about the Irish Language
Where does the Irish language come from?
Irish developed from one of a number of Celtic languages which were spoken in western Europe before the rise of the Roman Empire. Historians are agreed that a Celtic language arrived in Ireland sometime during the last millennium BC. The geographer Ptolemy recorded Irish place-names in the 2nd century AD. We can be fairly certain Irish has been spoken in Ireland for 2000 years, and was spoken throughout the island by 500 AD. It was around this time that Irish settlers brought the language to Scotland as well, where it developed into a separate language (Scottish Gaelic). The name ‘Ireland’ is based on the Irish word Ériu which is thought to mean ‘the fertile land / one (a goddess)' or 'the land between the currents'.
What is the difference between Irish and Gaelic?
None, really. Gaeilge is the term the Irish language has for itself, which in turn gives us the English-language word Gaelic. Both ‘Gaelic’ and ‘Irish’ were used to describe the language for centuries; for example the first movement to revive the language was called the Gaelic League. Revivalists who associated the language with nationalism preferred to call the language ‘Irish’ in order to give it a national image. This term is now the more commonly-used one. In English the term Gaelic applies to both Scottish and Irish Gaelic, and this can very often lead to confusion when the context is not clear. For example, the Teach Yourself Gaelic course refers to Scottish Gaelic rather than Irish Gaelic. To avoid this confusion Irish is often used when speaking about Irish Gaelic.
Was Irish ever spoken as a native language in Northern Ireland?
Before the plantations of the 1600s, everyone in Ulster spoke Irish, with the exception of some of the population of the towns of Carrickfergus and Belfast. Most Ulster place-names have Irish language roots, including the term Ulster itself. It derives from Ulaidh’s tír - the land of the Ulaidh [pronounced today as ‘ullee’]. The Ulaidh were the most important tribe in the north-east part of the island.
Counties Down and Fermanagh were the first counties where Irish died out, but according to the 1911 census, Irish was spoken by the majority of the population in parts of the Sperrin mountains and Rathlin Island. Sound recordings have been made of the Irish of Antrim, Armagh, Derry and Tyrone. One of the last speakers of Antrim Irish, Jimmy Stewart of Murlough, died in 1950, and the last speaker of Tyrone Irish, Johnny McAleer, died in 1970. Bella McKenna, the last speaker of Rathlin Irish, was recorded on videotape and died in 1985. With her death came the extinction of the East Ulster dialect of Irish which had been spoken in what is present-day Northern Ireland. Today Irish speakers in Northern Ireland speak the Donegal dialect of the language, and some have raised their children as native speakers.
How many people speak fluent Irish?
The 2001 Northern Ireland Census indicated that 167, 459 people, or 10.4% of the population had some knowledge of Irish. The vast majority (154, 622 people) were Catholics and 1.2 % (10, 987 people) were Protestants and ‘other Christians’.
Levels of fluency are more difficult to measure as they are not recorded by the Census. 106, 785 people ticked the ‘can speak Irish’ in the 2001 Census, but this is no indication of any level of fluency. When considering the numbers of Irish-speakers, one must also consider the education system. Four thousand children are enrolled in Irish-medium education, including nurseries, primary schools and secondary schools. Irish is the third most popular language subject (after French and Spanish) at post-primary level in English-medium schools. In 2008, 246 people sat GCE A-Level examinations in Irish. The figures for other A-Level languages were: French 716; Spanish 440; and German 164.
Diarmuid Mac Giolla Chríost (2000), in his research is this area, has estimated that there are 40,000 to 45,000 ‘functional Irish speakers, with some 13 to 15,000 people with 'fluency in the full range of language skills. You can read his paper at http://cain.ulst.ac.uk/issues/language/ macgiollachriost00.htm. Research by the renowned sociolinguist Pádraig Ó Riagáin estimates that 1-2% of the population of Northern Ireland claim to be completely fluent (16, 179 - 32, 358 people) (Fortnight March 2007: pg. 12).
