Ar ais

What is Irish?

An early form of the Irish language was brought to bronze age Ireland and Britain by the iron age Celts, who inhabited Central Europe some three thousand years ago. The Celtic languages (which are a branch of the an "Indo-European" family of languages) consist of the Continental Celtic languages (consisting of Celtiberian, Gaulish, and Galatian), and the Insular Celtic languages of the so-called British Isles. This Insular group is further divided into the Brythonic group, consisting of Cumbrian, Welsh, Cornish, and Breton of which only Welsh and Breton have survived into modern times, and the Gaidhdelic (or Goidelic) group of Scots Gaelic, Manx Gaelic, and Irish Gaelic (known in Ireland simply as Irish).

Ireland was invaded many times prior to the coming of the Celts. These invaders (Parthalonians, Nemedians, Tuatha De Danann, Fir Bolg and Milesian Celts, to name a few) are all considered to be "ancient" inhabitants of Ireland. It can be assumed that when the Celts eventually succeeded in conquering the country, Ireland was a land of many diverse languages, cultures and peoples (even though the population must have been small). All of these pre-Celtic languages are thought to have had some influence on this earliest form of Irish, between the end of the second millennium B.C. and the fourth century BC. Old Irish is the earliest variant of the Celtic languages in which extensive writings still exist. The earliest Irish writing we know of was in Ogham (sometimes referred to as the "tree-alphabet"), a series of lines and notches cut into the edge of standing stones and other grave markings. When St Patrick set foot on Irish soil in AD 432, he not only brought Catholicism but also the Roman alphabet. Thus from 500-900 A.D., Old Irish, as it is known, was recorded using the Roman alphabet.

The Viking invasions between the eighth and tenth centuries A.D. left lasting traces on the culture and language of the population, and many typically Scandinavian words are found in modern Irish, in particular those relating to ships and navigation. The next settlers, the Anglo-Normans in the twelfth century, brought with them a French influence, most notably on the Irish literature of the period and especially noticeable in the southern dialects.

During the period 1200-1600 Irish was the dominant language in the country, though some within the educated and aristocratic classes were bilingual.

The events of the later sixteenth century and of the seventeenth century for the first time undermined the status of Irish as a major language. The Tudor and Stuart conquests and plantations (1534-1610), the Cromwellian settlement (1654), and the Williamite war (1689-91) followed by the enactment of the Penal Laws (1695), had the cumulative effect of eliminating the Irish-speaking ruling classes and of destroying their cultural institutions. These native chieftains — and the learned class — were forced either to emigrate or go into hiding, and for many people, education continued only in the illegal "hedge schools" — in fields, barns and sheds. The Irish-speaking nobility of Ireland were replaced by a new ruling class, or Ascendancy, whose language was English, and thereafter English was the sole language of government and public institutions. Irish continued as the language of the greater part of the rural population and, for a time, of the servant classes in towns.

From the middle of the eighteenth century, as the Penal Laws were relaxed and a greater social and economic mobility became possible for the native Irish, the more prosperous of the Irish-speaking community began to conform to the prevailing middle-class ethos by adopting English. Irish thus began to be associated with poverty and economic deprivation. This tendency increased after the Act of Union in 1800.

Yet because of the rapid growth of the rural population, the actual number of Irish speakers increased substantially during the first decades of the nineteenth century. In 1835 their number was estimated at four million. This number consisted almost entirely of an impoverished rural population which was decimated by the Great Famine and by resultant mass emigration. By 1891, the number of Irish speakers had been reduced to 680,000 and, according to that year's census of population, Irish speakers under the age of ten represented no more than 3.5% of their age-group.

Towards the end of the eighteenth century the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy had begun to develop an academic interest in the Irish language and its literature. Academic interest later merged with a concern for the survival of spoken Irish as its decline became increasingly evident. Language-related activity grew throughout the nineteenth century and, following the establishment in 1893 of Conradh na Gaeilge (also then known by its English name, The Gaelic League), the objective of maintaining and extending the use of Irish as a vernacular fused with the renewed separatist movement which culminated in the establishment of the Irish Free State (comprised of 26 of Ireland's 32 counties) in 1922.

