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Irish Language

The Irish Language

History of the Irish Language

Irish is a member of the Celtic language family, along with Scottish Gaelic, Manx, Welsh, Cornish, and Breton. Many current Irish placenames and surnames come from the original Irish names. For example, Dublin comes from the Irish “Dubh Linn”, meaning “black pool”.

The earliest written evidence of Irish can be found in ogham inscriptions dating from the third century. Ogham, a system of writing that involves inscribing vertical and slanted lines on wood or stone, was used in Ireland mainly on territorial markers and gravestones. Some ogham stones survive in Ireland to this day.

Ireland has the oldest vernacular literature in Western Europe. The oldest Irish literary text, Amra Choluim Chille (The Lament for St. Colm Cille), dates back to 597 AD.  The Irish language evolved, becoming more simplified and standardised, but also being influenced by foreign languages spoken by invaders. Thanks to the Vikings, it includes Scandinavian words, particularly those relating to ships and navigation.  The Anglo Norman invasion in the 12th century brought the adoption of French words such as garsún (boy).

Irish remained the language of the majority in Ireland until the 19th century when it went into a rapid decline, and was eventually replaced by English. The deaths of between one and two million people – almost all Irish speakers – during the Great Famine was a major factor in the decline of the language. In addition, the British government passed laws introducing English into schools and prohibiting the teaching of Irish.

Since the 1920s the Irish Government has made various provisions for the maintenance and promotion of the language. The Irish Constitution states that Irish is the national and first official language of Ireland. Irish is a core subject in primary and secondary schools and a growing number of schools offer tuition exclusively through Irish.  There are also national Irish language media: Raidió na Gaeltachta (radio) and TG4 (television).

The 2011 census figures show that just over 40% of people living in Ireland speak at least some Irish. Irish is spoken as a first language by Irish people living in certain areas in Ireland, mainly on the west coast, called Gaeltacht. In 2010, the Irish Government adopted a 20-year strategy to increase the number of daily users of Irish to 250,000 by 2030.

Irish and the EU

When Ireland joined the EEC in 1973, Irish was a “treaty” language, although not an official working language. In 2005 the EU Council of Ministers voted unanimously to make Irish the 21st official and working language of the European Union. This decision took effect on 1st January 2007.  

Its new EU status, and the career opportunities created for Irish graduates, has resulted in the creation of new third level courses in translation and interpretation. However, a temporary and transitory derogation was brought in in 2007 because of difficulties in recruiting sufficient numbers of Irish language translators. The derogation was renewed in 2010 and will be reviewed again in 2015.

The European Commission and Council Secretariat set up an Irish translation unit within its DG Translation and has translated its Europa website into Irish. Irish is now heard regularly at meetings of the Council and at plenary sessions of the European Parliament. All EU Institutions now use some Irish in communication with the public.

 The Irish Language

Words you might already know

Sláinte : Good health (Irish way to say “Cheers”)

Céad Míle Fáilte: Welcome

Slán: Goodbye

RTÉ: Raidió Teilifís Éireann – the national broadcaster

Words you might hear during the Presidency

Bunreacht* Na hÉireann: The Irish Constitution

Taoiseach* (pronounced tee-shock): Irish head of government/Prime Minister

Tánaiste (pronounced tawn-ash-ta): Deputy Prime Minister

Dáil (pronounced Dawl): Irish House of Representatives

Seanad (pronounced Shan-id): Irish Senate

Oireachtas* (pronounced ir-ock-tas): Ireland’s national parliament

Gardaí (pronounced guard-ee): Irish police


* The "ch" sound of Irish is not heard in English or French, but is equivalent to the sounds in German "acht"; Spanish "joven" or Polish "choinka".