A proverb is a commonly known short saying that has been accepted as true and repeated by the masses. It depicts a certain belief, tradition or view of life based on shared experiences. Many Irish people grew up listening to advice in the form of proverbs from their wise parents and teachers; they are something we say instinctively and can range from silly or humorous to genuinely thought provoking.
For centuries, Irish culture has been admired for its wit and humour. Gaelic is our native language and the influence of different cultures including Scottish, Celtic, Scandinavian and Norman have combined to create a truly special way of life in Ireland.
Irish proverbs represent a big part of the Irish culture, traditions, history and folklore. If you’re interested in knowing more about the Irish culture, this article is perfect for you. We have combined famous and interesting Irish proverbs together in one place.
Irish Proverbs (Seanfhocal)
“Seanfhocal” is what a proverb is called in the Irish language; it literally means ‘old word’. Fittingly, most Irish proverbs have been around for hundreds of years. They were primarily known and told in the Gaelic (old Irish) language. As time went by, they were translated into English and written down.
Seanfhocail do not always translate perfectly into English, however. A direct translation may seem confusing or silly, so it is usually people who understand both Irish and English that can best explain what the proverb means.
Seanfhocail were originally told in Gaelic but have since migrated into the English language. As there are so many insightful and interesting Irish proverbs, some don’t make any sense when translated into English directly. These proverbs may not be easy for you to understand from a translation alone, so we are here to help!
We’ll explain the following 12 proverbs below
- Is fearr an tsláinte ná na tánite – Your health is your wealth
- Níl aon tinteán mar do thinteán féin – There’s no Hearth like your own Hearth
- Is fearr Gaeilge briste, ná Béarla clíste – Broken Irish is better than Clever English
- Ní neart go cur le chéile – There is strength in unity
- Ní dhéanfadh an saol capall rása d’asal – You can’t make a racehorse out of a donkey
- Tús maith leath na hoibre – A good start is half the work
- Mol an óige agus tiocfaidh sí – Praise the young and they will prosper
- An rud is annamh is iontach – Rare things are beautiful
- Ní thuigeann an sách an seang – The well fed cannot understand the lean
- Go n-ithe an cat thú is go n-ithe an diabhal an cat – May the Cat Eat You, and May the Devil Eat the Cat
- Ní bhíonn saoi gan locht – There is no wise man without fault
Also, we have included 9 other Irish phrases we love:
- If You’re Enough Lucky to Be Irish… You’re Lucky Enough!
- Away with the Fairies
- Two People Shorten the Road
- Sucking Diesel
- Far Away Cows Have Long Horns
- Complain that You Have No Shoes until You Meet a Man Who Has No Feet
- Suffers from a Double-dose of Original Sin
- On My Tod
12 of our favourite Irish proverbs / seanfhocail
Pronounced as “slaan-sha,” Sláinte is commonly used by Irish people as a drinking toast and it is our equivalent to “Cheers!” Sláinte comes from the old Gaelic word “slán” which means “safe”, but the exact meaning of sláinte is “health” and it insinuates good health. The proverb itself then means “I drink to your good health” and it is also used around Scotland.
Slán which means ‘safe’ is also the shortened version of slán abhaile which means ‘safe home’. We often say slán when saying goodbye to each other.
#2. Your health is your wealth
Is fearr an tsláinte ná na táinte
It seems fitting that our next proverb is ‘Is fearr an tsláinte ná na táinte’ which means your health is your wealth. A truer piece of advice is hard to find, all of the financial success in the world can not protect you from every illness unfortunately.
The proverb highlights the importance of recognising your priorities. This will be a reoccurring theme throughout the Irish proverbs we examine in this article.
#3. There’s no Hearth Like your Own Hearth
Níl aon tinteán mar do thinteán féin
Our next Irish proverb is “Níl aon tinteán mar do thinteán féin” in Irish, or “there is no hearth like your own hearth” in English. This is one of the most popular Irish proverbs. A hearth is a fireplace; long ago the fireplace was the centre of the home. People cooked their meals, dried their clothes and sat around their fireplace. It was the heart and soul of the home, where family and friends gathered. When people had very little possessions and were living in a small house, the hearth was a source of comfort.
Our long history of emigration which is also known as the Irish diaspora has seen many Irish people leave their home with a heavy heart. No matter where we settle, how successful we are or how long we stay abroad, many of us yearn to return home to family, friends and the hopes of good times.
A universal experience for Irish emigrants, our desire to return home is not always possible due to economic, financial and other reasons which makes the proverb even more bittersweet.
The proverb focuses on the value of one’s home and the love we have for the place we grow up in. No matter where you can go there will never be a place as warm and welcoming as home, with a hearty meal and warm fire waiting for your return.
