Irish (Gaeilge) is a Goidelic language of the Indo-European language family, originating in Ireland and historically spoken by the Irish people. Irish is now spoken as a first language only by a small minority of the Irish population, and as a second language by a larger minority. However, it is widely considered to be an important part of the island's culture and heritage. It enjoys constitutional status as the national and first official language of the Republic of Ireland. It is also an official language of the European Union and an officially recognised minority language in Northern Ireland.
Irish was the predominant language of the Irish people for most of their recorded history, and they brought their Gaelic speech with them to other countries, notably Scotland and the Isle of Man where it gave rise to Scottish Gaelic and Manx. It has the oldest vernacular literature in Western Europe. However, it began to decline under British rule after the seventeenth century. The nineteenth century saw a dramatic fall in the number of speakers partly due to the Great Famine of 1845-1852 (where Ireland lost half its population either to emigration or death) and partly due to government language policies. Irish speaking areas were especially hit hard. By its end, while the language never died out, it was spoken by less than 15% of the national population. Since then, Irish speakers have been a minority except in some areas known as Gaeltachtaí (singular: Gaeltacht), and efforts have been made to preserve and promote the language.
Estimates of fully native speakers range from 40,000 to 80,000 people. 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. (While census figures indicate 1.66 million people in the republic with some knowledge a significant percentage of these know only a little Irish). Smaller numbers of Irish speakers exist in Britain, the United States and other countries.
Names of the language:
In the Caighdeán Oifigiúil (the official written standard) the name of the language is Gaeilge.
Before the spelling reform of 1948, this form was spelled Gaedhilge; originally this was the genitive of Gaedhealg, the form used in classical Modern Irish. Older spellings of this include Gaoidhealg in Classical Irish (ge:??l?g) and Goídelc (goiðel?g) in Old Irish. The modern spelling results from the deletion of the silent dh in the middle of Gaedhilge.
Other forms of the name found in the various modern Irish dialects, in addition to south Connacht Gaeilge mentioned above, include Gaedhilic/Gaeilic/Gaeilig or Gaedhlag in Ulster Irish and northern Connacht Irish and Gaedhealaing/Gaoluinn/Gaelainn in Munster Irish.
The language is usually referred to in English as Irish. The term Irish Gaelic is often used when English speakers discuss the relationship between the three Goidelic languages (Irish, Scottish Gaelic, and Manx) or when discussion of Irish is confused to mean Hiberno-English, the form of English as spoken in Ireland. Scottish Gaelic is often referred to in English as simply Gaelic. Outside Ireland, the term Gaelic is also frequently used for the Irish language. The archaic term Erse (from Erische), originally a Scots form of the word Irish applied in Scotland (by Lowlanders) to all of the Goidelic languages, is no longer used for any Goidelic language.
Written Irish is first attested in Ogham inscriptions from the fourth century AD; this stage of the language is known as Primitive Irish. These writings have been found throughout Ireland and the west coast of Great Britain. Primitive Irish transitioned into Old Irish through the 5th century. Old Irish, dating from the sixth century, used the Latin alphabet and is attested primarily in marginalia to Latin manuscripts. By the 10th century Old Irish evolved into Middle Irish, which was spoken throughout Ireland and in Scotland and the Isle of Man. It is the language of a large corpus of literature, including the famous Ulster Cycle. From the 12th century Middle Irish began to evolve into modern Irish in Ireland, into Scottish Gaelic in Scotland, and into the Manx language in the Isle of Man. Early Modern Irish, dating from the thirteenth century, was the literary language of both Ireland and Gaelic-speaking Scotland, and is attested by such writers as Geoffrey Keating. Modern Irish emerged from the literary language known as Early Modern Irish in Ireland and as Classical Gaelic in Scotland; this was used through the 18th century.
From the eighteenth century the language went into a decline, rapidly losing ground to English due in part to restrictions dictated by British rule - a conspicuous example of the process known by linguists as language shift. In the mid-nineteenth century it lost a large portion of its speakers to death and emigration resulting from poverty, particularly in the wake of the Great Famine (1845-1849).
