History of the Irish language

History of the Irish language
fol. 170r of the Book of Ballymote (1390), the Auraicept na n-Éces explaining the Ogham script.

The history of the Irish language covers the period from the arrival of speakers of Celtic languages in Ireland to the present day.

The earliest known form of Irish, Primitive Irish, is found in Ogham inscriptions dating from the 3rd or 4th century.[1] After the conversion to Christianity in the 5th century, Old Irish begins to appear as glosses and other marginalia in Latin manuscripts, beginning in the 6th century. It evolved in the 10th century to Middle Irish. Early Modern Irish, otherwise known as Classical Irish or Classical Gaelic, was a literary language that represented a transition between Middle and Modern Irish. It was used by writers in both Ireland and Scotland until the 17th century, in the course of which slowly but surely writers began writing in the vernacular dialects, Ulster Irish, Meath Irish, Connacht Irish, Munster Irish and Scottish Gaelic. As the number of hereditary poets and scribes dwindled under British rule in the early 19th century, Irish became a mostly spoken tongue with little written literature appearing in the language until the Gaelic Revival of the late 19th century. The number of speakers was also declining in this period with monoglot and bilingual speakers of Irish increasing adopting only English: while Irish never died out, by the time of the Revival it was largely confined to the less Anglicised regions of the island, which were often also the more rural and remote areas. In the 20th and 21st centuries, Irish has continued to survive in Gaeltacht regions and among a minority in other regions. It has once again come to be considered an important part of the island's culture and heritage, with efforts being made to preserve and promote it.


Early history

The history of the Irish language begins with the arrival of speakers of Celtic languages in Ireland. This predates the recorded history of the island and is an open question, debated by linguists and archaeologists. Some scholars put the earliest date at ca. 1200 BC,[2] while others posit dates between 2600 and 2000 BC.[3]

Primitive Irish

The earliest written form of the Irish language is known to linguists as Primitive Irish.[4] Primitive Irish is known only from fragments, mostly personal names,[5] inscribed on stone in the Ogham alphabet. The earliest of such inscriptions probably date from the 3rd or 4th century.[1] Ogham inscriptions are found primarily in the south of Ireland as well as in Wales and Cornwall, where it was brought by settlers from Ireland to sub-Roman Britain.[6]

Old Irish

Old Irish first appears in the margins of Latin manuscripts as early as the 6th century. A large number of early Irish literary texts, though recorded in manuscripts of the Middle Irish period (such as Lebor na hUidre and the Book of Leinster), are essentially Old Irish in character.

Middle Irish

Middle Irish is the form of Irish used from the 10th to 12th centuries; it is therefore a contemporary of late Old English and early Middle English. It is the language of a large amount of literature, including the entire Ulster Cycle.

Early Modern Irish

Early Modern Irish, also called Classical Irish, was used as a literary language in Ireland from the 13th to the 17th century and in Scotland (where it is known as Classical Gaelic) from the 13th to the 18th century.[7][8]

The grammar of Early Modern Irish is laid out in a series of grammatical tracts written by native speakers and intended to teach the most cultivated form of the language to student bards, lawyers, doctors, administrators, monks, and so on in Ireland and Scotland. The tracts were edited and published by Osborn Bergin as a supplement to Ériu between 1916 and 1955.[9]

Linguistically, this stage of Irish represents a transition between Middle Irish and Modern Irish.[10] For example, neuter nouns still trigger eclipsis of a following complement, as they did in Middle Irish, but less consistently. The distinction between preposition + accusative to show motion toward a goal (e.g. san gcath "into the battle") and preposition + dative to show non–goal-oriented location (e.g. san chath "in the battle") is lost during this period, as is the distinction between nominative and accusative case in nouns.

Verb endings are also in transition.[10] The ending -ann, today the usual 3rd person ending in the present tense, was formerly found only in the imperfective. Thus Early Modern Irish contrasted molaidh "[he] praises [once]" from molann "[he] praises regularly", both contrasting with the zero-marked dependent form used after particles such as the negative as well as with an overt pronoun (cf. mol sé "he praises", ní mhol sé "he doesn't praise"}}), whereas Modern Irish has molann sé and ní mholann sé.[8] This innovation was not followed in Scottish Gaelic, where the ending -ann has disappeared, and which still follows the Middle Irish pattern: glacaidh e "he will grasp" but cha glac e "he will not grasp".[11]

Multilingual phrase book compiled for Elizabeth I of England.

