Although you don’t hear them as much now, Irish proverbs and old Irish sayings were used frequently while I was growing up in Ireland.
Some, like ‘A silent mouth is sweet to hear’, would provide words of wisdom during challenging times.
Other famous Irish proverbs, like ‘Broken Irish is better than clever English’, take a little figuring out before their meaning hits home.
Below, you’ll find a collection of Irish quotes that I’ve gathered up over the years along with what they mean. Enjoy!
Old Irish proverbs and famous Irish sayings
Words of Irish wisdom can be a little hard to get your head around the first time you read them, so be patient.
Many of the famous Irish sayings below can be found translated into Irish in our Gaelic sayings guide.
1. As old as Methuselah’s cat
The Irish proverb “As old as Methuselah’s cat” is used to describe something/someone that is very old.
Methuselah is a figure from the Bible who was known for his exceptionally long lifespan.
If someone says, “That jumper you have on ya is as old as Mathusalem’s cat,” they are alluding to the fact that your jumper is very, very old.
2. The longest way around is the shortest way home
Next is one of many Irish sayings that’ll be familiar to fans of James Joyce. In particular, his book ‘Ulysses’.
The phrase “The longest way round is the shortest way home” is an Irish proverb that suggests that, sometimes, taking a more indirect route to achieve a goal can actually be more efficient in the long run.
3. Never scald your lips with another man’s porridge
“Never scald your lips with another man’s porridge” can be interpreted in a couple of different ways.
The first interpretation is that it’s advising the listener that they shouldn’t get involved in another persons affairs.
The second interpretation of this old Irish proverb is that it’s a warning against having an affair with another man’s wife.
4. You can’t make a silk purse out of a sows ear
There are many Irish sayings that would ‘cut ya’ as we’d say in Ireland. In other words, they are used to describe a person in a less than positive way (see our Irish insults guide for more like this!).
“You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear” is a way of saying that you can’t turn some that’s of poor quality (or bad in nature) into something that’s high quality (or good in nature).
5. As many corners as a bag of turf
One of many Irish proverbs that you won’t hear too often, “As many corners as a bag of turf” can be used to describe a person or thing that is of an irregular shape.
For example, “Did you see the state of the cake he made your mother? It has more corners than a bag of turf”!
6. It would fit Fionn Mac Cumhaill
In one myth, he was described as a giant. The Irish proverb “It would fit Fionn Mac Cumhaill” refers to something being very big .
7. Many a good tree grew on shallow ground
One of the more meaningful Irish sayings in this guide, “Many a good tree grew on shallow ground” alludes to the fact that it doesn’t matter where someone is from.
This Irish proverb mentions a “Good tree” i.e. a great person and “Shallow ground” i.e. a less than desirable place. As a whole, it means that it doesn’t matter where someone got their start in life, they can still be brilliant .
8. As awkard as a pig in a parlour
Another of the funny Irish sayings is the expression “He’s as awkward as a pig in a parlour”.
Pigs are generally not the most graceful of creatures and they’re used to big open spaces. This is used to describe someone that’s acting awkwardly .
9. Time and patience brings a snail to Cork
I first heard an old uncle from Roscommon use the Irish proverb “Time and patience brings a snail to Cork”, and it made everyone sat around the table raise an eyebrow.
According to himself, it’s a saying that acts as a reminder that the path of a goal or a desired location isn’t always smooth and the journey isn’t always fast – time and patience is required.
10. Hunger is good sauce
“Hunger is good sauce” is one of the more unusual Irish sayings, and there are a couple of ways to interpret it.
The first is the most obvious – hunger will make anything taste that bit better. No surprises there.
The second is that having a want that’s driven by a physical need makes something all the more enjoyable, similar to “Absense makes the heart grow fonder”.
11. All his geese are swans
The old Irish saying “All his geese are swans” is generally used to describe someone that has a tendency to exaggerate.
It implies that a person is describing themself or something they have done or have in their possesion to be far grander than the reality.
12. No mornings sun lasts all day
While there are some funny Irish sayings, there as just as many that can hit you with a clatter and make you stop and think.
“No mornings sun lasts all day” is an Irish proverb used to remind the listener that all good things come to an end, so enjoy them while they last.
13. He’d drink Lough Erin and the Grand Canal
You’ll find a fair few Irish sayings in this guide that have a theme of drink, which is probably no great surprise.
Lough Erne is a large lake in Northern Ireland whole the Grand Canal is a waterway in Ireland.
The Irish proverb “He’d drink Lough Erin and the Grand Canal” is used to describe someone that’s too fond of drinking.
14. Many a ship is lost within sight of the harbour
Another of the Irish proverbs with a fine bit of advice behind it, this phrase reminds the listener to not count their chickens before they’ve hatched.
“Many a ship is lost within sight of the harbour” conveys the fact that, just because the end/the goal is in sight doesn’t mean the desired outcome is guarenteed.
15. It is not a fish until it is on the bank
The next of our Irish sayings is similar to the last in that it reminds the listener that nothing is certain until the outcome has been realised.
“It is not a fish until it is on the bank” conjures up an image of a fisherman with what they think is a great big salmon at the end of their line.
However, when they get it out of the water they realise that it is actually a kettle…
16. An old dog for a hard road
The Irish proverb “An old dog for a hard road” alludes to the fact that experience reigns supreme during difficult times/when up against difficult situations.
In this Irish saying, the “old dog” is the experienced person. It’s due to the experience that they have ammassed over the years that they are able to tackle the tricky or tough task/situation.
17. I knew him since his boots cost fourpence
One of the more obvious Irish sayings, “I knew him since his boots cost fourpence” is used to describe someone that you knew since they were very young.
The rising scale of footwear prices is used as a metaphor for the person in questions age.
18. Wilful waste makes woeful want
An old Irish proverb that’s very applicable to many people in 2023 is the expression “Wilful waste makes woeful want”.
This is one of numerous Irish sayings that describes the consequence of wastefulness and extravagance.
It alludes to the fact that deliberately squandering something can often lead to want in the future.
19. As crooked as the hind leg of a dog
The Irish phrase “As crooked as the hind leg of a dog” is a colorful way of describing something that is of an odd shape or a person that operates in a shady manner.
The first interpretation is clear – the hind leg of a dog sits at an angle. I.e. whatever you’re describing is crooked/bent.
The second is that “crooked” is Irish slang for someone behaving in a shady/dubious manner.
20. Long fair long foul
“Long fair long foul” is one of the less-common Irish sayings and it’s used to describe the often awful weather in Ireland.
It means that if we have a long spell of decent weather, it’s likely we’ll have a long spell of bad weather to follow it.
21. A hole is more honorable than a patch
The slightly unusual Irish saying “A hole is more honorable than a patch” is all above the beauty of originality.
It means that it’s often better to leave something as it is, rather than try and fix its flaw. It’s sometimes used as a way of encouraging someone to forget an imperfection.
22. Building castles in the air
If you’ve ever met a person that’s big on fantasising or who often drums up colourful situations in their head that will likely never materialise, this Irish proverb is for you.
The expression “Building castles in the air” describes someone that daydreams, fantasies, or creates elaborate and unrealistic plans.
23. You never miss the water till the well has run dry
Next is another of the Irish proverbs that reminds the listener that they’ll only miss something when it’s gone.
The phrase “You never miss the water till the well has run dry” means that some people often only fully appreciate or value something when they no longer have it.
24. A friend’s eye is a good mirror
Another of my favourite Irish sayings is the expression “A friend’s eye is a good mirror”, as it couldn’t be more true.
A real friend can give you good, honest feedback on a situation, regardless of whether it’s something you did or a if it’s a feature of your person.
25. The older the fiddle, the sweeter the tune
Similar to the “The older the grape the sweeter the wine”, this is one of several old Irish proverbs that has many different forms.
The expression “The older the fiddle, the sweeter the tune” is a way of saying that, as people age, they often become wiser.
26. The truth never choked a man
Another of my favourite Irish sayings, this one is used to convey that telling the truth doesn’t hurt.
