Irish is one of the many languages spoken across Europe and as far east as India, that trace their descent from Indo-European, a hypothetical ancestor-language thought to have been spoken more than 4,500 years ago. Irish belongs to the Celtic branch of the Indo-European family. It and three other members of this branch – Scottish Gaelic, Welsh and Breton – are today alive as community languages.

    The form of Celtic that was to become Irish was brought to Ireland by the invading Gaels – about 300 B.C. according to some scholars. Later it spread to Scotland and the Isle of Man. Scottish Gaelic and Manx gradually separated from Irish (and, more slowly, from each other), and they can be thought of as distinct languages from the seventeenth century onwards. The term 'Gaelic' may be used to denote all three.

    It appears that the early Irish learned the art of writing at about the time of their conversion to Christianity, in the fifth century. After that, the language can be seen to go through four stages of continuous historical development, as far as its written form is concerned: Old Irish (approximately A.D. 600 - 900), Middle Irish (c. 900 - 1200), Early Modern Irish (c. 1200 - 1650), and Modern Irish. Throughout this development Irish borrowed words from other languages it came into contact with, pre-eminently from Latin, from Norse, from Anglo-Norman (a dialect of French), and from English.

    From the earliest times Irish has been cultivated for literature and learning. It in fact possesses one of the oldest literatures in Europe.


    In the 16th century, Irish was the language of nearly everyone in Ireland. The educated and upper classes, moreover, were familiar with a standardised literary dialect, Classical Irish, used throughout the Gaelic world. This dialect was the special care of poets, who used it most notably for intricate verse in praise of the Gaelic and Norman-Gaelic aristocracy, their patrons.

    When, in the 17th century, that aristocracy was annihilated or dispersed and the Bardic schools suppressed, Classical Irish began to die out (though its spelling, with modifications, survived until the spelling reform of 1945). Popular dialects, which undoubtedly had always been present in Irish, as in any language, came to the fore.

    Though cultivated less and less by a literary class, Irish was still spoken throughout the countryside and to some extent in the towns, including Dublin. But the language of many of the new colonists was English; the language of government, of politics, of schooling, and of every sort of material advancement was also now English. Not surprisingly, Irish gradually retreated, in time ceasing to be the majority language and eventually becoming the almost exclusive property of some of the rural poor. Yet since the population was increasing enormously, there were probably more Irish-speakers than ever before on the eve of the Great Famine (1846-48), which, hitting the poorest hardest, changed the picture drastically.

    Ireland became, for the most part, a nation speaking what is called Hiberno-English, a dialect (or set of dialects) of English much influenced by Irish. The Irish language itself survived, as a community language, only in the isolated and shrinking rural districts we call the Gaeltacht.

    At the end of the 19th century a movement to restore Irish grew up and became popular. It eventually played an important part in the struggle for national independence, and thus, since the winning of formal political independence for most of the country in 1922, it has been official government policy, in name at least, to preserve the Gaeltacht and to make Irish the vernacular of the majority elsewhere.

    There has been little success in doing either. Looking at the Gaeltacht, we see that in 1925 its population was found (no doubt over-optimistically) to be 257,000 of whom 12,000 were monoglots; today its population is probably less than 30,000 of whom very few are monoglots. Looking at the rest of the country ('Galltacht') we see that Irish is spoken little and, moreover, is now declining disastrously in the schools (which were given, mistakenly, almost the whole responsibility for its restoration). In 1941, for example, 12% of primary schools used Irish as their teaching medium; in 1970 only 6% did. In 1937-8 some 28% of secondary pupils were in schools using Irish as their teaching medium; in 1972 only about 2.8% were.

    This is not to say that there has been no progress. A small minority throughout the country, particularly in the larger cities, speak Irish in their homes and try to live as full a cultural life as such a minority can. Furthermore, in the last few years, the young people in the Gaeltacht have shown a will to determine their own fate. But the wish to see Irish restored, which reports and surveys have consistently shown to be that of a majority of the Irish people, remains a wish not acted upon, This much seems certain: the future of the language will be decided, one way or another, before the end of this century.


    Two hundred years ago a good speaker of Irish, travelling slowly from Kerry to Antrim (and on to the north of Scotland), could have spoken the language all the way and noticed only minute dialectal changes as he passed from place to place. One dialect shaded into another in the most gradual fashion.

    Today, however, the Irish-speaking areas are separated geographically by wide stretches of English-speaking territory, and their dialects would seem fairly distinct to a man going from one Irish-speaking area to another. A good speaker of any dialect can, with a little practice, understand any other fully, but the old linguistic and communicative bridges between them have fallen, and they have tended to drift apart. We may hope that this drift has been stopped in recent years by broadcasting in Irish and by increased social contact between people from the various Gaeltachtaí.

    In such circumstances, what sort of Irish should one teach to beginners?  A dialect must be used, for though there has been one Official Standard of Irish spelling since 1945, there is as yet no standard pronunciation. No one dialect, however, has established itself as socially superior. A choice must be made.

     The Irish in this book with regard to pronunciation and grammar is based on that of Cois Fhairrge, Co. Galway, and the vocabulary is that which might be expected from a native speaker who has assimilated a modicum of newly-coined terms. The dialect of Cois Fhairrge has some decided advantages for the learner, since it is fairly central, geographically and linguistically, and since it has a relatively large number of native speakers. Furthermore, it has been more fully described linguistically than any other dialect.

    When faced with a large variety of forms within the dialect of Cois Fhairrge, it has sometimes been necessary to make a choice and those forms which seemed to be most common were chosen. No statistics of frequency were available. In the matter of spelling, the Official Standard has been generally adhered to, though for the sake of the learner there have been certain deliberate departures. These are explained in Appendix III. After completing the book the learner should be advanced enough to change over to fully Standard spellings without difficulty.

"Learning Irish", written by Mícheál Ó Siadhail, was first published in 1980 by the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies.