Between Oliver Cromwell, the Potato Famine and the Troubles, you could be forgiven for asking what’s so lucky about the Irish? In fact, it’s hard to think of many people in the western world who have suffered more misfortune than the eight million people who call Eire and Northern Ireland home.
And still, whenever St Patrick’s Day rolls around, references to the luck of the Irish are as abundant as inflatable Guinness hats. Not only that but there are four feature films entitled The Luck Of The Irish and John Lennon and Yoko Ono included a song baring that title on the LP Some Time In New York City.
But while the four-leaf clover is universally recognised as a symbol of good fortune, those that lazily band about the phrase probably aren’t aware of its origins. If it's those you seek, you need leave Ireland and head across the Atlantic.
One man who does know is Edward T O’Donnell, an Associate Professor of History at Dublin’s Holy Cross College and keen student of Irish-American relations. In his fascinating book 1001 Things Everyone Should Know About Irish American History, O’Donnell believes people have been talking about ‘the luck of the Irish’ since the late 1800s.
"During the gold and silver rush years in the second half of the 19th century, a number of the most famous and successful miners were of Irish and Irish-American birth… Over time this association of the Irish with mining fortunes led to the expression 'luck of the Irish.' Of course, it carried with it a certain tone of derision, as if to say, only by sheer luck, as opposed to brains, could these fools succeed."
So a phrase that seems positively benign is in fact an example of one of the oldest and least fair stereotypes, that of the stupid Irishman.
Why it’s enough to drive a man to drink. Speaking of which, we’ll have a Guinness. You can keep the inflatable hat, thanks.