Our blog serves as regular motivation for you to speak the Irish language. Find posts about culture, videos where you find how to say certain phrases, and member interviews to tell you about their experience of learning the language.

Our Top Irish Language Proverbs

“Seanfhocail” are proverbs in the Irish language. Literally, that means “old words”, pointing to the ages that these proverbs have survived. I’m sure some are older than others.

A good start is half the work

There’s a good reason why the name of the fundamental Irish language course for Bitesize Irish members is called Tús Maith. A good start is half the work. This matches up with modern wisdom that it’s action that counts. You can do all the thinking and planning you like, but you get to work by taking action. This is a good pat-on-the-back too after you’ve done some good work to start something, like starting to learn the Irish language.

The Irish for this phrase is:

Tús maith leath na hoibre

The traveller has many stories

For me, this phrase is a reminder that a person who has travelled (physically or through events) has a lot to tell. It’s a signpost that you should direct your sense of curiosity at them. What might they have to tell you? What might you learn from them? They have a lot to tell, you might benefit from listening to them. The Stoics had the same view, voluntarily experiencing “lows” without their familiar comforts, to remind themselves that life might also bring them suffering.

The Irish for this phrase is:

Bíonn siúlach scéalach

There’s no noble or lowly but up for a while and down for a while

This is a reminder of the age-old saying that “This too shall change”. Nothing is permanent in this life, not even levels of nobility that you may reach or new lows in your life. Yes, things might be going well right now, but they might not. Yes, things might be going badly right now, but it won’t be forever.

The Irish for this phrase is:

Níl uasal ná íseal ach thuas seal agus thíos seal

A country without a language, a country without a soul

This is a favourite Irish proverb with our audience over the years. It’s a nationalistic sense that a nation or a country needs its language. I might add to this that nations may have gone too far with this! For example, France had many dialects and regional languages, which were crowded out by the Parisian language known as French today. For Ireland, it’s a focus on the importance of the Irish language to the culture and heritage of Ireland. Part of the soul of the country no doubt is expressed through our Irish language.

The Irish for this phrase is:

Tír gan teanga, tír gan anam

A rainy day is not the children’s day

This is a fun rhyme with an element of practical truth to it. You might translate this as “A rainy day is not for the kids”.

You see, this is from a grammatical point where the word for rain (báisteach) transforms into “báistí”. Then the word kids (páistí) transforms into “bpáistí”. You might be wondering how to pronounce “bp”, and in this case the “p” is silent. Sooo, in the end “báistí” and “bpáistí” are pronounced exactly the same, so you have nice direct rhyming.

The Irish for this phrase is:

Ní hé lá na báistí lá na bpáistí

One beetle recognises another

Metaphors are like honey on toast. Or is that a simile? In this proverb, the “beetle” is a specific type of person. So, it implies that people with a specific trait or characteristic recognise eachother. Do you recognise someone for being angry? Maybe you’re projecting! On that line of thought, maybe this proverb shows wisdom that Carl Jung later found; where we project traits in our own shadows onto other people.

The Irish for this phrase is:

Aithníonn ciaróg ciaróg eile

Hope springs eternal (”there is hope with the sea”)

This proverb indicates that there is a hopefulness that arises with the sea. There is an extension to this proverb that while the sea offers hope, the land offers death. The phrase “ag súil le” means that you’re hoping for something, so it indicates hope.

The Irish for this phrase is:

Bíonn súil leis an bhfarraige

Laziness is a heavy load

This is good practical insight from the proverb, where laziness is difficult to carry. It might be “easy” to by lazy, but it’s also certainly difficult. This points to the modern proverb of “everything is difficult, so choose which difficult path you want in life”. This Irish proverb ultimately teaches us that laziness is a burden and not a relief (but I must point out that laziness is different to rest!).

