Irish (Gaeilge) is a Goidelic language spoken in Ireland. The language is sometimes referred to in English as Gaelic (SAMPA: /"geIlIk/), Irish Gaelic, or Erse, but is more generally referred to in Ireland as the Irish language or simply Irish. Use of the term Irish also avoids confusion with Scottish Gaelic (Gàidhlig na h-Alba), the closely-related language spoken in Scotland and usually referred to in English as simply Gaelic (SAMPA: /"gAlIk/).
Irish has recently received a degree of formal recognition in Northern Ireland, under the Good Friday Agreement alongside the varieties of Lowland Scots spoken in Northern Ireland.
There are pockets of Ireland where Irish is spoken as a traditional, native language. These regions are known as Gaeltachtaí (sing. Gaeltacht). The most important ones are in Connemara (Conamara), including Aran Islands (Oileáin Árann) in County Galway (Contae na Gaillimhe), and the west coast of County Donegal (Contae Dhún na nGall), in Irish called Tír Chonaill, and the Dingle peninsula (Corca Dhuibhne) in County Kerry (Contae Chiarraí). Others exist in Mayo (Contae Mhaigh Eo), Meath (Contae na Mí), and Waterford (Contae Phort Láirge).
The numerically strongest Gaeltachtaí are those of Connemara and Aran. The highest percentages of Irish speakers are found in Ros Muc, Connemara, and around Bloody Foreland (Cnoc na Fola) in Tír Chonaill.
There are a number of distinct dialects of Irish. Roughly speaking, the three major dialect areas coincide with the provinces of Munster (An Mhumhain), Connacht (Connachta), and Ulster (Ulaidh).
Munster Irish is spoken in the Gaeltachtaí of Kerry (Ciarraí), Muskerry (Múscraí), Cape Clear ("Oileán Cléire") in the western part of County Cork (Contae Chorcaí), and the tiny pocket of Irish-speakers in An Rinn near Dungarvan (Dún Garbháin) in County Waterford (Contae Phort Láirge). The most important subdivision in Munster is that between Decies Irish (spoken in Waterford) and the rest of Munster Irish.
Some typical features of Munster Irish are:
- The use of personal endings instead of pronouns with verbs, thus "I must" is in Munster caithfead, while other dialects prefer caithfidh mé (mé means "I"). "I was and you were" is Bhíos agus bhís in Munster but Bhí mé agus bhí tú in other dialects.
- In front of nasals and "ll" some short vowels are lengthened while other are diphthongised.
- A copula-construction involving is ea is frequently used.
The strongest dialect of Connacht Irish is to be found in Connemara and the Aran Islands. In some regards this dialect is quite different from general Connacht Irish but since most Connacht dialects have died out during the last century Connemara Irish is sometimes seen as Connacht Irish. Much closer to the traditional Connacht Irish is the very threatened dialect spoken in the region on the border between Galway (Gaillimh) and Mayo (Maigh Eo). The remnants of the Irish of Tourmakeady (Tuar Mhic Éadaigh) in southern Mayo and Joyce Country (Dúthaigh Sheoige) are considered the living Irish dialects closest to Middle Irish. The northern Mayo dialect in Erris (Iorras) is in grammar and word-building essentially a Connacht dialect, but shows an affinity in vocabulary with Ulster Irish.
Connemara Irish is very popular with learners, thanks to Mícheál Ó Siadhail' s teach-yourself textbook Learning Irish. However, there are features in Connemara Irish which are not accepted standard, notably the preference for verbal nouns ending in -achan, such as lagachan instead of lagú = "weakening". The non-standard pronunciation with lengthened vowels and heavily reduced endings give Connemara-Irish its distinct sound.
The most important of the Ulster dialects today is that of the Rosses (na Rosa), which has been used extensively in literature by such authors as the brothers Séamus and Seosamh Mac Grianna, locally known as Jimí Fheilimí and Joe Fheilimí. This dialect is essentially the same as that in Gweedore (Gaoth Dobhair), the same dialect used by native speaker Enya and her siblings in Clannad.
