A few weeks ago, someone asked me for some common or frequently used Irish words and phrases. She was going to be visiting Ireland soon, and she thought it would be fun to have a few words in Irish before she got there.
I must admit, I had to wrack my brain for a bit. As you know, if you’ve been following this blog, while Irish is definitely still to be found, if you know where to look for it, it’s not exactly “common” outside of the Gaeltacht.
I finally sat down and worked out a list of Irish words and phrases that most Irish people are likely to know, even if they’re not Irish speakers and have forgotten most of their school Irish.
You might think that “hello” would be more commonly recognized than “goodbye.” The thing is, “hello” is a bit more complicated than “goodbye” in Irish, with regional variations that further complicate matters.
Slán (pronounced “slahn”) is easier to remember, though not so very long ago, it came with some fairly complicated rules as well.
The literal meaning of the word is “healthy/sound.” Once upon a time, it was part of a longer phrase, go dté tú slán (guh jay too slahn), literally “may you go with health” (you’ll still hear this phrase in songs, such as the well-known “Siúl, A Rún“).
(Note: If you listen to the recording above, you’ll hear a mhuirnín – my darling — inserted into the phrase: go dté tú, a mhuirnín, slán.)
In Gaeltacht (Irish-speaking) areas, you’ll still hear vestiges of this. People will say slán leat (slahn lyat) — “health with you” — to the person who is leaving. Likewise, the one leaving might say slán agat (slahn AG-ut) — “have health” — to the person staying behind.
Generally, though, it’s all just shortened to slán, and most Irish people will recognize it.
People recognize this one even outside of Ireland. Sláinte (SLAHN-cheh) is related to slán. It means “health,” and is used as a toast.
Sometimes you’ll hear it used as part of a longer phrase: sláinte is táinte (SLAHN-cheh iss TAHN-cheh) — “health and wealth.”
Be careful, though. While sláinte is the equivalent of the English “cheers,” it doesn’t actually MEAN “cheers” — you don’t use it, for example, as a stand-in for “thanks.” But say it in a pub, and everyone will know what you mean.
This is another one that just about anyone will recognize: Fáilte (FAHL-cheh) — “welcome.” In fact, the Irish Tourism Board used to be called Bórd Fáilte.
You’ll see/hear fáilte used all over, in words and in phrases, such as Céad Míle Fáilte (kayd MEE-luh FAHL-cheh): “A Hundred Thousand Welcomes.”
Just remember…it means “welcome,” not “hello.” You can use fáilte to greet a visitor or someone you’re hosting, but not as a generic stand-in for “hi.”
The funny thing about craic (pronounced “krak”) is that it’s actually a loan word from English slang (originally spelled “crack,” but Gaelicized as craic). It’s been thoroughly adopted into Irish, however, and is used enthusiastically by both Irish speakers and non-Irish speakers.
It’s one of those words that defies a precise definition, but can generally be taken to mean “a good time.” Sometimes it’s used in a more general sense to mean “what’s happening,” as in “I’ll just walk up the street and see what all the craic is about.”
Walk past a pub, and there’s a good chance you’ll see ól, ceol, agus craic (ohl, kyohl, AG-uss krak) — “drink, music, and a good time.”
You’ll even hear your English-speaking Irish friends using it: “What’s the craic?” (what’s going on?), “The craic was mighty” (“it was a REALLY good time”), etc.
Just be careful! It’s an addictive little word, and you may find yourself using it when you get home. If you tell your friends “there was great craic at the session last night!” and they don’t happen to be Gaelophiles, they’re sure to give you a funny look (yes, this is the voice of experience talking).
Of course, there’s a lot more
Even though, sadly, most Irish people don’t speak Irish in their day-to-day lives anymore (for more on this see our post on “Why Do the Irish Speak English“), knowing a few words in Irish (or, as they say in Ireland cúpla focal (KOOP-luh FUK-ul)) it is still very much a part of the culture, and knowing a bit can greatly enhance your visit.
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