Gaeilge, language of the Irish
Discover the history of the Irish language, its revival and its presence in contemporary Irish society.
The Centre Culturel Irlandais celebrates the Irish language throughout 2023. This Interactive Introduction will guide you through the history of the language, its revival and its presence in contemporary Irish society. Additional online resources will help you go deeper into numerous aspects of the subject: maps, films and songs, articles, radio podcasts...
Céad míle fáilte! (One hundred thousand welcomes)
Gaeilge, language of the Irish
Not to Learn Irish is to miss the opportunity of understanding what life in this country has meant and could mean in a better future.
“The Irish language as the national language is the first official language”, states article 8 of the Irish constitution. Over 80 years later, in 2022, it gained full recognition as one of the 24 official and working languages of the European Union.
This status continues to herald in a new era of opportunities for Irish speakers and a growing interest in the language internationally. The language is likewise enjoying a renaissance in arts and culture, with award-winning literature and cinematography being released year upon year.
Crossroads with bilingual signs, Moll’s Gap, County Kerry.
Due to its official status in the Republic, Irish is encountered in everyday life in the media, official documentation, signage and announcements, alongside many other core elements of Irish society. It is also a core and compulsory subject of the school curriculum in the Republic of Ireland. Though UNESCO classifies the language as “definitely endangered”, it retains huge cultural value throughout the world for its rich heritage. Widely celebrated in music and the arts, Irish has been brought to the global stage by musicians such as Clannad, Enya, The Gloaming, and many more. We also see echoes of the language in the descendants of the Irish internationally with many surnames of Gaelic origin, notably those starting with “Mac/Mc”, meaning “son of” (such as Mac Mahon and McDonald) and “O” (such as O’Connor and O’Brien).
Earliest evidence & International examples
Nearly all of the place names in Ireland come from Irish, being intrinsically linked with the landscape, and even the vernacular English bears a strong inheritance of Irish. We find many Irish words used in everyday Hiberno-English – a term that designates the variety of English spoken in Ireland and influenced by the Irish language – or even internationally: uilleann pipes and bodhrán (musical instruments), plámás (flattery), raiméis (nonsensical talk), sliotar (ball used for hurling), craic (fun, chat, news), síbín (speak-easy), go leor (galore), bean sí (fairy woman), seamróg (shamrock), uisce beatha (whiskey).
The earliest examples we have of Archaic Irish are to be found inscribed on stones in the Ogham alphabet. Though we know that a strong culture of oral literature predated this, the promulgation of Christianity in Ireland from the middle of the 5th century led to writing gaining greater proliferation in society. The written word flourished in both Latin and in the native language of Irish, throughout monastic centres in Ireland as well as the many monasteries founded throughout Europe by Irish monks.
Photo : Example of Ogham engravings. Dunloe Ogham Stone, Beaufort, County Kerry
© Wikimedia Commons
Cultures in contact
The fortunes of the Irish language reflect the socio-political and economic changes that would come over Ireland. Though the arrival of groups such as the Vikings and the Normans hailed huge societal changes in Ireland, these groups would ultimately assimilate both culturally and linguistically. The long and varied history of international influence in Ireland, and vice versa, can be explored through loanwords, adopted into the language from other cultures:
However, the Tudor conquest of Ireland over the 16th and 17th centuries introduced a colonial mission in Ireland, and would take a starker stance in replacing Irish language and customs with those of the English. As the famous Elizabethan poet, Edmund Spenser, is quoted “The Speech being Irish, the heart must needs be Irish”.
Fleeing the anti-Catholic Penal Laws introduced by the English regime in Ireland resulted in the creation of Irish colleges on the continent. Saint Anthony’s in Louvain (founded in 1607) even set up printing presses to publish Irish language books, including Irish-language teaching materials. The explosion in publishing in both Irish and Latin among these colleges and communities produced a dynamic network of Irish literature throughout Europe, through printing as well as copying and transmission of manuscripts.
Likewise, the College des Irlandais in Paris (site of the present Centre Culturel Irlandais) holds a rich collection of Irish-language texts inherited from this continental network. Some of them are digitized, such as John O’Brien’s Irish-English dictionary Focalóir gaoidhilge sax-Bhéarla, printed in Paris in 1768, and a bilingual edition of Homer’s Iliad with an Irish translation, printed in 1844.
The Old Library also holds two copies of Andrew Donlevy’s Catechism, or Christian Doctrine by Way of Question and Answer (1742). This bilingual manual was printed using a particular Irish type which had been created in 1732 for O’Begley’s English Irish Dictionary, only these two books were printed with it.