At the end of the nineteenth century, members of the Gaelic Revival movement made efforts to encourage the learning and use of Irish in Ireland. Particular emphasis was placed at that point on the folk tradition, which in Irish is particularly rich, but efforts were also made to develop journalism and a modern literature.
Irish most closely resembles in its pronunciation its nearest relatives, Scottish Gaelic and Manx.
The grammar of Irish shares with other Celtic languages a number of features which, while not unique, are unusual in an Indo-European context. The grammatical features most unfamiliar to English speakers of the language are the initial consonant mutations, the Verb Subject Object word order, and the use of two different forms for "to be".
None of these features are peculiar to Irish, however. All of them occur in other Celtic languages as well as in non-Celtic languages: morphosyntactically triggered initial consonant mutations are found in Fula, VSO word order is found in Classical Arabic and Biblical Hebrew, and Portuguese and Spanish have two different forms for "to be". The use of prepositional pronouns recalls the Semitic languages.
The situation is complicated by dialect variations, by a recommended standard and by what appears to be a colloquial simplification of both grammar and pronunciation by fluent speakers in the urban context.
Irish is a VSO (Verb Subject Object) language, and uses two verbs 'to be". One of these, the copula (known in Irish as an chopail), is used to describe the permanent identity or characteristic of a person or thing as opposed to temporary aspects.
The adjective normally follows the noun (the possessive adjectives are an exception), but there are a certain number of adjectives and particles which may function as prefixes.
Irish is an inflected language, having, in its standard form, the following cases: common (the old nominative and accusative), vocative and genitive. In Munster dialects a dative form persisted, though this has been largely discarded by younger speakers. The present inflectional system represents a radical simplification of the grammar of Old Irish.
Irish nouns may be masculine or feminine (the neuter having disappeared). To a certain degree the gender difference is indicated by specific word endings, -án and -ín being masculine and -óg feminine.
Another feature of Irish grammar that is shared with other Celtic languages is the use of prepositional pronouns (forainmneacha réamhfhoclacha), which are essentially conjugated prepositions. For example, the word for "at" is ag, which in the first person singular becomes agam "at me". When used with the verb bí ("to be") ag indicates possession; this is the equivalent of the English verb "to have".
Tá leabhar agam. "I have a book." (Literally, "there is a book at me.")
Tá leabhar agat. "You have a book."
Tá leabhar aige. "He has a book."
Tá leabhar aici. "She has a book."
Tá leabhar againn. "We have a book."
Tá leabhar agaibh. "You (plural) have a book."
Tá leabhar acu. "They have a book."
Irish shares with other Celtic languages a feature known as mutation, whereby initial and final consonants may change to express nuances of grammatical relationship and meaning. Mutation affects verbs, nouns and adjectives. Certain consonants may be capable of changing in two ways, depending on the context.
In Irish, there are two classes of initial consonant mutations:
Lenition (in Irish, séimhiú "softening") describes the change of stops into fricatives. Indicated in old orthography by a buailte written above the changed consonant, this is now shown in writing by adding an -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 it is now usually omitted)
margadh "market", "market-place", "bargain" - Tadhg an mhargaidh "the man of the street" (word for word "Tadhg 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)
Eclipsis (in Irish, urú) covers the voicing of voiceless stops, as well as the nasalisation of voiced stops.
athair "father" - ár nAthair "our Father"
tús "start", ar dtús "at the start"
Gaillimh "Galway" - i nGaillimh "in Galway"
Mutations are often the only way to distinguish similar grammatical forms. For example, the only way (apart from context) in which the possessive pronouns "her," "his" and "their" can be distinguished is through initial mutations, since all these meanings are represented by the same word a. It is seen here in apposition to the word bróg (shoe):
their shoe - a mbróg (eclipsis)
his shoe - a bhróg (lenition)
her shoe - a bróg (unchanged)
The alphabet which modern Irish typically uses is similar to English without the letters j,k,q,w,x,y,z; however, some anglicised words with no unique Irish meaning use those letters: for instance, 'Jeep' is written as 'Jíp'. Some words take a letter(s) not traditionally used and replace it with the closest phonetic sound, e.g. 'phone'>'Fón'. The written language looks rather daunting to those unfamiliar with it. Once understood, the orthography is relatively straightforward.
