A history of Ireland in phrases as Gaeilge

The story behind sayings from ‘An béal bocht’ to ‘Cuireadh fáilte Uí Cheallaigh romhainn’

I remember not being able to speak English. Growing up in the 1960s on a small island, Inis Treabhair off the Connemara coast, Irish was the everyday language of its dwindling population of about 40 people. Six households in all. The reason I remember so clearly not being able to speak English is the summer visits when our first cousins from London and Galway city would come to spend a few weeks with us. I must have been three or four years old at the time. As kids, they spoke only English. I spoke only Irish. But we got along and played together communicating with each other as children from different backgrounds do. I picked up some English from them and later would learn at school where every subject except English was taught through Irish. I entered the island national school in 1966 and there were 21 students on the rolls there. When I left in 1975 the number had dwindled to five. The school doors would be locked for the last time in 1980, the numbers having fallen to two.

The same fate awaited life on the island. In the 1870s when its population peaked, 171 people lived there. The last native islander, Patsy Lydon, left the island a couple of years ago to live with family members on the mainland, bringing an end to island life which had gone on unbroken for at least 200 years. From that moment on kitchen lamps would remain unlit at night and hearths would remain cold. Dampness would spread and decay would set in. But this is the story of many small islands off the coast of Ireland.

The neighbouring island of Inis Bearacháin, which is about the same size – less than one square mile – had a population of about 200 people in the 1870s but the last man standing, the famous currach rower Máirtín Chóilín Seoighe, died just a couple of years ago. Life on that island is also silent, now left to birds, animals and insects.

So much dies with the death of an island or island life. Even in the future if other people come to live here, the chain or the link to the original inhabitants will be forever broken. It was they and their forefathers who named and knew every field and hillock on the island, its strands, and inlets, shores and big stones, the surrounding tides and currents and waves they had to navigate in all sort of weather. The joys and pains of hundreds of years of continued life. The local lores, songs, poems and stories.


And the language – the language that brought everything to life. In this case it was Irish. We have a phrase in Irish, cruachaint, which means hard talk. And there was and still is great respect for a person who is a good speaker, who has a way with words, who is, as we say in Irish, ábalta or able. We say about such a person, tá a theanga ar a chomhairle féin aige. And while the word comhairle normally means advice it also means council. In Irish we use the same word teanga for both language and tongue. What the phrase really sums up is: he can do anything with his tongue. Twist it this way and that way without even thinking it seems and the words just roll off his tongue and on and on naturally. The artistic beauty of the language coming through in a magical, fiery way. Gripping the listener by the throat, the language itself is very often just as important as the story that’s being told – just like great writing.

The Irish language phrases in this book are ones that I mostly grew up with. Others I picked up over the years. Most of them were part of what we were, of our daily speech and lives. Perhaps some on them originated on the island. Most of them can be heard from native Irish speakers from all Gaeltachtaí in Ireland, still very much alive and in use. We don’t know for sure how old they are. Perhaps some of them have been used by previous generations for over a thousand years or longer, originating in Old Irish before the ninth century, living through Middle Irish, 900-1200, through Classical Irish, 1200-1600 and still to the fore ever since in Modern Irish, surviving through the Great Famine of the 1840s and the decline of the language in most parts of the country. But we know for sure that one of them, the phrase Fáilte Uí Cheallaigh, the O’Kelly welcome, is nearly 700 years old and it’s still very much in use.

Growing up with these phrases, I had taken them for granted and did not think much of them. After all, we speak language most of the time just to communicate. That’s all. Until I did a little research I was not aware that most of these phrases were not familiar to English speakers in Ireland. Very few of them had made their way into everyday English usage. They were not translated or collected. When translated, word for word, they sound different, unusual and sometimes funny. But above all they were rich and deeply rooted. They have a history. They come from somewhere deep and had travelled on a long narrow winding path. They had meaning and often had a story to tell or snatches of history to reveal just like most of our Irish language logainmneacha or place names. I have included some of these stories, the background, in the notes. Some of them are obvious. Other are speculation on my part. I’m open to be corrected in such cases and indeed to suggestions. As the seanfhocal says, Ní haon ualach an t-eolas (Knowledge is no burden).