Revival and Romanticism
The 19th century sees a dramatic change in English becoming the most spoken language throughout most of Ireland, apart from some areas, mostly in the rural west and south. The introduction of the national school system established in 1831, which instituted a curriculum excluding the Irish language, history and heritage, had a huge impact in associating progress and opportunity with a monolingual English-speaking outlook. Alongside this, the devastating famines which struck Ireland across the century led to a drop of roughly 25% of the entire population through widespread death and emigration, disproportionately affecting Irish-speaking regions.
Conversely, groups dedicated to the preservation, revitalization and teaching of Irish also began to spring up across the island. The most important group to arise during this period is Conradh na Gaeilge (Gaelic League), founded in 1893 by Eoin Mac Néill and Douglas Hyde, to preserve and revive the Irish language.
In the context of the struggle for political independence in the early 20th century, those with a political agenda were likewise drawn to the language, as a clear expression of independence from England. This would prompt questions about the political symbolism of the language, which marks discussions surrounding Irish, identity and nationalism up to this day.
Tír gan teanga, tír gan anam
(a country without a language is a country without a soul)
The turn of the 20th century saw an outburst of Irish writing, though many writers saw that the rich oral tradition of folklore of the Gaeltachtaí did not alone suffice to provide a base for a modern national literature. Writers such as Pearse, Peadar Ua Laoghaire and Pádraic Ó Conaire are but a few figures of the great outbreak of Irish language literature, who sought to establish a new modern literature which could stand shoulder to shoulder with the contemporary literary milieu of Europe.
Máirtín Ó Cadhain (considered “the James Joyce of the Irish language”) published Cré na Cille (available in the Médiathèque in the Centre Culturel Irlandais), a quintessential breakthrough work of modernism in the language, in 1949. Numerous translations as well as stage and film adaptations have been made of this work.
Figures such as Ó Cadhain, who himself grew up in the heart of the Irish-speaking community, were integral in the political activism of “The Gaeltacht Civil Rights Movement”, starting in 1969. Inspired by the civil rights movement in the USA, and May 68 in France, this movement fought for the social, economic and cultural rights of Irish speakers in the Gaeltacht. Similar efforts have been reflected in minority language political activism around the world, arising from the same period.
The National Folklore Collection collects, preserves and disseminates the oral tradition of Ireland through manuscripts, photographs and hours of sound and video recordings.
Photo : Dancing on the pier, Clogherhead (1935) © National Folklore Collection, UCD
Irish at the heart of Europe (once again)
So where is Irish now? Though the study of Irish was more generally established in schools following the independence of the state, the number of speakers continued to decrease throughout much of the century. Many in the newly-established state perpetuated the colonial prejudice that associated Irish with emigration, poverty and backwardness. The efforts to revive Irish on a national scale through the school system alone, without sustainable planning or follow-on opportunities, met with little success or sympathy. Much was to change with Ireland’s improving economic circumstances and membership of the European Union.
Moving on from postcolonial hang-ups whereby “Irishness” was essentially promoted as an alternative to “Britishness”, and recognising Irish identity in a wider spectrum of diversity throughout the EU, many began to view the language in a new light. Irish is finding diverse expression in urban centres, among young generations and the great successes of the Irish-medium schools (Gaelscoileanna) throughout the country, as well as opportunities to learn the language at the heart of Gaeltacht communities. Leading writers and creators in the language such as Úna-Minh Kavanagh, hOla Majekodunmi and Alex Hijmans show diverse experiences engaging with the language in modern Irish-language life. Disburdened of the narratives of centuries of struggle for expression of identity, Irish-speakers and learners from all around the world are now building new, dynamic relationships with the language.
It is claimed that we are currently witnessing a renaissance of the Irish language with world-famous groups such as Kíla, and great successes in the film industry such as An Cailín Ciúin, and many more examples of Irish language arts taking to the global stage. As a minority language in the face of Globalism, we see Irish speakers adapting to create communities digitally and physically all around the world, using all the resources and creativity available to draw people together through language.
Go mbeirimid beo ar an am seo arís! (May we live to see this time again)
Scientific direction: William Howard, Irish language teacher at the Centre Culturel Irlandais
With the support of Maynooth University
The Médiathèque offers a wide selection of resources to learn, read or listen to Irish: the collection is available in free access and open to all (Mon-Fri: 2pm-6pm, until 8pm on Wednesdays).