According to the 2006 census in the Republic, 1,656,790 people (41.9%) can speak Irish, but most of these admit they never or rarely speak the language. Two-thirds of those between 10 and 14 years of age say they can speak Irish. However, only 77, 000 people (4.4% of the population) speak Irish on a daily basis outside the classroom. The high representation of school-age children is almost certainly the result of Irish being a compulsory subject in the curriculum.
There are also those who speak Irish as a native language in the Gaeltacht, Irish-speaking districts in the west of Ireland. The largest number of Irish speakers is in County Galway (49.8%), part of which is in the Gaeltacht, and the lowest number is in Dublin (37.2%).
Is Irish easy to learn?
Many people find Irish difficult to learn compared to languages such as French and Spanish as Irish has many structures which are unfamiliar to English speakers. As the English spoken in Ireland has been influenced by Irish (see below) it should be easier for people from Northern Ireland to learn the language. Learners will also find that modern colloquial Irish has been influenced by the English language. There are far more opportunities to communicate in Irish in Northern Ireland than in any other language. Fluency can only be acquired by socialising frequently with Irish speakers, but a very high degree of comprehension can be achieved without this. Generally speaking, the motivation to learn Irish is as important, if not more important, than a natural aptitude for languages.
What influence has Irish in the Northern Ireland of today?
Irish has had a marked influence on the English of Northern Ireland. Here are some examples:
The following sentences are based on an underlying Irish structure:
There are also sounds in Ulster English which came from Irish, or are based on medieval English dialect forms which were popularised by Irish speakers; for example, the vowel between ‘l’ and ‘m’ in fil(u)m and the pronunciation of ‘car’, ‘cart’ as cyarr, cyart.
WORDS with Irish roots include:
Most place-names in Northern Ireland have Irish language roots. If we look at the Belfast area, we see that they provide a clue to the history of the city.
The first reference to Belfast is in the Annals of Ulster for 665 AD. The Annals refer to the ‘bellum Fertsi inter Ultu agus Cruitne’, that is ‘the battle of the Farset between the ‘Ulstermen’ and the Cruithin. Belfast itself comes from the Irish Béal Feirste which means ‘the approach to the sandbank ford’. The sandbank appeared at low tide where the Lagan river met Belfast Lough. It was a strategic crossing-point which connected County Antrim and County Down.
The Ulstermen referred to in the Annals were a particular tribe called the Dál Fiatach. Cavehill as we now know it today took its earlier name, Ben Madigan, from Madigan, a chieftain of the Dál Fiatach tribe. Madigan was described by James O'Laverty as ‘a great and bloodstained prince’ who killed his uncle to gain the kingship of Ulster. Madigan’s father Muiríoch had previously been slain by this uncle. It is believed that Muiríoch gave his name to Dunmurry (Dún Muirígh ‘the fort of Muiríoch’) Muiríoch was the ancestor of Glengormley or Clann Ghormliath, ‘the family of Gormlaith’, which means ‘splendid sovereignty’. The Dál Fiatach clann were eventually defeated by the O’Neills, who gave us place-names like Connswater, after Conn O’ Neill.
Shankill is from the Irish Seanchill which means ‘old church’. It commemorates a medieval parish church known as Ecclesia Alba ‘the white church’ at the site of the present St Mathew’s Church. It was not called the ‘old church’ until the Normans built a new and more important one at the site of Saint George’s in High Street.
Other place-names include:
Many surnames in Northern Ireland have Gaelic language roots. Very often neither their origin nor their meaning is evident in the anglicised versions of these names. Most surnames with Irish roots are prefixed by Mac meaning ‘son of’; Ó meaning ‘grandson of’ or Ní meaning ‘daughter of’. All of these prefixes have come to mean simply ‘descendant of’.
Here are some examples of possible Gaelic roots:
At times it is difficult to decipher the exact root of an Irish language surname. For example, Morrison could come from Ó Muirgheasáin, which derives from muirgheas meaning ‘sea valour’, or it might be a Gaelicised version of a Norman name, Fitzmaurice.
Similarly, Campbell may have two origins. One may be a Scottish Gaelic surname Cam-beul meaning ‘crooked mouth’ or the Irish Gaelic name Mac Cathmhaoil meaning ‘son of the battle chieftain’.