Ulster Irish sounds very different and shares several unusual features with Scottish Gaelic, as well as having lots of characteristic words and shades of meanings. However, since the demise of those Irish dialects spoken natively in what is today Northern Ireland, it is probably exaggerated to see Ulster Irish as an intermediary form between Scottish Gaelic and the southern and western dialects of Irish. Indeed, Scottish Gaelic does have lots of non-Ulster features in common with Munster Irish, too.
One noticeable trait of Ulster Irish is the use of the negative participle cha(n), in place of the Munster and Connaught version ní. Even in Ulster, cha(n), most typical of Scottish Gaelic, has ousted the more common ní only in easternmost dialects (including the now defunct ones once spoken in what is now Northern Ireland). The practice seems to be that cha(n) is most usually used when answering to a statement, either confirming a negative statement (Níl aon mhaith ann - Chan fhuil, leoga = "It is no good" - "Indeed it isn't") or contesting an affirmative one (Tá sé go maith - Chan fhuil! = "It is good" - "No, it isn't!"), while ní is preferred in answering a question (An bhfuil aon mhaith ann? - Níl = "Is it any good?" - "No").
The Irish of Meath is a special case. It belongs to the Connemara dialect, as the Irish-speaking community in Meath is simply a group of mostly Connemara speakers who moved there in the nineteen thirties, after a land reform campaign spearheaded by Máirtín Ó Cadhain, subsequently the greatest modernist writer in the language.
The differences between dialects are considerable, and have led to recurrent difficulties in defining standard Irish. Even everyday phrases can show startling dialectal variation: the standard example is "How are you?":
- Ulster: caidé mar atá tú? ("what is it as you are?")
- Connacht: cén chaoi a bhfuil tú? ("what way [is it] that you are?")
- Munster: conas tánn tú? ("how are you?")
In recent times, however, contacts between speakers of different dialects have become more common, and mixed dialects have originated. Nevertheless, many dialect speakers (especially Ulster) are still jealously trying to guard their own variety against influences from other dialects. Among non-native speakers, this can be seen as a quest for authenticity. Regional accents are commonly taught to non-natives and imitated: an urban non-native speaker of Irish in Cork City (Cathair Chorcaí) is very probably trying to emulate Coolea or Kerry dialect; one from Belfast (Béal Feirste) tends to speak an Irish modelled on the Rosses dialect of Donegal; and Galwegian Irish-speakers, living next door to Connemara, will do their best to sound like a Connemara native.
There also exists a cant called Shelta, based primarily on Irish, in use by the Irish Travellers.
The most unfamiliar features of the language are the orthography, the initial mutations, and the use of two different verbs for "to be". However, initial mutations are found in other Celtic languages (as well as in some Italian and Sardinian dialects, as an independent development).
Like other Indo-European languages, Irish has the usual verb conjugations, but also has different forms for dependent and independent clauses. For example, "John was here" is:
Bhí Seán anseo.
However, to say "I'm sure [that] John was here", requires a different verb tense:
Tá mé cinnte go raibh Seán anseo.
This tense is also used in the interrogative:
An raibh Seán anseo? - "Was John here?"
Another feature of Irish grammar is the use of prepositional pronouns. For example, the word for "at" is ag, which combines with the pronoun "me" (which is mé), to form agam "at me". This is used with the verb bi ("to be"), to form the closest equivalent of the verb "to have".
|Tá leabhar agam.||(ag + mé)||"I have a book."|
|Tá deoch agat.||(ag + tú)||"You have a drink."|
|Tá ríomhaire aige.||(ag + é)||"He has a computer."|
|Tá páiste aici.||(ag + í)||"She has a child."|
|Tá carr againn.||(ag + sinn)||"We have a car."|
|Tá teach agaibh.||(ag + sibh)||"You (plural) have a house."|
|Tá airgead acu||(ag + iad)||"They have money."|
This is similar to the use of the word du in French, which is a compound of de (of) and le (the).