Queen Elizabeth I encouraged the use of Irish even in the Pale with a view to promoting the reformed religion. She was a proficient linguist and is reported to have expressed a desire to understand Irish, so a primer was prepared on her behalf by Sir Christopher Nugent, ninth baron of Delvin.

The first book printed in any Goidelic language was published in 1564 in Edinburgh, a translation of John Knox's 'Liturgy' by Séon Carsuel, Bishop of the Isles. He used a slightly modified form of the language shared by Ireland and Scotland at the time and also used the Roman script. In 1568 the first book in Irish to be printed in Ireland was a Protestant 'catechism', containing a guide to spelling and sounds in Irish. It was written by John Kearney, treasurer of St. Patrick's Cathedral. The type used was adapted to what has become known as the 'gaelic' script. This was published in 1602-3 by the printer Francke. The reformed Church of Ireland undertook the first publication of Scripture in Irish. The first Irish translation of the New Testament was begun by Nicholas Walsh, Bishop of Ossory, who worked on it until his untimely death in 1585. The work was continued by John Kearny, his assistant, and Dr. Nehemiah Donellan, Archbishop of Tuam, and it was finally completed by Uilliam Ó Domhnaill (William Daniell, Archbishop of Tuam in succession to Donellan). Their work was printed in 1602. The work of translating the Old Testament was undertaken by William Bedel (1571–1642), Bishop of Kilmore, who completed his translation within the reign of Charles the First, however it was not published until 1680, in a revised version by Narcissus Marsh (1638–1713), Archbishop of Dublin. William Bedell had undertaken a translation of the Book of Common Prayer in 1606. An Irish translation of the revised prayer book of 1662 was effected by John Richardson (1664–1747) and published in 1712.

Nineteenth and twentieth centuries

The distribution of the Irish language in 1871.[12]

It is believed that Irish remained the majority tongue as late as 1800[13] but became a minority language during the 19th century.[14] It is an important part of Irish nationalist identity. A combination of the introduction of a primary education system (the 'National Schools'), in which Irish was prohibited until 1871 and only English taught by order of the British government, and the Great Famine (An Gorta Mór) which hit a disportionately high number of Irish 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 (Domhnall Ó Conaill), too were critical of the language, seeing it as 'backward', with English the language of the future. The National Schools run by the Roman Catholic Church discouraged its use until about 1890. This was because most economic opportunity for most Irish people arose at that time within the United States of America and the British Empire, which both used English. Contemporary reports spoke of Irish-speaking parents actively discouraging their children from speaking the language, and encouraging the use of English instead. This practice continued long after independence, as the stigma of speaking Irish remained very strong. Despite the policy of successive Irish governments to promote the language the decline in the number of native speakers (language shift) within the Gaeltacht has accelerated[citation needed] although the number of those elsewhere in the country able to speak it (as a second language) has increased albeit not to the extent that many hoped.

The initial moves to save the language were championed by Irish Protestants, such as the linguist and clergyman William Neilson, in the end of the 18th 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) in 1893, which was a factor in launching the Gaelic Revival movement. Leading supporters of Conradh included Pádraig Pearse 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 W. B. Yeats, J. M. Synge, Seán 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. 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 Durcan, 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 19th century and early 20th 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 Free State, first became politically aware through Conradh na Gaeilge. Douglas Hyde had mentioned the necessity of "de-anglicizing" Ireland, as a cultural goal that was not overtly political. Hyde resigned from its presidency in 1915 in protest when the movement voted to affiliate with the separatist cause; it had been infiltrated by members of the secretive Irish Republican Brotherhood, and had changed from being a purely cultural group to one with radical nationalist aims.[15]

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, and its first bible was published in 1981.[16] The hit song "Theme From Harry's Game" by County Donegal music group Clannad, became the first song to appear on Top Of The Pops with Irish lyrics in 1982.

Independent Ireland and the language

The independent Irish state was established in 1922 (The Irish Free State 1922-37; Ireland (Éire) from 1937, also described since 1949 as the Republic of Ireland). Although some Republican leaders had been committed language enthusiasts, the new state continued to use English as the language of administration, even in areas where over 80% of the population spoke Irish. There was some initial enthusiasm – a Dáil decree of March 1922 required that the Irish versions of names on all birth, death and marriage certificates would have to be used from July 1923. While the decree was passed unanimously, it was never implemented, probably because of the outbreak of the Irish civil war.[17] Those areas of the state where Irish had remained widespread were officially designated as Gaeltachtaí, where the language would initially be preserved and then ideally be expanded from across the whole island.

The government refused to implement the 1926 recommendations of the Gaeltacht Commission, which included restoring Irish as the language of administration in such areas. As the role of the state grew, it therefore exerted tremendous pressure on Irish speakers to use English. This was only partly offset by measures which were supposed to support the Irish language. For instance, the state was by far the largest employer. A qualification in Irish was required to apply for state jobs. However, this did not require a high level of fluency, and few public employees were ever required to use Irish in the course of their work. On the other hand, state employees had to have perfect command of English and had to use it constantly. Because most public employees had a poor command of Irish, it was impossible to deal with them in Irish. If an Irish speaker wanted to apply for a grant, obtain electricity, or complain about being over-taxed, they would typically had to do so in English. As late as 1986 a Bord na Gaeilge report noted "...the administrative agencies of the state have been among the strongest forces for anglicisation in Gaeltacht areas".[18]

The new state also attempted to promote Irish through the school system. Some politicians claimed that the state would become predominantly Irish-speaking within a generation. In 1928 Irish was made a compulsory subject for the Junior Certificate exams, and for the Leaving Certificate in 1934.[19] However, it is generally agreed that the compulsory policy was clumsily implemented. The principal ideologue was Professor Timothy Corcoran of University College Dublin, who "did not trouble to acquire the language himself"[20] From the mid-1940s onward the policy of teaching all subjects to English-speaking children through Irish was abandoned. In the following decades, support for the language was progressively reduced.

It is disputed to what extent such professed language revivalists as de Valera genuinely tried to Gaelicise political life. Even in the first Dáil Éireann, few speeches were delivered in Irish, with the exception of formal proceedings. In the 1950s An Caighdeán Oifigiúil (the Official Standard) was introduced to simplify spellings and allow easier communication by different dialect speakers. By 1965 speakers in the Dáil regretted that those taught Irish in the traditional Gaelic script (the Cló Gaedhealach) over the previous decades were not helped by the recent change to the Latin script, the Cló Romhánach.[21] An ad-hoc "Language Freedom Movement" that was opposed to the compulsory teaching of Irish was started in 1966, but it had largely faded away within a decade.

Overall, the percentage of people speaking Irish as a first language has decreased since independence, while the number of second-language speakers has increased.

There have been some modern success stories in language preservation and promotion such as Gaelscoileanna the education movement, Official Languages Act 2003, TG4, RTÉ Raidió na Gaeltachta and Foinse.

In 2005 Enda Kenny, formerly an Irish teacher, called for compulsory Irish to end at the Junior Certificate level, and for the language to be an optional subject for Leaving Certificate students. This provoked considerable comment and the then Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern argued that it should remain compulsory.[22]

Today, estimates of fully native speakers range from 40,000 to 80,000 people.[23][24][25][26] In the republic, there are just over 72,000 people who use Irish as a daily language outside education, as well as a larger minority of the population who are fluent but do not use it on a daily basis.[27] (While census figures indicate 1.66 million people in the republic with some knowledge [28] a significant percentage of these know only a little Irish).[29] Smaller numbers of Irish speakers exist in Britain, in Canada (in Newfoundland), in the United States of America and other countries.

Northern Ireland and the language

Since the division of Ireland, the language communities in the Republic and Northern Ireland have taken radically different trajectories.


