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The history of the Irish language begins with the arrival of speakers of Celtic languages in Ireland. The precise date is an open question, debated by linguists and archaeologists. Some scholars put the earliest date at ca. 1200 BC,[1] while others posit dates between 2600 and 2000 BC.[2] The earliest written form of the language, known to linguists as Primitive Irish, is found in Ogham inscriptions from the fifth and sixth century AD, found primarily in southern Ireland as well as in Wales and Cornwall, where it was brought by settlers from Ireland to sub-Roman Britain.[3]

After the conversion to Christianity in the 400s, Old Irish begins to appear as glosses and other marginalia in Latin manuscripts, beginning in the 500s. It evolved in the 900s to Middle Irish, which was slightly influenced by Norse. Early Modern Irish was a literary language that represented a transition between Middle and Modern Irish. It was used by writers until the 17th century, in the course of which they began writing in the vernacular dialects; Ulster Irish, Connacht Irish and Munster Irish. However, after the last of the Munster poets had died in the late 18th century, Irish largely ceased to be used as a written language until the late 19th century, at which point only the vernacular dialects were used.


Primitive Irish

Primitive Irish is the oldest known form of Irish, known only from fragments, mostly personal names, inscribed on stone in the Ogham alphabet in Ireland and western Great Britain up to about the 6th century.

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.[4][5]

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 in Ireland and Scotland. The tracts were edited and published by Osborn Bergin as a supplement to Ériu between 1916 and 1955.[6]

Linguistically, this stage of Irish represents a transition between Middle Irish and Modern Irish.[7] 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.[7] The ending -ann, today the usual 3rd person ending in the present tense, arose in the Early Modern period, but was found only in the so-called "dependent form", i.e. the form used when the verb is preceded by one of various grammatical particles such as "not". Thus Early Modern Irish contrasted molaidh sé "he praises" from ní mholann sé "he does not praise" (cf. Middle Irish ní mhol sé), whereas Modern Irish has molann sé and ní mholann sé.[5] This innovation is not found in Scottish Gaelic, which still follows the Middle Irish pattern: glacaidh e "he will grasp" but cha glac e "he will not grasp".[8]

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 adopted 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.[9]

The Irish language has been a minority language at least since the 19th century.[10] 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 language 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 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 eighteenth 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) which started the Gaelic Revival. Leading supporters of Conradh included Pádraig Mac Piarais 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 nineteenth century and early twentieth 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. Hyde himself resigned from its presidency in 1915 in protest when the movement voted to affiliate with the separatist cause.

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. 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. 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, he or she 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".[11]

The new state increased attempts to promote Irish through the school system. Some politicians claimed that the state would become predominantly Irish-speaking within a generation. However, it is generally agreed that this compulsory policy was clumsily implemented (and sometimes proved even to be counter-productive). The principal ideologue was Professor Timothy Corcoran of University College Dublin, who "did not trouble to acquire the language himself"[12] From the mid-1940s onward the policy of teaching English-speaking children through Irish was abandoned. In the following decades, support for the language was progressively reduced.

It is, though, 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.

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 the other radio stations it has inspired, Foinse and .


  1. ^ Mallory, J. P. (1991). "Two perspectives on the problem of Irish origins". Emania 9: 53–58.  
  2. ^ Kruta, Venceslas (2000). Les Celtes. Paris: Robert Laffont. ISBN 2221056906.  
  3. ^ 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.  
  4. ^ Mac Eoin, Gearóid (1993). "Irish". in in Martin J. Ball (ed.). The Celtic Languages. London: Routledge. pp. 101–44. ISBN 0-415-01035-7.  
  5. ^ 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.  
  6. ^ Rolf Baumgarten and Roibeard Ó Maolalaigh, 2004. Electronic Bibliography of Irish Linguistics and Literature 1942-71. Accessed 2007-12-27.
  7. ^ a b Bergin, Osborn (1930). "Language". Stories from Keating's History of Ireland (3rd ed.). Dublin: Royal Irish Academy.  
  8. ^ Calder, George (1923). A Gaelic Grammar. Glasgow: MacLaren & Sons. pp. 223.  
  9. ^ 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.
  10. ^ 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
  11. ^ Advisory Planning Committee of Bord na Gaeilge, The Irish Language in a Changing Society: Shaping The Future, p.41. Criterion, 1986.
  12. ^ R. Comerford, Ireland (Hodder Books 2003) p145


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