Some 350 Irish Proverbs with Variants and Explanations
These Irish proverbs are culled from the books listed near the bottom. Cf. means compare, i.e. means "that is", and e.g. means "for example". "Mod" means "modified". Explanations are put in brackets.
- T. K.
A bad wife takes advice from everyone but her husband.
A beetle buries himself in dung.
A blind man is no judge of colours.
A burnt child fears [or: dreads] the fire.
A dear good article is better than a cheap bad article.
A demon is not entitled to forgiveness.
A dumb priest never got a parish.
A generous man, they say, has never gone to hell. [Not so, tells Buddha]
A good dress often hides a deceiver.
A good man is a wise man.
A good thing is bettered by being increased.
A good word does not destroy a tooth.
A hen carried far is heavy.
A hook [is] well lost to catch a salmon.
A lamb when carried far becomes as burdensome as a sheep.
A little fire that warms is better than a big fire that burns.
A man is often a bad adviser to himself and a good adviser to another.
A person does not get his learning cheaply.
A person that is made a pet of, and a pig that is made a pet of, are the two worst pets at all.
A poet should be honoured.
A priest that's made a pet of and a pig that's made a pet of are the two worst pets of all. / However, all priests are different. And in our times some pigs are kept as pets.
A promise is a debt. Scottish: He who promises must pay. Welsh: Everyone's promise is a debt to him.
A rolling stone does not gather moss.
A ship is lost with all on board on account of one man.
A ship is often lost because of one man.
A single scabby sheep will infect a flock.
A small army is a door to death.
A sound man is a king.
A stitch in time saves two stitches.
A trade not (properly) learned is an enemy.
A trade that is not practised is an enemy,' i.e. it does more harm than good.
A trout in the pot is better than a salmon in the pool.
A vessel holds only its fill - Cf. One cannot take more out of a sack than the full of it.
About the foot of the tree the foliage falls.
Although sense is a small thing, a person needs it much.
Although you broke the bone, you did not suck out the marrow. (Referring to bones that are split to extract the marrow)
An act is to be believed before (mere) talk and writing. – Actions speak louder than words (English).
An early riser gets through his business, but not by means of early rising.
An experienced rider doesn't change his horse in midstream.
As to every cow belongs her calf, so to every book belongs its transcript.
As you have made your bed, so you must lie on it (Solve troubles of your own making, unaided if you can.).
As you have spent the candle, spend the inch.
As you make your bed lie on it.
Attend the luck when you get it.
Bad encouragement is neither help nor assistance.
Beauty and money – they will go; learning and good manners – they never decay.
Beginning with a cough, and ending with a coffin. (This is the history of the thousands that have died of consumption every year.)
Best is a conference from which comes peace.
Better "it is so" than "it may be so".
Better be sure than sorry.
Better good manners than good looks.
Better is a small house with plenty in it than a big house with a scarcity of food.
Better know the thing than be taken by surprise.
Better late than too late.
Better to be fortunate than to be rich.
Better to do a good deed and boast about it than not to do it and not boast about it.
Better to have a dog fawn on you than bark at you.
Between the two stools he came to the ground.
Beware of the bribed man.
Birds of one feather are often together.
Black as is the raven, he thinks his chick fair.
Blow not on dead embers.
Burning embers are easily kindled. Cf. It is easy to kindle a live coal. (Old feuds are easily revived - It is easy to renew an old quarrel).
By their tongues people are caught, and by their horns, cattle.
Calm and noiseless are the full pools.
Character is better than wealth.
Charity begins at home.
Cleanliness is a great comfort.
Cleanliness is part of glory.
Coming out is a different thing from going in. Cf. Going into the king's house (or the town) is one thing, getting out is another. And: Slippery are the flagstones of the mansion door.
Culture and (the world's) respect are seldom found together. [Abr.]
Cunning is better than strength.
Do not entertain extravagant hopes. – Do not expect too much.
Do not let your eye go beyond what is your own property; do not covet what is not yours..
'Do not show your teeth until you can bite.
Don't begin to reap your neighbour's corn till he asks you.
Don't break your laidhricín on a stool that isn't in your way. • Don't break your shin on a stool that isn't in your way. (Don't go out of your way to get into trouble.)
Don't build the sty before (you get) the pigs. (Lest you might never get them.)