Compare with Breton:
|Ur levr zo ganin||"I have a book."|
|Ur banne zo ganit||"You have a drink."|
|Un urzhiater zo ganti||"He has a computer."|
|Ur bugel zo gantañ||"She has a child."|
|Ur c'harr zo ganomp||"We have a car."|
|Un ti zo ganeoc'h||"You (plural) have a house."|
|Arc'hant zo ganto||"They have money."|
The Copula (An Chopail)
In order to describe what or who someone is, as opposed to how and where, the copula, known in Irish as an chopail is used. This has been likened to the difference between the verbs ser and estar in Spanish and Portuguese, although this is only a rough approximation. The copula, which in the present tense is is, is usually demonstrative:
- Is fear é. "It is a man."
- Is Sasanaigh iad. "They're English."
When saying "this is", or "that is", seo and sin are used:
- Seo í mo mháthair. "This is my mother."
- Sin é an muinteoir. "That's the teacher."
One can also add "that is in him/her", especially when using an adjective, when it is desired to emphasise the quality:
- Is fear láidir atá ann. "He's a strong man."
- (Literally: "It is a strong man that is in him.")
- Is cailín álainn atá inti. "She's a beautiful girl."
- (Literally: "It is a beautiful girl that is in her.")
This sometimes appears in Hiberno-English, either translated literally as "that is in it", or as "so it is".
The written language looks, to those unfamiliar with it, like a lot of unusual consonantal combinations and vowels everywhere! Once understood, the orthography is relatively straightforward. The acute accent, or síneadh fada (´), serves to lengthen the sound of the vowels and in some cases also changes their quality. For example, in Munster Irish (Kerry), a is /uh/ or /ah/ and á is /aw/ in "law" but in Ulster Irish (Donegal), á tends to be /ah/ lengthened.
About the time of World War II, Séamas Daltún, in charge of Rannóg an Aistriúcháin or the official translators department, issued his own guidelines about how to standardise Irish spelling and grammar. This de facto standard was subsequently approved of by the State and called the Official Standard or Caighdeán Oifigiúil. It simplified and standardized the orthography. Many words had silent letters removed and vowel combination brought closer to the spoken language. Where multiple versions existed in different dialects for the same word, one or more were selected.
- Gaedhealg / Gaedhilg(e) / Gaedhealaing / Gaeilic / Gaelainn / Gaoidhealg / Gaolainn => Gaeilge, "Irish language" (Gaoluinn or Gaolainn is still used in books written in dialect by Munster authors, or as a facetious name for the Munster dialect)
- Lughbhaidh => Lú, "Louth"
- biadh => bia, "food" (The orthography biadh is still used by the speakers of those dialects, which show a meaningful and audible difference between biadh - nominative case - and bídh - genitive case: "of food, food's". For example, in Munster Irish the latter ends in an audible -g sound, because final -idh, -igh regularly becomes -ig in Munster pronunciation.)
Modern Irish has only one diacritical sign, the acute (á é í ó ú), known in Irish as the síneadh fada or simply fada. The dot-above diacritic, called a ponc, a sí buailte, or simply buailte a mark of aspiration used over consonantal letters in the pre-Caighdeán orthography, has been ousted by the leniting h, added immediately after the consonantal letter. It can still be seen in use where a 'traditional' style is required, e.g. the motto on the University College Dublin coat-of-arms or the symbol of the Irish Defence Forces, and it has been provided for in Unicode and Latin-8 character sets (see Latin Extended Additional chart PDF).
- uisce "water" (pron. "eeshke")
- bainne "milk" (pron. "bainie")
- iasc "fish" (pron. "eeask")
Irish consonants are either palatalised or plain (velarised/labialised). Palatalised consonants are also called "soft" or "slender" (caol in Irish); plain consonants are also called "hard" or "broad" (leathan in Irish). (This contrast also occurs in many Slavic languages, such as Russian.)
In principle, the quality of the consonant depends on the neighbouring vowels: a preceding or following a, o, or u makes the consonant broad, while i and e make the consonant slender. This is the general idea; however, historical developments have led into a situation where vowel letters are often used as otherwise mute indicators of consonantal quality. Thus, in a word such as seol (meaning "sail, send"), the -e- is just an indicator of the s- having a palatal pronunciation, i.e. approximately as the English "sh" sound.