Houston is particularly interesting in this respect. It may be a Norman name describing a descendent of Hugh de Paduinan, who founded the town of Huston. It may derive from the Scots-Gaelic lowland name of Mac Uisdin, which also means ‘son of Hugh’ or it may refer back to a Donegal Gael by the name of Mac Giolla tSeachlainn meaning ‘son of the devotee of St. Seachlann’.
Over the centuries many Irish family names have been anglicised so that family names with Irish roots appear at first sight to be ‘English’ names. Let us take the name English itself for example. Some of the ‘Englishes’ in Ireland were originally Mac an Gallóglaigh, an Irish name meaning ‘son of the gallowglass’. The word Gallóglach is composed of two elements: Gall meaning ‘foreign, non-Gael’ and óglach meaning ‘warrior’. As gallowglasses were mercenaries of partly Norse descent, the Irish called them gall or ‘foreigner’. Over time this term came to mean ‘English person’, and it appears that this is how those called Mac an Gallóglaigh came to use English as an anglicised version of their name.
Where do people speak Irish all the time?
In the Gaeltacht, the Irish-speaking communities of the west of Ireland. Everyone in the Gaeltacht is now bilingual in Irish and English, but there are many people of the older generation who feel more comfortable using Irish. The Chief Executive Officer of Údarás na Gaeltachta ('The Gaeltacht Authority'), Pádraig Ó hAoláin, estimates that in the Gaeltacht 30, 000 native speakers speak Irish daily and 25, 000 are fluent but do not speak it every day. Some preschool children may not speak English and only gradually do they become fully bilingual. The Placenames Order (Ceantair Ghaeltachta) 2004 requires all place-name signs in the Gaeltacht to be in Irish alone.
Many schoolchildren improve their Irish by attending Gaeltacht courses and staying with Irish-speaking families. In 2006, 23, 328 teenagers attended courses in 42 summer colleges, staying with over 600 families.
Northern Ireland also has its own small neo-Gaeltacht. The Shaws Road Gaeltacht in west Belfast was set up in the late 1960s, beginning with 5 families and rising to 22 at the present. The community developed the first Irish-medium school, Bunscoil Phobal Feirste. People in this community conduct as much as possible of their lives through the medium of Irish. Irish-medium education has grown considerably since the first intake of nine pupils as the Shaws Road School. In the school year 2006-7 4,072 children were enrolled in Irish-medium education: 44 nurseries with 855 pupils; 23 primary schools with 2,542 pupils; and 2 secondary schools and a post-primary unit with 610 pupils.
Other members of the Irish language community use Irish in their everyday life, including a range of work environments. Others use the language at specially organised occasions or social events. In centres such as the Cultúrlann in west Belfast, many activities and artistic events are held in Irish.
Are there different dialects of the Irish language?
There are 3 main dialects - Ulster, Munster and Connacht. Speakers of each dialect often find others difficult to understand, but this may have as much to do with regional snobbery than dialectal difficulties. At the beginning of the 20th century, Munster Irish was favoured by many revivalists, with a shift to Connacht. Irish in the 1960s, which is now the preferred dialect by many in the Republic. Many younger speakers of Irish experience less confusion with dialects due to the expansion of Irish-language broadcasting and the exposure to a variety of dialects. There are fewer problems regarding written Irish as there is a standardised spelling and grammar which reflects a compromise between various dialect forms. However, some Ulster Irish speakers find that Ulster forms are generally not favoured by the standard.
Ulster Irish is spoken as a community language in the Gaeltacht of west Donegal. The dialect is often stigmatised in the Republic of Ireland, although all learners of Irish in Northern Ireland use this form of the language. Self-instruction courses in Ulster Irish include Now You’re Talking (now out of print) and Tús maith.
Do Irish-medium schools damage children’s education in an English-language world?
No. As in the Republic, most children who attend in Irish-medium schools come from English-speaking homes. English is part of the school curriculum, and pupils do well in English language exams. Children who are raised as Irish speakers learn English from relatives, neighbours, friends, as well as television and radio.
Is Irish a ‘republican language’?