  1. ^ a b Laing, Lloyd (2006). The Archaeology of Celtic Britain and Ireland: c.AD 400 - 1200. Cambridge University Press. p. 11. ISBN 978-0521547406. 
  2. ^ Mallory, J. P. (1991). "Two perspectives on the problem of Irish origins". Emania 9: 53–58. 
  3. ^ Kruta, Venceslas (2000). Les Celtes. Paris: Robert Laffont. ISBN 2221056906. 
  4. ^ Koch, John (2005). Celtic Culture : A Historical Encyclopedia. ABC-CLIO. p. 1390. ISBN 978-1851094400. 
  5. ^ Ball, Martin et al (1993). The Celtic Languages. Routledge. p. 11. ISBN 978-0415010351. 
  6. ^ Mac Eoin, Gearóid (1992). "Irish". In Martin J. Ball and James Fife (eds.). The Celtic Languages. London: Routledge. pp. 101–44. ISBN 0-415-01035-7. 
  7. ^ Mac Eoin, Gearóid (1993). "Irish". In in Martin J. Ball (ed.). The Celtic Languages. London: Routledge. pp. 101–44. ISBN 0-415-01035-7. 
  8. ^ a b McManus, Damian (1994). "An Nua-Ghaeilge Chlasaiceach". In in K. McCone, D. McManus, C. Ó Háinle, N. Williams, and L. Breatnach (eds.) (in Irish). Stair na Gaeilge in ómós do Pádraig Ó Fiannachta. Maynooth: Department of Old Irish, St. Patrick's College. pp. 335–445. ISBN 0-901519-90-1. 
  9. ^ Rolf Baumgarten and Roibeard Ó Maolalaigh, 2004. Electronic Bibliography of Irish Linguistics and Literature 1942-71. Accessed 2007-12-27.
  10. ^ a b Bergin, Osborn (1930). "Language". Stories from Keating's History of Ireland (3rd ed.). Dublin: Royal Irish Academy. 
  11. ^ Calder, George (1923). A Gaelic Grammar. Glasgow: MacLaren & Sons. pp. 223. 
  12. ^ E.G. Ravenstein, "On the Celtic Languages of the British Isles: A Statistical Survey", in Journal of the Statistical Society of London, vol. 42, no. 3, (September, 1879), p. 584. On p. 583, there is a map for Irish in 1851, indicating a much healthier population base.
  13. ^ Goram Wolf, Technical University of Dresden, Celtic National Languages in the British Isles and Ireland, July 2007
  14. ^ According to the 1841 census Ireland had 8 175 124 inhabitants. In 1841 4 million people in Ireland spoke Gaelic. (John O'Beirne Ranelagh, "A Short History of Ireland", Cambridge 1994, p. 118
  15. ^ UCC website on De-Anglicisation; downloaded Feb 2010
  16. ^ An Bíobla Naofa, Maynooth UP, 1981.
  17. ^ Dáil report March 1922; accessed Feb 2010
  18. ^ Advisory Planning Committee of Bord na Gaeilge, The Irish Language in a Changing Society: Shaping The Future, p.41. Criterion, 1986.
  19. ^ See section "LONGER-TERM CONSIDERATIONS" in this 2003 speech by Garret FitzGerald.
  20. ^ Professor R.V. Comerford, "Ireland Inventing the Nation" (Hodder Books 2003) p145
  21. ^ Dáil debates, July 1965, pages 859-862; accessed Feb 2010
  22. ^ RTE news Nov 2005; downloaded Feb 2010
  23. ^ http://archives.tcm.ie/irishexaminer/2004/11/24/story517225942.asp
  24. ^ Christina Bratt Paulston. Linguistic Minorities in Multilingual Settings: Implications for Language Policies. J. Benjamins Pub. Co. p. 81. 
  25. ^ Pierce, David (2000). Irish Writing in the Twentieth Century. Cork University Press. p. 1140. 
  26. ^ Ó hÉallaithe, Donncha (1999). Cuisle. 
  27. ^ http://www.cso.ie/census/census2006results/volume_9/volume_9_press_release.pdf
  28. ^ http://beyond2020.cso.ie/Census/TableViewer/tableView.aspx?ReportId=75607
  29. ^ Colin H. Williams (1991). Linguistic minorities, society, and territory:. p. 21. 

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