Don't expect to be long in this world, but try to be good while you are in it, for death is certain.
Don't give judgment on the first story till you hear the other side.
Don't go through the world without seeing anything.
Don't lift me till I fall. (Wait till I go wrong before you begin to correct me.)
Don't marry a wife on account of cattle.
Don't meddle with a briar and the briar will not meddle with you.
Don't neglect your betterment: repentance is not (yet) late.
Don't postpone the good deed.
Don't postpone your betterment.
Don't praise or dispraise yourself.
Don't put ease before exertion.
Don't put in your spoon where there is no porridge"
Don't see all you see and don't hear all you hear.
Don't show your teeth where you cannot bite.
Don't throw out even dirty water until you have the clean water in. • Cast not out the auld water till the new come in.
Don't throw out the dirty water till you bring in the clean.
Drink is the curse of the land. It makes you fight with your neighbour. It makes you shoot at your landlord - and it makes you miss him.
Early sow, early mow.
Eight hours for the man, and nine for the woman (i.e., sleep).
Enquiry is the beginning of knowledge. • Questioning is the door of (i.e. the way to acquire) knowledge. • Knowledge is bettered by [sound] enquiry [and inspection].
(Even) a blind person perceives where his mouth is.
Even a good horse can't keep running.
Even a trifling thing pleases a poor man.
Even gold can be bought too dearly.
Even if love is not around the corner there's hardly a fight or you would have heard it.
(Even) little stones build castles.
Even truth may be bitter.
Every finger has not the same length, nor every son the same disposition.
Every flatterer is not a friend.
Every man has his own little bad luck awaiting on him.
Everyone praises his own land.
Everything is (sooner or later) consumed.
Fences have ears.
Fight manly if you must fight, but avoid it if you can.
Fine feathers make fine birds. – Compare: Clothes make the lad, but food makes the fine lad (Scottish).
Foolish love is blind.
For his learning and manners you may praise a man.*
For what cannot be cured, patience is best. (Cf. What cannot be cured must be endured (Engelsk).
Four things which an Irishman ought not to trust: A cow's horn, a horse's hoof, a dog's snarl, and an Englishman's laugh.
From education comes conduct.
Generosity which is dilatory is worth going to meet.
Gentleness is better than violent anger.
God's mill grinds very finely.
Good care takes the head off (i.e., destroys) the evil or accident.
Good sense is no less important than food.
Greatness knows modesty.
Half a loaf is better than no bread.
Half is better than a complete refusal.
Half the work is a good beginning.
Handfuls make up a load.
Harvest is green.
(Have) sense, patience, and self-restraint, and do no mischief.
He is a good horse that never stumbles. –
He is a wise man who can tell what is going to happen tomorrow.
He is a wise man who takes care of himself.
He who is beaten in the head is timid. ("Beaten in the head" means mentally oppressed or subdued.)
He who is lazy in spring is envious at harvest-time.
He who lies down with dogs shall rise with fleas.
Hold on to the bone and the dog will follow you.
How small a thing outlives a man. Cf. the Scottish: It is a small thing that does not outlive a man.
"I love you – what you have.".
Idle dogs worry sheep.
If a person wants to catch a trout he must do more than merely listen to the flood.
If you are inquisitive be knowledgeable.
If you are wise, take advice.
If you give the loan of your breeches, don't cut off the buttons.
If you keep bad company, you are sure to suffer.
If you must be in rags, let your rags be tidy.
If you must be in rags, let your rags be tidy.
If you put a silk dress on a goat, he is a goat still.
If you think little of the meadow don't buy the grass.
In the beginning of the disease the cure is best.
Intelligence is better than strength.
It is "time enough" [that] lost the race.
It is "time enough" that lost the ducks. (Ducks in summer time often do not come home in the evening, but prefer to remain beside the ponds and streams where they have been during the day. These particular ducks did so, and the owner delayed going for them till night came on, when she could not see them. During the night, they were stolen by someone, or carried off by a fox.)
It is a good horse that you cannot make stumble. (He is a great person who never makes a mistake.)
It is a good story that fills the stomach.
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.
It is a long road that has no turn in it.
It is a sign of nobility to listen to art (i.e. patronise art).
It is a wedge from itself that splits the oak. (A small group of seceders from a party can do the latter more harm than all the forces of the enemy.)
