The luck of the Irish: the real meaning and origin

“The luck of the Irish” is a common phrase passed across the world and has 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 ever likely 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. We all know the phrase “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 

The luck of the Irish is an old miners term.

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.

What is the origin of the phrase?

“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.

An expression of bad luck – dumb luck as opposed to good fortune

The luck of the Irish had negative connects with the famine.

Some say the term is an insult as opposed to good fortune, as it is commonly perceived. It can be used as an ironic expression of bad luck.

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, their presence was much less favourable during this time.

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.

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 instead of good fortune!

In post-war Britain, signs would be posted in B&B and boarding house windows saying, “No dogs, no blacks, no Irish.”

Leprechaun Irish luck – stemming back to Celtic mythology

The luck of the Irish is of course involved with leprechauns.
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 mythical 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.

A leprechaun is associated with a pot of gold.

Legends of these wee 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 Irish folklore, namely the legends of leprechauns, as they successfully stored their gold in a place which was impossible to reach, making them very lucky – as well as rich!

Other notable mentions

The luck of the Irish, an American film.

John Lennon: John Lennon and Yoko Ono released a song called ‘The Luck of the Irish’ in 1972. It was a protest song written in support of republicans during The Troubles.

Seamus McTiernan: He was a character in the 2001 American film about a leprechaun, The Luck of the Irish.

FAQs about the luck of the Irish

The luck of the Irish.

What are the two most popular Irish luck quotes?

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

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

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.”

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.

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