Within this new Irish state, Irish exists as a community language only in relatively small, discontinuous regions along the western seaboard. These regions are collectively called the Gaeltacht. In the 1991 census, the population of the officially-defined Gaeltacht aged three years and over was 79,563, of whom 56,469 or 71% were returned as Irish-speaking. The number of Irish speakers is a decreasing proportion of the total because, for a variety of complex reasons, some of the indigenous population of the Gaeltacht continue to shift to English, and because new English-speaking households are settling there.

On the other hand, there are many Irish-speaking individuals and families throughout the rest of the country, particularly in Dublin. In the 1991 census, almost 1.1 million people — 32.5% — of the total population aged three years or over, claimed to be proficient speakers of Irish. It is reported that an additional 146,000 Irish speakers live in the six Irish counties that comprise the British-occupied area called "Northern Ireland", and it is estimated that there are over 50,000 Irish speakers outside of Ireland in America, Canada, Australia and many other nations — some of whom are originally from Ireland, while others are foreign-born.

The constitution of the Irish Free State declared Irish to be the national language and the new administration sought to promote the language in various aspects of life in the country. Many schemes were initiated in the 1920s, especially in the public sector, the armed forces and the civil service. By the early 1940s, 55% of primary school children were receiving some or all of their education through the medium of Irish. It was also possible to study subjects via Irish at University. Because of the language movement and the teaching of Irish in the school system, many people have also learned Irish as a second language.

Despite governmental complacency, language advocates have also succeeded in pushing forward important developments and innovations, such as the "Gaelscoileanna" or Irish-medium schools, started by grassroots organizations of parents, "Raidió na Gaeltachta" (Irish-language radio, started as a pirate station in the early 70s), "Teilifís na Gaeilge" (Irish-language television), numerous print publications (Foinse, Cuisle, Comhar, , Saol) and even internet e-zines (Beo, Cumasc).

All in all, the health of the Irish language remains a question of perspective. Is it a glass half empty or half full? It depends upon whom you ask. Language advocates and organizations such as Conradh na Gaeilge continue to work with energy, ethusiasm and determination. Nevertheless, in this age of international commerce and communication, English continues to emerge as the most prevalent language worldwide. Minority languages such as Irish must be carefully fostered and promoted, lest they fall into disuse.

Historical Varieties of Irish

The earliest known form of Irish is preserved in Ogham inscriptions which date mainly from the fourth and fifth centuries A.D. The linguistic information preserved in Ogham is sparse, as the inscriptions contain little more than personal names, but it is sufficient to reveal a form of Gaelic much older than Old Irish, the earliest well-documented variety of the language.

Old Irish was the language of Ireland's "Golden Age", and its classical phase is generally assigned to the period 500-900 A.D. The writings of this era were primarily penned by monks, capturing the sagas, poems and histories both of their own time and of the oral traditions still maintained by Ireland's bardic order. The linguistic, cultural and political stability of the Old Irish period was disrupted by the Viking invasions towards the end of the 8th century which completely disrupted the monastic system. These invasions caused a period of great linguistic change. The term Middle Irish is used to describe the unsettled form of the written form of this period. In comparison with Old Irish, Middle Irish is characterized by a simplification of the inflections of noun and verb and of the system of pronouns.

By 1200 Early Modern Irish, or Classical Modern Irish, had begun to emerge. This is the language of the period of Gaelic resurgence when Old Irish, Norse, Norman, and Old English were largely assimilated into a new Irish-speaking society. This form of Irish lasted from the thirteenth century to the seventeenth as the literary norm for the whole Gaelic world, which comprised Ireland, Gaelic Scotland, and the Isle of Man. During the seventeenth century, as the influence of the old literary schools and learned classes receded, the forms of the written language became increasingly regional in character. In this period the autonomous forms of Modern Irish, Scots Gaelic, and Manx became established. Even so, at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, as the Irish revival gathered momentum, there were many who felt that Classical Modern Irish was still the most appropriate norm for literary purposes. Since the advocates of this view not only used the older grammatical forms, but imitated the ornate and sometimes ponderous style of Early Modern prose, they brought a reaction from writers such as Peadar Ó Laoghaire, Pádraic Ó Conaire, and Pádraic Mac Piarais, who were developing a literary diction based on contemporary speech.

