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    Why study Irish?

There are many reasons why students and scholars should wish to study the Irish language, both in its historic forms and as it is found today. Click on any label in the following box to read a short text.

Society and literature Language
The heritage of the Celts A very different language
The earliest vernacular Writing about language
Epic literature Language contact and shift
Law, genealogy and saints Dialects and language change
Later literature Language and society

The heritage of the Celts

The Irish language is a descendant of Common Celtic, an early stage of a branch of the Indo-European language family in which features specific to later Celtic languages became apparent. The Celts come to light in the first millennium BC and are known from two main archaeological strands: the Hallstatt Culture (c 800-450 BC) from Austria and the La Tène Culture (c 450-100 BC) from Switzerland. The earliest linguistic remains of Celtic are to be found in inscriptions from Gaul and the Iberian peninsula. The forms of Celtic which developed on the British Isles from the first few centuries BC onwards can be divided into P-Celtic (later Welsh, Cornish, Breton) and Q-Celtic (later Irish, Scottish Gaelic, Manx). In Britain, varieties of Celtic – called Brythonic – were spoken throughout the entire island (including the north as can be seen from names like Cumbria). These came under pressure after the Roman invasion in 55 BC and later on after the Germanic invasions which began in 449AD, according to historical tradition.

For those interested in the Indo-European family, the Celtic languages form an interesting subbranch. They developed means of compensating for the loss of inherited inflections from the proto-language. In Celtic, low-level phonetic changes at the beginning of words came to be functionalised and signalled such essential grammatical categories as number and gender with nouns as well as tenses and mood with verbs. These changes are known as initial mutations. Furthermore, the etymologies in Irish vocabulary are interesting as they are a mixture of inherited Indo-European items and clearly non-Indo-European ones. There has been much speculation about the possible sources of the latter and linguists are still not agreed about these.

The earliest vernacular

The Irish language is the oldest vernacular, i.e. not Latin or Greek, to be found in northern Europe from the first centuries AD. Up to this most writing was done by monks who wrote in Latin. The very first forms of Irish are found as interlinear glosses in manuscripts written on the continent of Europe (chiefly in the regions which were later part of Germany, Austria, Switzerland and northern Italy). The Irish words were translations of Latin written into holy texts. These texts are called after the places where the manuscripts were probably compiled, e.g. the St. Gallen or the Würzburg Glosses. Later secular poetry came to be written in Irish, the most famous short piece is probably Pangur Bán, a tribute by an early monk to a cat.

Epic literature

The most important piece of literature from the Old Irish period is Táin Bó Cúailnge ‘The Cattle Raid of Cooley’ (the same name as the Cooley peninsula in present-day Co. Louth in north Leinster) and is part of a number of stories known as the Ulster Cycle. It tells the story of an epic battle between warriors from Ulster and from Connacht resulting from the theft of a prize brown bull from the Ulstermen. The latter were at first beset by a mysterious weakness but later roused and fought the Connacht warriors in battles of mythical proportions. The Táin is a truly heroic story from the pre-Christian era and contains many potent images such as that of the dying Cúchalainn tied to a post so that he can face his enemies in death. Many of the characters are still known to this day, above all Cúchulainn, the young Ulster defender, but also Maeve (Medb), the queen of Connacht.

The Táin was handed down in two versions, the first contained in Lebor na hUidre ‘The Book of the Dun Cow’ (late 11th, early 12th century from the monastery at Clonmacnoise) and the second contained in The Yellow Book of Lecan from the 14th century. These versions are partial and show some overlap. The present-day editions are derived by combining recensions (revised texts) from these books to render a whole.

The best-known translation of The Táin was made in 1969 by the Irish poet Thomas Kinsella in 1969. In 2007, a new translation (Penguin Classics) by the northern Irish poet Ciaran Carson was published to great acclaim. Another famous Irish poet, Seamus Heaney, did a translation in 1999 of a further famous epic, this time from Old English: Beowulf which in many ways is to English literature what The Táin is to Irish.

Law, genealogy and saints

There are a number of Old Irish law tracts from the 7th to 9th centuries which have been brought together as the Corpus Iuris Hibernici ‘Corpus of Irish Law’. These cover issues of inheritance and family status/liability. They also deal with questions of honour and retribution for crimes committed where the status of the injured parties was crucial. Celtic Ireland was divided into many small kingdoms which were usually dominated by single families. Genealogy was thus important for questions of succession and ownership of land. In the pre-Norman era the genealogies of great Irish families were traced back to the origins of the Gaels (a subject matter found in the Lebor Gabála ‘Book of Invasions’) and later manuscript collections from the late 14th and early 15th centuries such as The Book of Ballymote and The Yellow Book of Lecan contain important genealogical information.

Writing lives of saints – hagiography from Greek hagios ‘saint’ – constitutes an important part of early Irish writing. Lives were written of the two foremost male and female Irish saints: there are two lives of Saint Patrick in The Book of Armagh and there is a life of St. Brigid (late 5th / early 6th century) – Vita Brigitae – by the Kildare monk Cogitosus. Another famous life is that of St Colum Cille by Admonán (7th century monk and abbot on Iona), the Vita Columbae. Because these lives were written by monks, they are generally in Latin but are there versions or parts in Old Irish, e.g. a life of St. Brigid.

