Irish is the official first language in Ireland, but it is more than likely that you will never need to speak a word of it during your time in the country. English is the lingua franca on the Emerald Isle, despite all efforts to resurrect interest in the Irish language. Irish students are still required to study the Irish language in order to complete secondary school, but you rarely hear it spoken in practice.
There are, however, a few words or phrases that you will encounter fairly frequently within everyday conversations all over Ireland. Some others are still relatively common, while more and more are only really used locally.
While it is not essential to learn Irish before you visit Ireland, it is a good idea to have a few words in your pocket in order to avoid the potential for confusion and embarrassment - from missing your bus to entering where you shouldn't. So let us start on a journey through the basic words every visitor to Ireland should know.
More than likely the very first Irish word you will hear (especially if you are flying on Aer Lingus), "Fáilte", pronounced something like "fall-sha", simply means "welcome." You will hear the word widely used both as a greeting, see it on signs welcoming you into a new town, or to denote tourism activities - the Irish tourism industry uses the moniker "Fáilte Ireland". The very popular phrase céad mile fáilte ("kad meel-a fall-sha") translates as "a hundred thousand welcomes".
This will be more than likely your first destination in Ireland, and might even refer to the airport you are flying into.
Pronounced "ah cli-a" and literally translated "ford of the hurdles" - this is the alternative name for Dublin (both names are Irish, by the way). Used on road signs, bus destination boards and similar, all over the country (except in Northern Ireland, where a plain "Dublin" is used). The preface baile (pronounced "bal-a") simply means "town", thus baile átha cliath is the City of Dublin as opposed to the county.
Getting from the airport to the city center is no problem, just hop on a bus that takes you to "An Lár", a useful Irish word to know if you want to get downtown.
Literally "the middle" or "the center", and frequently used on bus signs to denote the town center as a general destination. While it is a good word to know if you plan to travel around Ireland, be warned that it is an imprecise description of where the bus might be headed. The definition of center in Dublin, for example, covers a wide area, roughly between St. Stephen's Green and O'Connell Street. It is far easier in smaller cities like Galway, where you'll be more than likely be dropped off near Eyre Square - the heart of the city.
Need help? Why not ask a policeman (or -woman)? These are collectively known as Gardai here, the single version being Garda. You will never hear "police" in the Republic of Ireland - everyone simply refers to the Gardai.
Pronounced "guarda" and meaning "guard" or "guardian". Usually the short form of Garda Síochána, the "guardians of peace" or "civic guards". This title was chosen for the Irish police after independence, and it is used everywhere in the Republic. It is also quite common to use the more English expression "the guards" in everyday speech.
The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) obviously uses the simple "police" as identification. As do the Airport Police in the Republic, and the Harbour Police.
By the way - here are the most important emergency telephone numbers in Ireland, North and South, and you can speak plain English on the phone as well.
Craic Agus Ceol
Now it's time for some fun.
Pronounced "crack a-goose col", this multilingual concoction means "crack and music", and is being frequently used as the overall description of Irish night-life. Multilingual? You bet - the word craic is not Irish at all - the English "crack" was simply re-written in an Irish form. The original meaning is "fun".
You may hear people great each other by asking "Any craic?" It is a way of asking if you have been up to anything interesting and entertaining recently.
And when the pints are poured, you raise your glass and bid your drinking companions Sláinte?
Pronounced "slaan-sha" this literally translates as "health". It is used as a short toast between drinking companions, a way of saying "cheers" in Irish, and standing in for the more time-consuming "I drink to your health!"
After a few drinks, you may well need to find the bathroom and here is where it gets complicated. But gentlemen - make sure you avoid the door marked "Mná" or expect to be greeted by shrieks and some unhappy ladies.
Mná is not a misspelling of "man" but the Irish for "women". This is used as an identifier on toilet doors, mainly in the West of Ireland without any pictogram or translation. The similarity of mná and "man" can lead to embarrassing situations.
The men's room, instead, will be marked with Fir. Fir in Irish is not a tree, but the word for "men" - you may find this hanging on the sign on bathroom doors. Which, again, can be quite confusing if not accompanied by a pictorial device or a translation.
Bus not going anywhere? In that case the destination board might have read something different from "An Lár", maybe the seemingly similar "As Seirbhís"?
Seirbhís is pronounced "service", and it means the same. The opposite, however, is as seirbhís - "out of service". Frequently seen on buses, as these tend to travel empty from or to the depot (in other countries, routes actually start and end at or near the depot; in Dublin especially they tend to terminate or kick off as far away as possible).
Time to say your good-byes? Well, then do it in Irish fashion as well!
Similar to "sláinte", the meaning of "slán" again is literally "healthy" or "safe". But this short form (pronounced "slaan"), it is used to wish somebody a safe journey and healthy return. The extended slán abhaile (" slaan aval") is used by the host and means "safe homewards". Other forms are slan agat and slan leat, all meaning "goodbye".
Confused? Don't be, a simple "slán" will always be acceptable - and much better than telling someone Irish that you hope the road will rise up to meet them. That is never said on the Emerald Isle, so try to stick to real Irish words if you want to impress your new friends.