The luck of the Irish: the real meaning and origin

“The luck of the Irish” is a common phrase passed across lands and oceans to become what is known today as a standard Irish characteristic. But have you ever wondered where it comes from? 

Ireland is a small country indeed, but man does it have a big personality. Spanning generations of cultural unrest – a result of famine, oppression, civil wars, and invasions – it is surprising that the Irish collectively claim a chirpy disposition. 

In fact, the Irish are known worldwide to be some of the most friendly and accommodating people you’re likely ever to meet – we’ve even won awards for it! And, on top of all that, there’s the Irish luck. 

Yes, the Irish are a lucky bunch, they say. All know the term “the luck of the Irish”, but where, you may ask, does it come from? 

There are many possible sources for this age-old expression. Let’s take a look at some of its most likely origins!

An old mining expression – miners’ luck 

Edward T. O’Donnell outlines one of the most likely accounts that trace the root of this classic saying. 

As an Associate Professor of History at Holy Cross College and author of 1001 Things Everyone Should Know About Irish American History, we feel this reliable source knows a thing or two!

In his writings, O’Donnell outlines the meaning of the term. He writes, “During the silver and gold rush years in the second half of the 19th century, a number of the most famous and successful miners were of Irish and Irish-American birth.

“Over time this association of the Irish with mining fortunes led to the expression ‘luck of the Irish.’ Of course, it carried with it a certain tone of derision, as if to say, only by sheer luck, as opposed to brains, could these fools succeed.”

Before that, the word ‘luck’ originated from Middle Dutch and is believed to have been adopted into English as a gambling term in the 15th century.

“No dogs, no Irish” – dumb luck opposed to good fortune

Credit: Instagram / @toby_tobbita

Some say the term is an insult opposed to extreme good fortune, as it is commonly perceived. 

Indeed, during the famine in Ireland (1845 – 1849) there was a mass exodus from the Emerald Isle. And, although today the Irish people are considered to be a welcomed bunch, during this time their presence was much less favourable.

Flocking to countries such as the United States on “coffin ships” – a colloquial term for the tall ships which transported famished people out of the country – other nationalities considered them diseased and plague-ridden.

Famine ships transported Irish people from hunger, it was the luck of the Irish people believed made them survive more.

During this time, the Irish were not ideal candidates for employment or as tenants. If they were to succeed in another country, it was suggested to be a result of dumb luck as opposed to good fortune!

Even as late as the 1950s, boarding houses in London would post in their windows “No dogs, no Irish.”

Leprechaun Irish luck – stemming back to Celtic mythology

Leprechaun luck is a big part of why people think the luck of the Irish is a common phrase.
Credit: Facebook / @nationalleprechaunhunt

Ireland is a mystical country, and its dynamic ties to Celtic mythology significantly shape its cultural identity. 

Great myths, legends, tall tales, and fables citing mythic creatures are forever burned in the minds of those raised on the Emerald Isle. Given this, it is safe to say that Irish mythology just may play a role in tracing the term.

Many people across the globe believe that the classic expression actually refers to Ireland’s mythical mascot: the leprechaun

The luck of the Irish is connected to Leprechauns and the mythology behind them.
Credit: @luckycharms / Instagram

Legends of these wee little people living on the island of Ireland thrive in abundance. Tales usually involve a fairy creature in the form of a mischievous green-clad man who spends his time protecting his pot of gold that lies at the end of a rainbow.

Leprechauns are often depicted with a beard and a hat. They are told to be shoemakers and menders with a flair for pranks and playfulness. 

It could be considered that the term “the luck of the Irish” derives from fairytale folklore, namely the legends of leprechauns, as they successfully stored their gold in a place which is impossible to reach, making them very lucky – as well as rich! 

FAQs about the Luck of the Irish

“Wherever you go, whatever you do, may the luck of the Irish be there with you!”

“May the luck of the Irish lead to the happiest heights and the highway you travel be lined with green lights.”

Is ‘The Luck of the Irish’ a song by John Lennon?

Yes, John Lennon and Yoko Ono released a song called ‘The Luck of the Irish’ in 1972 on their album Some Time in New York City.

Is there a ‘luck of the Irish’ movie?

There are in fact two films named The Luck of the Irish. The first in 1948 is a comedy/romance starring Tyrone Power and Anne Baxter.

The second in 2001 is a Disney film about a teenage basketball player battling with an evil leprechaun named Seamus McTiernen.

What is Jonathan Swift’s “luck of the Irish” quote?

It is believed that Johnathon Swift – the Irish satirist – said, “I don’t really like the term ‘luck of the Irish’ because the luck of the Irish is, historically speaking, f**king terrible.”

Is ‘luck of the Irish’ offensive?

While it is believed that the statement about Irish luck may have originated as an offensive term about Irish people in America becoming successful by sheer luck, rather than hard work or talent, most Irish people today will not find this phrase offensive.

What is the origin of ‘luck of the Irish’?

The term is believed to have originated during the Gold Rush in the United States, when a number of the most successful miners were Irish or of Irish-American birth.

How do you use ‘luck of the Irish’ in a sentence?

If you’re with an Irish person and something good happens to them – for example, they win something – you may say it was down to the “luck of the Irish”!

Where can I learn more about the ‘luck of the Irish’?

We have lots of articles that are perfect if you want to learn more about mythical Ireland and the “luck of the Irish” – just read on!

If you want to learn more, you will find these articles really helpful:

5 things that prove The Luck Of The Irish is real

The 10 most famous myths and legends from Irish folklore

A beginner’s guide to leprechauns: history, origins, and legacy

Everything you need to know about the Irish leprechaun

10 things you never knew about leprechauns

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