Saying goodbye and departing a friend’s home may be a simple act in America, but in Ireland there is an unwritten code of honor that guides farewell rituals.
There are superstitions that must be adhered to, or God forbid you may draw some form of ill fate upon your unsuspecting self.
In Ireland these rituals take time, so I was extremely surprised to learn that in the northeast of the United States, especially around New York, an Irish goodbye is associated with a quick departure.
Today, let’s explore the Irish superstitions and traditions around the simple, everyday event of saying goodbye, and try to establish reasons for the development of a quick Irish American goodbye.
Family Superstitions Around Leaving A Home:
I always remember my mother’s superstitions about a first visit to a new friend’s home.
She advised me to always leave by the door through which I first entered so that bad luck would not follow me.
I have arrived at parties in the U.S. where all the guests are streaming through an open garage door. Try as I might to forget obsolete traditions of my youth, my unwilling feet always lead me to the front door of each and every home I visit.
I find it very difficult to arrive nonchalantly through a back door with an enthusiastic announcement of my arrival. For me, the ding dong of a door bell wards off those bad luck spirits ruling over ancient Irish greeting rituals.
And then of course there’s the issue of the door through which I must leave, to avoid bringing ill luck my way.
Yes, I confess. I am part of the superstitious Irish race.
My mother’s words return, and you know you should never ignore your mother.
“For good luck leave by the door
through which you entered
on your first visit to a home.”
If I go in through an open garage when I arrive in daylight, it can be a little awkward to ask to exit through the garage, if it’s all closed up at the end of a night’s festivities.
Oh the dilemmas of carrying old cultural ways all the way to a new land.
Old Irish Greetings and Farewells:
In olden days in Ireland it was thought to be very important to greet people and depart from them with a blessing.
When arriving at a house, Irish people would say:
“God bless all here.”
The people of the house would reply with another blessing:
“God save you kindly.”
On leaving the house the visitor would say:
“God be with you.”
In some parts of the country, this farewell blessing was worded this way:
“God remain forever in this abode.”
Now if you were saying goodbye to a friend who had a long journey ahead, you would send them on their merry way by saying:
“May God direct you.”
Another version of this goodbye was the saying:
“God speed you!”
Another favorite saying for wishing someone well when leaving was:
“That God may break your Crosses.”
If a good friend was departing, and there was a chance you would not see one another again for a long time, then the departure blessing grew more poetic:
“I wish you health,
I wish you wealth,
I wish you golden stores,
I wish you heaven after earth,
And who could wish you more.”
When a person would come to a house on Christmas Eve, he or she would utter a different greeting like this:
“I wish you a happy Christmas and a bright New Year.”
When leaving the house he or she would say:
“I hope we will be all alive this time twelve months.”
In Ireland today we use the word “slán” (pronounced slawn) when saying goodbye. It literally means safe. When driving around the Irish countryside you often see road signs that say “slán abhaile” (pronounced slawn ah-wal-ya), which means safe home.
These signs are often prominently placed on the side of the road as you leave a town or village. Communities all over Ireland continue the tradition of blessing those departing, even through the use of road signs.
A Holy Water Font At The Door:
My Irish parents always kept a small font of holy water by the front door, and still do to this very day. Our holy water font is guarded by an angel. Some bear a cross or a Celtic symbol.
When anyone is leaving, especially on a long journey, my mother makes the Sign of the Cross with holy water, blessing those departing as they leave.
Keeping a holy water font by the door is an old Irish family tradition.
On St.Patrick’s Day a piece of shamrock is worn when leaving the house, in honor of St. Patrick. Long ago, Irish people would blacken the top of a hazel rod in the fire and then use it to make the sign of the cross on their left shoulder before leaving their house. This was a way of asking St. Patrick to protect them during the coming year.
A Formal Farewell Ritual – An Irish Custom:
These greetings and farewells reveal that leaving a person’s home was deemed to be part of a ritual focusing around an exchange of blessings. This is probably the reason why to this very day, I continue the drama of bidding farewell to guests leaving my American home.
Unsuspecting visitors to one of our house parties, might announce they are about to leave, and try to slip out the back door, or through the yard unnoticed.
Not in my Irish Home!
Guests must be escorted to the front door for a proper goodbye and thank you. Even my kids know they should join the farewell party as we move out to the porch.
Little do my surprised guests know, but we are exchanging blessings and luck through our goodbye rituals.
Into the bargain, we stand there and wave goodbye as your car departs down the street. Our front door does not close until you have officially departed. I know my neighbors think I’m crazy, but what can I say. I’m Irish.
In Ireland, farewells can go on and on. Deep conversations are launched at the door. A quick exit is very difficult, so plan your departure with plenty of time to spare.