Modern Irish has only one diacritic sign, the acute accent (á é í ó ú), known in Irish as the síneadh fada "long mark", plural sínte fada. In English this is frequently referred to simply as the fada, where the adjective is used as a noun. It serves to lengthen the sound of the vowels and in some cases also changes their quality.
Around the time of World War II, Séamas Daltún, in charge of Rannóg an Aistriúcháin (the official translations department of the Irish government), 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 standardised 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.
Republic of Ireland:
Irish is given recognition by the Constitution of Ireland as the national and first official language of the Republic of Ireland (with English being a second official language). Since the foundation of the Irish Free State in 1922 the Irish Government required a degree of proficiency in Irish for all those who became newly appointed to civil service positions (including postal workers, tax officials, agricultural inspectors, etc.). Proficiency in just one official language for entrance to the public service was introduced in 1974, in part through the actions of protest organizations like the Language Freedom Movement.
While the First Official Language requirement was also dropped for wider public service jobs, Irish remains a required subject of study in all schools within the Republic which receive public money. Those wishing to teach in primary schools in the State must also pass a compulsory examination called "Scrúdú Cáilíochta sa Ghaeilge". The need for a pass in Leaving Certificate Irish or English for entry to the Gardaí (police) was introduced in September 2005, although applicants are given lessons in the language during the two years of training. All official documents of the Irish Government must be published in both Irish and English or Irish alone (this is according to the official langua-ges act 2003, which is enforced by "an Comisinéir Teanga", the language ombudsman).
The National University of Ireland requires all students wishing to embark on a degree course in the NUI federal system to pass the subject of Irish in the Leaving Certificate or GCE/GCSE Examinations. Exemptions are made from this requirement for students born outside of the Republic of Ireland, those who were born in the Republic but completed primary education outside it, and students diagnosed with dyslexia.
In 1938, the founder of Conradh na Gaeilge (The Gaelic League), Douglas Hyde, was inaugurated as the first President of Ireland. The record of his delivering his auguration Declaration of Office in Roscommon Irish remains almost the only surviving remnant of anyone speaking in that dialect.
The National University of Ireland, Galway is required to appoint people who are competent in the Irish language, as long as they meet all other respects of the vacancy they are appointed to. This requirement is laid down by the University College Galway Act, 1929 (Section 3). It is expected that the requirement may be repealed in due course.
Even though modern parliamentary legislation is supposed to be issued in both Irish and English, in practice it is frequently only available in English. This is notwithstanding that Article 25.4 of the Constitution of Ireland requires that an "official translation" of any law in one official language be provided immediately in the other official language-if not already passed in both official languages.
There are parts of Ireland where Irish is still spoken as a traditional, native language used daily. These regions are known collectively as Gaeltachts, or in the plural Irish Gaeltachtaí. While the Gaeltacht's fluent Irish speakers, whose numbers have been estimated by scholar Donncha Ó hÉallaithe at twenty or thirty thousand, are a minority of the total number of fluent Irish speakers, they represent a higher concentration of Irish speakers than other parts of the country and it is only in Gaeltacht areas (in especial the more strongly Irish-speaking ones) that Irish continues to be a natural vernacular of the general population.
There are Gaeltacht regions in:
County Galway (Contae na Gaillimhe), including Connemara (Conamara), the Aran Islands (Oileáin Árann), Carraroe (An Cheathrú Rua) and Spiddal (An Spidéal);
on the west coast of County Donegal (Contae Dhún na nGall); in the part which is known as Tyrconnell (Tír Chonaill);
Dingle Peninsula (Corca Dhuibhne) and Iveragh Peninsula (Uibh Rathach) in County Kerry (Contae Chiarraí).
Smaller ones also exist in:English Irish
Mayo Contae Mhaigh Eo
Meath Contae na Mí
Waterford Contae Phort Láirge
Cork Contae Chorcaí
To summarise the extent of the survival: Irish speakers by towns and distinct electoral divisions, census 1926.) Irish remains as a natural vernacular in the following areas: south Connemara, from a point west of Spiddal, covering Inverin, Carraroe, Rosmuck, and the islands; the Aran Islands; northwest Donegal in the area around Gweedore, including Rannafast, Gortahork, the surrounding townlands and Tory Island; in the townland of Rathcarn, Co. Meath.
