Friday, March 16, 2012

Me? Why, Yes, I Do Have Irish Blood in My Veins

You know how I can tell I have Irish ancestors?  It's because of the idioms I heard as a child and youth. (Though that's not the only way I can tell.   Genealogy gives me the information, too.)

I grew up in the non-Irish community of Mineral Ridge, Ohio.   Until just a few months ago I didn't know the idioms I heard as a child were Irish.   I recently found them in a glossary of Irish words and phrases at the back of Patrick Taylor's Irish Country books.   As I read through the list I wondered to myself, "Irish?  Is that really an Irish idiom?"  My father always insisted there was no Irish blood -- absolutely none! -- on our Doyle side of the family.

Here are a few of the idioms from Taylor's glossary; idioms I heard as a child; idioms I didn't need the glossary to define for me because they were so familiar.

ants in your pants -- inability to sit still; constantly fidgeting
Mom to her 6-year-old daughter:   "You must have ants in your pants. Go sit on the porch step until I'm ready to go."

bound and determined -- absolutely set on a course of action (sometimes unintentionally)
Mom, to me after the third spill while making something:  "You are bound and determined to make a mess in the kitchen today, aren't you?"
Or:  "She is bound and determined to get her driver's permit the day she turns 16."

hit the spot –- the very thing I needed, usually used with a beverage or food
Dad, after eating a favorite dessert prepared by my mom:  "That pie and ice cream sure hit the spot."

hold your horses -- wait a minute
Mom:  "You just hold your horses.  We are not ready to make a decision about that today."

shank’s ponies -- your own two feet
Mom:   Niles was 3 miles distant from Mineral Ridge.  Mom used to talk about going to Niles when she was a girl.  When we asked her how she got there she said, "We used shanks ponies."

bit my head off -- expressed anger by shouting or being very curt
Mom:  "When I asked about ______ she just about bit my head off!  It was just a question. "

fit to be tied - furious
Mom, when someone broke something:  "I am fit to be tied that she broke the vacuum and I'm not done cleaning yet."

take a shine to - be attracted to
Dad:  "I've taken a shine to that little car and the way it drives."

hard row to hoe - very difficult
Mom:  "She'll have a hard row to hoe if she decides to marry him."

out of kilter -- out of alignment
Dad:  Maybe because he fixed everything broken in our home, he noticed things that were out of kilter.   He might have said of a picture hanging crooked, "That picture's out of kilter."   Or if a chair wobbled, "That chair's out of kilter.  One of the chair legs must be longer than the others."

raring to go -- eager and fully prepared
Mom, at 1:30 p.m.:   "She is just raring to go and the interview isn't until 4 p.m."

And then there's the shillelagh.
My maternal grandmother had a "shillelagh club," as she called it, which she kept on the top of a high cabinet.  It looked like a gnarled section of tree or tree root with knots and mounds in and on it.  I don't know if she waxed it but it was smooth and shiny.  She teasingly told us it was for protection.  I never learned how she came to have it or from where it came.   And I never saw her use it.  She always pronounced it shuh-lay-lee with the accent on the middle syllable.  Taylor gives the pronunciation as shi-lay-luh.   (Both pronunciations are given in the dictionary.)   He describes it as a blackthorn club used in stick-fighting sports or as a weapon.

As I remembered who said which phrases, I realized that the Irish idioms must come from both sides of my family (though I haven't researched far enough to find Irish ancestry on my mother's Bickerstaff side yet).  When I searched for the origin of the above phrases, I was unable to trace them specifically to Ireland.   I suppose many of these idioms are common across nationalities and boundaries.   I just thought it was fun to see Taylor's list that correlated to my own childhood memories.

Happy Saint Patrick's Day, everyone!


Copyright ©2012-2017 Nancy Messier. All Rights Reserved. .


  1. When my Irish grandmother said if you "Lay down with the dogs, you'll get up with the fleas," she meant you would have a long row to hoe.

    I was laughing because I had heard all of the idioms except shanks knees.

    What is the name of the book?

  2. I heard all of those in my house too, except for shanks knees. I grew up in Detroit. My grandparents came up from various places in the south and I never heard of any Irish ancestry. Although it could have come in during slavery. Wonder how he decided they were Irish?

  3. Claudia, I remember the dogs and fleas idiom, too, but in our family it had a slightly different interpretation. To us it meant that you would pick up bad habits.

    The books are a series, An Irish Country Doctor, An Irish Country Village, An Irish Country Lass, etc. Taylor is a good storyteller but some of the language was offensive (at least to me).

  4. Kristin-- Maybe Taylor included them in the glossary because he thought there may be readers who wouldn't recognize/understand them (rather than because they were specifically Irish). I didn't spend too much time researching the origins of the idioms....

  5. These are fun, Nancy. I grew up in Ohio hearing most of them too, and I'm not a bit Irish. But of course the communities probably absorbed and spread the sayings. Love your examples!

  6. Love this post, Nancy. Every St. Patrick's Day I wake up thinking of my mother. She would always say "We aren't Catholic or Irish so why would I celebrate St Pat's Day?" Then off to the kitchen to make corn beef and cabbage for Dad's dinner. Something I would never eat when I was a teenager. Today, I'm enjoying the aroma of corn beef slowly cooking in the crock pot.
    It was six years ago today that we buried my mom.

  7. I'm catching up on my blog reading. I love this post. I've heard almost all of these expressions, too. Where did you get that wonderful graphic?

  8. Renée, what a fun memory to have of your mom cooking Irish. And what a sad memory of burying her on St. Patrick's Day. I'm sorry for your loss.

    Like your mother, my father refused Irish ancestry. He suggested we at least wear orange if we were going to celebrate the holiday. We didn't eat anything Irish on St. Patrick's Day.

  9. Kathy, the graphic came from Dover. They publish old, out-of-copyright book and images.

  10. My mom used all of those expressions, except for the one about shank's ponies. I had to look at the definition for that one. I'm from southern Louisiana and those are not Cajun expressions. My mom had a grandmother was was from England and a great grandmother who was from Ireland. I always thought it was just country talk! As she always said, she had Hathaway horse sense!

    1. Hi, Van. I suppose some groups of people would not use such common idioms so perhaps it is country talk. And from the comments on this post, I suppose these are known across many nationalities and groups of people.


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