May 3, 2013 | Irish

A Survey of the Irish Language

A book by Darerca Ní Chartúir introduces me to what's out there.

Yesterday I read a book by Irish teacher Darerca Ní Chartúir, entitled The Irish Language: An Overview and Guide. (Before I even got into the details of the book, I had to spend a little time admiring her name!)

In 2002, when the book was written, the author says there were between 40,000 and 50,000 people in Ireland who spoke Irish as their first language. All Irish speakers, she explains, are also fluent in English.

This Has Gobs of Information in It

This Has Gobs of Information in It

Irish is one of the Celtic languages of Ireland and Britain. These can be divided into two groups: Goidelic and Brythonic.

Aren’t those cool names?

Goidelic includes the Irish Gaelic, Scottish Gaelic, and Manx languages I mentioned in the last blog entry. The Brythonic languages are Welsh, which is spoken in Wales; Cornish, which used to be spoken in Cornwall; and Breton, which is spoken in Brittany. Brittany is in modern-day France, but is one of the six Celtic “nations,” which also include Scotland, Ireland, Isle of Man, Wales, and Cornwall.

I really do love the word Goidelic. It sounds like something Austin Powers would say. “Goidelic, baby!”

Irish is old. In some form or another, it has existed a good 2,000 years.

But history and Irish repeatedly collided, and the outcome for Irish was not good: Ireland converted over some hundreds of years from an Irish-speaking nation into an English-speaking one.

One of the reasons I was interested in studying Irish was the profound influence Irish immigration had on New York City. “New York was one of the major centres of immigration for the Great Famine Irish,” writes Ní Chartúir, “and New York historian John Ridge estimates that over fifty percent of Irish immigrants to New York in 1851 spoke Irish.”

Unfortunately, the pressures of assimilation took a toll on Irish here. At the same time, the famine’s tragic twin consequences of widespread death and mass emigration of Irish speakers accelerated the long decline of the language back home.

However, the late nineteenth century marked the beginning of a revival movement for Irish. In 1893, for example, Conradh na Gaeilge (the Gaelic League) was founded. Its goal, according to Ní Chartúir, was “to restore the spoken and written language in Ireland through the study and publication of existing Irish literature, and to encourage new writing.” She offers many other details on the language’s resurgence that I will not go into now, but will try to explore in later entries when I am better informed.

Among other things, the book taught me some basic stuff about Irish that maybe I should have known but didn’t. Take Irish names, for instance. I learned that the Irish word mac means “son.” The author gives the example of Breandán Mac Diarmada in Irish, which would be rendered in English as Brendan MacDermot or (the abbreviated form) McDermot, and which means literally “Brendan, son of Dermot.”

The O’ that one so often sees in English versions of Irish surnames also derives from a word in Irish: Ó, which means “grandson” or “descendant.” Therefore, my friend Vin O’Neill’s name means “Vin, grandson or descendant of Neill.” The  in the author’s name is the feminine version of this Ó prefix, which I guess is a custom that didn’t carry over into the anglicized versions of Irish names.

Three days into my Irish studies I have so far not really studied Irish; rather, I’ve mostly just read about it. I did listen to part of a Pimsleur lesson and was dazzled by the sounds; they were much more complicated than I had expected.

The Irish words I have seen in print have also surprised me. I learned in The Irish Language that if I am a woman looking for a bathroom in Ireland, I should go for the sign reading Mná, which means “women,” and if I am a guy, I should look for the room labeled Fir (men). Wow.

According to data from the Modern Language Association Language Map Data Center, there are only about 3,000 speakers of Irish in New York State, so if I am going to find people to talk to here, I have my work cut out for me!

As I am editing this, I am listening to an Irish-language radio program from the station Raidió na Gaeltachta, which I found on a list of Irish radio stations on the website As of today, I understand not a word, but it sounds amazing!

Comments (1)

John Burton • Posted on Wed, June 12, 2013 - 1:10 pm EST

Oops, I better catch up on the whole blog before I leave my comments!

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