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.