It is afterwards events are understood.
It is bad not to take advice, but it is far worse to take every advice.
It is better to be alone than in bad company.
It is better to be engaged in putting knots on a straw than to be completely idle.
It is better to be lucky than an early riser. (In Gaffney and Cashman 2003:7)
It is easier to fall than to rise.
It is easier to get counsel than help.
It is easy to comb a little horse. (Small enterprises are easily accomplished.)
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.)
It is easy to put up with the misfortunes of others.
It is good news to have no bad news.
It is hard to drive a hare out of a bush in which he is not.
It is hard to take stockings off a bare foot.
It is hard to take wool off a goat. / It would depend on which sort of goat it is. Cashmere goats and angora goats have wool of great value, and angora goats are calm and trusty too. The goats of the Irish might have been different. So the Irish proverb reflects the past conditions of the Irish, and their kinds of goats too.
It is not a feast till the roast, and there are no galling trials till marriage.
It is not every day daddy kills a deer.
It is not he who eats most that lives longest.
It is not the time to go for the doctor when the patient is dead.
It is not usual to have smoke without fire; nor fire without people.
It is one's self knows best where the boot is pressing on the foot.
It is right to put something by for the sore foot (i.e., misfortune).
It is right to put something by for the sore foot (i.e., misfortune).
It is the (early) bird of the morning that gets the worm.
It is the multitude of hands that makes the work light.
It is the smooth water that runs deepest.
It is then that friends are known, when one is in danger.
Its outward display is greater than its value.
It's sweet to drink but bitter to pay for it.
It's the last suitor that wins the maid.
Lay up in time.
Learning is no burden to a person.
Let not your tongue cut your throat. • A fool's tongue is long enough to cut his own throat.
Little profit comes from constant drunkenness.
Long out of sight, far out of mind.
Look before you leap.
Look before you speak. (Think before you speak.)
Many a good parent had a bad child.
Many a thing happens that is never expected.
Marry in haste and repent at leisure.
Mere words will not feed the friars. • Words will not feed the friars.
Mice won't stay long in an empty house.
Much evil comes from talk that does not come from silence.
Musicians are craftsmen. • Musicians are brothers.
My little cottage, ever in disorder, one advantage you have - no matter how early or late I come, it is in you I can most easily stretch my legs. "Be it ever so humble, there is no place like home."
Necessity is the mother of invention.
Never lie on the ground whilst a feather bed is beside you.
Nice teaching (= culture), the nicest thing in a person.
No matter who dances, the piper will (= must) be paid.
No merriment in the seat of justice.
Nobility listens to (or patronises) art.
Nothing comes into a closed hand.
Often a cow does not take after its breed.
Often has a man cut a rod to beat himself.
Often has a ship been lost close to the harbour.
Often has a tattered colt grown to be a splendid horse. A ragged colt may make a good horse.
Often has the likely failed and the unlikely prospered.
One good man is better than many worthless ones.
One man's meat is another man's poison.
One who is waiting thinks the time long.
Patience is a plaster for all sores.
Pity him who would burn his thiompán for you.'
Pity the man drowned in the storm; for after the rain comes the sunshine.
Pity the man who does wrong and is poor as well."
Pleasant on the outside, dark and gloomy on the inside.
Poor men take to the sea, rich to the mountain.
Poverty destroys companionship.
Prosperity comes to the lucky man without effort on his part, while he merely waits for it.
Prove a friend before poverty.
Provision for heaven – - weighing and being strictly honest. [Abr.]
Put the saddle on the right horse. (Blame the right person.)
Questioning is the door of knowledge.
Riding on a goat is better than the very best walking.
Satire wounds a great character.
Say little and say it well.
Scattering is easier than gathering.
Scratch me and I'll scratch you.
Seldom is there a slaughter from which no one escapes. Cf. English: 'Tis a hard battle where none escapes.
Seldom is there champion who does not meet with some reverse.
Sense is bettered by counsel.
Shun evil company.
Shun the friendship of a lying man. Should you contract a friendship with him, be on your guard.
Sorrow will pay no debt.
Speak neither well nor ill of yourself.
Spread your mantle only as you can draw it.
Still waters run deep.
Story-telling [may become] a complicated affair.