The link between the Irish language and republicanism is a relatively recent phenomenon. Irish was perceived to be a non-political pursuit by the Protestant intelligentsia of Belfast until the political upheavals of the late 19th century. When Queen Victoria visited Belfast in 1849, she noted that the crowds greeted her with shouts of ‘Céad Míle Fáilte’ (‘a hundred thousand welcomes’). A banned Orange procession on 12th July 1867 travelled from Bangor to Newtownards, according to the Belfast News-Letter, 'without interruption save the cead mille failthes of hosts of sympathisers.'
Irish language inscriptions were popular on public buildings in the 1800s. The Ulster Bank adopted the motto 'Lamh Dearg Eireann' ('Red Hand of Ireland') in its coat of arms - this can be seen today above a branch of the bank in Bangor and above the door of what is now the Merchant Hotel in Belfast. The same motto appears above St. George's Market in Belfast. Inscriptions in Irish also appeared on the foundation stone of the Royal Victoria Hospital and on the lintel stone of the Ulster Hall (the latter was removed in the 1960s).
The link between the Irish language and nationalism became pronounced after the foundation of the Gaelic League in 1893. In Northern Ireland, the connection with Irish republicanism became particularly notable after the hunger strikes in the 1980s. Many republican prisoners, largely from working-class areas, demonstrated that despite a lack of formal education it was possible to master the language. Many republicans are involved in the Irish language revival, but it would be mistaken to assume that they are only interested in promoting their political positions through the language. There are considerable numbers of Irish speakers who see the language in terms of a cultural pursuit, rather than a political one. However, they are not usually to the fore in media reports of Irish language matters.
Do you have to learn Irish in school in the Republic of Ireland?
Irish is a compulsory subject in the Republic’s school curriculum, regardless of the requirements of examinations. Irish is studied at primary school and at secondary level for the Junior Certificate (usually 6-9 subjects tested at age 14) and for the Leaving Certificate (usually 9-12 subjects tested at 17-18). Irish, Mathematics and English are compulsory for the Junior Certificate, but not for the Leaving Certificate, although pupils must still attend Irish lessons. Pupils exempted from learning include those whose primary education has been outside the state, have spent a long time abroad, or have learning difficulties.
Bonus marks are awarded to students who do their Leaving Certificate through Irish. There are three levels of study: Foundation, Ordinary and Higher. The Foundation level is very basic, is offered by few schools, and is usually studied by newcomers to Ireland. Only 5,000 pupils were studying for this level in 2006. In the same year less than a third of pupils - 12, 000 - studied the subject at Higher Level (e.g. for university admission) for their Leaving Certificate exams whereas more than double this figure - 26, 000 - opted for the Ordinary Level paper. The Higher and Ordinary exams share the same oral test but in terms of written work the Higher has more emphasis on literature in Irish.
Pupils whose primary education has been outside the state, have spent a long time abroad, or have learning difficulties (such as dyslexia) can be exempted from learning Irish. Since 1994, the number of second-level students seeking an exemption has increased from just over 2 % to more than 10 %. In 2007 one in eight students opted out of the exam at Junior Certificate level.
There have been suggestions that Irish be made an optional subject for the Leaving Certificate, e.g. by Enda Kenny, the leader of the opposition party Fine Gael. This is proving to be very controversial. However, there is general agreement that the emphasis on reading and writing in Irish language second-level exams is not producing large numbers of fluent speakers, and that a radical overhaul of the curriculum is necessary.
Those pupils applying to study at National University colleges (which does not include Trinity College, Dublin City University or Limerick University) are required to have a qualification in Irish to enrol. This factor alone accounts for the high number of pupils studying Irish for examination.
Do you have to know Irish to get certain jobs in the Republic?
Yes. Primary schoolteachers in the Republic must be able to teach Irish; 77.9 % of teachers there can speak the language. Contrary to popular belief, a knowledge of Irish is not necessary to join the civil service, but a 3% or 6% bonus in marks can be achieved in transfer exams by demonstrating a proficiency in Irish. Librarians will often be required to have a knowledge of Irish and barristers are required by a 1929 act to possess 'a competent knowledge of the Irish language'. The Legal Practitioners (Irish Language) Bill proposes to abolish this requirement for barristers.