Superstitious Rituals For Luck On Leaving An Irish Home:
Once a visitor left an Irish home, a good luck ritual ensued. The people of the house would flip the tongs for the fire, and lay it in alternative position, to bring good luck to the one who just departed the house.
Now if the hosts looked closely around the house they would probably find some little item belonging to the visitor, left slyly in a corner.
It was thought to be lucky for both guest and host if the visitor was to leave some little token after him or her when leaving the house.
This could be a ribbon, a penny, a pebble, a piece of string – any little piece of you would fit the bill, but it could never be something important that you needed to return to retrieve.
There were even more superstitions around returning to a home if you forgot something. If a person left anything behind it was advised that he or she should not go back. Now for anyone who forgot about this superstition or simply could not leave the item for another day, there was an antidote for any bad luck that might be coming your way.
If a person did return, he or she simply had to sit down in the house and count to thirteen. This would keep all that pent up bad luck at bay and the person could go on their merry way with the forgotten item back in their safe keeping.
When leaving a house after midnight, a “sméaróid” (pronounced smare-ode) or ember from the fire would be put into a coat pocket to keep the fairies away as you journeyed home.
When you borrowed the live coal from the house to keep you safe from the fairies, you should leave a sod of turf in return. Guests in Ireland would bring two sods of turf to a house if visiting at night. One was left in the house and the other was brought back home again, while a live ember burned a hole in your pocket. Dangerous times, for sure!
Don’t worry during my time living in America, I haven’t sent any friends on their merry way by hiding a burning coal or two in their pockets.
Leaving A House While Churning Butter:
Churning butter was an important task in Irish rural cottages in olden times. There were superstitions about what to do if you visited a home and the occupants were busy making butter.
For fear of the scorn of your friends and family you would never leave without giving a helping hand to churn the butter. In some homes you would not be given permission to leave until the butter making was done. In some parts of the country you were fine to leave, once you had given a few plunges to the churn-dash.
That way you did not risk taking away the butter and luck with you as you left.
While Irish people were churning, they would not let anyone take a coal out of the fire, until after the churning was done.
Some people would not give a drink to anyone until they would first take the butter out of the churn.
It was also thought to be unlucky if water was spilled while churning. And so churning day was a bad day for a visit – nothing to drink and a spell of hard labor before you were allowed to leave.
Leaving An Irish Home In The Month Of May:
May Day or Bealtaine was a special day of the year, when you had to be more aware of the luck associated with your home. If a man left your house with a lighted pipe, it was said that all the luck of the house would depart with him, and you would have no luck for a full year to come.
Nobody was allowed to leave a home without a supervisory escort, especially on May Day, and even more especially if a pipe smoking man tried to leave.
Even More Departure Superstitions From Ireland:
If a pair of scissors fell and the point of the scissors was to stick into the ground, it was thought that some one would soon be leaving the house. This meant death or immigration would strike the home.
If a rooster or cockrel stood on the door-step and crowed out toward the surrounding land, some one would soon be leaving the house. However, if the rooster crowed into the interior of the house, it was believed that someone new would soon be coming to live there. This could be a new arrival through marriage or birth, or the owners could change.
If you went to a house for milk, you had to be very careful. Since milk was associated with prosperity and luck, the people of the house put a pinch of salt in the milk before they give it away. Again the salt protected the milk from the fairies.
As you were leaving an Irish person’s home you needed to handle your gloves carefully. It was thought that if your gloves fell as you were leaving a house, you were certain to soon meet with disappointment.
Are you growing afraid to ever visit another home at this superstitious rate? But wait, there are even more crazy departure superstitions and rituals in old Irish culture and rural ways.
A Child Leaving A Home:
If night had fallen and a child was in a departing party, then more goodbye rituals ensued. When bringing a child out at night, Irish people in days gone by, would put a grain of salt on the child’s dress or clothes so that the fairies would not try to steal the child.
Can you imagine how my American friends would run, if I tried to throw salt over their children as they left my home in the dark? I left that superstition behind me in Ireland.
In the month of May it was considered unlucky to bring a new born baby out of the house without shaking a pinch of salt on his clothes to stop the fairies stealing him away. This applied both during the day and night for the whole month of May.
When people were leaving a house for a short time and a child was lying in a cradle, they would put the tongs across the cradle to prevent the fairies from taking the child. The fire tongs was a great tool for guarding good luck and warding off evil spirits, ghosts and the dreaded fairies.
And said tongs needed to be left on the right side of the fire to retain it’s magical power at night.
Saying Goodbye When Leaving A Church:
As you can see from all of the rituals described above, leaving a house was no easy task in Ireland in centuries past. So it will come as no surprise that there were special prayers uttered when leaving a church. Saying goodbye to God was also surrounded by ritual prayers.
