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    Historical overview

Periods in Irish English
Archaic forms
Northern Irish English


Ireland is divided into four provinces of roughly equal size, Leinster, Munster, Connaught and Ulster (from the east in clockwise direction). Each province consists of a number of counties, 32 in all. The Republic of Ireland consists of 26 counties, the remaining six form the state of Northern Ireland (a part of the United Kingdom). The northern province of Ulster actually consists of nine counties, three of which are within the Republic (Donegal, Cavan and Monaghan). All the main cities of Ireland are located at the estuaries of rivers. In general, the cities were either established or properly developed during the Viking period (the 9th and 10th centuries) as the English names often show, Waterford, Wexford, etc. The Republic of Ireland shows a strong concentration of population in the centre of the east coast in the Dublin metropolitan area where now almost a third of the population lives (about one million people). The second largest city is Cork (about 150,000), followed at some distance by Limerick, Waterford and Galway. The main urban centre in Northern Ireland is Belfast (with a population of about 300,000) followed by the city of Derry (sometimes called Londonderry following the renaming of the city by the English in the early seventeenth century).

Topographically the most significant feature of Ireland is the generally hilly and mountainous rim of the island. The centre of the country is largely flat, particularly on the banks of the Shannon, the longest river in the British Isles, which rises in the north and flows in a southerly direction entering the sea beyond Limerick. The most important urban settlement on the Shannon is Athlone. Ireland is poor in mineral deposits but rich in soil which made it traditionally a largely agricultural country. The quality of the land is best in the east and south, the west of the country has suffered from natural erosion and overpopulation, particularly in the eighteenth and the early nineteenth century. Apart from agriculture, most of the Irish are employed in service industries, many of which have arisen during the past two decades with increased economic growth.

Ireland has a temperate climate, with mild winters and cool summers. There is considerable rainfall throughout the entire year which results in rich vegetation, the abundance of natural growth is responsible for the traditional label for Ireland, the Emerald Isle.

Historical map of four Irish towns (from top left in clockwise direction: Galway, Dublin, Cork and Limerick)

Periods in Irish English

1) First period Late twelfth century to approximately 1600

The coming of the Anglo-Normans at the end of the twelfth century from the coast of West Wales to the coast of South-East Ireland initiated a long period of involvement of England with Ireland. The English language became established on the east coast in a band from Dublin down to Waterford. English was above all present in the towns. Anglo-Norman – and of course Irish – were to be found in the countryside. Increasing Gaelicisation in the centuries after the initial invasion led to the demise of English outside the major towns. The low point for English lies in the sixteenth century with Irish in a correspondingly strong position.

The Pale is the area around medieval Dublin where English influence was greatest. This influence lasted from the late twelfth to the late fifteenth century, but even in Dublin the influence of Irish was increasingly felt the regaecilisation which reached its zenith during the sixteenth century. The English phrase ‘beyond the Pale’ derives from this time when the English population regarded the native culture outside of the Pale as barbaric.

The county of Kildare, west/south-west of Dublin, is the probable source of the main document of Irish English in the early period. It gives the name to a collection called the Kildare Poems, some 16 items in the manuscript MS Harley 913, housed in the British Museum.

The following is an extract from the poem The Land of Cockaigne, one of the famous pieces in the collection. The language of the poems has a general West Midland Middle English character but with many features from Irish, which may well have been the native language of the author or authors.

The city of Dublin has two names: the first Dublin means ‘black pool’ from Irish Dubh Linn, a term used particularly by the Vikings and Anglo-Normans, the Anglicisation of which gives us the English name of the city. The second, and that used in Irish today, is Baile Átha Cliath which means ‘town at the hurdled/fortified ford’. The Vikings established the modern settlement of Dublin in the late 10th century. The English reached the city by 1170 and since then the English language has been present there. The vintage of Dublin English in certainly responsible for its phonological profile which is unique among varieties of present-day English.

2) Second period 1600 to the present-day

This began in the early seventeenth century. The position of English was strengthened by the decisive military defeat for the Irish at Kinsale in 1601. The north of the country was particularly affected with settlers from Lowland Scotland moving across to Ulster and establishing a firm presence there. Later on in the seventeenth century, there were plantations in the south of the country which were more successful than those of the previous century in the centre and south-west. By the end of the seventeenth century, the position of English was unassailable and the general decline of Irish set in. The eighteenth century was a largely peaceful period, but there was considerable emigration from the north of the country to the New World. Various setbacks affected the status of Irish, notably periods of famine, the most significant of which was the Great Famine in the late 1840´s, after which mass emigration to Britain and North America took place, depleting the Irish-speaking population of the country.

