Irish Gaelic (Gaeilge) is a Goidelic language spoken in Ireland. The language is sometimes known simply as 'Gaelic' but more often it is described as the Irish language or merely Irish in colloqual expression. (Gaelic can sometimes be confused with a variant of the language spoken in Scotland.)
Irish has recently received a degree of formal recognition in Northern Ireland, under the Good Friday Agreement alongside a small minority language called Ulster Scots (though some critics have questioned whether Ulster Scots is a language or merely a dialect of Lowland Scots).
There are pockets of Ireland where Irish is spoken as a native, traditional dialect. These regions are known as Gaeltachtaí (sing. Gaeltacht). The most important ones are in Connemara (Conamara), including Aran Islands (Oileáin Árann) in County Galway (Contae na Gaillimhe), and the west coast of County Donegal (Contae Dhún na nGall), in Irish called Tír Chonaill, and the Dingle peninsula in County Kerry (Contae Chiarraí). Others exist in Mayo (Contae Mhaigh Eo), Meath (Contae na Mí), and Waterford (Contae Phort Láirge).
The numerically strongest Gaeltachtaí are those of Connemara and Aran. The highest percentages of Irish speakers is found in Ros Muc, Connemara, and around Bloody Foreland (Cnoc na Fola) in Tír Chonaill.
There are a number of distinct dialects of Irish. Roughly speaking, the three major dialect areas coincide with the provinces of Munster (An Mhumhain), Connacht (Connachta), and Ulster (Ulaidh).
Munster Irish is spoken in the Gaeltachtaí of Kerry (Ciarraí), Coolea (Cúil Aodha) in the western part of County Cork (Contae Chorcaí), and the tiny pocket of Irish-speakers near Dungarvan (Dún Garbháin) in County Waterford (Contae Phort Láirge). The most important subdivision in Munster is that between Decies Irish (spoken in Waterford) and the rest of Munster Irish.
The one typical feature of Munster Irish is the use of personal endings instead of pronouns with verbs, thus "I must" is in Munster "caithfead", while other dialects prefer "caithfidh mé" ("mé" means "I").
Connacht Irish is, for all the practical purposes, identical with Connemara-Aran Irish, with the exception of the very threatened dialect spoken in the northern part of County Mayo (Maigh Eo). The remnants of the Irish of Tourmakeady (Tuar Mhic Éadaigh) and Joyce Country (Dúthaigh Sheoige) in southern Mayo are very similar to the Irish spoken in Connemara. Thus, the most important subdivision is that between Northern Mayo Irish and the rest of Connacht. Northern Mayo dialect is in grammar and word-building essentially a Connacht dialect, but shows an affinity in vocabulary with Ulster Irish.
Connacht Irish is in many respects the most standard kind of Irish, and very popular with learners, thanks to Mícheál Ó Siadhail's self-tuition textbook Learning Irish. However, there are features in Connacht Irish which are not accepted standard, notably the preference for verbal nouns ending in -achan, such as "lagachan" instead of "lagú" = "weakening".
The most important of the Ulster dialects today is that of the Rosses (na Rosa), which has been used extensively in literature by such authors as the brothers Séamus and Seosamh Mac Grianna, locally known as Jimí Fheilimí and Joe Fheilimí.
Ulster Irish sounds very different and shares several in Ireland unusual features with Scots Gaelic, as well as having lots of peculiar words and shades of meanings. However, since the demise of those Irish dialects spoken natively in what is today the Northern statelet, it is probably exaggerated to see Ulster Irish as an intermediary form between Scots Gaelic and the southern and western dialects of Irish. Indeed, Scots Gaelic does have lots of non-Ulster features in common with Munster Irish, too.
The Irish of Meath is a special case. It belongs to the Connemara dialect, as the Irish-speaking community in Meath is simply a group of Connemara speakers who moved there in the nineteen thirties, after a land reform campaign spearheaded by Máirtín Ó Cadhain, subsequently the greatest modernist writer in the language.
The differences between dialects are considerable, and have led to recurrent difficulties in defining standard Irish. Even everyday phrases can show startling dialectal variation: the standard example is "How are you?":
Ulster: "cad é mar atá tú?" ("what is it as you are?") Connacht: "cén chaoi a bhfuil tú?" ("what way [is it] that you are?") Munster: "conas tá tú?" ("how are you?")