The old Irish proverb’s equivalency in English is that there is “no place like home.” There is something about Irish proverbs, they seem to hold more emotion in their native language than when translated directly.
#4. Broken Irish Is Better than Clever English
Is fearr Gaeilge bhriste ná Béarla clíste
“Broken Irish is better than clever English”, known as “is fearr Gaeilge bhriste ná Béarla clíste” in Gaeilge is an Irish proverb that aims to motivate people into learning and speaking Irish, our native language and the mother tongue of their ancestors.
The Irish language is known as the Gaelic language or simply ‘Gaeilge’ in Irish. There are different types of Gaelic spoken in different regions and countries. Our language has a fascinating history but unfortunately it is no longer the primary language of Ireland. The emerald isle officially speaks two languages, English, the language spoken by the majority of people in Ireland, and Irish, the first language of people living in Gaeltacht regions along the west coast.
As we mentioned before, Irish people cherish their heritage and it’s clearly presented in many Irish proverbs. This proverb is expressing that it’s better to attempt to speak your own language and appreciate it, than simply disregard it. Irish is taught in schools but many people argue that the way it is taught is outdated. This is because, graduates usually leave school after nearly two decades of studying the language with a very weak ability to speak ‘as Gaeilge’ (in Irish).
A remarkable situation happened when US President Barack Obama visited Dublin’s College. When starting his speech, President Obama mentioned the Irish proverb before speaking in Irish. Many people were very impressed that he understood the importance of the Irish language, and put his money where his mouth was by attempting to speak in Irish.
We have a full blog dedicated to the Gaeltacht region of Connemara if you would like to learn more about the Irish language. Gaeltacht regions are actually popular tourist destinations as they are usually located along the picturesque west coast of Ireland, and embrace all that is wonderful about Irish tradition.
#5. There is strength in unity
Ní neart go cur le chéile
‘Ní neart go cur le chéile’ means there is ‘strength in unity’ in English. It was actually one of the proverbs that came to me first when writing this list as I can vividly remember seeing the phrase on a poster every day during school. Its a proverb that is said to classmates, sports team and colleagues time and time again.
The importance of a community that helps each other is something that is highlighted in Ireland. From a young age we learn that helping a neighbour in need is something we should do, not for praise, but simply because it is the right thing to do. We tend to look after each other, especially in difficult times when it would be easier to focus on ourselves.
The phrase highlights the compounding effect a strong community or group has in achieving their goals. Essentially it is an Irish proverb about friendship and working together.
#6. You can’t make a racehorse out of a donkey
Ní dhéanfadh an saol capall rása d’asal
A more humorous proverb is up next; ‘Ní dhéanfadh an saol capall rása d’asal’. This transaltes into ‘you can’t make a racehorse out of a donkey’ which can be compared to a similar phrase, a leopard cannot change it spots.
The Irish humour is quite honest as this proverb shows, but in reality the proverb does offer a pearl of wisdom; Accepting what you are is difficult. That’s not to say you shouldn’t try to change if you want to, you will probably find a proverb that advises the exact opposite of this one if you look for long enough!
#7. A good start is half the work
Tús maith leath na hoibre
‘Tús maith leath na hoibre’ or ‘a good start is half the work/battle’, is a phrase I’ve heard time and time again in Ireland as a motivator to start a job at work or school.
Another pearl of wisdom, this proverb offers some good life experience. Most of us can relate to doing something half heartedly, only to end up spending twice as long on it because we haven’t given our best. In the long run you’ll thank yourself for giving your best in the initial stages of anything in life, be it a large project or simple task.
#8. Praise the young and they will prosper
Mol an Óige agus tiocfaidh sí
A bit of parenting advice is up next, namely ‘Mol an Óige agus tiocfaidh sí’ or ‘praise the young and they will flourish’. It is easy to criticise, but praising children in a constructive manner will allow them the freedom to grow, experiment and learn which will ultimately benefit them.
This is not just an Irish proverb about family, however. It can be applied to people in any walk of life; we tend to be more engaged in work, college, school, sports teams and about everything in between when we feel confident in our abilities. If an authority figure, be it a captain, teacher or boss is constantly unimpressed with our efforts and never takes the time to consider the good we have done, we are far more likely to become dissuaded from our responsibilities.
#9. Rare things are beautiful
An rud is annamh is iontach
Considering that one of the symbols of Ireland, is a shamrock, and that a four leaf clover is a rare find, its no wonder that our next proverb is ‘Rare things are beautiful’. In Irish this is said with the words ‘An rud is annamh is iontach’.
This is similar to the English phrase ‘too much of a good thing’. The two proverbs highlight the importance of discipline and conversely, enjoying the finer things in life once in a while!
#10. The well fed cannot understand the lean
Ní thuigeann an sách an seang
‘Ní thuigeann an sách an seang’ is a popular saying that is also quite wise. It means that the well fed cannot understand the lean. When you are in a position of privilege it can be difficult to truly understand what less fortunate people are experiencing as part of their reality.
Even when we try to empathise with the less fortunate, there are some things that we will unknowingly take for granted. Learning to be humble and accepting that you have more than others can be difficult, but it can allow you to understand others more clearly.
An Irish proverb about hard times, this piece of wisdom can also be interpreted in another way. The further the gap between people, the harder it is to understand each other. This doesn’t just apply to wealth but really any imbalance in our society.
#11. May the Cat Eat You, and May the Devil Eat the Cat
Go n-ithe an cat thú is go n-ithe an diabhal an cat
This curse is a double strike! It is wrote in the Gaelic language as “Go n-ithe an cat thú is go n-ithe an diabhal an cat”, which is translated into “may the cat eat you, and may the devil eat the cat”. In fact, it’s one of the most widely known Irish insults of the past.
The proverb is both strong and funny! When you say to someone “may the cat eat you, and may the devil eat the cat” you’re wishing a cat eats them and then the Devil eats both them and the cat! So basically you’re hoping someone suffers twice. This phrase would not be said with malice, more often than not it would be said between family and friends teasing each other.
There are a lot of other funny, detailed and inventive curses in the Irish culture like “May you be afflicted with itching without the benefit of scratching,” “May you die in a town with no priest,” and “may you find the bees but not the honey.”
In Ireland many insults are humorous and deescalate a situation, rather than actually offending someone. We are able to laugh at ourselves and each other without taking jokes we make too seriously. Maybe that is why Irish comedians are so successful; there’s something about the Irish humour!
#12. There is no wise man without fault
Ní bhíonn saoi gan locht
‘Ní bhíonn saoi gan locht’ are words as true as can be. The proverb ‘There is no wise man without fault’ recognises that even the best and most experienced of us are human. We have our faults and are better off acknowledging them, rather than pretending they don’t exist.
It is also implies that if someone believes they are perfect, they are not very wise!
We should never stop trying to learn and improve ourselves if we want to be truly wise, but there is point pretending we are without flaw.
9 Other Irish Sayings we love
Here are other phrases we love. While some of these are more modern than previous proverbs, they are all uniquely Irish!
#1. Nature Proverbs
There are plenty of nature proverbs in Ireland. Nature has always been a popular symbol used in metaphors for its vastness allows it to be interpreted in many ways. The following sayings are words of encouragement to wish someone good luck, or to hope that they avoid any unnecessary obstacles in life.
- May the road rise up to meet you
- May the wind be at your back
- May the sun shine on your face
It is nice that we have so many ways to share the same positive sentiment in Irish.
#2. Proverbs celebrating Irish culture
Our life and identity are so much richer when we have something to belong to. Like other countries, Irish people are very proud of their culture.
Here are two more phrases about Irish culture and luck you may like:
- If you’re lucky enough to be Irish, you’re lucky enough
- A country without a language, is a country without a soul
“If you’re lucky enough to be Irish you’re lucky enough” is one of the most famous Irish proverbs you should know about. The luck of the Irish is an international moniker we have garnered over time. It is thought to refer to the many successful miners being of Irish heritage during the gold rush.
Another common proverb is “A country without a language, is a country without a soul,” which also emphasizes how Irish folks value their culture and country. It is a more sombre reflection of our country than the previous proverb, as many Irish people feel as though their language is slowly disappearing. Some feel as though we are losing a battle to preserve our native language and culture. Its a sad thought to lose such an important part of a countries identity and a sobering proverb to say the least.
In short, this phrase highlights how Irish people wish to preserve their native language before it dies out completely.
#3. Away with the Fairies
The Irish proverb has its origins in Gaelic tradition, possibly even Samhain, a festival which inspired modern day Halloween. The expression is used when describing someone who is prone to day dreaming. It also applies to a person who’s unfocused. The Irish saying is also used to describe someone who appears to not be living in the real world.
This Irish proverb goes back to both Irish and Scottish Gaelic tradition, in particular our folkloric mythologies. While not necessarily a compliment, it is more akin to the phrase ‘head in the clouds’ than an actual insult, but nevertheless it is not something you would say to praise someone.
The choice of wording may seem peculiar, but Ireland actually has a strong connection to fairies. In fact, we have many ‘fairy trees’ scattered around the country. These trees are usually found standing alone in the middle of a field. In the past, people believed it was bad luck to disturb them as they were inhabited by fairies. Some Irish people would even take a longer route home to avoid passing the fairy trees at night! If you would like to read more about Ireland’s rich history of fairies, check out our blog on the superstitious fairy trees of Ireland.