In Irish, there are two classes of initial mutations:
- Lenition (in Irish, séimhiú "softening") describes the change of stops into fricatives. Indicated in old orthography by a dot (called a sí bualite) written above the changed consonant, this is now shown by adding an extra -h-:
- caith! "throw!" - chaith mé "I threw" (this is an example of the lenition as a past-tense marker, which is caused by the use of do, although this is now usually omitted)
- margadh "market", "market-place", "bargain" - Tadhg an mhargaidh "the man of the street" (word for word "Timothy of the market-place" (here we see the lenition marking the genitive case of a masculine noun)
- Seán "Seán, John" - a Sheáin! "O John!" (here we see lenition as part of what is called the vocative case - in fact, the vocative lenition is triggered by the a or vocative marker before Sheáin)
- Nasalisation (in Irish, urú "eclipsis") covers the voicing of voiceless stops, as well as the true nasalisation of voiced stops.
- athair "father" - ár nAthair "our Father"
- tús "start", ar dtús "at the start"
- Gaillimh "Galway" - i nGaillimh "in Galway"
- Sionnain "Shannon" - An tSionnain "the [river] Shannon"
History and politics
The Irish Language Movement
The Irish language was the most widely spoken language on the island of Ireland until the 19th century. The first Bible in Irish was translated by William Bedell, Church of Ireland Bishop of Kilmore in the 17th century.
A combination of the introduction of a primary education system (the 'National Schools'), in which Irish was prohibited and only English taught by order of the British Government in Ireland, and the Great Famine (An Drochshaol) which hit a disportionately high number of Irish language speakers (who lived in the poorer areas heavily hit by famine deaths and emigration), hastened its rapid decline. Irish political leaders, such as Daniel O'Connell (Dónall Ó Conaill), too were critical of the language, seeing it as 'backward', with English the language of the future. Contemporary reports spoke of Irish-speaking parents actively discouraging their children from speaking the language, and encouraging the use of English instead.
Some, however, thought differently. The initial moves to save the language were championed by Irish unionists, such as the linguist and Protestant clergyman William Neilson, in the end of the eighteenth century; the major push occurred with the foundation by Douglas Hyde, the son of a Church of Ireland rector, of the Gaelic League (known in Irish as Conradh na Gaeilge) which started the Gaelic Revival. Leading supporters of Conradh included Pádraig Mac Piarais and Éamon de Valera. The revival of interest in the language coincided with other cultural revivals, such as the foundation of the Gaelic Athletic Association and the growth in the performance of plays about Ireland in English, by such luminaries as William Butler Yeats, J.M. Synge, Sean O'Casey and Lady Gregory, with their launch of the Abbey Theatre.
Even though the Abbey Theatre playwrights wrote in English (and indeed some disliked Irish) the Irish language affected them, as it did all Irish English speakers. The version of English spoken in Ireland, known as Hiberno-English bears striking similarities in some grammatical idioms with Irish. In contrast to English as spoken in England, Hiberno-English offers a greater range of expression. Some have speculated that even after the vast majority of Irish people stopped speaking Irish, they perhaps subsconsciously used its grammatical flair in the manner in which they spoke English. This fluency is reflected in the writings of Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde and more recently in the writings of Seamus Heaney, Paul Durkan, Dermot Bolger and many others. (It may also in part explain the appeal in Britain of Irish-born broadcasters like Terry Wogan, Eamonn Andrews, Graham Norton, Desmond Lynam, etc.)
This national cultural revival of the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century matched the growing Irish radicalism in Irish politics. Many of those, such as Pearse, de Valera, W.T. Cosgrave (Liam Mac Cosguir) and Ernest Blythe (Earnán de Blaghd), who fought to achieve Irish independence and came to govern the independent Irish state, first became politically aware through Conradh na Gaeilge, though Hyde himself resigned from its presidency in 1915 in protest at the movement's growing politicisation.
A Church of Ireland campaign to promote worship and religion in Irish was started in 1914 with the founding of Cumann Gaelach na hEaglaise (the Irish Guild of the Church). The Roman Catholic Church also replaced its liturgies in Latin with Irish and English for their liturgies following the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s.