In recent times, however, contacts between speakers of different dialects have become more common, and mixed dialects have originated. Nevertheless, many dialect speakers (especially Ulster) are still jealously trying to guard their own variety against influences from other dialects. Among non-native speakers, this can be seen as a quest for authenticity. Regional accents are commonly taught to non-natives and imitated: an urban non-native speaker of Irish in Cork City (Cathair Chorcaí) is very probably trying to emulate Coolea or Kerry dialect; one from Belfast (Béal Feairsde) tends to speak an Irish modelled on the Rosses dialect of Donegal; and Galwegian Irish-speakers, living next door to Connemara, will do their best to sound like a Connemara native.
The written language looks, to those unfamiliar with it, like a lot of unusual consonantal combinations and vowels everywhere! Once understood, the orthography is relatively straightforward. The acute accent, or fada (´), serves to lengthen the sound of the vowels and in some cases also changes their quality. For example, in Munster Irish (Kerry), "a" is /uh/ or /ah/ and "á" is /aw/ in "law" but in Ulster Irish (Donegal), "á" tends to be /ah/ lengthened.
About the time of World War II, Séamas Daltún, in charge of Rannóg an Aistriúcháin or the official translators department, issued his own guidelines about how to standardise Irish spelling and grammar. This de facto standard was subsequently approved of by the State and called the Official Standard or "Caighdeán Oifigiúil". It simplified and standardized the orthography. Many words had silent letters removed and vowel combination brought closer to the spoken language.
Modern Irish has only one diacritical sign, the acute (á é í ó ú). The punctum delens, used over consonantal letters in the pre-Caighdeán orthography, has been ousted by the leniting h, added immediately after the consonantal letter.
In Irish, as in many Slavonic languages such as Russian, all consonants are either palatalised, soft (in Irish "caol", slender), or velarised/labialised, hard (in Irish, "leathan", broad). The quality of the consonant depends in principle on the neighbouring vowels, i. e. the preceding or following a, o or u makes the consonant broad, while the vowels i and e make the consonant slender. This is the general idea; however, historical developments have lead into a situation where vowel letters are often used as otherwise mute indicators of consonantal quality. Thus, in a word such as "seó" (this is the English word "show", a long-established loan word in Irish, where it has developed new meanings), the -e- is just an indicator of the s- being pronounced as slender, i.e. approximately as the English "sh" sound.
The most unfamiliar features of the language are the initial mutations and the use of two different verbs for "to be". None of these two is unique, however. Initial mutations are found in other Celtic languages (as well as in some Italian dialects, as an independent development); and the two verbs for "to be" are to some extent analogous to those found in Spanish.
In Irish, there are two classes of initial mutations:
- Lenition (in Irish, "séimhiú"). Basically, this means that stops mutate into fricatives. This is shown by adding an extra -h-:
caith! "throw!" - chaith mé "I threw" (this is an example of the lenition as a past-tense marker)
margadh "market", "market-place", "bargain" - Tadhg an mhargaidh "the man of the street" (word for word "Timothy of the market-place" (here we see the lenition marking the genitive case of a masculine noun)
Seán "Seán, John" - a Sheáin! "hey, listen, John!" (here we see lenition as part of what is called the vocative case - actually though, the vocatival lenition is triggered by that little a or vocative marker before Sheáin)
- Eclipsis (in Irish, "urú"). This means, that voiceless stops are voiced, and voiced stops become nasal.
Irish words used in generally in modern Ireland among English speakers include:
The Irish language was the most widely spoken language on the island of Ireland until the 19th century. A combination of the introduction of a primary education system (the 'National Schools'), in which Irish was prohibited and only English taught by order of the British Government in Ireland, and the Great Famine("An Drochshaol") which hit a disportionately high number of Irish language speakers (who lived in the poorer areas heavily hit by famine deaths and emigration), hastened its rapid decline. Irish political leaders, such as Daniel O'Connell(Dónall Ó Conaill), too were critical of the language, seeing it as 'backward', with English the language of the future. Contemporary reports spoke of Irish-speaking parents actively discouraging their children from speaking the language, and encouraging the use of English instead.
