A vast amount of characteristic popular wisdom  has existed for ages amongst the Irish peasantry,  condensed in proverbial sayings that show a subtle insight into motives and conduct, with a deep knowledge of all the varied influences that stir the human heart; but though well worthy of a place in our national literature, these proverbs of the people have remained unknown to the general reader, from the fact of their being hidden away in the obscurity of the original vernacular. This hindrance, however, has now, to a great extent, been removed; for, within the last few decades, several eminent Celtic scholars have taken up the subject, and devoted both time and learning, with patient, loving zeal, to the collection and translation into English of many of those interesting examples of ancient thought — the result being that many hundred Irish proverbs have now been rescued from obscurity and made known to English literature, chiefly through the labours of such distinguished men as John O'Donovan; the Rev. Canon Ulick Burke, of St. Jarlath's, Tuam, one of the most learned Irish scholars of the age; and Robert MacAdam, of Belfast, editor of The Ulster Journal of Archaeology, whose attention was more particularly devoted to the proverbs of the North of Ireland.
National proverbs form a kind of synthesis of national character and of the moral tendencies of a race. There may be no written code amongst the peasantry of morals or manners, yet deeper truths concerning human actions, motives, and tendencies often lie at the base of the popular proverbs, than could be gathered from even the most learned and diffuse essays of the philosopher.
Irish proverbs are especially remarkable for their concise and forcible expression of truths concerning life, conduct, and action. The matured wisdom of the centuries is in them, and they bear witness to the acute vision of the ancient seers and Pileas, who could fathom the very depths of the human soul, and reveal the mysteries of life in these strong, enduring maxims of steadfast truth.
A keen sense, also, of the sad and bitter realities of human destiny is observable in them — the result of shrewd observation, shadowed by the melancholy of age and experience.
The peasants rarely speak on any subject that touches them deeply without illustrating their opinions by a proverb, uttered with the firm decision of assured conviction. Indeed, the peculiar veneration in which the Irish hold the sacred wisdom of their ancestors has given rise to the saying, "It is impossible to contradict the old word" (the proverb).
The Irish people have always believed that their Kings, Brehons, Ollamhs, and Bards were gifted with singular and peculiar intelligence, and a mystic power of reading the secrets of the heart.
Hence the sayings of these great wise men of ancient renown have passed through the mind of the people in each successive generation, and are still for ever on their lips as so many sacred maxims, to be accepted, without questioning, as undeniable truths respecting their life, words, and works; for many of these proverbs show, in a marked manner, the still ineffaceable peculiarities of Irish nature — the kindness and sensitiveness of the people, their instinctive sense of the grace of courtesy of manner, their love of distinction, their trust in good luck rather than in work, their eminently social qualities, especially the love of conversation, and the pathetic acceptance of the doom that want and poverty bring on life, "because it is the will of God."
These qualities have been connected with the Irish race throughout all history, and are as true now, in the present time, as they have been in the past. Above a hundred years ago, Lord Macartney, the great Ambassador of England to the East, thus described the native Irish: "They are active in body; bold and daring; patient of cold, hunger, and fatigue; dauntless in danger, and regardless of life when glory is in view; warm in love and friendship, quick in resentment, and implacable in hatred; generous and hospitable beyond all bounds of prudence; credulous, superstitious, and vain; talkative, disputatious, and strongly disposed to turbulence and contest. They are all fond of learning, and are endowed with excellent parts, but are usually more remarkable for liveliness of thought than accuracy of expression."
Many of these national and enduring race characteristics will be found expressed with much force and freedom in the following selections from the terse and acute sayings of ancient Irish wisdom.


True greatness knows gentleness.
When wrathful words arise a closed mouth is soothing.

Have a mouth of ivy and a heart of holly.
A silent mouth is musical.

Associate with the nobles, but be not cold to the poor and lowly.

A short visit is best, and that not too often, even to the house of a friend.

Blind should be the eyes in the abode of another.

Great minds live apart; people may meet, but the mountains and the rocks never.

A man with loud talk makes truth itself seem folly.

Much loquacity brings a man's good sense into disrepute, and by a superfluity of words, truth is obscured.

No rearing, no manners.

Tell not your complaints to him who has no pity.

Neither praise nor dispraise thyself; the well bred are always modest.

It is difficult to soothe the proud.

Every nursling as it is nursed; every web as it is woven.

Without store no friends; without rearing no manners.

A little relationship is better than much friendship.

Gentleness is better than haughtiness.
A constant guest is never welcome.
The peacemaker is never in the way.
Forsake not a friend of many years for the acquaintance of a day.

No heat like that of shame.

No pain like that of refusal.

No sorrow like the loss of friends.

No feast till there is the roast.

No galling trial till one gets married.

Praise youth, and it will advance to success.

Reputation is more enduriug than life.

Wine is pleasant, unpleasant the price.

Drinking is the brother of robbery.

Character is better than wealth.

If the head cannot bear the glory of the crown, better be without it.

Face the sun, but turn your back to the storm.

Do your work, and heed not boasting.

Without money fame is dead.

He who is up is extolled; he who is down is trampled on.

Sweet is the voice of the man who has wealth.
but the voice of the indigent man is harsh — no one heeds him.

How many mourn the want of possessions; yet the strong, the brave, and the rich, all go to the grave at last; like the poor, and the emaciated, and the infant.

God is nigher to us even than the door. God stays long, but He strikes at last.

Death is the poor man's best physician.
Many a day we shall rest in the clay.

A hound's tooth, a thorn in the hand, and a fool's retort are the three sharpest things of all.

Do not credit the buzzard, nor the raven, nor the word of a woman.

No wickeder being exists than a woman of evil temper.

