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Long ago, Irish was spoken all across Ireland, and was even used as a literary language in parts of Scotland. Today, the language has diminished. It is commonly used in daily life in only a small portion of Ireland itself, a collection of counties known as the Gaeltachtaí. What happened, and is there any hope that Irish can experience a revival on par with that of the Welsh language?

The Origins of Irish

Irish was brought to Ireland by the Celtic people, who arrived sometime between 3000 and 1200 BC-no one is quite sure.

celtic imageThe first remnants of the written language are mostly memorials inscribed on stones in Ogham script, which date from 5-6 AD. After Christianity took hold, Old Irish inscriptions and footnotes appear in Bibles and illuminated manuscripts copied by monks.

Starting in the 8th century AD, the Norse Vikings began pillaging England and Ireland, and Irish monasteries proved to be an almost irresistible temptation to the gold-hungry Norsemen. After all, monasteries contained great stores of gold and other shiny treasures, guarded by men who devoutly believed in the principle of ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill.’ The Vikings found Ireland so congenial that they even founded the city of Dublin in Ireland.

Middle Irish

The result of all of this pillaging was that by the 10th century AD, Old Irish had evolved into Middle Irish, which showed some Norse influence.

Some words that Middle Irish borrowed from Old Norse include: bord, for table; scuird, which meant ‘skirt, tunic or cloak’ and comes from the Norse word skyrta, brog, for shoe; and mardagh for market. Middle Irish is the language that a lot of traditional Irish literature was written in. For example, the Ulster cycle, Irish mythology's answer to the Iliad, was written in Middle Irish.

The Decline of the Irish Language

Early Modern Irish, also called classical Gaelic, was the standard written form of Irish from the 13th to 17th centuries, and was used in Scotland as well as in Ireland.

During the 17th century, poets began writing poems in their own dialects instead of using classical Gaelic. After the 17th century, Early Modern Irish was no longer used. Poems and stories were written in regional dialects, and writing in Irish became a lot less common during this period of time.

The single most important factor in the decline of the Irish language was the influence of the English government. Ireland and England had an uneasy, conflict-driven relationship starting in 1171 when King Henry II of England invaded Ireland.

Over time, the English government began to rule Ireland with a stronger hand, and also set up policies that favored English Protestants over Irish Catholics. These policies favored the use of English, the language of the ruling class, over Irish, leading to a long, slow decline in the use of Irish.

In 1831, England set up a National School system in Ireland. These schools provided education in English only, and students discovered speaking Irish were harshly punished. Many Irish parents encouraged their children to learn English and abandon their native tongue because they saw speaking English as the only way to a better life. Also, the Irish Potato Famine hit the poorer, Irish-speaking areas of the country the hardest, killing many native Irish speakers or driving them to emigrate from Ireland to other countries.

The Gaelic League

The Irish language began to experience a revival in the late 19th century, when the Gaelic League, or Conradh na Gaeilge, was formed to promote it.

This coincided with a revival of Irish Nationalist sentiment and traditional Irish Culture. During this time period William Butler Yeats and others wrote poems and plays in English about traditional Irish heroes and myths.

After the Irish republic gained independence in 1922, Irish was declared the first official language of the Republic. However, the new government still continued to use English as its primary language and the percentage of native Irish speakers continued to fall.

For example, since Ireland gained independence the number of fluent Irish speakers has fallen from 250,000 to 20-30,000. The government of the Republic of Ireland has made many attempts to preserve the language, including requiring it as a school subject. Some people feel that the way Irish is taught in schools has actually hastened the decline of the language, as students see it as a difficult, boring subject to master instead of an exciting part of their cultural heritage.

Irish in the 21st Century

However, many Irish citizens at least have a passing acquaintance with Irish due to these lessons, and there have been some encouraging developments in recent years. For example, in 2005 Irish was made an official language of the European Union, meaning that all legislation now has to be translated into Irish.

In 2006, the Irish government released a plan to encourage the use of Irish so that "in public discourse and in public services the use of Irish or English will be, as far as practical, a choice for the citizen to make and that over time more and more people throughout the State will choose to do their business in Irish."- Statement on the Irish Language 2006

In everyday life, many computer programs, such as Mozilla Firefox and Windows, have an Irish-language option. There is also an Irish-language radio station available in The Republic of Ireland, as well as an Irish-language TV station called TG4 that broadcasts in both the Republic of Ireland and Belfast in Northern Ireland. Additonally, there is an increasing number of schools called gaelscoileanna that teach students in Irish, even outside of the Irish-speaking regions of the country.

Irish words also survive in a surprising place: the basis for many American slang words. For example, author Daniel Cassidy compiled a list of American slang words that have Irish origins: "scram" comes from scaraim, which means "I get away;" "dig" comes from "tuig," which means "I understand" and "dude" comes from "dúid," which means a fool or a dolt. So remember, next time you call somebody "dude," you are actually insulting them. Also, the expression "Say Uncle" becomes a lot less puzzling when you realize that "anacal" means "mercy" in Irish.

Hopefully, Irish will continue to slowly creep back into use in Ireland itself.


About the author

K International are a leading translation company specializing in providing language translation, interpreting and design solutions to some of the world’s largest organizations.

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Published - November 2008

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