A load of Irish bull – but what is it?

The term Irish bull may sound like it means foolishness or even something offensive but it’s nothing of the kind.

It refers to a play on words with phrases that sound quite normal at first, but quickly reveal themselves to contradictory, incongruous, absurd and impossible.Irish Bull. Image copyright Ireland Calling
Sometimes these phrases spill out by accident, making the speaker seem slow or stupid, but mostly the absurdity and contradiction is quite deliberate, showing a genius for wordplay. The origin of the phrase is uncertain but it’s thought to stem from the fact that a lot of Irish humour involves contradiction and absurdity.

This phrase, which is often attributed to an anonymous Irish mammy shouting to her child, is a good example: “If you fall and break your legs, don’t come running to me.”
Irish Bull. Image copyright Ireland Calling

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Oscar Wilde wrote numerous examples of contradictory statements such as: “If you are not too long I will wait for you here all my life.”
Irish Bull. Oscar Wilde. If you are not too long I will wait for you here all my life. Image copyright Ireland Calling

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The producers of the Quiet Man, the American film set in Ireland and starring John Wayne, were keen to adopt the Irish bull technique. This line, spoken by the character Red Danaher, is a good example: “He’ll regret it till his dying day, if ever he lives that long.”
Irish Bull. He'll regret it till his dying day if he lives that long. Image copyright Ireland Calling.

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This famous little gem is attributed to the American film producer Sam Goldwyn: “A verbal contract isn’t worth the paper it’s written on.”

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The best Irish bull is extremely clever and usually very funny. Here’s a selection of the best Irish bull from Ireland – some accidental, some deliberate… but all very funny.

May you never live to see your wife a widow!
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It is better to be a coward for a minute than dead for the rest of your life.

Irish Bull. Image copyright Ireland Calling

I hope that I may live to hear you preach my funeral sermon.
Old Irish joke about a father talking to his son who has just been ordained a priest.
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Two Irish men were talking about a man they knew who was very thin. One said: “Well, you’re thin, and I’m thin, but he’s as thin as the pair of us put together!”
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Irish tombstone inscription:
Here lies the body of John Mound,
Lost at sea and never found.

Irish Bull. Image copyright Ireland Calling

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An Irishman is never at peace except when he’s fighting.
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Irish Bull. Image copyright Ireland Calling

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An Irishman would rather die than to be buried outside of Ireland.
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Man, when I tell you she was cool, she was red hot.
From The Boys are Back in Town by Irish band Thin Lizzy
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Irish Bull. Thin Lizzy. Man, when I tell you she was cool, she was red hot. Photo copyright Harry Potts CC2

However, Irish bull is not confined to the Irish. There are some wonderful examples from all across the world.

Cartoon illustration of shamrocks. Image copyright Ireland Calling

All images copyright Ireland Calling
(Thin Lizzy photo  Harry Potts CC2)

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