Applicants for the Garda Síochána (police service) no longer have to have a qualification in Irish; an applicant must have a proven proficiency in either English or Irish, as well as a qualification in a second language. However, 74.1% of Gardaí can speak Irish, according to the 2006 census. Police officers who wish to serve in the Gaeltacht should achieve 75% or over in an internal oral exam. A pass in this exam also leads to higher wages, but there are some police officers serving in the Gaeltacht who have not sat the exam and do not speak fluent Irish.
The Official Languages Act (2003) requires state bodies to ensure better availability and a higher standard of public services through Irish. This entails responding to correspondence in Irish in that language, providing Irish language versions of key documents, and guaranteeing the right to use Irish in court and in the houses of parliament. This act is creating more employment opportunities for Irish speakers in the state sector. Irish is an official working language of the European Union, and Irish people can now work in Brussels if they have Irish, English and a working knowledge of another language; previously they were required to speak English and French and an excellent knowledge of another official language.
Is the Irish language dying?
Yes and no. Irish remains the community language of many Gaeltacht areas. However, Irish is increasingly becoming restricted to the home domain and Gaeltacht communities are facing a situation in which young people, in particular, are opting to speak English instead of Irish.
According to the Republic’s government, 80% of the population of an area must speak Irish on a daily basis to qualify as a Gaeltacht. A recent report by the Gaeltacht Commission showed that of the 154 Electoral Divisions comprising the Gaeltacht only 18 recorded figures of 75% or higher. In north-west Donegal, the Gweedore/Cloghaneely area (stretching west of Falcarragh to Bunbeg) reported daily usage of over 80%. Yet recent analysis of the 2006 census reveals that only 28% of the population of the Gaeltacht speak Irish daily outside the educational system. In the Donegal Gaeltacht, 90.9 % of children aged between 10 and 14 said they spoke Irish, but 71.1% of those between 20 and 24 said they did not speak Irish.
A 2005 report concluded that 40% of Leaving Certificate examinations in the Gaeltacht were conducted through English and according to Department of Education statistics 28% of schools in Gaeltacht areas were teaching through English in the school year 2006/7. A 2007 Department of the Gaeltacht report noted that the proportion of active, integrated Irish speakers needs to be maintained above 67% for the use of Irish in a community to be sustainable. The report also discovered the following: 46% of school-going children in the Gaeltacht start school with little or no Irish; only 9% of young Irish speakers in the Gaeltacht use the language with their peers (the figure is 24% for the stronger Gaeltacht areas); Irish-speaking children are not evidencing the full range of linguistic competencies expected of native speakers; and that in weaker Gaeltacht areas the only remaining Irish-speaking networks are associated with primary school education.
The report concluded that without a major change in language-use patterns, Irish will cease to exist as the predominant community and family language in the Gaeltacht within 15 to 20 years. The report makes a number of recommendations, including the creation of: Irish-medium childcare services; Gaeltacht summer camps and youth clubs for young Gaeltacht people with fluent Irish; a school curriculum geared at native speakers of Irish; and language acquisition schools in the stronger Gaeltacht areas, to help children to acquire fluent Irish before entering the general Gaeltacht educational system.
Learners of Irish far outnumber native speakers. The majority of Irish speakers outside the Gaeltacht reported frequent and extensive home use of just 5% as compared to 58% in the Gaeltacht as a whole.
It is accepted that most pupils who have studied Irish as a subject at primary and secondary school cannot speak the language well; the emphasis is on understanding Irish. John Harris' study of Irish in primary schools (2006) reveals that very small minorities of pupils in ordinary schools achieve high levels of performance in the language. Teaching materials and methods are old-fashioned and many teachers feel demoralised by the subject, feeling that they carry a disproportionate share of society's responsibility for the Irish language. Parental hostility to Irish on the grounds that it is 'difficult' or 'irrelevant' is a major factor in impeding the progress of many pupils in the language. A Department of Education and Science Report for the Council of Europe also found the following:
In March 2007 the Minister for Education, Mary Hanafin, announced that from 2012 the oral Irish exam in the Leaving Certificate will account for 40 % of all marks, rather than the present 25 % of marks. This is an attempt to increase pupils' spoken ability in the language. Minister Hanafin also announced research on the use of information technologies, more in-service training for teachers, and the creation of 600 places in Irish language summer camps for children from disadvantaged areas.