Later literature

The history of Irish, from the 7th century onwards, is accompanied by varied literature, both fictional and non-fictional. From the Middle Ages there is religious and visionary literature along with poetry, some of this by people of Old English (Anglo-Norman) stock such as Gearóid Iarla ‘Gerald the Rhymer’, the Third Earl of Desmond (1338-1398).

Later on, in the early modern period, literature appears which is concerned with portraying native Irish culture and defending it against hostile English views. Above all one should mention here Foras Feasa ar Éirinn ‘Foundation of knowledge about Ireland’ by (Geoffrey Keating / Seathrún Céitinn, c 1580-1644) and Annála Ríoghachta Éireann ‘Annals of the Kingdoms of Ireland’ by Micheál Ó Cléirigh (1575-1643). Later the latter work came to be known as Annals of the Four Masters because of the three scholars who assisted Ó Cléirigh.

The early modern period is known for single works like Cúirt an Mheán-Oíche (‘The midnight court’, c 1780) by Brian Merriman (?1745-1805) and the Lament for Art O’Leary written by the widow of the individual in the poem’s title. There was also much quality poetry by many different authors, chiefly from the south-west of Ireland. There are also bilingual works from Dublin such as Stair Éamuinn Uí Chléire ‘The story of Eamonn O’Cleary’ (c 1715) by Seán Ó Neachtain (?1650-1729).

Irish literature in the twentieth century is often taken to have begun with the novel Séadna (1904) by the priest Peadar Ua Laoghaire (1839-1920). During this century, much dialect literature arose, for instance surrounding the Blasket Islands in Co. Kerry, e.g. Tomás Ó Criomhthain (1856-1937) An tOileánach ‘The islander’ (1928), Muiris Ó Súileabháin (1904-1950) Fiche bliain ag fás ‘Twenty years agrowing’ (1933) and Peig Sayers (1873-1958) Machnamh seanmhná ‘An old woman’s reflections’. Seosamh MacGrianna (1901-1990), author of Mo bhealach féin ‘My own way’, was a prominent writer from Co. Donegal while Liam Ó Flaithearta (1897-1984), author of many works in English and Irish including Dúil ‘Desire’ (1953), and Mairtin Ó Cadhain (1907-1970) author of many books including Cré na cille ‘Soil of the churchyard’ (novel), An braon broghach ‘The dirty drop’ (short stories) are major writers from the Aran Islands and Connemara respectively. The twentieth century has also seen much poetry written in Irish, e.g. by poets such as Máirtín Ó Direáin (1910-1988), Seán Ó Ríordáin (1917-1977) and Máire Mhac an tSaoi (1922-).

There is also much literature on the folktales and folklore of Ireland which has been assembled by such collectors and writers of the late 19th and early 20th century as Douglas Hyde (1862-1949), P. W. Joyce (1827-1914) and the American-born Jeremiah Curtin (1835-1906).

A very different language

On all levels the structure of Irish is quite different from other languages in western Europe, e.g. English, German, Spanish, French, etc. Coming from English one notices that the pronunciation is radically different. The grammar of the language has a different organisation from English and the vocabulary shows few if any words which are readily recognisable to speakers of another Indo-European language.

For those wishing to gain a working knowledge of Irish, there are definite stumbling blocks. Chief among these are the inconsistent orthography and the lack of a pronunciation standard (three different dialects are spoken in present-day Ireland, none of which is accepted as the standard).

For students and scholars of language, the linguistic otherness of Irish is part of its attraction. Linguists are interested in the structure of languages and what is possible in human language as a whole. Hence, languages like Irish, which show statistically unusually structures, are worthy of examination.

Level Salient features
Pronunciation Sounds which are not found in English, e.g. /x/ gach /gax/ ‘every’ and /ɣ/ dhá /ɣ/ ‘two’. A systematic distinction between palatal and non-palatal sounds. Combinations of sounds which are unusual, e.g. /tl-/ an tslí ‘the way’, /mr-/ mná ‘woman-GEN’ (western pronunciation), /gn-/ gníomh ‘act’.
Grammar Grammatical gender with a distinction between masculine and feminine nouns, e.g. an clár [MASC] ‘the programme’, an fhadhb [FEM] ‘the problem’. A formally marked genitive which is very widespread in the language: Bhí go leor ama aici. [was enough time-GEN at-her] ‘She had enough time.’, Beidh sé ag cur báistí amárach [will it at put-VERBAL NOUN rain-GEN tomorrow] ‘It will be raining tomorrow.’

Verb-first word order in declarative sentences, e.g. Bhí mé amuigh faoin spéir inné [was I out under-the sky yesterday] ‘I was out in the open yesterday’. The lack of an infinitive, instead a so-called verbal noun is used, e.g. Caithfidh sí dul thar lear. [must she go-VERBAL NOUN abroad] ‘She must go abroad’.