We are all aware of the great contribution the Irish language has made to the English language as it’s spoken in Ireland and indeed beyond. It makes it more colourful and rich. It may seem small, but it’s like the yeast in a cake making the English language rise and expand. Into fullness and goodness. Most of our great writers in English have taken advantage of this and it has enriched their writings and world literature in English. The likes of Joyce, Beckett and Heaney come to mind. They all dug deep and mined for golden nuggets here and there and they delivered the goods. Of course in Irish we have our own great writers. The likes of Ó Cadhain, Ó Direáin and Ó Ríordáin, who immersed themselves fully in the language, its history and lore. And they did that against the same odds that Joyce, Beckett and Heaney had to face. But with one big difference. As Ó Cadhain once said, it’s difficult to write in a language that will probably be dead before you. But that did not stop him from giving it all he had like all great writers. And he knew where he and indeed many other Irish language writers were coming from: “Tá aois na Caillí Béara agam, aois Bhrú na Bóinne, aois na heilite móire. Tá dhá mhíle bliain den chráin bhrean sin arb í Éire í, ag dul timpeall i mo chluasa, i mo bhéal, i mo cheann, i mo bhrionglóidí.” (I’m as ancient as the Hag of Beare, as old as Newgrange, as timeless as the hornless doe. Two thousand years of Ireland, that filthy sow, echo in my ears, in my mouth, in my head, in my dreams.)

For more than 700 years now both languages live side by side in this country, in people’s hearts and minds. Writer and scholar Fr Peadar Ó Laoghaire (1839-1920), called it an dá arm aigne (the two armies of the mind). They have competed and bounce off each other over the centuries but they also infiltrated and enriched each other. An army can fight and kill but an army can also defend and protect. And help the weak survive.

This small compendium of characteristic phrases will, I hope, alert people of the unmistakable difference between our native language and English. Even the most basic words are expressed so differently. Please, in Irish is, más é do thoil é (if it is your will), and thanks becomes go raibh maith agat (may you receive good).

Samples from Colourful Irish Phrases

Cuireadh cosáin a fuair sé
Lit. Invitation by the footpath he got
An invitation that does not come from the heart

If you were to be invited to a wedding long ago – before wedding invitation cards became common – the groom or his family would come to your house especially and invite you in person. If, however, the groom or his family met someone they did not want to invite, or forgot to invite, they might still invite him at the last minute if they met him by chance – or if they could not avoid him – on the roadside or walking on a path in order not to be embarrassed or to keep the peace. Such an invitation would, of course, be frowned upon, even if accepted.

An béal bocht
Lit. The poor mouth
Said about a person who pretends to be a lot poorer or worse off than he is and who wants to be pitied. This is a common phrase: Chuir sé an béal bocht ar féin (He put the poor mouth on himself). The words were of course made famous by Myles na gCopaleen's (Brian Ó Nualláin) classic satirical novel An Béal Bocht.

Is cuid den mhuc a drioball
Lit. The pig's tail is part of the pig
Usually said about a person who is like (takes after) his father or mother in his ways. It's nearly always used about people's bad traits, however, not their good ones! An English equivalent would be "the apple does not fall far from the tree".

Cuireadh fáilte Uí Cheallaigh romhainn
Lit. We got the O'Kelly welcome
We got a great welcome

The Ó Ceallaigh mentioned is William Buí Ó Ceallaigh, Taoiseach of Uí Mháine, who issued an invitation to the poets, writers and artists of Ireland to a great feast at his home, Gailey Castle (built in 1348 on the western shores of Lough Ree, Knockcroghery, Co Roscommon) at Christmas 1351. The gathering was famous for William's great hospitality and generosity. Still very common in everyday language, even after almost 700 years!

Tá sé in am é a chur ar an áiléar
Lit. It's time to put him on the loft
It's time for him to stop fathering children

In the old cottages the bedroom(s) would normally be on the ground floor and there would often be a loft, used mostly for storage. Also if visitors came and if extra space was needed for sleeping, people would sleep in the loft, as would children sometimes when they got older. A ladder would be used for access to the loft before stairs became common.

It was always the man who should be sent to the loft! This phrase would never be used to refer to a woman.

Bhí lámh agus focal eatarthu
Lit. There was a hand and a word between them. They had shared a word and a hand
They were engaged.

Chuirfeadh sé caint síos i mbuidéal
Lit. He would put talk down into a bottle
He never shuts up. He is a compulsive talker

Ola ar a chroí
Lit. Oil on his heart
Music to his ears

Dúirt bean liom gur dhúirt bean léi
Lit. A woman told me that a woman told her
Hearsay. One of the few Irish language phrases that is also used in everyday spoken English in Ireland. There is also a longer version of this phrase sometimes used: Dúirt bean liom gur dhúirt bean léi gur dhúirt bean eile… / A woman told me that a woman told her that another woman…

Bhuail sé isteach é ar an "in ainm an athar"
Lit. He hit him on "in the name of the father"
He hit him on the forehead

When you're blessing yourself you put your right hand to your forehead and say, 'In ainm an athar (in the name of the father)'.