Take gifts with a sigh, most men give to be paid.
Take stock of the river before you plunge into the current.
Talk does not fill the stomach.
Tell me your company and I'll tell you who you are.
The bad deed turns on its doer.
The bark of a hound in a green glen.
The bird that deserts its own brood has little affection.
The cat has leave to look at the king.
The cat is his own best adviser.
The clothes are (= make) the man (i.e. his outward appearance).
The clown's search for the mare and he sitting on her.
The cow is milked from her head. • It is from her head the cow is milked. (First feed her, that is.)
The eating of it is the proof of the pudding. • The proof of the pudding is in the eating of it. • The proof of the pudding lies in the eating of it. • The eating of it is the proof of the pudding. (Good proof is likely to depend considerably on good, reliable and valid testing. The proverb is many centuries old. 'Proof' in it means 'test', and the pudding is haggis. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) describes the mediaeval pudding as "the stomach or one of the entrails of a pig, sheep, or other animal, stuffed with a mixture of minced meat, suet, oatmeal, seasoning, etc., and boiled" - a haggis - "the great chieftain o' the pudding-race", as Burns called it in the poem Address to a Haggis, 1786. Mediaeval peasants, faced with a boiled up, potentially fatal dish fit for a farmyard massacre, might have thought a taste test was a wise choice. But who was to test it? The farm dog, maybe?
The expectation of recouping himself is what beggars the gambler. • The hope of winning proves the gambler's undoing.
The fox never found a better messenger than himself. • The fox never found a surer messenger than himself.
The friend is proved when the need is greatest.
The greater the strait the more valuable is the help.
The heaviest ear of corn is the one that lowliest hangs its head. (This expresses the humility of the truly great, and it implies that the grandest characters are not always to be found among those of most elevated rank.)
The historian's food is truth.
The Irishman is an impatient fellow (Saying).
The lake is not encumbered by the swan, and the body is not encumbered by good sense. [Abr.].
The last place is meet for the best beloved.
The law of borrowing is to break the borrower.
The losing horse blames the saddle.
The man of the boots doesn't care where he puts his foot.
The miller's pigs are fat but God knows whose meal they ate.
The mouth that speaks not is sweet to hear.
The old boot gets the old stocking. (Said when an old couple marries.)
The old woman is the better of being warmed, but she is the worse of being burned.
The person who is rich is none the worse for being dull in accomplishments and in understanding, for being stammering in speech, or for having but one foot or one hand.
The pleasantry of children is nice.
The priest's pig gets the most porridge.
The raven thinks her own bird the prettiest in the wood.
The short chat is the best.
The thing that often occurs is not much appreciated.
The value of the well is not understood till it goes dry.
The wisdom of the Englishman and the openness of the Gael – that is what does the harm.
The world goes round as if there were wings on it.
The world is quiet and the pig in the craw (or sty). (This was probably the remark of some servant or gilly - The pig is usually the last animal that is secured for the night at a farmer's house. When this was done the farmer had time to breathe freely and enjoy the quiet of the night.)
There is many a person with a high head today who shall be lying lowly tomorrow.
There is many a thing you hear that is not right to put in print.
There is no ghost as bad as the ghost with two legs.
There is often a barb behind a kiss.
There is often anger in a laugh.
There is only the blackberry got from the briar.
There is pain in prohibition.
There is skill in all things even in making porridge.
Think before you speak, and look before you leap.
Thirst is a shameless disease. (The thirst for intoxicants is meant.)
This world is the world of everyone in turn.
Those who make laws should not break laws.
Those who make the best preparation for a work [can] make the greatest progress.
Thou oughtest to increase good.
Though your fame is great, it is not good.
'Tis better to be idle than to be ill-employed.
Trampling on dung only spreads it the more.
Truth has but one version.
What butter or whiskey will not cure, there is no cure for. (Absurd belief in the great medicinal efficacy of whiskey has wrought untold harm, says the author of Seanfhocla Uladh (see Introduction))
What is fated for me it is hard to shun.
What is in the cat is in the kitten.
What is in the marrow is hard to take out of the bone.
What should prevent the herring bag from having the odour of the herrings?
What the child sees (done) is what the child does.
What the child sees is what the child does.
Whatever knowledge, education, or learning the clown acquires, his own congenial nature still appears [Abr.].
