wryly practical (and some are downright humorous!).
For example, here are a couple of Irish sayings dealing with love and relationships:
Níl aon leigheas ar an ngrá ach pósadh (neel ayn LAY-uss air ung rah akh POH-suh): There is no cure for love but marriage.
Ni féasta go rósta; ní céasta go pósta (nee FAY-sstuh guh ROH-sstuh; nee KAY-sstuh guh POH-sstuh): There’s no feast like a roast and no torment like a marriage.
On an…er…somewhat sweeter note:
Folíonn grá gráin (fo-LEE-un grah grah-in): Love hides ugliness (i.e., love is blind).
You probably don’t want to enclose one of those in your next love letter!
Ireland having been a largely rural and agricultural country for much of its history, it’s not surprising that many seanfhocail use farm-centered metaphors:
Bíonn gach duine go lách go dtéann bó ina gharraí (BEE-un gakh DIN-eh guh lahkh guh JAY-un boh IN-uh GGAR-ee): Everyone’s good-natured until a cow gets into his garden.
Cuir síoda ar ghabhar agus is gabhar i gcónaí é (kur SHEE-duh air GGOW-er AH-guss iss GOW-er ih GOH-nee ay): Put silk on a goat, and it’s still a goat.
Glaonn gach coileach go dána ar a atrainn féin (GLAY-un gakh KWILL-ukh guh DAH-nuh air uh AT-rin fayn): Every rooster crows boldly in his own barnyard.
Life, death, and the weather
As with virtually every culture, Irish proverbs often have to do with the most basic things:
Nuair a thiocas an bás ní imeoidh sé folamh (NOO-ir uh HYUK-uss un bahss nee IM-ee-oh shay FULL-uv): When death comes, it won’t go away empty.
Níl sa saol ach gaoth agus toit (neel suh seel akh gwee AH-guss tutch): There’s nothing in life but wind and smoke.
Ní hé lá na báistí lá na bpáistí (nee hay lah nuh BAHSS-chee lah nuh BAHSS-chee): The rainy day is no day for children (this one gets extra points for the word play between the identical-sounding “báistí” and “bpáistí“).
And then there’s God
It’s probably not surprising that many Irish sayings (particularly blessings and curses) invoke God (or the other guy):
Go bhfága Dia do shláinte agat (guh WAHG-uh JEE-uh duh HLAHN-cheh AG-ut): May God spare you your health.
Dia linn is deoch is ná ráibh mé riamh bocht (JEE-uh lin iss jukh is nah roh may REE-iv bokht): God with us and a drink and may I never be poor.
Go ndéana an diabhal dréimire de cnámh do dhroma ag piocadh úll i ngairdín Ifrinn (guh NAY-nuh un jowl DRAY-mir-eh jeh knahv duh GGRUM-uh eg PIK-uh ool ing AR-jeen IFF-rin): May the devil make a ladder of your backbone while picking apples in the garden of hell. (This is a great one to shout at people who cut you off in traffic!)
Tá Dia láidir is máthair mhaith aige (tah JEE-uh LAH-jir iss MAH-hir why EG-eh): God is strong, and he’s got a good mother. (Tough to argue with this one!)
And wait! There’s more!
There’s a lot of real Irish sayings out there…most of which you probably have never heard. One good source for seanfhocail is Daltaí.com , which also offers resources for learners (including a page for finding local Irish teachers).
Next time you’re looking for something Irish to write in a card or note, how about going for something authentically Irish…something in the Irish language? Hallmark’s got nothing on the real deal!
If you’re interested in Irish sayings, you might also be interested in some Scottish Gaelic sayings.
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Were you familiar with these Irish sayings already? Are there sayings you’re aware of that you think are Irish, but perhaps now you’re not sure? Feel free to ask your questions in the “comments” section below!