Archaic forms of Irish English

It is true to say that there is a general hiatus between the first and second periods of Irish English. There are, however, two exceptions to this statement. English survived in Dublin city and the sound system of that urban dialect offers evidence of very early settlement, that is before the modern period. In particular medieval Irish English seems to have existed into the early modern period in an area to the immediate north of Dublin called Fingal. A few short documents in the variety of this area have survived.

The English language from the first period also survived as a remnant dialect in the area of Forth and Bargy, named after two baronies in the southeast of the country in County Wexford. There are various remarks by travellers to Ireland about the unusual nature of this dialect. At the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth centuries respectively, two glossaries were compiled for the dialect which offer some evidence of its linguistic features.

Northern Irish English

There is a general division of varieties of Irish English between the north and south. The northern varieties are to be found north of a line which runs roughly from County Sligo in the west to County Louth in the east. Scholars working in the field generally recognise three main groups: 1) Ulster-Scots, 2) Mid Ulster English, 3) English resulting from the historical shift from Irish. Ulster Scots derives from the plantation of Ulster by the Scots which began in the early seventeenth century and which was strongest on the northern rim of Ulster (north Derry, Antrim and coastal Down). These varieties were certainly more widespread formerly but are generally recessive today and may be losing their distinctive profile, despite attempts today to establish language status for Ulster Scots. Mid Ulster English is a cover term used for varieties of English which stem from the northern English settlers to central parts of Ulster from the seventeenth century onwards. The third group consists of varieties, to be found especially in the west of Ulster and perhaps in the counties of Tyrone and Armagh, which show features originating in the historical shift from Irish to English (which lasted longest in the areas just mentioned) and not primarily due to the influence of English settler speech.

Belfast is it the largest city in Northern Ireland followed by Derry. Dialectally it lies at the intersection of Ulster Scots and Mid Ulster English, a fact of importance for its particular linguistic features. There are descriptions of Belfast English going back to the mid-nineteenth century, but for present-day sociolinguistics the importance of Belfast lies in the fact that it was investigated by James and Lesley Milroy during the 1970s and early 1980s in their seminal work on social networks and their linguistic manifestation.




Barry, Michael V. 1982. “The English language in Ireland”, In Bailey and Görlach (eds), 84-133

Bliss, Alan J. 1984. “English in the south of Ireland”, In Peter Trudgill (ed.) Language in the British Isles. Cambridge: University Press, pp. 135-51

Harris, John. 1984. “English in the North of Ireland”, In Peter Trudgill (ed.) Language in the British Isles. Cambridge: University Press, pp. 115-34

Harris, John. 1993. “The grammar of Irish English”, In James Milroy and Lesley Milroy (eds). Real English. The Grammar of the English Dialects in the British Isles. London: Longman, pp. 139-86

Hickey, Raymond. 1999. “Dublin English: Current changes and their motivation”, In Paul Foulkes and Gerry Docherty (eds) 1999. Urban Voices. London: Edward Arnold, pp. 265-81.

Hickey, Raymond. 2004. “Irish English: phonology”, In Bernd Kortmann, Kate Burridge, Rajend Mesthrie, Edgar W. Schneider and Clive Upton. A Handbook of Varieties of English. Volume 1: Phonology, Volume 2: Morphology and Syntax. Berlin / New York: Mouton de Gruyter, pp. 68-97.

Hickey, Raymond. 2006. “Southern Irish English”, In David Britain (eds) Language in the British Isles. Second edition. Cambridge: University Press

Filppula, Markku. 1993. “Changing paradigms in the study of Hiberno-English”, Irish University Review 23.2: 202-23.

Filppula, Markku. 2004. “Irish English: morphology and syntax”, In Bernd Kortmann, Kate Burridge, Rajend Mesthrie, Edgar W. Schneider and Clive Upton. A Handbook of Varieties of English. Volume 1: Phonology, Volume 2: Morphology and Syntax. Berlin / New York: Mouton de Gruyter, pp. 73-101.

Kallen, Jeffrey L. 1994. “English in Ireland”, In Robert Burchfield (ed.) English in Britain and Overseas. Origins and Development. The Cambridge History of the English Language. Vol. 5. Cambridge: University Press, pp. 148-96.

Kallen, Jeffrey L. 1997. “Irish English: Context and contacts”, In Kallen (ed.), 1-33.

McCafferty, Kevin. 2006. “Northern Irish English”, In David Britain (eds) Language in the British Isles. Second edition. Cambridge: University Press

Sullivan, James P. 1980. “The validity of literary dialect: Evidence from the theatrical portrayal of Hiberno-English”, Language and Society 9: 195-219.