Some, however, thought differently. Though the initial moves to save the language were championed by Irish unionists[?], such as the linguist and Protestant clergyman William Neilson, in the end of the eighteenth century, the major push occurred with the foundation by Douglas Hyde, the son of a Church of Ireland rector, of the Gaelic League (known in Irish as 'Conradh na Gaeilge'). Leading supporters of Conradh included Pádraig Mac Piarais and Éamon de Valera[?]. The revival of interest in the language coincided with with other cultural revivals, such as the foundation of the Gaelic Athletic Association and the growth in the preformance of plays about Ireland in English, by such luminaries as William Butler Yeats, J.M. Synge[?], Sean O'Casey[?] and Lady Gregory, with their launch of the Abbey Theatre.
Even though they wrote in English (and indeed some too disliked Irish) the Irish language impacted on them. The version of English spoken in Irish, known as Hiberno-English bears striking similarities in some grammatical idioms with Irish. In contrast to English as spoken in England, Hiberno-English offers a greater range of expression. Some have speculated that even after the vast majority of Irish people stopped speaking Irish, they perhaps subsconsciously used its grammatical flair in the manner in which they spoke English. This fluency is reflected in the writings of Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde and more recently in the writings of Seamus Heaney, Paul Durkan[?], Dermot Bolger[?] and many others. (It may also in part explain the appeal in Britain of Irish-born broadcasters like Terry Wogan, Eamonn Andrews, Graham Norton, Desmond Lynam[?], etc.)
This national cultural revival of the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century matched the growing Irish radicalism in Irish politics. Many of those, such as Pearse, de Valera, W.T. Cosgrave Liam Mac Cosguir and Ernest Blythe[?]Earnán de Blaghd, who fought to achieve Irish independence and came to govern the independent Irish state, first became politically aware through Conradh na Gaeilge, though Hyde himself resigned from its presidency in 1915 in protest at the movement's growing politicisation.
The independent Irish state from 1922 (The Irish Free State[?] 1922-37; Éire from 1937, also known since 1949 as the Republic of Ireland) launched a major push to promote the Irish language, with some of its leaders hoping that the state would become predominantly Irish-speaking within a generation. In fact, many of these initiatives, notably compulsory Irish at school and the requirement that one must know Irish to be employed in the civil service, proved counter-productive with generations of school-children alienated by what was often heavily-handed attempts at indoctrination, that created a cultural backlash. Demands that children learn seventeenth century Irish poetry, or study the life of Peig Sayers (a Gaelic speaker from the Blasket Islands[?]) whose accounts of her life, as recounted in Irish language books, through fascinating, was taught in a poor manner, left a cultural legacy of negative reactions among generations, all too many of whom deliberately refused to use the language once they left school.
The emergence of a new, more pragmatic and technocratic leadership in the beginning of the sixties, with Seán Lemass[?] as Taoiseach, marked the shift in the attitude of Ireland's dominant élites towards the language. Whereas the first three presidents of Ireland (Douglas Hyde/Dubhghlas de hÍde, Sean T. O'Kelly/Seán T. Ó Ceallaigh and Eamon de Valera) and the fifth (Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh) were all so fluent in Irish that it became the working language in their official residence, later presidents struggled with any degree of fluency, its use declining to such an extent that it is only used now (if at all) in occasional speeches. Similarly, where earlier generations of Irish government leaders were highly fluent, recent prime ministers (Albert Reynolds/Ailbhe Mag Raghnaill, John Bruton, Bertie Ahern) had little fluency, they struggling to pronounce passages of their speeches in Irish to their Ard-Fheiseanna[?] (party conference(s), pronounced 'Ord Desh-ana') .
It is, though, disputed to what extent such professed language revivalists as de Valera genuinely tried to Gaelicise political life. Ernest Blythe did little, in his day as Minister of Finance, to assist Irish language projects beyond the vested interests of already established organisations. Even in the first Dáil Éireann, few speeches were delivered as Gaeilge (in Irish), with the exception of formal proceedings. None of the recent taoisigh (plural of 'Taoiseach', meaning 'prime minister') has been fluent in Irish, of the recent Presidents only Mary McAleese - Máire Mhac Ghiolla Íosa - (though Mary Robinson/Máire Mhic Róíbín studied the language to improve her fluency while in office; the President of Ireland does take her inauguration 'Declaration of Office' in Gaelic, but that too is optional.