The phrase “The truth never choked a man” explains that telling the truth, no matter how hard it may be, won’t hurt you.
27. A blind man is a bad judge of colour
It’s often the case that a person judges someone or something without ever experiencing it.
For example, a person might say they dislike someone, despite having never met them.
The phrase “A blind man is a bad judge of colour” means that someone who hasn’t met someone/experienced something can’t give an accurate impression of them/it.
28. Never buy through your ears but through your eyes
Another of the Irish proverbs that advises caution against hearsay, this one suggests that you shouldn’t rely on second-hand information.
The expression “Never buy through your ears but through your eyes” recommends that the listener doesn’t buy something or judge someone/something based on what they hear – they should experience it for themselves and then decide.
29. Don’t sell your hen on a wet day
One of many Irish sayings with a farming theme, this expression suggests that you shouldn’t make big decisions during unfavourable circumstances.
The “wet day” symbolises bad times/situations while the “hen” symbolises something valuable. It alludes to the fact that you shouldn’t act irrationally when things seem to be taking a turn for the worst.
30. It’s often a person’s mouth breaks his nose
Next up is one of my favourite Irish sayings and it’s used as a way of saying that the things a person says can land them in a volatile situation.
The expression “It’s often a person’s mouth breaks his nose” is a figurative way of saying that people who either talk too much, get involved in other people’s business or talk none-sense can lead themselves into less than desirable situations.
31. It is too late to spare when all is spent
As you’ll now be aware, there are many Irish proverbs that recommend the listener to be conservative and to avoid waste.
The expression “It is too late to spare when all is spent” conveys the idea that you can’t start saving/sparing something after heavily depleting it.
32. Cows from over the sea have long horns
Now, there are several interpretations to this old Irish saying, so I’ll give you the one that I’ve heard the most while growing up in Ireland.
We often heard the phrase “Cows from over the sea have long horns” used when a person was talking about how great something in a far off place was, the thought being that, because something was in some cool far-off land, it was somehow superior.
33. May the saddest day of your future be no worse than the happiest day of your past
The expression “May the saddest day of your future be no worse than the happiest day of your past” is a wish for someone’s future.
It offers hope that the worst day of your future is no worse than the happiest day you experienced to that point.
34. The full person does not understand the needs of the hungry
The Irish proverb “The full person does not understand the needs of the hungry” can have two different intrepreations.
The first is the obvious one – if you’ve never been hungry, you can’t understand what starvation feels like.
The second is that, if you’ve never been in a certain situation, you can never truly emphasise with a person that has.
35. An empty sack cannot stand
Now, this is one of the more unusual Irish sayings, and I’ve heard it used in several different ways, the most common of which was to describe a person who was doing manual labour and who was in need of a break.
Metaphorically, the “empty sack” represents the person – they are tired and in need of some food and water as, without rest and sustenance, they’d fall over with tiredness and hunger.
36. A silent mouth is sweet to hear
The expression “A silent mouth is sweet to hear” suggests that silence is golden as talk/conversation can do more harm than good.
For example, a person might be in a bad situation – they’ve been getting unwanted advice from all of their family, and it has them stressed.
As a friend, sitting and listening to their problem might be better than talking/giving advice.
37. Two-thirds of help is to give courage
This is one of several Irish sayings that tends to be used in motivational posts across the web, and for good reason.
“Two-thirds of help is to give courage” emphasises how important it is to give a personal emotional support and encouragement when they are facing a problem.
38. It is not the noisiest who bears most or labours hardest
One of the Irish proverbs that should be stuck up in offices around the world, the expression “It is not the noisiest who bears most or labours hardest” is clear.
It means that the loudest person in the room is generally not the hardest working, despite the fact that their vocalness might lead some people to believe otherwise.
39. Broken Irish is better than clever English
People can often misinterpret this Irish proverb, thinking that it is in some way political, which it isn’t.
“Broken Irish is better than clever English” suggests that it’s better to try to speak ones native language, or the native language of a country that you’re visiting, rather than reverting to English/your own language.
