Ireland Facts: Irish Words and Meanings Explained

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Lots of modern expressions originated in old Ireland. Here's an explanation of where some of them came from, and some modern words that related to very old Gaelic words.

  • Handfasting is an ancient Celtic custom, once practiced in Ireland and Scotland, where a bride and groom came together at the start of their marriage. Their hands (their wrists, actually) were literally tied together. The term "tying the knot" as a description of getting married traces to this custom.

  • Some historians believe the song "The Twelve Days of Christmas" originated in 16th century Ireland and England. It was supposedly designed to help young Christians remember Church teachings, at a time when Catholicism was strictly outlawed in both countries. The "partridge in a pear tree" represents Jesus, the "two turtle doves" represent the old and new testaments, and the twelve days are the days between Christmas and the Epiphany. Some argue, however, that the song originated in France.

  • IRELAND FACTS: WHERE TO DRINK IN PRIVATE..."The Snug" is a small private room in older, traditional Irish pubs, often favored by ladies.

  • The term "Emerald Isle" first appeared in a poem called "Erin," written in 1795 by William Drennan.

  • "Sean-Nos" is a highly ornamental style of a capella (no instrumental accompaniment) singing that came mainly from the west Galway region, and which is still practiced by many Celtic singers today. Sean Nos translates, literally, into “old style.”

  • In the 17th century, a command to "Hang the harpers wherever found" was given by Queen Elizabeth, who wanted to extinguish all aspects of Irish culture.

  • “Hibernia” is the name ancient Romans called Ireland. It may come from the word “hibernus,” which simply translates as “wintry.” Some, however, say it comes “Ivernia,” a latin version of “Erin,” Ireland’s mythological name. The Romans never managed to make Ireland a part of their empire.

  • Irish Naming Patterns
    In case you’re wondering which relative to name your kids after, here are the traditional naming patterns from old Ireland:
    1st son: Named after father’s father / 1st daughter after mother’s mother
    2nd son: named after mother’s father / 2nd daughter after father’s mother
    3rd son: named after the father / 3rd daughter after the mother
    4th son: named after father’s eldest brother / 4th daughter after mother’s eldest sister

  • Though it’s only one of many theories, there are those who believe the term "put the kabash" on something comes from an old Irish phrase "cie bais," which means "cap of death."

  • IRELAND FACT: DEADLY CASTLES...Irish castles and town houses often have a lobby inside the front door called a “murder hole,” with an opening in the ceiling that defenders could use to shoot at or pour hot liquids onto unwanted guests.

  • The term "hillbilly" was first used in America to describe the immigrants from Northern Ireland, mostly Presbyterian, who came in the 18th century. The name had been attached to them back in Ireland since the 1600's, when southern Irish catholics started calling Protestant supporters of King William "hillbillys" or "billy boys."

  • The Phrase "by hook or by crook" allegedly comes from a military campaign by English bad guy Oliver Cromwell, who in 1649 planned to attack Waterford by taking ships around Hook Head or marching through the village of Crooke. Some say Richard DeClare, Earl of Pembroke first used the expression to describe his invasion way back in 1170. Cromwell failed, while DeClare succeeded in capturing Waterford.

  • "Fianna Fail," the name of Ireland's ruling party, means "Soldiers of Destiny" in English.

  • A jaunting car is a traditional Irish horse-drawn vehicle with two wheels, which can carry four passengers and is driven by a man called a "jarvey."

  • A “planxty” is a song composed for a specific patron.

  • "English follows the roads" (leanann an Bearla an tearr) was a popular expression in Ireland's rural west during the early 1800's. It referred to the large-scale building of new roads (and whole towns) in the countryside, which brought more English-speaking people to areas where only Irish language had been spoken previously.

  • "Beyond the pale," an expression used to describe outrageous behavior, originated in Ireland in the 14th century. The Pale was the area of Ireland under heavy British control. People living in areas outside it were considered wild and outlandish.

  • A "Slane" is a long, slim blade used for cutting turf.

  • "Black Irish" people, who have black hair and swarthy skin, are thought to descend from sailors of the Spanish Armada, who came ashore when two of their ships were wrecked off Spanish Point (County Clare) in 1588. Read "Solitude on Spanish Point

  • The word "slogan" comes from the Irish sluagh-ghairm, which means "war cry."

  • The ball used in the game of hurling is called a sliothar (slit-or). The stick players carry is called a "hurl," or "hurley" and the wide part at the top of the stick is called the "boss." Carrying the sliothar on the boss while running along is called "soloing." Read "An American Goes Hurling For Pride"

  • The common prefixes of “Mac” and “O” in Irish family names translate, respectively, into “son of...” and “grandson of...” in Gaelic.

  • The word "galore" comes from the Irish go leor, which means "enough" or "plenty."

  • The Gaelic way of saying "Merry Christmas" is "Nollaig Shona Duit." The pronounciation is "null-ig hun-a dit."

  • The rocky region in County Clare known as “The Burren” is one of few “karst” areas (a limestone area covered with caves, fissures and underground streams), so named for a similar area in Slovenia. The Burren is famous for its explosion of windflowers in springtime.

  • Until recent times, Irish farmers called a young pig a "bonnif," a term also used by farmers in Newfoundland.

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