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106 Irish Proverbs with a Few Variants

The following Irish proverbs are selected from A Miscellany of Irish Proverbs, collected and edited by Thomas O'Rahilly (Dublin: The Talbot Press, 1922). They are shown in the same order and with the same numbering as in the book, for easy reference. Some explanations from the book have been added here and there: All explanations in round brackets derive from O'Rahilly's comments; the other additions are mine, and appear in square brackets.

Gaelic wording is as a rule left out below, but not completely. All the proverbs are shown in Gaelic in O'Rahilly's book, and names and dates the quotations below that have become proverbial over time too. And the book contains ample references otherwise too. Below, i.e. means "that is", and e.g. means "for example". "Mod" means "modified".

- T. K.

Twig

Drawing on a collection by Mícheál Og Ó Longáin

Poor men take to the sea, rich to the mountain. [6]

Keep the trickster on your side. [11]

A foster-child is as he is brought up. [13]

Often a cow does not take after its breed. [14]

Better good manners than good looks. [18]

Be on your guard against taking sides. [21]

Choose your company before you sit down [e.g., to drink together]. [22]

A wise head makes a closed mouth. [27]

Say but little, and say it well. [28]

An early riser gets through his business - but not by means of early rising [alone]. [33]

Knowledge comes through practice. [40]

The wearer best knows where the shoe pinches him. [46]

Death does not come without a cause. [50]

The hope of winning proves the gambler's undoing. [56]

A greyhound finds its food by using its feet. [64]

Pity the man who is drowned during the tempest, for after rain comes sunshine. [75]

Love pursues profit. (I.e. Self-interest comes first, often love afterwards, in marriages for money.) [80]

A kind word never broke anyone's mouth. [85]

If you cannot bite, never show your teeth. [87]

Don't throw out even dirty water until you have the clean water in. [[88]

If you must be in rags, let your rags be tidy. [91]

The mountain is a good mustard. (I.e. Work or exercise on the mountain is a good appetiser.) [94]

Baptise your own child first. (I.e. Attend to your own affairs first, before troubling about other people's). [97]

Praise the ripe field, not the green corn. [98]

To think of it is as good as to mention it. (I.e., Better think of it without saying anything about it.) [101]

No matter who comes off well, the peacemaker is sure to come off ill. [108]

A dumb priest does not get a livelihood. [109]

Life is precious, as the tailor said when running from the gander. [112]

A ragged colt may make a good horse. [114]

It is afterwards events are understood. [116]

Better a little relationship than much acquaintance. [118]

Let him who will not have advice have conflict. (I.e. such a man will create trouble for himself.) [120]

Constant begging only meets with constant refusal. [123]

Rarely is a fight continued when the chief has fallen. [133]

Nothing is preferable to reconciliation. (I.e. It is best to settle disputes amicably.) [139]

If you catch a pig, catch it by the leg. [145]

It is hard to drive a hare out of a bush in which he is not. [148]

One cannot draw blood from a turnip. [149]

One look before is better than two behind. [150]

It is not every day daddy kills a deer (i.e., 'It is rarely we have an occasion like this.') [152]

Better "it is so" than "it may be so". [154]

What appears full of promise often turns out a failure. [156]

There is luck in sharing a thing. [157]

Foresight [sometimes: patience] conquers destiny. [158]

No good is got by wasting, but a good name is got by alms-giving. (I.e. One ought not to waste, but -). [167]

Forgetting a debt does not pay it. [168]

Goods are consumed by being used in small quantities. [170]

Burning embers are easily kindled. (I.e. Old feuds are easily revived. [172]

Too much familiarity breeds contempt. [177]

It is easy to knead when meal is at hand. (I.e. Work is easily done when one has all the appliances for doing it. [181]

Woe to him whose liberty depends on a stranger [Mod]. [184]

The new broom sweeps the house best. [186]

Think before you speak, and look before you leap. [188]

Woe to him who deems his opinion a certainty. [191]

Speed and precision seldom agree. "Good and quickly seldom meet." [194]

A man of learning understands half a word. In Latin: Verbum sapienti satis. [196]

Laziness is a load. In Gaelic: Trom an rud an leisge. [201]

Postpone not a good action. In Gaelic: Ná cuir an mhaith ar cáirde. [204]

It is a good thing to be economical in order to guard against want; but I do not recommend you to be mean or niggardly. [207]

It is foolish not to enjoy, with due moderation, the good things you have. [An explanation] [208]

The man at sea may return but not the man in the churchyard. [209]

Spread your mantle only as you can draw it. (I.e. Do not attempt more than you are able for. Var. Cut your coat according to your cloth.) [212]

Woe to him who burns his old cattle fold and has thus no reserve to fall back on if the new cattle fold should fail him. (I.e. One should not burn one's boats. [216]