Here’s an example of an Irish prayer said when leaving a church:
Farewell to thee O Mary,
Farewell my Christ to Thee,
Keep Thou my soul in safety,
Till here again I be,
Farewell to Thee O House of God,
Its grace with us remain,
Its blessings part not from each heart
Till here again I be.
Here’s another example of how to say goodbye in a church:
Farewell, House of God,
And keep me from all sin and shame
Till I return to Thee.
Saying Goodbye To Your Old Home At The Time Of A Marriage:
There were even more superstitions around leaving home when getting married.
It was considered unlucky for a bride to look in the mirror as she was leaving the house, to be wed.
If a girl was getting married to a man who lived outside of the locality where she grew up, she undertook a visiting ritual to neighbors before her wedding. The purpose of her visit was to bid her friends farewell and to seek their blessings for her upcoming nuptials. As you can imagine there was plenty of weeping and wailing as they said their goodbyes.
As the bride left her home on her wedding day to go to the church, a member of the family would throw the fire tongs after her for luck.
After the ceremony the couple returned to the bride’s home for a party. When they finally left her old home together, her family would throw old shoes and boots after them. This was once again a ritual to bring luck.
When the guests left the wedding party they would take a piece of the wedding cake with them. It was said that if you were single and placed a tiny piece of wedding cake under your pillow, you would dream of the person you were going to marry.
Goodbye Rituals At Irish Wakes:
With so many Irish traditions surrounding saying goodbye, you will not be one bit surprised that there were even more farewell rituals associated with our final goodbyes at a wake.
When you went to a wake you were advised not to leave the house without first touching the dead person. If you did this you would not dream of that person again.
When you went to a wake you always came out the same door as you went in, and you always came home with the person who accompanied you there.
Each person said a prayer when entering and leaving the ‘wake’ house. Before the coffin was closed all the relatives were called to the bed side to say the “last goodbye.”
When the corpse was leaving the house, all doors in the house were opened to allow the spirit freedom to leave.
In some parts of Ireland, when a corpse was leaving a house, all the chairs and stools were turned upside down. If this was not done, it was believed that another funeral would shortly leave the same house.
It was the custom when the corpse was leaving the townland or the neighborhood where he or she lived, the coffin was laid down for a moment, so that the deceased was given a chance to say “goodbye” to his home and townland.
It was also important for a widow or widower to remember which door was used to remove a body. If he or she was to remarry, a new spouse was not to enter the home by the same door.
The Irish Goodbye – An Irish American Phenomenon:
Now recently I learned of an American term called ‘an Irish goodbye’ which is associated with short farewells. In fact, an Irish goodbye in America, is also called ghosting, and refers to leaving a social gathering without saying your farewells.
Other names for such a silent departure include a French exit, French leave, Dutch leave or Swedish exit. The Germans refer to taking a Polish exit.
I never heard of the expression referring to an Irish exit in Ireland. And to tell you the truth, I was quite surprised to learn that my fellow countrymen in America are renowned for not saying a proper goodbye when leaving a host’s home.
The Irish are renowned for their welcomes. In fact an Irish welcome is warm and friendly, so how can the exact opposite be true when it comes to saying farewell.
This got me wondering how all the goodbye rituals of my homeland did not travel across the Atlantic to America.
Perhaps the phrase is a reference to the time of the potato famine when Irish refugees left Ireland abruptly.
My theory is that new Irish arrivals were not sure of how to conduct a proper goodbye, American style.
Perhaps, they were afraid if they started any of the old Irish traditions and superstitions they would be ridiculed. Remember, when the Irish first arrived in America, they were not accepted, and many tried to live as quiet a life as possible, without drawing attention to themselves. They hid behind their windows and doors and became known as the “lace curtain Irish.”
But the term “Irish goodbye” is loaded with negative connotations. Are the Irish being accused of getting so intoxicated that they forget to say goodbye. Perhaps the term is very straight forward cultuaral slander, adding to the age old stereotype of the drunken Irish.
The Irish cultural website Irish Central has proposed another theory about the origins of this phrase. They propose that an enraged woman coined the phrase when her “second Irish boyfriend in a row disappeared without a trace at the end of a date.” Are the Irish, in fact, the inventors of ghosting. Perhaps the phrase is no insult after all.
The Irish goodbye may have evolved in the United States, as those in the know slipped out the back door, to avoid the infamously prolonged real Irish goodbye, which would only have drawn unwanted attention.
Shakespeare may have summed it all up when he said “parting is such sweet sorrow,” but in Ireland parting is full of superstition, and endless chat.
If you know of any other Irish superstitions regarding the rituals of coming and going, please feel free to tell us in the comment section below.
And so, without any more fuss, I bid you all farewell.
Slán agus beannacht,
(Goodbye and blessings)
Irish American Mom
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