Audrey Nickel, aka the Geeky Gaeilgeoir, is a fluent Irish speaker and author of The Irish Gaelic Tattoo Handbook (Bradan Press, 2017).

In honour of St. Patrick’s Day, I talked to Audrey about some of the worst Irish-language tattoos she’s seen online. It’s great to honour your heritage with a tattoo, but yer Irish ancestors would be spinning in their graves if you were murdering the language like this!

To avoid these mistakes on St. Patrick’s Day – or any other day – DON’T rely on Google Translate, and DO check out Audrey’s book!

Read on for Audrey’s take on these Irish tattoo nightmares.

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You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

Trying to capitalize on the popular conception of love as finding one’s soulmate, jewellers and misguided “Celtic” Christianity enthusiasts have made up a phrase that cannot exist grammatically in Irish: “Mo Anam Cara.” It’s such bad Irish, it’s close to nonsense.

You’ll see this bogus phrase all over the internet and “Irish” merch. It makes Irish speakers cringe, though.

If you want the gory details about all the grammar and spelling mistakes, read my book The Irish Gaelic Tattoo Handbook.

But it’s not enough to fix the spelling. The definition of “anamchara” in Irish isn’t “soul friend” or “soulmate,” it’s “confessor or spiritual advisor.” During the early days of Christianity in Ireland, one monk would have another monk whom he trusted to guide his spiritual formation and to hear his confessions. That person was his anamchara. In modern Irish usage, anamchara means “confessor,” the priest who hears your confession before mass.

If you’re still desperate for an Irish “soulmate” tattoo, The Irish Gaelic Tattoo Handbook gives some correct Irish alternatives.

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She should be worried

This person was going for “No Worries.” What she got is “Any worry.”

The Irish word “aon” can have a couple of different meanings. Depending on context, it can mean “one” or “any.” But it NEVER means “no.” In fact, Irish doesn’t even HAVE the word “no.”

If we want to say “no worries,” we’d most likely say something like “gan imní”: “without (a) worry.”

It’s hard to say where this person found “Aon Imní.” Maybe she saw a longer phrase like “Gan aon imní ar bith” (literally “without any worry at all,” but usually read as “with no worry at all”) and just assumed that “aon” meant “no”? In any case, it’s wrong.

Who’s Erin, and where should she go?

This one won’t make many Irish Americans happy, given how ubiquitous this phrase is around St. Patrick’s Day, but it has to be said.

Most Americans think this means “Ireland Forever” in Irish.

What it really is, is an anglicization of the Irish phrase “Éire go Brách” (which actually DOES mean “Ireland Forever”).

Despite the widespread adoption of this phrase in the U.S.A., at the end of the day it’s still anglicized, and badly misspelled by Irish standards. If someone wants a tattoo in the Irish language, this is NOT the way to go. Stick with “Éire go Brách” and Irish eyes will be smiling at you for real.

(By the way, I don’t know which American decided that fake Irish words would look more authentic with a “gh” at the end of them… but stop it! “-agh” is actually a fairly rare word ending in Irish.)

Tomorrow will definitely be worse

This tattoo is supposed to say “Smile – tomorrow will be worse.” Tomorrow will definitely be worse, when this person wakes up and realizes what a mess she has tattooed on her foot!

To start, while “aoibh” can mean “smile,” it is a noun (as in she has a lovely smile”), not a verb (as in “smile, you’re on Candid Camera”).

The tattoo’s also lacking any form of the verb “will be.” Oh and the last four words are nonsense. Basically it says “A smile – tomorrow on the worst.”

If you REALLY want to say this in Irish, you could say something like “Déan gáire – beidh an lá amárach níos measa.” For other tattoo suggestions, see The Irish Gaelic Tattoo Handbook.

All pain, no gain, and love down the drain

This one’s been doing the rounds on the Irish internet for a few months. It’s so bad I’ve hesitated to write about it in case it’s a really (really!) good Photoshop job.

It looks pretty darn real though, so in the hopes of preventing anyone else from making this mistake, I must tell you: they think it means “You will be forever in my heart,” but what it really means is “May I go to the toilet.”

This person is either the victim of a cruel joke, or someone who puts way too much faith in internet memes.

A few years ago there was a meme going around Facebook. It had a photo of a couple on the beach with the words: “In Irish, we don’t say ‘You will be in my heart forever.’ We say ‘An bhfuil cead agam dul go dtí an leithreas.’”

IT WAS A JOKE. “An bhfuil cead agam dul go dtí an leithreas” is one of the first things Irish kids learn to say in school, for obvious reasons.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again…you can’t believe everything you see on the internet. Visit my blog, The Geeky Gaeilgeoir, for more good advice.

