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.
THE IRISH LANGUAGE
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.
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.
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.
earliest times Irish has been cultivated for literature and
learning. It in fact possesses one of the oldest literatures
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
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
THE IRISH IN THIS BOOK
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
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.
Irish", written by Mícheál Ó Siadhail, was first
published in 1980 by the Dublin Institute for Advanced