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Dialects of Irish


The development of Irish has been closely connected to that of English ever since the latter language was introduced to Ireland in the late 12th century. In general the principle holds, that the expansion of English has been to the detriment of Irish. This is because English expanded in previous centuries chiefly by original Irish speakers switching to English. The spread of English has been largely from east to west, from the better to the poorer parts of the country.

The situation at the beginning of the settlement period was, however, favourable to Irish. It is true that some English settled on the east coast chiefly in towns such as Waterford, New Ross, Kilkenny and Dublin. But the leaders of this early settlement were clearly the Normans from west Wales and they settled in the countryside where they built their fortified castles known as ‘keeps’. The Normans assimilated linguistically to the surrounding Irish and many loanwords from French entered the Irish language in the process. The increasing Gaelicisation of the so-called ‘Old English’ population (English settlers in Ireland before the Reformation) continued well into the 15th century.

The fortunes of Irish changed considerably in the late 16th century when the native lords of Ulster were defeated by the English. This led to their departure from Ireland (in the Flight of the Earls from Lough Swilly in 1607) and to the widespread settlement of Ulster, chiefly by Lowland Scots encouraged to do this by their compatriot, King James I of England (1603-1625).

The political vacuum caused by Flight of the Earls was filled by the Scottish and English in Ulster. The system of plantation which was promoted by the English government of the time meant that the better lands of Ulster and much of the south of Ireland was reserved for English-speaking settlers and the Irish were banished to the poorer parts of the country, such as the area of the Sperrin Mountains in central Tyrone where Irish survived into the 20th century.


Publishing in Irish

The renewed domination by the English meant that there was little chance of Irish authors having their work published in Ireland. Instead they turned to the continent, above all to the city of Louvain near Brussels which was and is home to an Irish college (founded in 1607) and where many Irish language books appeared in the late 16th and 17th centuries (see list in the Bibliography module). The Royal University of Leuven has a Centre for Irish Studies.

Dialects of Irish


When the old Gaelic order came to an end at the beginning of the 17th century the system of patronage for Irish poets and scholars also declined rapidly. With that the use of a classical standard of written Irish declined as well and in the course of this century traces of dialects appear more and more in Irish documents (Williams 1994: 447). It is certain that Irish had already become dialectally diverse but because of the nature of the textual record, features of the dialects did not show up in writing.

The exclusion of Irish from public life resulted from the Penal Laws, a collective term for anti-Catholic, i.e. anti-Irish, legislation which greatly diminished the standing of the language and its speakers in Irish society. With further developments of the 17th century, notably the campaigns and expulsions by Oliver Cromwell in the late 1640s and early 1650s, language shift from Irish to English began on a wide scale. This was a process which was never to be reversed. Other major demographic events, especially the Great Famine of the 1840s and the subsequent mass emigration, led to a serious drop in the numbers of Irish speakers so that by the late 19th century the Irish-speaking districts were fragmented into three areas, Cork-Kerry, Galway-Mayo and Donegal with a very small enclave in Waterford.


The major differences in pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary, which can be observed today, probably go back to the early classical period but were masked by the use of an artificial written standard by the bardic classes. Although there is no geographical continuity of Irish-speaking areas along the western seaboard today, one can nonetheless maintain that forms of western Irish (in Galway) are intermediary between the south and north, for instance they show palatalisation of dental stops which have practically no palatalisation in the south, but which have been shifted to corresponding affricates in the north. The prosodic system supports the claim that western Irish is intermediary between the north and south. While the south has stress on non-initial long syllables, the west has initial stress with full vowel values for long syllables and the north has the same stress system as the west, but with shortening of original long vowels in non-initial syllables. These three possibilities can be illustrated by a word like scadán ‘herring’: south: [skəˡdɑ:n], west: [ˡskʊdɑ:n], north: [ˡskadan].

Map 1: Locations of present-day and former Irish-speaking districts

( Click on the any of the location labels in the above map to listen to typical sound files )

The size of the Irish-speaking areas has been continually shrinking over the past few centuries (Hindley 1990, Ó Cuív (ed.) 1969). This trend has not been arrested despite the efforts of the government of Ireland since independence in 1922 to support these areas by improving their infrastructure and generally offering financial assistance to the communities of Irish speakers. The following map shows additional areas where Irish was still spoken in the early 20th century.

Map 2: Additional areas where Irish was spoken up to the early 20th century

The term for an Irish-speaking area is Gaeltacht ‘Irish region’, plural Gaeltachtaí (Ó Riagáin 2007). In present-day Ireland a distinction is made between two types of Gaeltacht, depending on the numbers of Irish-speakers living there: (1) Fíor-Ghaeltacht, lit. ‘true Irish-area’ refers to those areas with a high-percentage of speakers (though the threshold for this has not been officially defined) and (2) Breac-Ghaeltacht, lit. ‘part Irish-area’ which has considerably fewer Irish speakers. Occasionally, the English-speaking areas are referred to collectively as Galltacht ‘region of the non-Irish’, the stem Gall- meaning ‘foreign(er)’.

The standard dialect survey of Irish is Heinrich Wagner’s comprehensive atlas (see Wagner 1958-64). But even when this was being compiled in the mid twentieth century the speakers were older males whose Irish was frequently moribund. The situation today is that large tracts of both halves of Ireland have no historically continuous Irish-speaking areas any more. There are no such areas in Northern Ireland or in Leinster. In Munster there are remnants in Ring in Co. Waterford and in Muskerry in Co. Cork. along with a more robust community at the end of the Dingle peninsula in Co. Kerry. The community on Clear Island off the south-west coast of Cork contains virtually no native speakers, see Ó Buachalla 2003 for a treatment of this dialect.

Irish in Mayo receded dramatically in the second half of the twentieth century, so that the studies of de Búrca (1958) and that of Mhac an Fhailigh (1968) are now of largely historical interest. The areas in coastal Co. Galway and on the two minor Aran Islands, as well as that on Tory Island in Donegal and the mainland opposite it, represent the most vibrant communities today.


Hindley, Reg 1990. The death of the Irish language. A qualified obituary. London: Routledge.

McCone, Kim et al. 1994. Stair na Gaeilge. In ómós do Pádraig Ó Fiannachta [The history of Irish, in honour of Patrick O’Finaghty] St. Patrick’s College, Maynooth [National Unversity of Ireland]: Department of Irish.

Ó Cuív, Brian (ed.) 1969. A view of the Irish language. Dublin: Stationary Office.

Wagner, Heinrich 1958-64. Linguistic atlas and survey of Irish dialects. 4 Vols. Dublin: Institute for Advanced Studies.

Williams, Nicholas 1994. ‘Na canúintí a theacht chun solais’ [The coming to light of the dialects], in: McCone et al. (eds), pp. 447-78.