History of the Irish Language

Abhainn an Scáil, Com Dubh

Irish is one of the oldest written and historical languages in the world.  It was seen for the first time in Ogham form in the fifth century.  Today it can be found in up to 4,500 books, on television, radio, newspapers, magazines and on the internet.

Irish is a Celtic language which is closely related to Scottish and Manx Gaelic. It is also related to Welsh, Cornish and Breton. The first speakers of Irish probably arrived on these shores from mainland Europe over 2,500 years ago. It is certain that there were other languages spoken here before Irish but, by the start of the Christian era, Irish was spoken all over Ireland and was spreading through Scotland, the west coast of Britain and the Isle of Mann. The Romans called the Gaels Scotti and they eventually spread the Gaelic language throughout most of Scotland.

The oldest remains of Ancient Irish that we have are inscriptions on Ogham stones from the 5th and 6th centuries. Old Irish was first written in the Roman alphabet before the beginning of the 7th century which makes Irish the oldest written vernacular language north of the Alps.

Detail of an Ogham Stones from West Kerry Museum

During the Middle Irish period (900-1200 AD) some loanwords came from the Scandinavian language, words like ‘pingin’ (penny), and ‘margadh’ (market), but Scandinavian had little impact on the syntax of the Irish language. This was a period of strife and conflict but, despite that, the Gaelic literary culture never failed and we have many manuscripts that survive from the Middle Irish era.

The Anglo Normans began settling in Scotland at the end of the eleventh century and in Ireland in the last third of the twelfth century. The Anglo Norman conquest started a period of multilingualism in Ireland, but Irish remained in the ascendancy and, gradually, the Normans began to speak Irish. By the start of the sixteenth century most of the people of Ireland were Irish speakers again. Among the words that the Anglo Normans introduced into Irish are ‘giúistís’ (justice), ‘bardas’ (corporation), ‘cúirt’ (court), ‘garsún’ (boy), and many, many more.

1200-1600 are the dates of Classical Modern Irish. This was not the ordinary spoken language of the period but a cultivated standardised language developed in the lay schools for scholars and poets throughout Ireland and Scotland. The spoken language of the same period is called Early Modern Irish, but the speech of the people underwent many changes from the start to the end of this period.

Although the majority of the people had Irish, English, however, was necessary for administrative and legal affairs. Irish, therefore, never became an administrative language, and the Irish speaking community never achieved political independence again.

The status of Irish as a major language was lost. But Irish continued as the language of the greater part of the rural population and, for a time, of the working classes in towns. From the middle of the eighteenth century, as the penal laws were relaxed, and a greater social and economic mobility became possible for the native Irish, the more prosperous members of the Irish-speaking community began to adopt an Anglicized way of life and to take up English. This increased during and after the Great Famine (1846–1848). The language was on the point of extinction.

At the start of the eighteenth century scholars started to become interested in the language and in its literature. Many people understood that Spoken Irish was in decline. Thomas Davis, in 1843, was among those who publicly declared that Irish is a “national language”. This terminology was again used in the constitutions of 1922 and 1937. The Society for the Preservation of the Irish Language, which was established in 1876, managed to gain recognition for Irish at every level of the education system from primary school level to university. In the year 1893 Dubhghlas de hÍde, Eoin Mac Néill, Father Eoghan Ó Gramhnaigh and others established Conradh na Gaeilge, or the Gaelic League. Within a couple of years they managed to create a mass movement of support for the Irish language. A start was made to bringing the grammar of the written language into line with the spoken modern language. A result of these efforts was the Official Standard which the Government of Ireland published in 1958.

The image of the Irish language has changed a great deal in recent years, which is evident in the number of people who speak and learn the language, not only in Ireland but around the world. The Irish language is the language of the community in Gaeltacht regions and the language is also gaining strength in places outside the Gaeltacht. According to the Census of 2016, 1.77 million people in the Republic of Ireland can speak Irish. Surveys have long shown a deep affection towards the Irish language amongst the community all over the country and this is not confined to people who speak Irish.