Although the situation of Irish in English-medium schools in the Republic is far from satisfactory, Irish-medium education has become very popular in recent years, especially outside the Gaeltacht. Irish-medium schools are very popular because they are smaller and 'homelier', having better teacher-pupil ratios and a high level of parental involvement. One in every 13 primary school pupils in the Republic is now being educated through Irish; four out of the top ten secondary schools teach their pupils through the medium of Irish. This sector involves almost 33, 000 children and most of these schools are urban. This urban image was embraced by the Irish language television station, TG4, which has a young energetic staff and transmits programmes with an up-beat trendy image.
The emphasis on Irish-medium education has led to concerns that the children will not speak Irish outside the school environment, and may abandon the language when their education is finished. This is a particular problem in Northern Ireland, where three quarters of children in Irish-medium education do not continue their schooling in the language beyond primary school.
The main challenge facing those inside and outside the Gaeltacht is that of intergenerational transmission of the language and the creation of functioning, cohesive communities of speakers.
What use is Irish?
Most people do not see the Irish language as a useful language, citing German or French as ‘more valuable’ or ‘useful’ languages. This is not the case. Those who are attracted to the Irish language on a cultural level may use as a key to read the landscape, place-names, surnames, and even as an explanation as to how we speak English. Others may wish to explore the vast body of Irish literature and song. Or they may simply wish to learn the language to engage with other Irish speakers, and the opportunities to use Irish in Northern Ireland far outstrip those for French or any other European language.
A small number of people are employed full-time in the Irish language ‘economy’. There are also many opportunities within the field of education as there is a shortage of Irish teachers in this ever-expanding sector. There is also an increasing demand for Irish speakers in the areas of translation and broadcasting.
Why is Irish spelling so difficult to understand?
Irish spelling may seem unusual to a native speaker of English, but it is designed to deal with many changes in the pronunciation of words in the language. The spelling system of Irish seems complicated, but, unlike English, it is very regular and can be learned in a couple of hours.
In written Irish, like French, an accent (´ ) may sometimes appear over vowels. This accent is called a fada (it literally means 'long' in Irish). When you see a fada over a vowel it usually has a lengthening effect. For example, Seán is pronounced [shawn], with the emphasis on the á. If there was no accent, it would be sean [shan] which means ‘old’.
You will also see many consonants followed by an h. This is the result of a process called aspiration or lenition in English. This process traditionally happens when a consonant is situated between two vowels. An h after a consonant essentially softens the sound of the letter. An example of this process would be the change in the sound of the Irish word mac ‘son’ in the phrase mo mhac [mo wak] ‘my son’. If the more ‘English’ spelling [mo wak] was used, it would be more difficult to recognise the unchanged word, as [mo wak] can also refer to mo bhac ‘my obstruction’. There are no examples of this process in English, but the glottal stop of cockney English has a similar effect of lightening the sound of a consonant as to make it disappear egs. ‘bottle’ pronounced as [bo’ill], ‘water’ as [wa’er]. Aspiration takes place in other languages e.g. in Tuscan Italian una coca cola sounds like [una hoha hola].
As a result of a process called eclipsis you will also see other unfamiliar combinations of letters e.g. mb, gc, bhf. The first letter of a word can be eclipsed by another one – that is, the second letter is eclipsed and not sounded. Thus an Irish speaker might say i mBoston (‘in Boston’) which is pronounced [i moston] – the b sound is lost in pronunciation, but retained in the spelling to enable the reader to recognise the word before the sound was changed. Other combinations may seem a little more unusual, such as i bhFear Manach (‘in Fermanagh’) which is pronounced [i var manach]. Basically the nazal ‘n’ sound of ‘in’ has moved onto the start of the following word.