#4. Two People Shorten the Road
Good company makes any journey more tolerable and that’s what this Irish proverb is all about.
The Irish proverb “Two people shorten the road” is used to express how important it is to have a good companion in your life. Moreover, companionship always makes a journey pass by quickly. When you are with the right people, time seems to move by faster.
This lesson is presented in a famous tale in Celtic folklore. The story follows a father who was traveling with both his son and daughter-in-law. The father asks his son to “shorten their journey”. The son didn’t know how could he do such a thing until his wife told him that the way to shorten a journey is by storytelling. The parable of the story is that it is important to choose the right companion; a true comrade makes life’s bitterness more tolerable and the journey better.
Ireland has a rich history of story telling, it used to be one of the favourite pastimes of many folk when there was little to no entertainment available. Storytelling passed the time on long winter evenings. A seanchai was a traditional Irish story teller and historian. The whole village would gather in a house and listen to the seanchai who was essentially a professional story teller.
Storytelling and the arts have always been a valued form of entertainment in Ireland. They were a measure of wit and intelligence and even Ireland’s ancient Celtic deities and legendary hero warriors were expert poets and musicians.
#5. Sucking Diesel
A car needs fuel to move forward smoothly and without problems. To be more precise it needs to be “sucking diesel” to move forward. This is where our next Irish proverb comes from.
When a person’s day is going really well the perfect expression to indicate their good fortune is by saying they’re sucking diesel. So, next time when someone asks you how are you doing and you want to tell them that things are going really well, simplysay “I’m sucking diesel”!
#6. Far Away Cows Have Long Horns
“The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence” or maybe “far away hills are greener” are expressions you’ve heard at some point in your life. The same meaning goes for the Irish proverb “far away cows have long horns”.
People – most of us anyways – are never satisfied with their own lives. It is natural to believe that the things we don’t have will make us happier. We usually tend to see other peoples jobs, houses and lives as better, or somehow more fulfilling. This has only been exemplified by social media, as we are shown a constant highlight reel of other people’s lives.
Nevertheless, just because something seems great, doesn’t mean that it actually is. Learning to focus on what you have which make you happier in the long run, which fittingly enough, brings us to our next idiom.
#7. Complain that You Have No Shoes until You Meet a Man Who Has No Feet
“Complain that you have no shoes until you meet someone who has no feet”. This is another Irish proverb highlights the fact that we aren’t always satisfied with what we have and just how important perspective is.
A person might keep complaining about their situation and comparing their life to people who have more money or power than them, thinking they’re happier. The truth is there are many people who would envy the things you have if you are young, healthy or have good family and a few friends.
We all have our own desires and struggles. Learning to appreciate the things we have rather than chasing the things we don’t can improve our outlook on life drastically. We should remain motivated and strive for things in life, but like many proverbs on this list, life is all about balance.
#8. Suffering from a Double-dose of Original Sin
Remember humanity’s original sin? The famous story of Adam and Eve is referenced when someone is a bit of a trouble maker.
The Irish proverb “suffers from a double-dose of original sin” became common in the period of the 1880s. It’s not as commonly heard today but it is quite an interesting way to describe someone to say the least.
#9. On My Tod
The Irish proverb is a great example of cockney rhyming slang that started to spread around UK, Australia, and Ireland in the 19th century. The origin of the proverb is the phrase “on my Tod Sloan,” which rhymes with “on my own”. Tod Sloan was an American jockey whose mother died when he was young. After this his father left him. Tod became a successful jockey and got their on his own. His career ended when he moved to the UK. He would go on to live the rest of his days alone with little money. Thus when someone says “I’m on my Tod” it means I’m on my own, alone or even just going out alone tonight.
If you want to know more about a country, one of the best things is to do is to dig deeper into its folklore or traditions. What people believe in, their customs and what they value can be very telling. All of these things contribute to the formation of a civilization. Ireland is one of the most famous countries for its culture and history. For instance, the more you read about celebrated Irish proverbs, the more you get a good opportunity to be introduced into many interesting facts about Ireland.
Have you heard of any Irish saying that we haven’t mentioned? What is your favourite among these Irish Proverbs? We would love you to share them with us 🙂
Also, don’t forget to check out some related blogs around Northern Ireland and Ireland: Delightful Irish Dishes| Danny Boy Song| Famous Irish Who Made History in Their Lifetime| Digging into The Secrets of Irish Pookas| The Globally Celebrated St. Patrick Day| Irish Wedding Traditions|