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Irish ≠ French

She thinks she has the Irish for “Lionheart” or “Heart of a Lion” tattooed on her back. Sort of.

She has two of the words right-ish. “Croí” does mean “heart” and “leon” does mean “lion.” But that little preposition in the middle, “de” – it does not mean what you think it means.

My guess is that she was inspired by the French phrase for Lionheart, “Coeur de Lion,” as in Richard Coeur de Lion (Richard Lionheart). Unfortunately for her, “de” in Irish is not the same word as “de” in French. In Irish it means “from” or “off.” It can sometimes mean “of,” but not in this type of phrase.

If we want to say “Lionheart” in Irish, we’d say either “Croí an Leoin” (The Heart of the/a Lion) or “Croí Leoin” (A Lion’s Heart). See that little spelling change – from leon to leoin? That’s why I said earlier that she had two words right-ish. When one noun like “leon” is used to describe another in Irish, it must be in the genitive case which causes changes in spelling and pronunciation. Also, “An” means “the” in Irish. Not to confuse you or anything.

Down at the Galway Grill… Ed Sheeran’s Irish tattoo

Ed has an Irish tattoo. He even mentioned it in the lyrics of “Galway Girl.”

Ed is also no stranger to tattoo mistakes – actress Saoirse Ronan gave him “Galway Grill” instead of “Galway Girl” as a joke when they were filming the video.

So it will probably come as no surprise that Ed Sheeran’s Irish tattoo also has a small spelling mistake in it.

It’s meant to be an Irish translation of some other song lyrics, “When I need to get home, you’re my guiding light”: “Nuair is gá dom fillead abhaile, is tú mo réalt eolais.”

There’s a small mistake: the verbal noun of the verb “fill” (“to return”) is supposed to be spelled “filleadh” with an “h” on the end. My guess is that whoever translated this for him, saw the word written in the old Irish style with a dot over a consonant instead of an “h.” And people often forget about the dot… Fortunately, there’s an easy fix: if there’s no room to add an “h,” then get a dot tattooed over the “d.”

When you go to fix it, Ed, just don’t let Saoirse Ronan anywhere near it. 😂

(By the way, réalt eolais actually means “guiding star,” not “guiding light,” but I’ll give him poetic license for that one.)

The girl made sorrowful by a bad translation

“The girl made lovely by sorrow” is a common translation request. Unfortunately nearly everyone gets it wrong.

This was supposed to be a paraphrase of part of a line in an Irish poem, “An tAmhránaí” (The Singer), written by Louis de Paor. The original line of the poem translates to “The girl with the beauty of sorrow in her face prays that he will be without a spouse until he finds her.”

Here’s what it looks like in Irish: “Guíonn an cailín a bhfuil áilleacht an bhróin ina gnúis go mbeidh sé gan chéile go bhfaighidh sé í.”

Whoever did the so-called translation just took the first six words of the line in Irish, assuming that they corresponded to the six words of the English paraphrase “the girl made lovely by sorrow.” But they don’t! The words in the tattoo translate to something like “The girl prays to whom beauty…” or “The girl prays who has beauty…”. It’s clearly a sentence fragment taken out of context and makes no sense in a tattoo.

Want all the details? Need to fix a tattoo like this? See my book, The Irish Gaelic Tattoo Handbook!

We’re here for a good time, not a wrong time

When I see things like this, I have to say something, if only to tell you that doing your own tattoo “translation” without the help of experts is a recipe for disaster.

This one was supposed to say “Live a good life, not a long life.” Oh dear.

It’s pretty clear that someone started by googling “How do you say ‘live’ in Irish.” But they must have found the adjective “live” (as in “live wire,” “lively,” “alive”), not the verb “live” as in “live your life.”

But wait, there’s mór. Saol does mean “life/a life” (though it can also mean “world”). The problem is that mór can mean big/large, or “great” (as in size or age, not as in “wonderful”), or several other things… but it DOES NOT mean “good.” I’m guessing they saw the word “great” as a possible meaning for mór, and assumed it meant “really really good.”

For an actual translation, how about “Is fearr saol maith ná saol fada” (A good life is better than a long life)? Or you could seek out a professional translator… because if you’re spending $200 on a tattoo, it’s worth spending a bit more to get it right, too. One thing’s certain: don’t try to DIY.

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The Irish Gaelic Tattoo Handbook

Planning your next tattoo, or just want to learn more about your Irish heritage? Grab a copy now! Go raibh míle maith agat, agus ádh mór ort!

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