For what cannot be cured patience is the best remedy. "What cannot be cured must be endured." [219]

I don't like a man who is bribed. In Gaelic: Níhail liom fear breibe. [222]

Necessity is the mother of invention. [225]

He is a sorry wretch who fails to keep his bonds. [227]

He who is lazy in spring is envious at harvest-time. [229]

Often has a ship been lost close to the harbour. [231]

An Irish Triad

There are three kinds of men, — the worker, the pleasure-seeker, and the boaster. [Allow for combinations, such as 'the pleasure-seeking worker', "the boasting pleasure-seeker (flaunter)", and other types as well. - TK] [250]

Proverbs in Irish Literature

A promise is a debt. — Tochmarc Étaíne. [275]

Fame lasts longer than riches. [277]

Questioning is the door of (i.e. the way to acquire) knowledge. [281]

Sense is bettered by counsel. – A youth is the better for being instructed. – A wise man accepts advice. – It is bad not to take advice, but it is far worse to take every advice. [286]

A solitary man makes not an army. [290]

The calf belongs to the owner of the cow. [298]

Shun danger and it will shun you. [311]

A closed hand catches no hawk. [315]

A demon is not entitled to forgiveness. [322]

Might is two-thirds of right. [338]

Don't blow on dead embers. (I.e. Do not attempt a hopeless or impossible task. [340]

The lucky man waits for prosperity. (I.e. Prosperity comes to him without effort on his part.) [345]

One good man is better than many worthless ones. [346]

A vessel holds only its fill. [34]

Coming out is a different thing from going in. (e.g., Going into the king's house (or the town) is one thing, getting out is another.) [348]

Mere words will not feed the friars. Compare: "Fair words butter no parsnips," and "The belly is not filled with fair words." [356]

Everyone praises his own land. [360]

"No man will another in the oven seek except that himself have been there before (Heywood)." "The mother would never seek her daughter in the oven had not herself been there first (Clarke)." [366]

An act is to be believed before (mere) talk and writing. In English: "Actions speak louder than words." [369]

Proverbial Phrases in Irish Literature

Putting a withe around sand. Compare the English "a rope of sand." [371]

Beating an oak with one's fists. [372]

Striking one's head against a rock. Knocking one's head against a stone wall. [373]

A wall against the onrush of the flood-tide. [376]

Sailing against the wind. [378]

Putting one's hand into an adder's nest. [379]

A kick against a boor. [381]

Giving a warning to one who is doomed (i.e. a futile task.) [384]

A drop before a shower. (I.e. a portent of greater things to come. [385]

A shelter from the shower (used to denote ease and comfort.) [386]

Danger without fear. (I.e. foolish confidence in the face of danger. [391]

The ox's part in milking-time. (I.e. the role of an idle spectator. [392]

A wisp in place of a broom. (I.e. a poor substitute.) [396]

Fencing a field after the plunder has been committed. (I.e. "locking the stable-door when the steed has been stolen." [412]

Never praise a ford till you go over. (9)

Do not build the sty before the litter comes. (15)

A postscript

Thomas F. O'Rahilly, the collector and editor of these sayings, was a professor of Irish at the University of Dublin. The following extracts stem from what he writes in various places in the book: The first part of the collection includes proverbs noted by Mícheál Og Ó Longain about the year 1800. It is followed by selected proverbs and proverbial phrases drawn from the literature of the past thousand years - here they are in English translation. Alternatively you get a form that is included among O'Rahilly's comments.

Not a few of these proverbs have Latin originals, but most of the proverbs of the collection are distinctively Irish in expression. For such "native" types of proverbs O'Rahilly has quoted Scottish and Manx versions too, and analogous proverbs in Welsh.

When the Irish proverbs correspond closely to English ones, the English versions are put between quotation marks, either instead of or in addition to a translation.

When proverbs not derived from English are common to Ireland and Scotland, they are said to be three hundred years old at least. Proverbs that are common to widely-separated districts in Ireland, are also rather old. It is probable that many of the Irish proverbs are very old, among other reasons because proverbs were held in higher esteem by wise people in earlier times, and since Ireland was a cultured island long before Viking raiders settled and founded such as Dublin and Cork.

Irish possesses a repertory of proverbs that users traditionally delight to draw from to clench an argument or drive home an opinion.

About the first and main part

Mícheál Og Ó Longáin, the compiler of the first sectionn of proverbs above, was born at Glenagragara, near Glin, in the western part of Limerick county, about 1765. He spent most of his his long near Cork city, and died in 1837.

O'Longán's proverbs are typical of the proverbs that were current in Munster about the year 1800. Most of them were in use three generations years ago.

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Irish proverbs, Literature  

O'Rahilly, Thomas, coll and ed. A Miscellany of Irish Proverbs. Dublin: The Talbot Press, 1922.

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