When the belly is full, the bones like to stretch.
When the cat is out, the mice dance.
When the cats leave the town (or home), the mice dance. (When superiors are gone the subordinates make merry.)
When the drink is in, the sense is out.
When the fire is lighted it is hard to put it out.
When the old cock crows the young one learns.
When the old hag is in danger she must run.
When the seed stops, the harrowing stops.
When the sky falls we'll all catch larks. (Strabo describes the pre-Christian belief among Celts that the sky might fall down. [See Couprie 2011:213]).
When the stomach is full, rest is pleasant. When the stomach is full, the bones crave rest.
"When the summer comes I'll build a house." This is what the ant says when he is freezing under a stone during the winter. (When summer comes he is quite comfortable, and forgets all about it. The saying is also ascribed to the fox.)
When the twig has become an old tree is not the time to bend it.
When the two ends of the candle are lighted it does not stand long.
When your hand is in the dog's mouth withdraw it gently.
When your neighbour's house is on fire, take care of your own.
Where there is smoke there is fire. (Where there is much evidence of a thing, the thing itself is likely to exist.)
Who lies with dogs rises with fleas.
Whoever the cap fits takes it. • Let him whom the cap suits wear it.
Wine pours out the truth.
Winter comes on the lazy man.
Wisdom exceeds riches.
Wisdom exceeds strength.
Without education, without manners. He who is without sound education, is also without good manners etc.
Without pressing him either too little or too much, keep a sure grip on the reins, for he is a fool who would not get value out of the horse he has on loan.
Without treasure, without friends.
Woe to her whose husband is a surly fool.
Woe to him who burns his old hnaile (cattlefold) (and has thus no reserve to fall back on if the new huaile should fail him. I.e. One should not burn one's boats.)
Woe to him who deems his opinion a certainty.
Woe to him who fails in his obligations. • He is a sorry wretch who fails to keep his bonds.
Woe to him who has a wretched house, but doubly woeful is he who has no house at all.
Woe to him who is without a wife, but doubly woeful is he who has one.
Woe to him who lets his secret (known) to a fence. • Never reveal your secret to a fence or a hedge.
Woe to him whose betrayer sits at his table.
Ye pleasant men, are ye aware of the nature of children? What we have is theirs, but what they get is not ours.
You cannot eat your bread and have it.
You can't whistle and drink at the same time.
You never had neighbours as good as boundary fences.
You will not be able to make a silk purse of a pig's ear. (You'll not be able to make a person naturally boorish and vulgar to be refined and decent.)
You won't learn to swim on the kitchen floor.
Young people, make the web of life well. [Adapted]
Your own business, do it, my man.
NOTE. Some proverbs are from The Irish Penny Journal, 10 Nov. 1832; 18 July 1840; and 1 Aug. 1840 (in Internet Archive).
Bhraonáin, Donla Uí, ed. 500 Seanfhocal - Proverbs - Refranes - Przyslów. Dublin: Cois Life, 2007.
Flanagan, Laurence. Irish Proverbs. 2nd rev. ed. Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 2001.
Gaffney, Séan, and Seamus Cashman, eds. Proverbs and Sayings of Ireland. Dublin: Wolfhound Press, 2003 (1974).
Meyer, Kuno. The Triads of Ireland. London: Williams and Norgate, 1906.
O'Donnell, James, and Brian Fitzgerald. Classic Irish Proverbs in English and Irish. Belfast: Appletree Press, 1997
O'Farrell, Padraic. Irish Proverbs and Sayings: Gems of Irish Wisdom. Cork: Mercier Press, 1980.
Ó Muirgheasa, Énrí. Seanfhocla Uladh [Ulster Proverbs]. Dublin: Connradh na Gaedhilg, 1907.
O'Rahilly, Thomas Francis. A Miscellany of Irish Proverbs. Dublin: The Talbot Press, 1922.
Toibin, Sean. Irish for All: Everyday Conversation in Irish with Imitated Pronounciation and English Translation, including Salutations, Simple Proverbs, Rhymes and Witticisms from Gaelic Firesides = Gaehilg do chách: comhrádh beirte. Dublin: The Talbot Press, 1922.
Williams, Fionnuala, comp. Irish Proverbs. Dublin: Poolbeg Press, 1992.
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