The listener will almost always appreciate your effort.
40. Put silk on a goat and it is still a goat
Another of the funny Irish sayings, the expression “Put silk on a goat and it is still a goat” alludes to to the fact that changing how something looks on the outside doesn’t change what lies beneath.
For example, let’s say you have an old rusty car that barely drives. You could paint it red and give it new wheels, but the engine would still be wrecked.
41. Better one good thing that is, than two good things that were
Another Irish idiom that tells the listener to appreciate what they have, the phrase “Better one good thing that is, than two good things that were” can be a bit of a tongue twister.
It suggests that you should appreciate the thing you have, whether it be health or a job, and not to be focusing on things you no longer have.
42. When the drop is inside the sense is outside
The next of our Irish sayings that warns about the perils of drinking Irish whiskey is one that warns what happens when drink is being consumed.
Usually used when something negative has happened during a situation when a person was drinking, it means that, when someone/people are drinking, all common sense leaves the situation.
43. That which is not necessary is pleasant
The Irish proverb “That which is not necessary is pleasant” suggests that people can often get enjoyment from non-essential tasks.
For example, we as humans often like to indulge in extravagance that, while not necessary to our survival, is enjoyable none the less.
44. He’d curse the face off a map.
One of the handful of funny Irish sayings in this guide, the phrase “He’d curse the face off a map” is a way of describing a person that uses curses regularly when talking.
There are a hundred and one Irish curses out there and many of them are used as part of everyday life here in Ireland.
45. You have a tongue that would pick a lock
If you know a person that has the ability to wrangle themselves out of certain situations or convince people easily, this old Irish proverb will be suitable
The phrase “You have a tongue that would pick a lock” suggests someone is persuasive, skilled at manipulation or has the ability to convince others.
46. Talk of the devil, and he will appear
Now, this is one of several Irish sayings that may not have originated in Ireland, but that is used here very frequently.
The phrase “Talk of the devil, and he will appear” is an Irish idiom that suggests that when you mention someone or something, usually in a negative context, they’ll coincidentally appear.
47. A cabin with plenty of food is better than a hungry castle
It’s likely that there’ll be few Irish sayings in this guide that’ll make you stop and think as much as this one.
The expression “A cabin with plenty of food is better than a hungry castle” suggests that basic needs, like food and a roof over your head, are all you really need.
You often hear of people living extravagant lives while undertaking extreme levels of debt. Opt for practical over luxury.
48. A good start is half the work
The Irish proverb “A good start is half the work” emphasises the importance of beginning a task on the right foot.
It suggests that, by starting in a favourable manner, you’ll have an easier path ahead and the task will be easier on the whole.
It might refer to someone taking more time to plan before setting off on a trip, or getting a car serviced before a long journey.
49. May today be better than yesterday, but, not as good as tomorrow
Next is one you’ll often see used as an Irish drinking toast, as it wishes the listener good fortune and prosperity.
The phrase “May today be better than yesterday, but not as good as tomorrow” is an optimistic expression that wishes the listener a great day today and a better tomorrow.
50. Tis a folly to be wise where ignorance is bliss
This is one of several Irish proverbs that you’ll likely need to read a few times before it makes any sense (at least I did, anyway!).
The phrase “Tis a folly to be wise where ignorance is bliss” suggests that there are some situations where you’re better off knowing nothing, as you’ll be happier that way than if you knew the real story.
51. Hindsight is the best insight to foresight
It’s easy to have an experience, whether it be good or bad, and not learn anything from it.
The Irish saying “Hindsight is the best insight to foresight” suggests that the listener should lean on past experiences, gain insight from them, and use those learnings to help them in the future.
52. May you live as long as you want, and never want as long as you live
Arguably one of the most famous Irish wedding blessings, this is often used as an Irish wedding toast, due to its sentiment.
The expression “May you live as long as you want, and never want as long as you live” offers well wishes for a long and comfortable life.
53. Any man can lose his hat in a fairy wind
One of the more unusual Irish idioms, “Any man can lose his hat in a fairy wind” suggests that unexpected events and situations can happen to the best of us.
