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What is the Luck of the Irish?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 23, 2024
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The luck of the Irish is a peculiar phrase that may have multiple meanings. There is little agreement on origins of this idiom, and some suggest it simply means that the Irish are inherently lucky, and seem to be able to land on their feet when bad circumstances occur. Others trace origin of the phrase to the US where, especially during the exploration for gold in the west, there were a high number of Irish people who got lucky, and found their “pot o’ gold” in the gold fields of California, or were equally prosperous in silver mining.

There are others who believe that luck in this phrase is truly not the right word, especially if it means good luck. A better term might be fortune, which can be either good or bad. Certainly, Irish history attests to plenty of times of ill fortune, and for as many men who may have found a few nuggets of gold buried in California, there were more who fought prejudice against Irish and especially Catholicism in the US and in their homeland. The Irish have lived in land that was taken from them, occupied by the British, the Vikings, and other conquerors. They’ve survived famines, war, starvation, and prejudice, and these are not fortunate things.

A certain wistfulness occurs when some people use the phrase. From a historical perspective, there are certainly incidences of extremely bad luck, of difficult times, and of histories that would make the heart weep. It could just as easily be said that the luck of the Irish relates to poor fortune, bad times, and centuries of losses. A look into Irish poetry or writing often focuses on tragedy, and in some writings, it is these multiple tragedies that are held close to the heart and become an essential part of being Irish.

Less emotional definitions of the phrase exist as well. It’s well known that there are many native superstitions in Ireland, things not totally eradicated from a past history that predates the advent of Catholicism. Some of the earlier Celtic traditions were reinterpreted through the Catholic lens, or were simply allowed to persist. There are many beliefs concerning behaviors that can bring good or bad luck in lots of different circumstances. Luck of the Irish then, may be a reference to many Irish beliefs concerning it and have little to do with the vast sweep of a tragic Irish history.

Language & Humanities is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Language & Humanities contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By anon991096 — On May 26, 2015

Nearby Irish says, the luck of the Irish reminds us Irish, we are of a special luck, and to always be a watching for it.

By anon321252 — On Feb 21, 2013

No matter where you are geographically, there are probably some Irish genes nearby. That has a lot to do with migration, and that is saying it very nicely. From the Caesars of ancient Rome through some insane sociopath Christian kings, to Cromwell, the Irish people have seen it all.

The druids who survived Saint Patrick's tree felling and genocide went somewhere, and the slaves in Australia bred and migrated through Southeast Asia. The slaves in the Caribbean, bred and migrated, and especially in the USA, where some

Irish slaves were not freed until Abraham Lincoln outlawed slavery in the USA. That's a fact.

North, south, east, west -- we are everyone. There are Irish slaves who would have earned their freedom by fighting and surviving many wars, from medieval times to the Mexican American war, and the Irish always had deserters that left the army of the oppressors and fought for the underdog, just for a chance to do right. These people are heroes. Having a soul that got tortured for a thousand years does something to you and your heart. But we're still here, and we still love with our big Irish hearts

If Irish history teaches us anything, it is that we are some of the most unbreakable people on the planet, and that we will fight and die for a chance to do what's right. That is something to be proud of. But if we do have luck, it is as good as it is bad.

By anon279110 — On Jul 11, 2012

The phrase originated in America. There were Irish in America from the early days, however they arrived in huge numbers in the late 19th Century. They had been forced out of their own country and arrived poor and sick in the U.S. They were discriminated against and lived in squalor. Yet in a couple of generations they had, in the main, become hugely successful – in education, literary affairs, politics, business, construction and so on. I think that the ‘luck of the Irish’ has undertones that relate to both sides of this coin.

By amypollick — On Jun 15, 2012

It is so odd how the Irish were treated, depending on where they came to in the U.S. For all our other faults, in the South, the Irish were always welcomed, and fully 80 percent of all native Southerners can trace their ancestry back to Ireland -- and they do so with pride. Being Irish was never a problem in the South.

By anon274874 — On Jun 14, 2012

Actually, anon170803 has it the closest. When they were first coming to America in floods, they were looked down upon more than any other bloodline, including Africans/blacks, Chinese and any foreigners that came en masse, and as such, discrimination popped up. They were greatly segregated into their own terrible living conditions, diners, stores, etc. You name it, they were dealing with it. It was a term of dismissal of the bad luck they were receiving, and was coined by other races/ethnicities/backgrounds in New York when things didn't quite go so well. "I lost my job today and can't feed the family. Must be the luck of the Irish."

Then, as time went by, America forgot the dark roots, something they were almost as good as Germany at doing, and the term started to take on new definition, since Irish was almost a desirable thing to trace back to. They were able to hold their liquor (sometimes), had a hard-working background, strong religious upbringing. They went from poverty levels to damn near owning Boston. Joking on the last bit, just a little, but the rest is true, and needed adding to anon170803's very accurate comment.

By anon272797 — On Jun 03, 2012

The luck of the Irish is bad luck.

By anon170803 — On Apr 27, 2011

The luck of the Irish does owe its origin to the U.S.A. When they arrived, they were very disliked, treated badly, despised and hated. When the Irish had any kind of success most Americans at the time didn't think the Irish were capable such successes, so they called it luck. Hence the term "Luck of the Irish".

By anon160984 — On Mar 17, 2011

"Luck" is only a simple word for all of the difficulties that the Irish have endured. Now to have luck means that nothing is too great to bear!

By anon160930 — On Mar 17, 2011

the luck of the irish is, in fact, bad luck. The term is ironic in nature. Anon 155461 is correct in that if it wasn't for the irish's bad luck, they'd have no luck. the irish are an unfortunate group in history, so the term is ironic and means bad luck.

By anon155461 — On Feb 23, 2011

I thought the luck of the Irish was a phrase of irony. This makes much more sense than the phrase referring to good luck because back when the Irish migrated to America they had a difficult time getting jobs. Even rather small jobs were hard to get because they were looked at as different with their accents.

By anon79904 — On Apr 25, 2010

I had always thought that the "Luck of the Irish" meant, without the bad luck you had no luck at all.

But over the years I have come to realize that the "Luck of the Irish" really means to be lucky at heart, from the support that is given through strong friend and family relations. It sees us through the good times and holds us together through the rough times. That truly is the "Pot of Gold" at the end of the rainbow.

Kelly V of Ontario Canada

By breakofday — On Mar 07, 2010

I had always thought of it as meaning good luck. This article changed my mind though. You hear the word luck and your brain automatically wants to think good luck, like gold and riches.

The Irish definitely have a history filled with strife and while "bad" luck doesn't exactly fit, ill fortune does.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Language & Humanities contributor,...
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