Even modern parliamentary legislation, through supposed to be issued in both Irish and English, is frequently only available in English. Much of publicly displayed Irish is ungrammatical, thus irritating both language activists and enemies of the language and contributing to the public image of the revival as phony and bogus. In 2002, at the launch of Dublin's new traffic management system, it was revealed that the vast majority of signs would be in English only. The justification offered was that, in making the English lettering large enough to be easily read by motorists from a distance, there was no space to include Irish. The use of the single Irish words left, 'An Lár' (meaning city centre terminus) was criticised on the basis that no-one would know what it meant, even though it was a term used widely for decades on street signs. Even the once common method in Ireland of beginning and ending letters (beginning 'A Chara' (meaning friend) and ending 'Is Mise le Meas') is becoming rarer.
On balance, the overly enthusiastic promotion of Irish by the political and cultural elite from the 1920s did more harm than good to the language's longterm prospects. Instead of winning over people to the concept that they could speak Irish, they attempted to follow a process of saying they must speak Irish. That created a backlash that made many people more determined than ever not to. The language went into long-term decline, with Gaeltacht areas (exclusively Irish speaking areas) shrinking as the results of each national census returns were analysed. Today, most people even in what are officially Gaeltacht areas, no longer speak the language. In a last ditch effort to stop the complete collapse of Irish-speaking in Connemara in Galway, new planning controls have been introduced to ensure that only Irish speakers will be given permission to build homes in Irish speaking areas. But even this may be too little, too late, as many of those areas have a majority of English-speakers, with most Irish speakers being bilingual, using English as their everyday language except among themselves.
Attempts have been made to offer some support for the language through the media, notably the launch of Raidió na Gaeltachta[?] (Gaeltacht radio) and Teilifís na Gaeilge[?] (Irish language television, called initially 'TnaG', now completely renamed TG4[?]). Both have had limited success. While TG4 has offered Irish-speaking young people a forum for youth culture in gaelic (through rock and pop shows, travel shows, dating games as Gaeilge (in Irish), and even a controversial award-winning 'soap opera' in Irish called 'Ros na Rún' (featuring among others an Irish-speaking gay couple and their child!) most of TG4's viewership comes from showing European soccer matches and films in English.
In 1938, the founder of the Conradh na Gaeilge, Douglas Hyde, was inaugurated as the first President of Ireland. The record of his delivering his inauguration 'Declaration of Office' in his native Roscommon Irish remains almost the only surviving remnant of anyone speaking in that dialect, which in effect died out with him. Over sixty years later, the majority of the Gaeltacht and Irish speaking areas in existence as he took that oath, no longer exist.
In spite of all the efforts since Ireland achieved independence (some critics claim because of those efforts) the Irish language is in rapid and perhaps terminal decline in the Republic of Ireland. According to data compiled the Irish Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, only one quarter of households in Gaeltacht areas possess a fluency in gaelic. The author of a detailed analysis of the survey, Donncha Ó hÉallaithe, described the Irish language policy followed by Irish governments a 'complete and absolute disaster.' The Irish Times (January 6, 2002), referring to his analysis, which was initially published in the Irish language newspaper Foinse, quoted him as follows: 'It is an absolute indictment of successive Irish Governments that at the foundation of the Irish State there were 250,000 fluent Irish speakers living in Irish-speaking or semi Irish-speaking areas, but the number now is between 20,000 and 30,000.'
According to the language survey, levels of fluency among families is 'very low', from 1% in Galway suburbs a maximum of 8% parts of west Donegal. With such sharp decline, particular among the young, the real danger exists that Irish Gaelic will largely become extinct within two generations, possibly even one. While the language will continue to exist among English speakers who have learned fluency and are bilingual (though mainly English-speaking in their everyday lives) Gaeltachtaí embody more than just a language, but the cultural context in which it is spoken, through song, stories, social traditions folklore and dance. The death of the Gaeltachtaí would make a break forever between Ireland's cultural past and identity and its future. All sides, irrespective of their view on the methodology used by independent Ireland in its efforts to preserve the language, agree that such a loss would be a cultural tragedy of monumental scale.