Independent Ireland & the language
The independent Irish state from 1922 (The Irish Free State 1922-37; Éire from 1937, also known since 1949 as the Republic of Ireland) launched a major push to promote the Irish language, with some of its leaders hoping that the state would become predominantly Irish-speaking within a generation. In fact, many of these initiatives, notably compulsory Irish at school and the requirement that one must know Irish to be employed in the civil service, proved counter-productive with generations of school-children alienated by what was often heavily-handed attempts at indoctrination, that created a cultural backlash. Demands that children learn seventeenth century Irish poetry, or study the life of Peig Sayers (a Gaelic speaker from the Blasket Islands) whose accounts of her life, as recounted in Irish language books, though fascinating, was taught in a poor manner, left a cultural legacy of negative reactions among generations, all too many of whom deliberately refused to use the language once they left school.
The emergence of a new, more pragmatic and technocratic leadership in the beginning of the sixties, with Seán Lemass as Taoiseach, marked the shift in the attitude of Ireland's dominant élites towards the language. Whereas the first three presidents of Ireland (Douglas Hyde/Dubhghlas de hÍde, Sean T. O'Kelly/Seán T. Ó Ceallaigh and Eamon de Valera) and the fifth (Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh) were all so fluent in Irish that it became the working language in their official residence, later presidents struggled with any degree of fluency, its use declining to such an extent that it is only used now (if at all) in occasional speeches. Similarly, where earlier generations of Irish government leaders were highly fluent, recent prime ministers (Albert Reynolds/Ailbhe Mag Raghnaill, John Bruton, Bertie Ahern) had little fluency, they struggling to pronounce passages of their speeches in Irish to their Ard-Fheiseanna (party conference(s), pronounced 'Ord Esh-ana') .
It is, though, disputed to what extent such professed language revivalists as de Valera genuinely tried to Gaelicise political life. Ernest Blythe did little, in his day as Minister of Finance, to assist Irish language projects beyond the vested interests of already established organisations. Even in the first Dáil Éireann, few speeches were delivered as Gaeilge (in Irish), with the exception of formal proceedings. None of the recent taoisigh (plural of 'Taoiseach', meaning 'prime minister') have been fluent in Irish, of the recent Presidents only Mary McAleese (Máire Mhac Ghiolla Íosa) and Mary Robinson/Máire Mhic Róíbín are fluent, though the latter studied the language to improve her fluency while in office. Presidents of Ireland do take their inauguration 'Declaration of Office' in the language, but that too is optional).
Even modern parliamentary legislation, through supposed to be issued in both Irish and English, is frequently only available in English. Much of publicly displayed Irish is ungrammatical, thus irritating both language activists and enemies of the language and contributing to the public image of the revival as phony and bogus.
Many public bodies have Irish language or bilingual names, but some have downgraded the language. For example, Eircom (formerly Telecom Eireann) effectively dropped Irish from its telephone directories in 1999. An Post, the Republic's postal service, continues to have place names in the language on its postmarks, as well as recognising addresses.
In an effort to address the half-committed attitude of Irish language use by the State, the Official Languages Act was passed in 2003. This act ensures that every publication made by a governmental body must be published in both official languages, Irish and English. In addition, the office of Official Languages Commissioner has been set up to act as an ombudsman with regard to equal treatment in both languages.
English and Irish.
In 2002, at the launch of what was to be a new traffic management system for Dublin, it was revealed that the vast majority of signs would be in English only. The justification offered was that, in making the English lettering large enough to be easily read by motorists from a distance, there was no space to include Irish. The use of the single Irish words left, 'An Lár' (meaning city centre) was criticised on the basis that no-one would know what it meant, even though it was a term used widely for decades on street signs. Even the once common method in Ireland of beginning and ending letters (beginning 'A Chara' (meaning friend) and ending 'Is Mise le Meas') is becoming rarer.