A very different manner of expressing verbs of state and emotion, e.g. Tá teach nua againn [is house new at-us] ‘We have a new house’, Tá díoma mór air faoin fhorbairt sin. [is disappointment big on-him under-the development that] ‘He is very disappointed about that development’.

Vocabulary An almost complete lack of so-called neoclassical compounds. This means that words like ‘geography’ have a very different form in Irish, i.e. tíreolas [country-knowledge]. The Irish compounds can be quite productive, e.g. dlíeolas [law-knowledge] ‘forensics’, but it means that students have to learn the roots and affixes used in the language to reach equivalents to the many words based on Latin or Greek in English (or other European languages).

Irish has a comprehensive system of prefixes which are used to form new words, e.g. ath- ‘re-’ is found in athbheochan ‘revival’, athchóiriú ‘to renovate’, etc., do- ‘un-, in-’ occurs in dochreidte ‘incredible’, doleigheasta ‘incurable’, il- ‘many, poly-’ is used in ildaite ‘colourful’, ilghnéitheach ‘various’, ilteangach ‘multi-lingual’, etc.

Writing about language

Starting with Auraicept na n-Éces ‘The poet’s primer’ from the Old Irish period and moving through the Middle and Early Modern Irish periods down to the present-day one finds much literature with descriptions of the Irish language. These writings offer insights into how scholars in previous centuries saw their own language often – as in the Bardic Tracts (1200-1600) – with the purpose of teaching good literary style, but also with the purpose of explaining the structure of the language as a central aspect of native culture. Many of these books appeared in the 17th and 18th centuries in Louvain in Belgium (a centre of Irish learning) because publishing in Irish was not possible in Ireland.

In the course of the 19th century the attention of European linguists turned to Celtic. These scholars were concerned with reconstructing the Indo-European language (the proto-language which was still spoken about 3,000 BC and from which nearly all languages in Europe and many in the Near East and Southern Asia derive). Among these linguists were Kaspar Zeuß (author of the first grammar of Celtic in 1853) and Alfred Holder. Both wrote extensive descriptions of Celtic and placed it centre-stage in the field of language studies in their day. At the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century other scholars came to the fore, notably Holger Pedersen who wrote a monumental Vergleichende Grammatik der keltischen Sprachen ‘Comparative grammar of the Celtic languages’ (3 vols, published in 1913) and Rudolf Thurneysen whose Handbuch des Altirischen ‘Handbook of Old Irish’ (1909) has remained a classic in the field (an English translation – A grammar of Old Irish – appeared in 1946).

Language contact and shift

The history of Irish during the past few centuries has been closely connected with that of the English language in Ireland. Especially since the 18th century a major language shift has taken place with successive generations acquiring English rather than Irish as their native language. This shift affected the type of English spoken in Irish and many structure in Irish English derive from Irish and were transferred to the target language English by bilingual speakers during the language shift. To understand the precise nature and source of much of Irish English it is necessary to look at the structure of Irish.

Those interested in the development of the English language in Ireland and its interaction with Irish might care to look at the following website: Irish English Resource Centre.

Dialects and language change

Ó Tuathaigh, Gearóid, Liam Lillis Ó Laoire and Seán Ua Súilleabháin (eds) 2004. Pobal na Gaeltachta. A sceál agus a dhán. [The people of the Irish-speaking area. Their story and their art] Second edition. Indreabhán: Cló Iar-Chonnachta.

At least since the late 19th century, the dialect regions in Ireland were no longer linked up together geographically. The dialects of Co. Clare disappeared completely in the 20th century so that there is no longer any bridge between southern and western Irish. The dialects of north Galway have virtually disappeared as have those of southern Mayo so there is no longer a connection between Irish as it is still spoken in part of north-west Mayo and Irish as it is found in the Gaeltacht of Connemara.

Although this situation is regrettable from the point of view of the Irish speech community, it means that there are several dialects of present-day Irish with divergent but related features which are of linguistic interest. Furthermore, the dialects offer information about the development of regions. For instance, the Irish of north-west Mayo has many features in common with that in Co. Donegal. This is due to in-migration of people from west Ulster to this region in the 17th century; their speech maintained its northern flavour through the generations that followed.

Language and society

Nic Pháidín, Caoilfhionn and Seán Ó Cearnaigh (eds) 2008. A New View of the Irish Language. Dublin: Cois Life.

The position of Irish in present-day Ireland offers an opportunity for people interested in language and society to consider the situation of the language. Spoken as a native language in historically continuous areas by not more than 50,000 people, Irish is quantitively not a significant language. But it is used by a much larger section of the population throughout the island of Ireland as a second language and is generally regarded as the carrier of native Irish culture. The groups outside the Gaeltacht (Irish-speaking regions) are just as important for the survival of the language in future generations. It is not certain whether the native speakers in the Gaeltacht will continue speaking Irish as an everyday language. The pressure from English is very great and young native speakers may succumb to this and switch to English as their most commonly used language, especially if they are living and/or working outside the Gaeltacht. But the many committed non-native speakers have a strong dedication to the language and it may be this section of the Irish population which will carry the language forward.