This "Speech of the People" (Cainnt na nDaoine) movement ultimately prevailed and has become what is now considered Modern Irish — though for a short time the written language became quite diversified, as writers experimented with various ways of representing contemporary usage. It was necessary to redefine norms. A new spelling norm (An Caighdeán Oifigiúil) was published in 1945 and, in amended form, in 1947; a new grammatical norm was published in 1953 and, in revised form, in 1958. These are now codified in Niall Ó Domhnaill's official Irish-English dictionary, Foclóir Gaeilge-Béarla, which appeared in 1978.

Today's Irish Dialects

For the past hundred or so years, the areas where Irish is the primary community language have gradually coalesced/contracted into scattered pockets along the western coast of Ireland. Regional differences are still pronounced, despite the efforts of the Irish government to promote a standard spelling (An Caighdeán Oifigiúil) and a centralized pronunciation (Lárchanúint). These regional differences are now grouped into three major dialects:

1. Munster. This dialect is the first language of the western part of the Dingle Peninsula (the westermost part of Europe), including villages such as Dún Chaoin, Baile an Fheirtéaraigh, Baile na nGall, Muiríoch and An Feothanach. It is also the first language of Cuil Aodha in the Cork Mountains. The dialect is also spoken in the easten part of Dingle peninsula, in the Uíbh Ráthach peninsula, on Oileán Cléire and along the river Lee (Laoi) in villages such as Béal Átha an Gaorthaidh, but English dominates in these areas. A subdialect is spoken in An Rinn in Co. Waterford, and is quite strong. Munster is in many ways the most "archaic" dialect, retaining spellings and pronunciations from "pre-reform" Irish. Because of this, its conjugations are a little bit more complicated than the other dialects, but at the same time this adds a certain charm. A great wealth of Irish literature has been written in this dialect.

2. Connacht. This is the largest dialect, and is the main language along the northern coast of Galway Bay in an area stretching from An Spidéal to Carna. Villages in this entirely Irish-speaking area include Indreabhán, An Cheathrú Rua, Tír an Fhia, Ros Muc and Cill Chiaráin; it is also the first language of the Aran Islands. A subdialect is spoken in some villages in Co. Mayo, i.e. Tuar Mhic Eadaigh and Ceathrú Thaidhg, but English has almost succeeded in supplanting the Irish of Mayo. The Connacht dialect is in many aspects halfway between Ulster and Munster. This is, without doubt, the least archaic dialect, and is the quickest dialect to adopt new usages and borrowed words from English.

3. Ulster. This dialect is the main language of northwestern Ireland, the most important villages include Gaoth Dobhair, Bun Beag, Gort a' Choirce, and Rann na Féirste as well as Tory Island. It is also spoken somewhat further south in places like Gleann Cholm Cille, Teileann and Baile na Finne, but English is the first language is these villages. The Ulster dialect is quite different from other Irish dialects, a bit closer to Scottish Gaelic. Admittingly, the dialect shares many features in grammar, vocabulary and pronounciation with Scottish Gaelic, which makes it a bit hard for speakers of other dialects to understand the speakers of this dialect. The differences aren't, however, insurmountable, but it takes some practising before a speaker (or learner) of other dialects can converse with the speakers of Ulster Irish.  Vowel sounds, in particular, are quite different in Ulster than elsewhere.

Changing fortunes of the Irish Language in the 20th Century

Following the establishment of the Irish Free State, the Irish government made it a national priority to help sustain existing Irish-speaking regions to prevent further decline of the language and to attempt to reestablish Irish as the everyday language of the people. Despite the early ethusiasm of these efforts, the methods and resources employed have largely proved ineffectual.

Several reasons are to blame for the failure to halt the decline of Irish. After Irish independence had been achieved, people who had previously worked for the revival of the language relied too heavily on the government to restore Irish as the national language. Membership in Conradh na Gaeilge fell drastically; while there were 819 League branches in 1922, that number fell to 139 within two years.

Compounding the problem was that the government placed the entire burden of fostering the language squarely upon the educational system. Learning Irish was made compulsory for all students, but outside of the schools — in public and private institutions — Irish was rarely spoken. The spelling reforms of 1945 and 1947, which simplified the language and adopted Roman letter forms in place of the Gaelic script, also alienated an older generation of Irish speakers, many of whom had difficulty (an often objected to) reading news and literature in the new spellings and typefaces.

