A Guide to Understanding Irish

By this we mean the people, and not the language – as honestly Irish-English can be as difficult to comprehend as Gaeilge if you’re not down with the lingo.

Wherever you go in Ireland you’re sure to encounter a vernacular just as unique as the people who utter it, and these strange phrases and words are very much a part of our charm when we travel abroad.

Almost as amusing as the words themselves are the meanings behind them, when you realise the humble beginnings of the cracker patter that dominates Ireland. So have a read through and see how many of them you’ve already heard, it might surprise you to learn where they came from!

If you’re looking to blend with the locals on your next trip over, then be sure to sign up for our Irish Turn of Phrase subscription box, it’ll have you fluent in the craic in no time. Which brings us to…


Most of you have probably heard this one by now, but perhaps not all of us fully appreciate just how versatile a word it is.

If someone enquire “What’s the craic?”, the state of your welfare (or indeed gossip) has been requested. “Good craic” means a good time, or fun person, while ‘minus craic’ is used to denote quite the opposite…

The phrase actually comes from the Middle-English ‘crak’ – literally meaning loud conversation and was colloquially used to mean chat or news. However, when it journeyed over to the Emerald Isle it received the Irish treatment – becoming more difficult to spell, and (let’s face it) much more fun!



For those of you not in the know, a “hooligan” tends to be an unruly individual who, often as part of a gang, deliberately causes chaos for the sheer fun of it. While it’s often attributed to English football fans, we actually have the Irish to thank for this particular phrase. Or at least one Irish family in particular…

It is thought that the term originates from the Irish surname Houlihan or O’Hooligan, and that particular name was so associated with troublemaking, that it became a synonym for it!


The Guards

Speaking of hooligans, if they’re giving you hassle then you should definitely take it up with ‘the Guards’. Not the police.

In all fairness their traditional name ‘An Garda Síochána’ meaning ‘Guardian of Peace’ is a bit of a mouthful if you’re in a tight spot so it’s unsurprising that a nickname was in order. Formally the term has been shortened to ‘the Gardaí’, but if you see a group of hooligans (or the occasional unruly uni students) racing through the streets of Dublin, it will usually be accompanied by exclamations concerning the proximity of ‘The Guards’.


Give it a Lash

If you’ve ever experienced an authentic Irish Trad Music night, then it’s likely that you’ve heard this phrase before – most often called into the mic just before the final chorus of a popular song.

The saying means ‘have a shot’ or ‘try it yourself’, which in this scenario would be an invite for the bar to singalong (if they weren’t already doing so). Never been to a trad night? Gie it a lash – you’ll love it!

This is not to be confused with ‘out on the lash’, which means going on a night out with the dedicated purpose of becoming inebriated – however both phrases could tie into a good ol’ trad sesh now that I think about it…



Culchie started out as a city-dwellers insult to those who live in rural Ireland, although today the word has been reclaimed as a badge of honour for your country roots, with Galway even starting a travelling festival by that name.

It is thought that the word could be derived from the Irish ‘cúl an tí’, meaning ‘back of the house’. This was in reference to those who had been outdoors with muddy boots having to use the back door to enter an establishment, as opposed to tracking their footprints all the way from the front door to the kitchen.

It’s not uncommon to hear Dubliners use this phrase to refer to anyone who lives outside of Ireland’s capital city…


Away with the Faeries

In everyday language, someone who is ‘Away with the Faeries’ is someone who is day-dreaming or not really paying attention.

But if you were following along with last month’s theme of ‘Faeries and Folklore’ you’ll know that Faeries are not simply creatures to amuse you in boredom, and have an unfortunate penchant for whisking humans away to the underworld.

So, the phrase takes a slightly darker turn of origin, if someone is ‘Away with the Faeries’ – it means that they are no longer present in the world that normal humans occupy…


Sure You Know Yourself

This phrase is perhaps Irish linguistic genius at its finest. No-one is really quite sure what it means, but it can be used to simultaneously answer and deflect tricky questions.

For example, if someone asks you how you like yer man’s new girlfriend, and you actually think she’s a bit of an eejit but you can’t really be seen to be saying that – you simply palm them off with a wee “Ah, sure you know yourself”.

Thus giving the interrogator the answer they wish to hear (as it is what they themselves already know) and allowing you not to incriminate yourself by voicing your own opinion.

It’s a win-win. If slightly non-committal…


Catch Yourself On

This is Ireland’s way of telling you that you’re being ridiculous. If you’ve been told to “catch yourself on” then it’s likely that you’ve been invited to rethink the sentence that you have just uttered.

This phrase is particularly popular in Northern Ireland, as showcased by the popular series ‘Derry Girls’ in which the cast quite regularly question the thought process behind each other’s statements.

For example, when Erin asks her mother if she can dip into her trust fund for a trip to Paris and Mary helpfully advised that the password for the non-existent account is “catch yourself on.”

Depending on what part of Ireland you’re in, you might be more likely to be told to “cop yourself on” or even just to “cop on”, either which way the meaning is the same – you’re living in a dream world!


A Good Start is Half the Work

If you have an Irish parent or grandparent, you’ll probably recall this phrase with grumbling reluctance.

On the surface it is an encouraging proverb, reassuring you that committing yourself to start a task is often the hardest part of the job.

On the other hand, it’s a way of telling you to stop being so lazy and get up off your arse and get it done. You can pick your preferred sentiment behind the saying – but either way it meant you had to wash the dishes.


Sucking Diesel

This saying doesn’t just simply mean that things are going well, but rather they have recently started to take off. For example, if a product is selling poorly, and suddenly a whole bunch are sold at once, an appropriate response from the manufacturer would be “NOW we’re sucking diesel.”

It is likely that this exclamation of a breakthrough comes from cars that need to guzzle some fuel in order to move forward, or perhaps this car was left unattended and a wandering budding entrepreneur saw a sudden opportunity to siphon pricey petrol out of it…


That One Suffers from a Double-Dose of Original Sin

If someone were indeed to be caught literally stealing diesel from a fancy car, and gossiped about at a later date – your Ma may proclaim that she always knew “that one suffered from double-dose of original sin”.

The origins of this phrase are none other than the Bible itself, which makes it all the more hilarious. When Adam plucked the apple from the forbidden tree in the Garden of Eden, he is said to have cast his ‘original sin’ on all of humanity from that moment on.

So basically, if you got a double dose – you’re a right wrong ‘un.


May the Roads Rise to Meet You  

Now we can soften things up a bit with one of those lovely Irish blessings that we all know so well.

‘May the Roads Rise to Meet You’ is a proverb that has probably been lovingly cross-stitched as much as it’s been written. It conveys a hope that the world will help you on your next venture, and that God will ease your path.  

The phrase comes from an old Irish prayer and is slightly mistranslated from the Irish ‘go n-éirí an bóthar leat’ which literally means ‘may you succeed on your next road’. However, that wouldn’t look nearly so cosy stitched onto a pillow, so I’m quite happy to keep this little glitch as it is.  

Have you got a favourite Irish phrase or saying that we missed out? Let us know in the comments below!

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.