3 Phrases for St. Patrick’s Day … and 1 to Avoid

Faith and begorrah, we have Irish phrases for St. Patrick's Day!

Samantha Enslen, Writing for
5-minute read

St. Patrick’s Day is coming up on March 17. With that in mind, today we’re going to talk about three phrases you’re likely to hear on that holiday.

Who was St. Patrick?

Before we dive in, here’s a refresher on St. Patrick. His life was pretty eventful. He was born in Great Britain in the 5th century and then kidnapped as a child and enslaved by Irish raiders. He escaped back to his home country after six years.

Later, as an adult, he dreamed that a group of Irishmen were calling him back to their land. Believing he’d received a message from God, he returned to Ireland as a one-man missionary, spreading word of the Christian faith across the pagan island and baptizing people left and right. 

Legends surround his stay there. He’s best known for having driven all the snakes out of Ireland (which is probably a metaphor for driving out the druids). He’s also said to have raised 33 people from the dead, some of whom had been buried for years.

Partly due to this legend, shamrocks have become the national flower of Ireland, and are symbolic of all things Irish, especially St. Patrick’s Day.

He’s even said to have placed a curse on an Irish clan who didn’t take kindly to his promotion of a new deity. Their spirit animal was a wolf, and they howled at Patrick when he came close. Patrick retaliated. The legends say he put a curse on them that turned one couple, every seven years, into wolves—wolves that spoke like humans and craved human flesh. You could say he turned them into werewolves.

On a more peaceful note, St. Patrick is also supposed to have illustrated the Holy Trinity of Christianity by using a shamrock, showing its three leaves growing from a single stem. Partly due to this legend, shamrocks have become the national flower of Ireland, and are symbolic of all things Irish, especially St. Patrick’s Day.

Now that you know who St. Patrick is, let’s get back to words you might hear on this holiday. We’ll start with “Begorrah.”

What does 'begorrah' mean?

Begorrah is a euphemism for the phrase “by God.” You sometimes hear it in the phrase, “faith and begorrah.” It’s the Irish equivalent of an American saying, “by golly” or “by gosh.”

Its first recorded use was 1839. An English newspaper published in 1885 made fun of the word, suggesting that the Prince of Wales, when visiting Ireland, should familiarize himself with Irish slang such as “arrah,”’ “begorra,” “be jabers,” and “spalpeen.” 

“Arrah,” by the way, is an expression of disbelief. “Be jabbers” means “by Jesus.” And a “spalpeen” is a young boy.

What does ‘Erin go Bragh’ Mean?

Erin go Bragh is the Anglicized version of the Gaelic Éire go Brách, spelled with a “ch” at the end rather than a “gh.”  It means “Ireland forever,” with the literal translation being “Ireland till doomsday” or “Ireland until the end of time.” We don’t know when this phrase was first used, but it was a rallying cry during the Irish Rebellion of 1798 against British rule, adorning the flags of the Irish forces. 

After just three months of fighting, the British were victorious, tens of thousands of Irishmen were dead, and the Irish Parliament abolished. Ireland remained, but it was ruled directly from London until 1922. 

What does 'sláinte' mean?

On a more cheerful note, let’s all say this word together: "sláinte!" "Sláinte" is a toast meaning “health.” You can respond with “sláinte agad-sa,” meaning, “to your health as well,” or “back atcha.”

"Sláinte" comes from the Old Gaelic word “slan,” meaning healthy or whole. It’s related to the Latin word for health, “salvus,” and the German word for blessed, “selig.” 

Toasting before drinking, by the way, is a centuries-old custom. In ancient Greece, it was customary to raise your glass to the sky, deliberately spill some of your drink, pray with arms and cup raised, and then, and only then, take your first sip. The gods watching from Mount Olympus considered the spilled wine an offering.

In 17th century Ireland, toasting took the form of a one-on-one drinking challenge. The ritual dictated that the toaster “sups up his breath, turns the bottom of his cup upward … and gives the cup a phillip to make it twange.” In other words, he has to drain his cup. The toastee then had to do the same thing … over and over, every time he was toasted.

This kind of sláinte probably isn’t good for your health.

Is “Top of the morning to you” an Irish saying?

One phrase you might want to avoid, especially if you’re talking to an Irish person, is “top o’ the morning to you!” 

This phrase was probably in use at one time in Ireland. The Oxford English Dictionary describes it as “an Irish morning greeting” and includes two citations from the mid-1800s. And a handbook to Irish English, published in 1910, notes that "'The top of the morning to you' is used everywhere [in Ireland], North and South."

However, the phrase is archaic now; nobody uses it anymore. Assuming that Irish people greet each other this way is like thinking that Americans start the day with a hearty, “howdy, pardner.” Or that British folk greet each other with a “pip, pip, cheerio!” 

The phrases are stereotypes, more frequently heard in comedy skits and bad movies than in real life. 

To conclude, “Beannachtaí na Féile Pádraig ort!” — in other words, “May the blessing of St. Patrick’s Day be on you.”

Samantha Enslen runs Dragonfly Editorial. You can find her at @dragonflyedit.

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Carey, Stan. Top of the morning to yourself. Macmillan Dictionary Blog. (Accessed February 21, 2019)

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Encyclopedia Britannica. Irish Rebellion, St. Patrick. (Accessed February 21, 2019)

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About the Author

Samantha Enslen, Writing for Grammar Girl

Samantha Enslen is an award-winning writer who has worked in publishing for more than 20 years. She runs Dragonfly Editorial, an agency that provides copywriting, editing, and design for scientific, medical, technical, and corporate materials. Sam is the vice president of ACES, The Society for Editing, and is the managing editor of Tracking Changes, ACES' quarterly journal.