The Irish Language

The Irish Language

Irish (Gaeilge) is an Indo-European language of the Celtic family. It is very similar to Scottish Gaelic (Gaidhlig) and Manx (Gaelg) and like them is descended from Primitive Irish through Old Irish.

Together these three languages are known as Goidelic Celtic or Q-Celtic. Other languages bearing a much more distant relationship are Welsh (Cymraeg), Cornish (Kernowek) and Breton (Brezhoneg). These latter languages are known collectively as P-Celtic.

The decline of the Irish language

As the English strengthened their hold on Ireland in the 17th century, the Irish language started to decline. The status of the language was further weakened immensely in the 1800s when over 2 million people were lost to famine, emigration or disease. Most of these souls would have been Irish speakers.

The language was in dire straights with many people believing as Daniel O Connell did, that Irish was a backward language. They ignored its rich literary tradition. Then the Gaelic League (Conradh na Gaeilge) came into being. It was founded by Douglas Hyde and Eoin Mac Neill in1893 with the express purpose of trying to revive the language and preserve the music, culture, and literature of Ireland. They produced a weekly newspaper, An Claidheamh Soluis, organized Irish classes and organized dances throughout the country.

By 1905 there were over 500 Gaelic League Branches in Ireland. They also were successful in having Irish included in Primary and Secondary School curriculum. It was also compulsory for matriculation at the National University of Ireland.

Methods of teaching Irish

After the foundation of the Irish Free State in 1922, Irish went into a new phase, albeit a negative one. The new government started to force the language upon the people. They used poor teaching methods and made the language compulsory in schools and for all civil servants. Many people took an active dislike to the language due to the heavy handed manner that was used in trying to promote it. In the 1950’s and 1960’s a new standardised version of the language An Caighdeán Oifigiul was introduced in order to simplify the spelling of Irish making it easier for English speakers to learn Irish. The Caighdeán was also looked on as a bridge between the dialects.

Dialects of the Irish language

Irish has three main dialects. In the south, there is Munster Irish which is found in Kerry, Cork and Waterford. In the west, there is Connacht Irish which is found in Galway and the Aran Islands. In Mayo, there are many similarities with Ulster Irish caused by the influence of the Irish spoken by the displaced Ulster families at the time of the plantations. There is a small Gaeltacht in Meath which was formed by the relocating of Connacht families during the 1930’s and they retain their original dialect though their accent is now that of Meath. In the north, there is Ulster Irish. This is found mostly in Donegal and is also used by many Irish speakers from Northern Ireland who learned their Irish in the summer colleges of Donegal.

The Gaeltacht

Gaeltacht is the name given to those areas where Irish is the vernacular language. The most populous Gaeltacht is that of South Connemara. Another large Gaeltacht is that of Chorca Dhuibhne on the Dingle peninsula in Kerry. The Donegal Gaeltacht stretches from Teelin in the south of the county up to Gweedore in the north of the county. Staying in Donegal there are also smaller areas on the Rosguil Peninsula and on the Fanad peninsular. Elsewhere in the country, there are two small Gaeltachtaί in Meath and others in Waterford and West Cork.

Irish speakers today

Today, according to Census figure for the Republic of Ireland 1,656,790 people can speak competently in Irish whilst 538,574 use it on a daily basis. In Northern Ireland the 2001 census returns showed 167,487 people have some knowledge of Irish. For the population of the whole of Ireland, this indicates that 1 in 3 of the population have some degree of fluency in Irish.

Last updated March 2, 2020.

About the Author

Pádraig Mac Donnchadha
Pádraig is a fluent Irish speaker with a passion for history, traditional music, and story telling.