Attitudes about the language also played a role. In the aftermath of the Irish Famine, the language became more closely associated with the plight of the rural poor and was viewed as an impediment to progress and economic improvement. There was a conviction held by many that English was necessary to get ahead, particularly for emigrants.

Despite the efforts of Conradh na Gaeilge and the government, economic pressures and changes brought by industrialization continued to influence both the attitudes and language use of native Irish speakers in the rural areas of western Ireland. Where agriculture and fishing had once been the primary topics of everyday dialogue, changing work conditions now continuously introduce new terminology and concepts which are often more easily discussed in English or with English words. Compounding the problem, senior managerial positions often go to English speakers from outside the Gaeltacht, reinforcing the perception of English being the language of opportunity.

These attitudes persist today. Many Irish politicians, while giving lip service to the language and sprinkling their speeches with "cúpla focal" ("a couple of words") are often indifferent to the Irish language or its native speakers. The same holds true with many scholars, particularly with today's revisionist and often Anglophilic Irish historians, who conspicuously omit any mention of the language in anthologies and other collected works.

Ireland's recent economic prosperity has not necessarily helped either. In the west, where tourism draws thousands of foreigners per year, English continues to encroach on the Gaeltacht areas. This improved economic standing also means that Ireland stands to lose millions in EU subsidies, which will hit western counties (i.e., the Gaeltacht) the hardest.

The Future of the Irish Language

The economic and social pressures which are all-too-prevalent in the poorer rural areas of the Gaeltacht will only continue to erode the use of Irish as we move into the early years of the twenty-first century. It is naive and short-sighted to rely primarily on these financially hard-pressed areas to keep Irish alive. The only long-term future for Irish is in its acceptance and use by the broader community, in urban and suburban Ireland, as well as abroad.

These early years of the new millennium are a perfect time to begin fostering the learning and use of Irish in the broader community. Irish culture has begun to enjoy a new popularity among Irish people worldwide, and much of the stigma of poverty which formerly cast its pall over the Irish language is now gone. Adults worldwide now study Irish, and young parents in Ireland often send their children to schools which teach all subjects through the medium of Irish. These are the two crucial elements — adult acceptance/appreciation of Irish, and the gentle immersion of youngsters of this next generation. In this modern age, it is unrealistic to expect Ireland to abandon English, but the right approach to promoting Irish can go a long way toward making Ireland comfortably bilingual — as many other European nations already are.

We should also learn from the mistakes of the last century and not rely solely on the Irish government, whose efforts on behalf of the Irish language can at best be described as inadequate. What is needed now are ambitious community-based organizations that can supplement and/or work in cooperation with governmental bodies, charities and other cultural associations. Pursuing the same half-hearted and ineffective schemes of the last century is simply unacceptable; we cannot allow Irish to become a dead language learned only by scholars of Irish antiquities.

Irish language organizations among the diaspora must also not be complacent. This new century must be a time of growth, not one of stagnation. In too many cases, the tired leadership of organizations founded abroad whose goals are ostensibly to promote the Irish language have allowed their efforts to become mired in the tried-and-true…continually trotting out beginner-level material in the same locations, year after year, creating nothing more than wave upon wave of token Irish speakers whose "cúpla focal" amount to little more than an affectation, which in no way helps the revival of Irish. Members of such organizations must attempt to invigorate the efforts of their group, and if necessary, replace their unimaginative leadership with those who are ambitious for Irish. Organizations abroad must also not rely on the serendipitous but infrequent arrivals of the occasional Irish language scholar or Gaeltacht emigré around whom to organize new classes and events, but should seek to "grow their own" — that is, to foster Irish speakers from within, who can later go on to share their knowledge of Irish with other eager students in new locations, planting the seeds of Irish language enthusiasm further afield to better reach prospective students and enthusiasts, who may in turn pass on their knowledge to others.

As the focus shifts away from the Gaeltacht, we certainly risk losing unique idiom and dialect-specific vocabulary and pronunciation. But any language which evolves and grows with the passage of time will see such changes occur. We should certainly cherish the Gaeltacht-Irish of today in print, recordings, video and other modern media. But let's not allow our fondness for "what has been" to keep us from striving for what can be — and what MUST be, if Irish is to keep its place among the living languages of the world.


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by Panu Petteri Höglund