Although Irish has been used as a literary language for more than thousand years, and in a form intelligible to contemporary speakers since at least the sixteenth century, modern Irish literature is thought to begin with the revival movement. To start with, the revivalists preferred the style used at the latest stages of classical Irish, notably by Geoffrey Keating[?] (Seathrún Céitinn) in his History of Ireland, or Foras Feasa ar Éirinn[?]. However, Keating's Irish was soon ousted by popular dialects especially championed by the priest and native speaker from the Coolea-Muskerry area, Peadar Ó Laoghaire, who in the 1890s published, in a serialised form, a folkloristic novel strongly influenced by the storytelling tradition of the Gaeltacht, "Séadna". His other works include the autobiography "Mo Scéal Féin" and retellings of classical Irish stories as well as a recently reissued adaptation of Don Quixote.
Ó Laoghaire was soon followed by Patrick Pearse, who was to be executed as one of the leaders of the Easter Rising. Pearse learnt Irish in Ros Muc and wrote sentimental stories about the Irish-speaking countryside, as well as nationalistic poems in a more classical, Keatingesque style.
Pádraic Ó Conaire wrote realistic, even naturalistic stories about the life of Irish emigrants in England about the turn of the century; he was also one of the first people ever to use Irish for journalism. His most important book is his only novel, "Deoraíocht" ("Diaspora"), which combines realism with absurd elements. He was to die in the nineteen twenties, not yet fifty years old. He was actually a civil servant, but became something of a mythical figure of the folklore.
In the nineteen twenties, researchers went to the Gaeltacht to record the lives of native speakers in authentic dialect. The most well-known books of this crop were the autobiographies from Great Blasket Island, "Peig" by Peig Sayers, "An tOileánach" ("The Islandman") by Tomás Ó Criomhthain[?], and "Fiche Bliain ag Fás" ("Twenty Years a-Growing") by Muiris Ó Súilleabháin. As the books - especially "Peig" - were often edited to become more suitable to the ideological ends of the Catholic Free State and used in an indoctrinatory way in school tuition, they were often resented by pupils and gave the language a bad press.
Arguably the most interesting of the Gaeltacht autobiographies is Micí Mac Gabhann's "Rotha Mór an tSaoil" - translated into English as "The Hard Road to Klondyke[?]", written in Ulster Irish. As the English title shows, it deals with the Klondyke gold rush, "ruathar an óir", at the end of the nineteenth century, but also with the hardship Irish gold-rushers had to endure on their way to "tír an óir", the gold country.
Another newcomer of the nineteen twenties was the prolific writer of rural novels, Séamus Ó Grianna (pen name "Máire"). Although he has been justly praised for his beautiful, rich Ulster dialect, he was not a very original artist, and even his best novels were kept from being reprinted by his unnecessarily hostile attitude towards the new standard orthography, which he deemed unsuitable to his dialect. He was not interested in modernising or developing Irish language, and avoided newly coined words and terms. Towards his death, "Máire" became violently anti-Irish language, indeed lending his support to a movement of anti-Irish language activists euphemistically calling themselves the Language Freedom Movement.
Indeed, Séamus Ó Grianna's most important contribution to modern literature in the language might be the fact that he persuaded his brother Seosamh to write in Irish. Seosamh was a less prolific and less fortunate writer than his brother, and was stricken by a severe depressive psychosis in 1935, so that he had to spend the rest of his life - more than fifty years - at a psychiatric hospital. Before his psychosis, however, he was able to finish a novel about the arrival of modern times in his own Gaeltacht, called "An Druma Mór" - "The Big Drum", or "The Fife and Drum Band", as well as an introspective travelogue, "Mo Bhealach Féin" - "My Own Way". His last novel, "Dá mBíodh Ruball ar an Éan" - "If the Bird Had a Tail" - a study of the alienation of a Gaeltacht man in Dublin - was left unfinished, a fact suggested by the book title.