Just as a hat can be blown away during an unexpected gust of wind, a situation that you didn’t expect/for-see can come along and wreck the best made plans.
52. A new broom sweeps clean, but an old broom knows the corners
Another one that emphasises the importance of experience gained over time, the “new broom” in this instance is new and shiny and does the job.
However, the “old broom”, with its vast experience, knows the nuances and secrets that one only learns with time and dedication.
53. A good run is better than a bad stand
One of the few Irish proverbs for promoting risk, this saying hints that you’re often better off taking action (“a good run”) even if the outcome is uncertain.
The reason for this is that you’re often better off taking action instead of doing nothing (the “bad stand”).
54. The day will come when the cow will have use for her tail
Another slightly strange one, “The day will come when the cow will have use for her tail” implies that something that may seem unnecessary or useless may eventually be needed.
There are often things in life, both personal and work, that we might think about getting rid of. However, despite how insignificant they may seem, there may come a time when they’re needed.
55. It’s better to pay the butcher than the doctor
Another of the Irish sayings that’s very appropriate for a society that often prioritises convenient foods over nutritious foods is this one.
The expression “It’s better to pay the butcher than the doctor” suggests that you’re better off investing in a good diet now, rather than eating crap and having to visit the doctor to treat problems brought on by bad food later in life.
56. The slow horse reaches the mill
There are a handful of Irish sayings that suggest that the quickest way to reach a desired destination, is to take is nice and steady.
The expression “The slow horse reaches the mill” conveys the idea that persistence and determination pave a better path to success when compared to trying to get to the finish line as fast as possible.
57. Good luck comes in slender currents, misfortune in a rolling tides
There are a number of ways to interpret that Irish proverb “Good luck comes in slender currents, misfortune in rolling tides”.
The first is that it warns the listener that good luck doesn’t come around often, while bad luck does.
The second is that it tells the listener that bad luck/experience can often be more common than good, so appreciate the good times when you have them.
58. Complain that you have no shoes until you meet a man who has no feet
Although I heard various of Irish sayings like this one while growing up in Dublin, I’ve also heard it used in the UK and versions in the US, too.
The expression “Complain that you have no shoes until you meet a man who has no feet” encourages the listener to be grateful for what they have, as there is always someone worse off.
59. Lose an hour in the morning you’ll be looking for it all day
One of several old Irish proverbs that emphasises the importance of a good start to the morning is this one.
The saying “Lose an hour in the morning, you’ll be looking for it all day” alludes to the fact that if you don’t start the morning right, and on time, you’ll be chasing your tail for the rest of the day.
What famous Irish sayings have we missed?
I’ve no doubt that there are plenty of famous Irish sayings about life and beyond that we’ve missed in this guide.
If you have any favourite famous Irish quotes, please let us know in the comments below.
FAQs about old Irish proverbs
We’ve had a lot of questions over the years asking about everything from ‘What are some Irish words of wisdom?’ to ‘What are some Irish quotes about life?’.
In the section below, we’ve popped in the most FAQs that we’ve received. If you have a question that we haven’t tackled, ask away in the comments section below.
What are the classic Irish proverbs?
There are many old Irish proverbs and sayings that have stood the test of time, like ‘The slow horse reaches the mill’, ‘Put silk on a goat and it is still a goat’, ‘A friend’s eye is a good mirror’ and ‘An old dog for a hard road’.
What is a famous Irish quote?
One of the more famous Irish sayings goes; “You never miss the water till the well has run dry”. It means that you will often only fully appreciate or value something when you no longer have it.
Keith O’Hara has lived in Ireland for 34 years and has spent most of the last 10 years creating what is now The Irish Road Trip guide. Over the years, the website has published thousands of meticulously researched Ireland travel guides, welcoming 30 million+ visitors along the way. In 2022, the Irish Road Trip team published the world’s largest collection of Irish Road Trip itineraries. Keith lives in Dublin with his dog Toby and finds writing in the 3rd person minus craic altogether.