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Cúpla Focail (A Few Words)

A Brief History of the Irish Language

Many outside of Ireland are unaware that the Irish have their own ancient, vividly descriptive, and deeply romantic, native language.

Up until the 18th century, Irish was the predominant spoken language of the Irish population, but a combination of a policy of repression of Irish culture, by the then ruling British, and the double whammy of the Great Famine of the mid-19th century, saw rural communities decimated by death or emigration. In those dark years, Ireland lost a quarter of its Irish population. Indeed, Ireland's population only recently returned to the pre-famine level. The Irish language declined greatly as a result of these struggles and, by the end of the 19th century, the number of Irish speakers had declined to 600,000. It was in danger of complete extinction.

Fortunately, the economic boom of the mid-1990’s and 2000’s in Ireland, known as the ‘Celtic Tiger’, ushered in a new era of pride and interest amongst Irish people in their music, literature and language and it became ‘cool’ amongst young people to embrace their ‘Irish-ness’ once more. This also helped to draw the attention of the rest of the world to Ireland’s unique language and culture.

However, the Irish language still remains on the critical list, as relatively few people maintain their interest after leaving school, where irish language lessons are compulsory. As of 2022, ~1.9m people in Ireland were estimated to be able to speak the language, however, in reality at most ~80,000 people are truly fluent, with the bulk of those living in the Irish speaking (Gaeltacht) areas of the country. Although official documents and signposts are often written in both Irish and English, if people don’t want to engage with the language further, they don’t have to. 

For me, there was no question of letting my proficiency ‘slide’. My parents were very passionate about keeping the language alive and, although we did not speak it much at home, it was always encouraged, and attainment in the subject in school was seen to be very important. 

After moving to the UK in the 1980’s, driven by a huge economic depression in Ireland, I have remained determined not to forget my culture, nor my native language. Indeed, maintaining my ability to speak the language represents a visceral link to my heritage, of which I am immensely proud.

“Thirty-Two Words for Field”

Irish is a very romantic, poetic language and it is practically impossible to translate directly to English. There is no word for ‘yes’ or ‘no’ in Irish. An answer in the positive or negative is qualified by its context, e.g. ‘An bhuil tú cinnte?’ (Are you sure?) would be answered ‘Táim’ (I am). Or ‘Nach bhuil an lá go hálainn?’ (Isn’t it a beautiful day?) might get the response ‘Sea’’ (It is).

The language also reflects an intimate knowledge and connection between Irish people and their surrounding elements and land. In Manchán Magan’s “Thirty-Two Words for Field” he describes how single words can convey a sense of place, function and history.

Magan describes it beautifully here: "Separately [Irish words] may seem outdated, and awkward to pronounce and spell, but together they make clear how ancestral languages can steer us back to what truly matters; allowing us to make sense of an increasingly chaotic world by reintroducing us to the mysterious glories of the natural world and the subterranean existence to all things."

Magan discusses how nowadays we might look at a landscape and see a nondescript field, but, when the language was in its heyday, you might have used any of at least 32 words to identify a single field e.g. ‘branar’ (a fallow field), ‘plásóg’ (a sheltered field in which a mare might foal), ‘réalóg’ (an untended patch of good land in the middle of a ‘créig’ (a stonier area of limestone)).

It’s not difficult to see how Ireland has produced a slew* of writers and poets of note, given the richness and lyricism of their native tongue. Indeed, many Irish words have passed into everyday use in the English language. Slew (as in a slew of people) derives from ‘slua’ (crowd); clock from ‘clagan’ in Old Irish, ‘clog’ in modern Irish (clock or bell); galore from go leor (until plenty); to name but a few. 

Oppression of the Irish language

The thought that Irish might not survive, given the challenges it has had to overcome in Ireland’s often tragic and troubled history, is truly heart-breaking. 

Ireland was under British rule for many hundreds of years (starting in 1167). One particular period was especially punitive to the indigenous culture, when what were known as Penal Laws were introduced in 1695 by the British occupiers. This worsened the injustices against the native, almost entirely Catholic, population. Religious freedoms were removed, almost all land holdings were seized, Catholics could not enter a profession, possess arms, study medicine or law, but more importantly they could not speak or read Irish, or play Irish music. 

But the Irish refused to be cowed by this and persisted in educating children in what were known as ‘hedge schools’. These were gatherings that occurred, literally, behind hedges in fields, out of view of the ruling powers. The laws were repealed in 1782, but many people continued to send their children to hedge schools, since there were not enough suitable school premises.

The ongoing tradition of singing, playing musical instruments, such as ‘fiddle’ (violin) and bodhrán (drum), in homes and at social gatherings grew out of the necessity to keep the oppressed culture alive. The habit of telling stories and retelling myths by the fireside was one of the only means of entertainment, since all gatherings were prohibited during these dark times. That the Irish should have valued their language so greatly back then, to have been willing to risk imprisonment or death to ensure that it was passed on to their children, only to potentially let it slip away back into the mists of time now, is indeed sad. 

Hope for the Future

However, all is not lost. There do appear to be signs of a burgeoning interest in Irish culture. On recent visits home, I have noticed a growing number of TV and radio programmes conducted solely in Irish. Traditional music also seems to be becoming very mainstream, so perhaps my pessimism is somewhat misplaced. One can only hope. 

A word to the wise

When I travel abroad with my sister, we use Irish as our secret weapon. Few things give me more pleasure than being able to break it out, when surrounded by a babel of different languages. No matter where you are in the world, one always has to assume that at least some of your fellow passengers, or other diners in a restaurant will understand English. The silence that descends on our neighbours as they attempt, in vain, to figure out what we are saying, or where we are from when we speak in Irish is priceless. 

That being said, one can never take for granted that in any situation somebody else might understand it. This was demonstrated to a friend of mine some years ago, when she was travelling on a bus, in a remote part of Greece.

A young man got on the bus and sat down in front of her. Over 1500 miles from Ireland, she assumed she was safe and so remarked to her friend, in Irish, how good-looking he was. Some time later, the chap stood up to leave, but just before getting off the bus he turned to say, ‘Go raibh míle maith agaibh, a chailíní’ – “Thanks very much, girls”.

A dying language it may be, but it is certainly not yet dead. I hope that this article can, in some small way, contribute to reviving this primal and profound language.






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