Gweedore (Gaoth Dobhair),County Donegal is the largest Gaeltacht parish in Ireland.
The numerically and socially strongest Gaeltacht areas are those of South Connemara, the west of the Dingle Peninsula and northwest Donegal, in which the majority of residents use Irish as their primary language. These areas are often referred to as the Fíor-Ghaeltacht ("true Gaeltacht") and collectively have a population just under 20,000.
Irish summer colleges are attended by tens of thousands of Irish teenagers annually. Students live with Gaeltacht families, attend classes, participate in sports, go to céilithe and are obliged to speak Irish. All aspects of Irish culture and tradition are encouraged.
According to data compiled by the Irish Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, only one quarter of households in officially Gaeltacht areas possess a fluency in Irish. The author of a detailed analysis of the survey, Donncha Ó hÉallaithe of the Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology, described the Irish language policy followed by Irish governments a "complete and absolute disaster". The Irish Times, referring to his analysis 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."
Prior to the establishment of the Northern Ireland state in 1921, Irish was recognised as a school subject and as "Celtic" in some third level institutions. Between 1921 and 1972, Northern Ireland had devolved government. During those years the political party holding power in the Stormont Parliament, the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), was hostile to the language.(citation needed) In broadcasting, there was an exclusion on the reporting of minority cultural issues, and Irish was excluded from radio and television for almost the first fifty years of the previous devolved government. The language received a degree of formal recognition in Northern Ireland from the United Kingdom, under the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, and then, in 2001, by the Government's ratification in respect of the language of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. The British government promised to create legislation encouraging the language as part of the 2006 St Andrews Agreement.
Irish became an official language of the EU on 1 January 2007 meaning that MEP's with Irish fluency can now speak the language in the EU Parliament in Europe and at committees although in the case of the latter they have to give prior notice to a simultaneous interpreter in order to ensure that what they say can be interpreted into other languages. While an official language of the European Union, only co-decision regulations must be available in Irish for the moment, due to a renewable five-year derogation on what has to be translated, requested by the Irish Government when negotiating the language's new official status. Any expansion in the range of documents to be translated will depend on the results of the first five-year review and on whether the Irish authorities decide to seek an extension. The Irish government has committed itself to train the necessary number of translators and interpreters and to bear the related costs.
Before Irish became an official language it was afforded the status of treaty language and only the highest-level documents of the EU had been made available in Irish.
The Irish language was carried abroad in the modern period by a vast diaspora, chiefly to Britain and North America, but also to Australia, New Zealand and Argentina. The first large movements began in the 17th century, largely as a result of the Cromwellian conquest, which saw many Irish sent to the West Indies. Irish emigration to America was well established by the 18th century, and was reinforced in the 1840s by thousands fleeing from the Famine. This flight also affected Britain. Up until that time most emigrants spoke Irish as their first language, though English was steadily establishing itself as the primary language. Irish speakers had first arrived in Australia in the late 18th century as convicts and soldiers, and many Irish-speaking settlers followed, particularly in the 1860s. New Zealand also received some of this influx. Argentina was the only non-English speaking country to receive large numbers of Irish emigrants, and it is likely that some of them spoke Irish.
Relatively few of the emigrants were literate in Irish, but many manuscripts arrived in America, and it was there that the first Irish-language newspaper was established. In Australia, too, the language found its way into print. The Gaelic Revival, which started in Ireland in the 1890s, found a response abroad, with branches of the Gaelic League being established in all the countries to which Irish speakers had emigrated.
The decline of Irish in Ireland and a slowing of emigration help ensure a decline in the language abroad, along with natural attrition in the host countries. Despite this, a handful of enthusiasts continued to learn and cultivate Irish in diaspora countries and elsewhere, a trend which strengthened in the second half of the 20th century. Today the language is taught at tertiary level in North America, Australia and Europe, and Irish speakers outside Ireland contribute to journalism and literature in the language.