The Irish Language

Irish, Irish Gaelic, and Gaelic are all names used in English to describe the language of Ireland that was spoken throughout the island until the arrival of the British in 1169 initiated the colonial era and as many textbooks put it, “The End of Gaelic Ireland.” “Gaeilge” is the Irish form of the word. Here in Ireland, I hear “Gaelic” used most often, but when there’s a need to distinguish it from other Gaelic languages such as Scottish Gaelic, which branched off from Middle Irish, the words Irish or Irish Gaelic are used.

Irish Gaelic is an official language of the Republic of Ireland and of the European Union. Throughout the Republic, street and town signs and many other signs and official documents appear in both English and Gaelic. According to the 2011 census, about 93,000 people in Ireland use it as their daily language, with about 1.3 million using it regularly. The language is a required subject in school, and members of the government are expected to be able to speak it. Just recently, a newly appointed government minister with responsibility for the Gaelic language areas of the country (the “Gaeltacht”) was sent to summer language school to improve his command of Irish, and Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams is currently brushing up his skills at state expense.

I’ve been studying Irish for eight years, and my progress has been painfully slow, but learning it has added immeasurably to my understanding of Ireland and especially of its literature. It’s a difficult language, having few cognates with English and retaining most of its grammatical forms (whereas English has been simplified over the centuries). For example, prepositions are conjugated, so you have to learn six forms for words like “of,” “for,” and “in,” some of them very strange. Pronunciation is extremely difficult and changes drastically with the introduction of slight modifications to indicate case, tense, etc. accents on vowels also affect pronunciation and meaning (For example, “Seán” is the boy’s named pronounced “Shawn” and “sean” [no accent] is prounced “shan” prhymes with “fan”] and means “old.”). There are also strong regional variations in pronunciation, primarily in Ulster, Connacht, and Munster. My teacher Geraldine Duffy, had a Munster accent, so I would no sooner learn how to say a challenging word when I’d hear it said differently by someone from Galway or Donegal. I’ve given this blog its Gaelic title, An Radharc d’Anseo, to prod myself to use words and phrases in the language now and then. Fortunately for you, you don’t have to hear me try and pronounce them.

Here’s a very good link to pronunciation explained in detail, and this excellent online Irish dictionary includes regional variants in pronunciation with audio clips.