Ualach ghiolla na leisce
Lit. The load of the lazy servant
This is said about a person who tries to carry everything in one big load (and drops everything) instead of two smaller loads.

Fuair sé an craiceann is a luach
Lit. He got the hide and its value
He got double the price

This comes from a famous folk tale, An Craiceann is a Luach, where the mother sends her son out to the market with a sheep's hide and tells him not to come home without the value of the hide and the hide itself. He comes home the first two days with the hide as no one would buy it from him because he would not let the buyer have the hide. On the third day someone advises him to sell the wool on the hide, which he does and then returns home with the hide and its value.

The opposite, Ní bhfuair sé an craiceann ná a luach (He got neither the hide nor its value), is also a very common phrase. It means he was left with little or nothing.

Bhí sé le ceangal
Lit. He needed to be tied
He was fit to be tied, ie he was very angry or mad

In older times if someone was drunk from drinking poitín and out of his mind, the custom was to tie him up with a rope until he came to his senses so that he would not harm himself or other people. My fellow Connemara writer Pádraic Breathnach remembers such an incident from his childhood days in Moycullen in the 1950s: "I remember my father coming home from a wedding celebration in Auboy to fetch a rope to tie a relative of his who had been fighting because he had too much poteen to drink. The wedding was being celebrated in the couple's new house and not a window was left unbroken."

Chomh dubh le hanam tincéara
Lit. As black as a tinker's soul
A slur of course and not recommended for use, but I have included it here as it reflects an important part of our social history. In most of the schoolbooks I read as a child Travellers would nearly always be portrayed as dishonest people, stealing chickens, etc. from the settled community. This phrase reveals the deep-seated prejudice against Travellers among the Irish settled community. Nowadays of course, we are more reflective about this injustice, but the language still contains the slur.

Chomh lag le héinín gé
Lit. As weak as a gosling
Unlike some other small birds, if the gosling tumbles and find itself lying on its back it can't get up again without help.

Chomh gaisciúil le cat siopa
Lit. As boastful as a shop cat
The shopkeeper's cat would normally have plenty and would be well fed with bits and pieces of meat and all sorts of leftovers as compared to ordinary village cats.

Chomh díomhaoin le laidhricín píobaire
Lit. As idle as a piper's little finger
The piper does not use one of his little fingers (depending on whether he is left-handed or right-handed) when playing the uilleann pipes.

An bád bán (Thug sé an bád bán air féin)
Lit. The white boat (He took the white boat on himself)
He emigrated

An bád bán refers to a certain white passenger ship which brought the Irish emigrants abroad to Britain or the US, perhaps the Nianda Dane which sailed from Cobh. From this the phrase Thug sé an bád bán air féin came into the language. Most of the currachs and small boats people used when fishing or working were black, but the big white boat was a symbol of emigration. And while very few people emigrate by boat nowadays, the phrase is still very much in use to describe emigration.

Dhéanfadh sé nead i do chluais
Lit. He would make a nest/web in your ear
Said about a person who is cunning, who would take advantage of you right under your nose. The word nead in Irish, as well as being the word for a bird's nest, is the word for web, as in a spider's web: nead damháin alla.

Ní raibh oiréad Áiméan ann
Lit. There was not as much as an Amen in him
Used to describe someone who is very weak or feeble

It can also mean very small and could be used to describe a very small bird or animal. Perhaps it originated as a description of a dying person who would be too weak to say the word Áiméan in reply to prayers.

Tá sé imithe amach ag teach an asail
Lit. He is gone out to the donkey's house
He is gone out to the toilet

Until the middle of last century most houses did not have indoor toilets or bathrooms, so people would have to go outside to relieve themselves. On a rainy day they would more than likely use the cowshed or the donkey's hut.

Ag déanamh a anama
Lit. Making his soul
Repenting, getting ready for the next life

This was normally said about old people: "Tá sé in am aige siúd a bheith ag déanamh a anama" (It's time for him to be getting ready to meet his maker). You would often hear this phrase said about an old person who was going out gallivanting or staying out late where there was music and song.
Colourful Irish Phrases by Micheál Ó Conghaile is published by Mercier Press, at €4.99