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The Irish Vernacular - Idioms and Phrases

English as Spoken in Ireland ... or: How to Make Sense of the Irish.


A shinner ... it is yer man, y'know?

A shinner ... it is yer man, y'know?

© Bernd Biege 2014

When in Ireland you will hear people speaking Irish. Occasionally at least, less than one percent of the population use the "native tongue" on a day-to-day basis. The rest use the "Irish vernacular", a local version of English. Influenced by tradition and the Irish language. And confusing for the visitor.

Here are some examples of what you might encounter:

  • Are you Okay?
    This is the universal greeting of the sales assistant or bartender. He or she is absolutely not interested in your health or well-being. The phrase translates as "I am ready to serve you, what is your desire?" The correct answer is to place your order, not to detail your ailments. Note that the phrase might be uttered in such a tone of voice that "How dare you to disturb me?" could be a valid translation too.
  • Blow-in
    A stranger or foreigner, basically anybody whose ancestors have not lived within sight of the parish church for at least ten generations.
  • Come here!
    If the person saying this is already next to you, you might feel that the concept of personal space is unknown in Ireland. Don’t worry, the phrase simply means "listen up".
  • Culchie
    An abbreviation of "agricultural" and referring to anybody born and bred outside the few cities of Ireland. Or outside of Dublin.
  • Deadly
    In everyday conversation this means "very good", like in deadly buzz (roughly "a great time").
  • Any Description of Distances, Directions and Time
    The "Irish mile" is very flexible. And time is fluid. While you may expect to cover three to four miles walking at home, this will not apply in Ireland. Especially if you have to rely on directions given by locals. They might play down the distance to avoid discouraging walkers, send the same walkers on the "scenic route" or throw in helpful hints like "turn left where the dog usually sits". Get a map.
  • Feck
    This universal qualification of anything ("the fecking yoke yer man gave me") is neither positive nor negative, it simply is. This Zen-like quality can disappear quickly, in which case the "e" is usually replaced by a "u". Expect to hear the f-word more often in short, seemingly normal conversation than in a Tarantino movie.
  • Good man yourself!
    A phrase denoting agreement or thanks and a bit of respect. Also used as a sort of non-sequitur reply to the ubiquitous greeting "A'right?" (the short form of "How are you?", see below).
  • Hole in the Wall
    Unless specifically referring to the longest pub in Ireland this phrase denotes an ATM.
  • How are you?
    Unless the person asking you is a doctor, nurse or paramedic this simply means "Hello!" Do not start any long sentences. Just reply with the same phrase or the common "And yourself?"
  • Jeanie Mac!
    An expression roughly equivalent to the quite common formula "Jesus, Mary, Joseph and all the Holy Martyrs!", avoiding to use the Lord's name in vain.
  • Knacker
    Usually this word describes a member of the traveling community. It is definitely insulting.
  • Sambo
    A sandwich and a good example of the (mainly Dublin) tendency to let words mutate into something ending with "o". Up to and including crimbo - Christmas to you and me.
  • Shinner
    Derogatory term for Republicans and Nationalists, specifically members and supporters of Sinn Fein.
  • Skanger
    All-encompassing description of Irish youths cultivating a certain look. Males will sport near-shaven heads, tracksuits, trainers, baseball caps and gold chains around their neck. Females go in for long hair, enormous hooped earrings, a bare midriff and a push-up bra.
  • Snogging
    Prolonged kissing, also known (especially in Dublin) as shifting.
  • Soft old day
    The Irish way of avoiding any mention of bad weather, even if it pouring down in force ten gales it will still be "a soft old day" (at least in the pub). It is an Irish weather thing ...
  • Sure
    Even if uttered with utmost conviction, this will always remain interpretable as meaning only "within the realms of possibility" (see also "Yes" and "No" below).
  • Take care!
    This usually means "Goodbye", unless a total stranger shouts it in your direction. In which case it may be taken literally or it's goodbye to you.
  • Take the weight of your legs
    Not a subtle hint to read up on diets but simply the offer to sit down.
  • West-Brit
    Derogatory term for any Irish citizens too fixated on British culture, traditions or political views.
  • What's the craic?
    This does not refer to the ceol agus craic but simply translates as "Any news?" or simply "Hello!"
  • Woah?
    This almost universally heard word, drawn out to last at least two seconds, is roughly translated as "Excuse me, I did not quite get that, could you please repeat what you just said?"
  • Yer Man or Woman
    Denotes a person whose name is unknown (or cannot currently be recalled) but whose identity is assumed to be known to everyone. Could lead to such hilarious exchanges as
    "Didn't I see yer man in town yesterday?"
    "That wasn't him, that was the other one ..."
  • Yes and No
    Irish does not really have a definite "yes", neither a final "no". This explains the abhorrence with which the use of these words is treated. They are avoided as far as possible. Only if pressed a clear answer might be given - the implication always being that both "yes" and "no" are in a state of flux and synonymous with "well, maybe, we'll see".
  • Yoke
    A mechanical or other implement, anything from a spade to a nuclear device.


Important note - take all explanations with a tiny grain of salt!

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