On balance, the overly enthusiastic promotion of Irish by the political and cultural elite from the 1920s did more harm than good to the language's longterm prospects. Instead of winning over people to the concept that they could speak Irish, they attempted to follow a process of saying they must speak Irish. That created a backlash that made many people more determined than ever not to. The language went into long-term decline, with Gaeltacht areas (exclusively Irish speaking areas) shrinking as the results of each national census returns were analysed. Today, most people even in what are officially Gaeltacht areas, no longer speak the language. In a last ditch effort to stop the complete collapse of Irish-speaking in Connemara in Galway, new planning controls have been introduced to ensure that only Irish speakers will be given permission to build homes in Irish speaking areas. But even this may be too little, too late, as many of those areas have a majority of English-speakers, with most Irish speakers being bilingual, using English as their everyday language except among themselves.
Attempts have been made to offer some support for the language through the media, notably the launch of Raidió na Gaeltachta (Gaeltacht radio) and Teilifís na Gaeilge (Irish language television, called initially 'TnaG', now completely renamed TG4); both have had limited success. TG4 has offered Irish-speaking young people a forum for youth culture as Gaeilge (in Irish) through rock and pop shows, travel shows, dating games, and even a controversial award-winning soap opera in Irish called Ros na Rún (featuring, among other characters, an Irish-speaking gay couple and their child). Most of TG4's viewership, however, tends to come from showing European soccer matches and films in English.
In 1938, the founder of the Conradh na Gaeilge, Douglas Hyde, was inaugurated as the first President of Ireland. The record of his delivering his inauguration 'Declaration of Office' in his native Roscommon Irish remains almost the only surviving remnant of anyone speaking in that dialect, which in effect died out with him. Over sixty years later, the majority of the Gaeltacht and Irish-speaking areas in existence as he took that oath, no longer exist.
Attitudes towards the Irish language in Northern Ireland have traditionally reflected the political differences between its two divided communities. The language has been regarded with suspicion by Unionists, who have associated it with Catholic dominated Republic in the south, and more recently, with the republican movement in Northern Ireland itself. Many republicans in Northern Ireland, including Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams, learnt Irish while in prison. The language was not taught in Protestant schools, and public signs in Irish were effectively banned under laws by the Parliament of Northern Ireland, which stated that only English could be used.
This was not formally lifted by the British Government until the early 1990s. However, Irish-medium schools, known as gaelscoileanna had been founded in Belfast and Derry, and an Irish-language newspaper called Lá ('day') was established in Belfast. BBC Radio Ulster began broadcasting a nightly half-hour programme in Irish in the early 1980s called Blas ('taste', 'accent'), and BBC Northern Ireland also showed its first TV programme in the language in the early 1990s. The Ultach Trust was also established, with a view to broadening the appeal of the language among Protestants, although hardline Unionists like the Reverend Ian Paisley continued to ridicule it as a 'leprechaun language'. Ulster Scots, was, in turn, ridiculed by nationalists as 'a DIY language for Orangemen'.
The Irish Language Today
In spite of all the efforts since Ireland achieved independence (some critics claim because of those efforts) the Irish language is in rapid and perhaps terminal decline in the Republic of Ireland. According to data compiled the Irish Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, only one quarter of households in Gaeltacht areas possess a fluency in Gaelic. The author of a detailed analysis of the survey, Donncha Ó hÉallaithe, described the Irish language policy followed by Irish governments a 'complete and absolute disaster.' The Irish Times (January 6, 2002), referring to his analysis, which was initially published in the Irish language newspaper Foinse, quoted him as follows: 'It is an absolute indictment of successive Irish Governments that at the foundation of the Irish State there were 250,000 fluent Irish speakers living in Irish-speaking or semi Irish-speaking areas, but the number now is between 20,000 and 30,000.'
According to the language survey, levels of fluency among families is 'very low', from 1% in Galway suburbs to a maximum of 8% parts of west Donegal. With such sharp decline, particularly among the young, the real danger exists that Irish will largely become extinct within two generations, possibly even one. While the language will continue to exist among English speakers who have learned fluency and are bilingual (though mainly English-speaking in their everyday lives) Gaeltachtaí embody more than just a language, but the cultural context in which it is spoken, through song, stories, social traditions folklore and dance. The death of the Gaeltachtaí would make a break forever between Ireland's cultural past and identity, and its future. All sides, irrespective of their view on the methodology used by independent Ireland in its efforts to preserve the language, agree that such a loss would be a cultural tragedy of a monumental scale.
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