Both brothers were acknowledged translators. Séamus translated Walter Scott's Ivanhoe into Irish, while Seosamh's work in this field includes the Irish versions of Joseph Conrad's Almayer's Folly[?], in Irish "Díth Céille Almayer", as well as Peadar O'Donnell[?]'s "Adrigoole", in Irish "Eadarbhaile".
Modernist literature was developed further by Máirtín Ó Cadhain, a schoolmaster from Connemara, who was the Irish-language littérateur éngagé par excellence. He was not only active in the IRA - he spent the Emergency years, - i.e. the years of the Second World War - at a detention camp in Curach Chill Dara (Curragh, County Kildare[?]) together with other IRA men. At the camp, he wrote his modernist masterpiece, the novel Cré na Cille - "The Clay of the Churchyard". Reminiscent of some Latin American novels (notably Redoble por Rancas[?] by Manuel Scorza[?], or Pedro Páramo[?] by Juan Rulfo), this novel is a chain of voices of the dead speaking from the churchyard, where they go on forever quarrelling about their bygone life in their village. The novel is a resounding refutation of the romantic view of the Gaeltacht typical of the early years of the linguistic revival: Ó Cadhain shows clearly that there are social conflicts inside the Gaeltachtaí[?], too.
In addition to Cré na Cille, Máirtín Ó Cadhain wrote several collections of short stories (one "short" story, Fuíoll Fuine in the collection An tSraith dhá Tógáil, can count as a short novel): "Idir Shúgradh agus Dáiríre", "An Braon Broghach", "Cois Caoláire", "An tSraith dhá Tógáil", "An tSraith Tógtha", "An tSraith ar Lár". An important part of his writings are his journalism, essays, and pamphlets, that can be found in such collections as "Ó Cadhain i bhFeasta", "Caiscín", and "Caithfear Éisteacht".
Máirtín Ó Cadhain was a great stylistic innovator. Although his Irish was very much his native dialect - even in such contexts where a less dialectal style would have been appropriate - he was not afraid of enriching his Irish with constructed neologisms and loan words from other dialects including Scots Gaelic.
In the nineteen nineties, several important works emerged out of his posthumous papers, notably the two novels, "Athnuachan" and "Barbed Wire" - the latter one being an experimental, Joycesque novel in Irish, despite its English title.
The Swinging Sixties even took place in Ireland's Gaelic literature, where writers such as Diarmuid Ó Súilleabháin - the author of the novel "Caoin Thú Féin" - introduced the seedier side of life as a worthy subject to write about in Irish. Unashamed depiction of sex has been possible in the language at least since Breandán Ó hEithir's seventies classic "Lig Sinn i gCathú". Among contemporary writers, these possibilities are especially fondly exploited by the Aran Islands priest Pádraig Standún, who writes easy-to-read, often shamelessly sexual novels which regularly deal with controversial matters of contemporary debate, and the Kerry raconteur Maidhc Dainín Ó Sé, whose rather Hollywoodesque novels, written in a vigorous but rather untidy Munster vernacular with relatively strong admixture of English, tend to be mostly about sex and violence, and at least one, Lilí Frainc, is somewhat unsound.
Abbeyleix - Mainistir Laoise
Ardee - Baile Átha Fhirdhia
Arklow - An tInbhear Mór
Ballina - Béal an Átha
Belfast - Béal Feairsde
Belmullet - Béal an Mhuirthead
Carrantuohill - Carn an Tuathail
Carrickfergus - Carraig Fhearghusa
Clifden - An Clochán
Connemara - Conamara
Cork - Corcaigh
Dalkey - Deilginis
Drogheda - Droichead Átha
Dublin - Baile Átha Cliath
Falls Road - Bóthar na bhFál
Galway - Gaillimh
Glasnevin - Glas Naíon
Kilmainham - Cill Mhaighneáin
Kylemore Abbey - Mainistir na Coille Móire
Limerick - Luimneach
Lisdoonvarna - Lios Dún Bhearna
Londonderry - Doire Cholm Cille
Mayo - Maigh Eó
Milltown Malbay - Sráid na Cathrach
Shankill Road - Bóthar na Seanchille
Waterford - Port Láirge
Westport - Cathair na Mart
Wexford - Loch gCarman
Wicklow - Cill Mhantáin