Irish for Americans: Sláinte

Sláinte!

This is one of the few Irish words that is still regularly spoken by Americans. They will raise a glass of alcohol and toast each other, calling out “Sláinte,” although they may butcher the pronunciation. I said “slan-tay” for a while until somebody corrected me. It’s “slawn-cha,” sort of. Properly: slaːnt͡ʃə.

As an interjection, it means “cheers,” As a noun, it means “health.” It’s not the only Irish toast, but traditional Irish toasts can be complicated affairs, sometimes requiring a long warm-up period of stretching, an hour of vocal exercises, and a sitz bath waiting for after the toast is over, to address muscle strains and damaged tendons. Even with the shorter Irish toasts, well, most Americans don’t know enough Irish to attempt something like “Go maire sibh bhur saol nua,” which means “May you enjoy your new life.” Apparently it is most often said at weddings, but I think it is funnier to say it whenever somebody is about to drink. But, then, I also buy people condolence cards on their birthdays, cross out “sorry for your loss” and write in “excited for your birthday.”

Sláinte is nice and manageable. It’s only two syllables, which is relatively parsimonious for Irish. It’s perfect for a quick lift of the glass, flash of the eye, shout of good cheer, and down the whiskey goes. I don’t know how long it has been used as a toast, but it was part of a rowdy poem called “Father O’Flynn” written by Alfred Perceval Graves in the 1880s. Graves was a dedicated Irish revivalist and was, for a while, president of the Irish Literary Society, and I don’t know whether he was rescuing an obscure word or documenting a well-loved one, but “Father O’Flynn” was a popular poem and made great use of the word. It’s chorus:

Here’s a health to you, Father O’Flynn,
Sláinte and sláinte and sláinte again

“Father O’Flynn” enjoyed regular republication in US newspapers — the earliest I find is in the Springfield Republican in 1890 — and from that point on is treated as a go-to phrase for the Irish. In fact, on May 6, 1899, the Irish American Weekly out of New York published a poem entirely in Irish titled “Sláinte.” They wrote that the toast “will be received by our readers as at once an echo of the past and a vigorous salutation of the brighter future of the Language Movement.”

They were partially right. The Irish language as a whole never found a large following in the United States, but the word Sláinte sure did.

Mostly, it turned up in poems, and mostly just meaning “health.” The various Irish-American newspapers and social organizations used to offer up regular samples of poetry, and they always seemed to have someone talking about health. Poems titled “Sláinte na nGael,” meaning “Health to Irish,” were common, and it’s a bit melancholy to think about a time when Americans really wanted to be part of the effort to revitalize Irish.

In print, the word returned to the land of alcohol in 1908 with the publication of a book called “Irish Toasts, Sentiments and Convivialites” by Shane Na Gael, which included “Sláinte gal Erin go bragh,” which is a bit perplexing and may merely be a typo, as “gal” doesn’t seem to translate into anything that makes sense (it means “steam”). One expects, perhaps, that what is meant is “Sláinte agus Erin go bragh,” or “health and Ireland forever.” If the phrase is in error, it wouldn’t be the first time an Irish phrase got a little confused in America.

The toast goes mostly undiscussed in newspapers in the 20th century until the 1960s, when, suddenly, it makes an annual appearance every single St. Patrick’s Day. I am not sure why this is, although I suspect, if I dig around enough, I will discover that this is when the holiday became a sort of universal celebration, rather than an ethnic festival. The only proof I have of it is that those “Kiss Me I’m Irish” buttons started making appearances on the streets of New York in 1963 for St. Paddy’s, but that does seem to be a watershed moment in the history of the Irish in America.

There was also a rise in popularity of Irish whiskeys, which had suffered enormously after Prohibition, and also from the English, who levied from enormous export taxes that encouraged the growth of Scotch whisky while squashing profits for the Irish stuff. In 1966, there was a concerted effort to educate Americans about Irish whiskey led by a organization called the Irish Distiller Group, the product of a merger between John Power & Son, John Jameson & Son and the Cork Distillery Company, and, eventually, Bushmills. 

One member of the group, named John Ryan, had a hobby of collecting toasts, and in 1982 the group published them in a booklet called “Sláinte.” This facts picked up by the Associated Press in 1982, along with a detailed interview with Ryan, and so suddenly “Sláinte” was in hundreds of newspapers. And, from that moment on, it became common for newspapers to include the word sláinte in articles about Irish whiskey, and those sorts of articles became increasingly plentiful.

And so, bit by bit, sláinte has become the on-hand Irish toast in America. And, as much as I like the winding, extended, grandiloquent toasts of yesteryear, there is something to be said for the brevity and bluntness of this single word. After all, the more you have to say before you drink, the longer you spend not drinking.

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Max Sparber

Max Sparber is a playwright, journalist, and history detective in Omaha, Nebraska.