The lake is not encumbered by the swan; nor the steed by the bridle ; nor the sheep by the wool; nor the man by the soul that is in him.

Conversation is the cure for every sorrow. Even contention is better than loneliness.

Bad is a bad servant, but he is better than none.

It is sad to have no friend ; sad to have unfortunate children; sad to have only a poor hut; but
sadder to have nothing good or bad.

There is nothing malicious but treachery.

Idleness is a fool's desire.

Gold is light with a fool.

A long disease does not tell a lie, it kills at last.

Do not take the thatch from your own roof to buy slates for another man's house.

The tree remains, but not the hand that planted it.

A heavy purse makes a light heart.

Better April showers than the breadth of the ocean in gold.

Never count your crops till June is over.

Autumn days come quickly, like the running of a hound upon the moor.

Send round the glass to the south, from the left to the right hand; all things should front the south.

He that spies is the one that kills.

A meeting in the sunlight is lucky, and a burying in the rain.

Winter comes fast on the lazy.

There are three without rule — a mule, a pig, and a woman.

The beginning of a ship is a board; of a kiln, a stone; of a king's reign, salutation; and the beginning of health is sleep.

Have sense, patience, and self-restraint, and no mischief will come.

Four things to be hated: A worthless hound, a slow horse, a chief without wisdom, a wife without children.

Better a good run than a long standing.

Falling is easier than rising.

One morsel of a rabbit is worth two of a cat.

Cleverness is better than strength.

Good fortune often abides with a fool.

If I am yellow, I have a fair heart.

If the day is long, night comes at last.

"Whether the sun rise late or early, the day is as God pleases.

There is no joy without affliction.

No one seeks relationship to the unfortunate.

A foot at rest meets nothing.

The day of storm is not the day for thatching.

Virtue is everlasting wealth.

Avarice is the foundation of every evil.

Wisdom excels all riches.

Shun a prying thief and a deceiver.

An empty vessel has the greatest sound.

Three good things are often thrown away: A good thing done for an old man, for an ill-natured man, or for a child; for the old man dies, the other is false, and the child forgets.

In slender currents comes good luck; in rolling torrents comes misfortune.

Misfortune follows fortune inch by inch.

God never closed one gap but He opened another.

Good begets goodness, and bad badness. Money begets money, and wealth friendship.

Gentleness is better than haughtiness; adjustment than going to law. A small house and full store, than a large house and little food.

Better to spare in time than out of time.

The son of a widow who has plenty of cattle, the foal of an old mare at grass, and the miller's dog who has always plenty of meal, are the three happiest creatures living.

Good luck is better than early rising.

It is better to be lucky than wise.

Every man has bad luck awaiting him some time or other. But leave the bad luck to the last; perchance it may never come.

Have a kind look for misery, but a frown for an enemy.

A misty winter brings a pleasant spring. A pleasant winter a misty spring.

Red in the South means rain and cold.

Red in the Bast is a sign of frost.

Red in the North rain and wind.

Red in the West sunshine and thaw.

You will live during the year, for we were just speaking of you.

There is wisdom in the raven's head.

A poem ought to be well made at first, for there is many a one to spoil it afterwards.

A man may be his own ruin. It is a wedge from itself that splits the oak-tree.

Want, slavery, scarcity of provisions, plagues, battles, conflicts, defeat in battle, inclement weather, rapine, from the unworthiness of a prince do spring.
In contradistinction to this statement, the reign of a good prince, it is asserted, brings a blessing on the land. In the time of Cormac-Mac-Art, "The world was delightful and happy, nine nuts grew on each twig, and nine sure twigs on each rod." And in the reign of Cathal-Crovh-dhearg, "The grass was so abundant that it reached above the horns of the cattle, when they lay down to rest in the field."


The ancient Druids, priests, and magi possessed many wonderful secrets. The priest, by waving of his wand, could throw a person into a deep sleep, and while under the influence of this Druidical operation, the patient could describe what was passing at a distance, and exhibit all the phenomena of clairvoyance as known to the moderns. The magi had also the power of prolonging life, and for this purpose an Irish pearl was swallowed, which rendered the swallower as youthful as when in his prime. The Tuatha-de-Danans possessed this secret, hence the tradition of their long existence secreted in caves, after their defeat by the Milesians.

The Druids believed that the moon exercised a powerful influence over the human frame, and produced a violent pulsation in the blood-vessels during the space of twenty-four hours.

It is reported that the ancient Irish used poisoned weapons, and the poison was extracted from hellebore and the berries of the yew tree.

It is believed that if any of the Irish of noble race should die abroad, the dead are so anxious to "rest in the ancestral home, that their dust flies on the winds of heaven over land and sea, blasting every green and living thing in its passage as it goes by, until it reaches the hereditary burial-ground, and there rests in peace. And this fatal and baneful rush of the dust of the dead, which blights the crops and the fruit, is called by the people, "The red wind of the hills," and is held by them in the utmost dread.

In the time of the Fenian Princes, the dead were not burned but interred in the earth, the feet to the east, the head to the west; and a cairn of stones was raised over them. Through this, a passage with doors led to the place where the dead lay. A grave of one door for a man of science; a grave of two doors for a woman; mounds over foreigners of distinction; and enclosures round those who died of the deadly plague. Thus, sex and rank were distinguished by the construction of the grave.

There was also another mode of burial for warriors. The dead were placed in a standing position, their arms and shield beside them, and a great circular cairn of earth and stones was raised over them. Thus the heroic King of Munster, slain in battle, was placed in his grave. "Mogha-Neid lies in his sepulchre, with his javelin by his shoulder, with his club which was strong in battle, with his helmet, with his sword ; long shall he be lamented with deep love, and his absence be the cause of darkest sorrow."


Ancient Cures, Charms and Usages

Main Library