The Irish for this phrase is:

Is trom an t-ualach leisce

An unpractised craft is an enemy

The English translation here is approximate, because the actual proverb in the Irish language indicates that a craft without practice is an enemy. My interpretation of this is that a craft you’re naturally good at is full of potential, but it will niggle and gnaw at you if you fail to practise it. You’ll think about your craft and wonder whether you should practise it. This brings us to Gaeilge Gach Lá – our motto at Bitesize Irish! It’s an action-oriented perspective, where you can make the Irish language part of your everyday life no matter what your abilities are in Irish. If you are truly curious in the Irish language, but you fail to practise it in your own ways, you may end up with a sense of regret for not having listened to your calling.

The Irish for this phrase is:

Is namhaid ceird gan chleachtadh

Praise the youth and they will flourish

This is a lovely positive phrase, encouraging us to encourage the youth. 

The Irish for this phrase is:

Mol an óige agus tiocfaidh sí

There’s no victory without hardship

You can watch How to say No Pain No Gain from our YouTube channel.

The Irish for this phrase is:

Níl bua gan dua

There’s no wise man without error

Wise words. No-one is perfect. Not even the wisest people are without fault.

The Irish for this phrase is:

Níl saoi gan locht

Words are like wind

This reminds me of modern business advice, where every decision in a meeting should be documented and circulated in writing, because otherwise those words will vanish. A person can use a lot of words, but will that translate into action? We’re perhaps better served by looking at a person’s actions, rather than being convinced by their words.

The Irish for this phrase is:

Téann focail le gaoth

A friend’s eye is a good mirror

This type of advice is a practical signpost for life. It advises us that friends are a good truth. My take on this is that the truth in question here is the truth about you and your own situation. A friend can perhaps see things for what they are, being slightly more removed from the situation.

The Irish for this phrase is:

Is maith an scáthán súil charad

All is not what it seems

I believe it’s the author Robert Greene, author of Laws of Human Nature, who said that unusual behaviour leads to real insight of a person. If someone does something unusual, then take note. The reason is that you’re getting an insight into who that person really is. They’ve shown you some kind of behaviour that you thought wasn’t part of them, but it’s there. Nothing happens only once. This Irish language proverb gives us equally useful insight. It says that not everything that we perceive is what actually is the truth. The proverb works especially well in the Irish language, because “shíltear” and “bhítear” rhyme with the same endings due to the verb forms.

The Irish for this phrase is:

Ní mar a shíltear a bhítear

Time is a good storyteller

Time will tell. You can give it time, and time will reveal the truth.

The Irish for this phrase is:

Is maith an scéalaí an aimsir

There is strength in unity

Our private Irish language community Bitesize Pobal for Explore and Grow members is based on the idea that we’re stronger together.

The Irish for the phrase is:

Ní neart go cur le chéile

A word to the wise is sufficient

You don’t need to lay out an entire explanation to a wise person. They don’t need to be told the same thing in five different ways before they “get” it. If the person you’re dealing with is wise, then all they need is a prod.

The Irish for this phrase is:

Is leor nod don eolach

It’s better to bend than break

Over the past couple of years, I’ve grown a dome of willows in my garden. It’s been quite fun to weave the branches together (although it introduced a little tension when the branches on top were almost long enough to be woven together, but not just quite yet). With willow, we wait until winter in order to weave its branches. In summer, the branches are a lot more brittle and are not forgiving. It’s much better to weave a willow branch when it’s dormant, than end up breaking it in summer. Forcing the situation too much may lead it to break.

The Irish for this phrase is:

Is fearr lúbadh ná briseadh

Willow dome

Here’s my willow dome!

Two people shorten the road

Like “there is strength in unity”, this proverb encourages us again to connect with others. You don’t need to be on the “road” or life journey along.

The Irish for this phrase is:

Giorraíonn beirt bóthar

Which is your favourite Irish language proverb?

You’re welcome to leave your reply below to tell us which of these, or other, prover that you like. And you can tell us why you like it, what sliver of insight you got from it.

1 thought on “Our Top Irish Language Proverbs”

  1. Lá millte na móna lá fómhair an chabáiste. I like the rhythm of this seanfhocal, and the sentiment – which is essentially that every cloud has a silver lining!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.