The Irish language, called Gaeilge, is an ancient language closely related to other Celtic family languages such as Scottish Gaelic and Manx, that has been spoken for generations in Ireland and travelled worldwide with the Irish diaspora.
It’s a beautiful, vibrant language that expresses the spirit, the heart and soul, of the people who speak it both here and abroad. Here's a look at some of the history and culture of our native tongue, along with helpful tips on how to learn it.
History and Culture of the Irish Language
Gaeilge has survived for thousands of years, through a whole lot of hardship, and despite the many modern claims that it’s a “dead language”, Irish is still popular and growing as a vibrant part of Irish culture today.
This is a living language, always developing and evolving with use. The periods of attested Irish are usually categorised as follows:
- Primitive Irish - 300s to 500s CE
- Archaic, or Early Old Irish - 600s CE
- Old Irish - 700s to 800s CE
- Middle Irish - 900s to 1100s CE
- Modern Irish - 1200s CE onwards
Resource-wise, we can choose to study Old Irish up to Classical Modern Irish (1200s to 1650s CE), which is often just collectively referred to as ‘Old Irish’, through the standard Dictionary of the Irish Language, which has an excellent digital version at Dil.ie.
Other learning resources which are teaching you Irish will be using Modern Irish, most usually in a standardised form.
While other countries faced some of the same historic pressures on their native language that Ireland did – colonisation, enforced low status, emigration, religious pressures, breaking up of communities, classism and elitism associations, poorly structured and implemented education - none experienced them all together, as a perfect socio-linguistic storm.
“People are fond of saying ‘Irish hasn’t done very well, look how few people speak it’. I don’t think that’s true. Considering all those factors, I think Irish has done very well. 150 or 160 years ago, people would quite reasonably have predicted the death of the Irish language within a generation or two. There were all kinds of factors against it.” -Source.
The last available census data (2006) reported almost 1.8 million people being able to speak Irish – that’s 40% of the population, though only 2% say they speak it every day. The relatively low usage shows a lack of confidence, as much as anything else, but represents a whole lot of other factors (such as post-colonial trauma with its hangover of guilt and shame) in the mix.
Changes are being made though, at both grassroots and governmental levels, to foster the greater use of the Irish language - which is, after all, one of Europe’s oldest living languages.
The Role of Irish Today
A big part of my academic work, while researching and writing my Master's Thesis (and wherever the next steps take me after that!) is about the role the Irish language held in developing our national and cultural identity as a people trying to break free from coloniser’s rule.
More specifically, how the instigators and agitators of the Gaelic Cultural Revival (1893 to 1916), and our subsequent Revolution and formation of the Free State (1916 to 1937), viewed and used the Ogham as the seed and root of the Irish language which was so instrumental in the events and mindset that brought us through all of that, to where Ireland stands today.
And even before this, the antiquarian revival, and later philological revival, of the 1700s and 1800s prepared the ground for the later Gaelic Revivalists and Revolutionaries, raising the status of the Irish language by demonstrating its linguistic archaism and comparative importance within the context of other ‘classical’ languages and writing systems… and the value and importance of Ogham played a large part in how this was achieved.
(If you’re interested in reading more about this, I recommend starting with the work of Joep Leerssen, particularly the paper ‘Cúchulain in the General Post Office: Gaelic Revival, Irish Rising’, which you can download from Academia.edu)
In modern times, the Official Languages (Amendment) Act was enacted in December 2021, to introduce changes to the Official Languages Act of 2003. This 2021 amendment to the Act increases the obligations on public bodies to promote the use of the Irish language for official purposes. This will be done by increasing visibility of the Irish language in official forms, logos and media, and improving the provision of services by public bodies through Irish.
You, too, can have a positive impact, by learning and using even a few words, or cúpla focal. And of course, by contributing to the preservation and use of the original alphabet of the Irish language, Ogham.
Learning Resources for Irish Language
Luckily for learners today, learning resources for the Irish language have come a long way since the days when books were few and far between. There are now plenty of ways to get started with Gaeilge both online and off.
One good resource is Duolingo’s free app which offers lessons and courses in basic conversational Gaelic across multiple platforms including iOS and Android devices. This is great to get started, or refresh yourself and build some confidence, but the downside is you’re not engaging with the living Irish language or native speakers. So don’t stop there!
For those looking for more intensive learning opportunities,UCD’s International Summer School provides week-long courses on all aspects of modern spoken Irish as well as an introduction to literature in the same format. It’s aimed at adults in Ireland and abroad who are interested in the Irish language and in Irish culture.
Our affiliate, the Irish Pagan School, hosts a fantastic Online Course - on demand to suit your own schedule - to introduce you to the Irish language, giving confidence to integrate it in your Irish spiritual practices, or make use of it for your Ogham Studies. The teacher, Amy O’Riordan, primarily focuses on the spoken language, introducing conversational Irish - while also providing foundational building blocks for students through basic grammar, tenses and vocabulary.
The course is suitable for beginners and for those already learning the Irish language. You will get an overview on everything from pronunciation and spelling, to basic everyday phrases and grammar concepts, while also providing more advanced grammar instruction for those who are looking for a refresh on their current Irish language knowledge or have questions on tenses and the more challenging grammar rules in the Irish language.
>>>You can get full details and enroll here - Introduction to the Irish Language
Immerse Yourself in Language & Culture Events
Listening to Irish music is an easy and fun way to learn new words and phrases in the Irish language. Not only can it be enjoyable, but also educational, as you will quickly become familiar with the pronunciation of Irish words. Additionally, listening to Irish music provides exposure to popular slang terms and local expressions that you might not otherwise come across in language learning materials.
Polyglot and founder of the Mimic Method Idahosa Ness suggests learning to rap in a chosen language, to learn it more quickly and fluently. It's faster, and if you can get rap you can get speech. So, listen to the Irish satirists Kneecapto get you started, and begin your immersion in the Irish language.
Attending events dedicated to both the language itself and its unique culture can be another great way to delve deeper into all things Gaeilge. From traditional music nights at pubs to lectures on cultural heritage topics such as clothing traditions, there are plenty of chances for native speakers from around the world to gather in one place and celebrate their shared passion for poetry, storytelling or simply having a good time together over a pint! Seachtain na Gaeilge has a big burst of events each year, and you can find details and resources for networking at the their Website Here.
Additionally, many universities host gatherings or events where various academics discuss linguistic research papers – providing yet another great opportunity for learners anxious to take their understanding further beyond basic conversation tools like Duolingo courses or casual conversation meetups. Make sure you follow the Irish departments in Universities and Colleges on their social media platforms, you can start with Maynooth University@MaynoothUni and the Irish Studies Departmentin UCD @UCDIrishStudies.
Old or Modern Irish for the Ogham?
Ogham was originally developed to express the sounds of the oldest form of our language that we know of, which is called Primitive Irish. Mostly, I stick with modern Irish, as there are more plentiful resources… but it also actively contributes to the living and evolving nature of the language, which is important to me both spiritually and ethically, and part of my ‘Right Relationship’ with Irish culture.
However, the choice of whether to use Old Irish or Modern Irish for your Ogham studies and practice is ultimately up to you.
Once you start to learn Gaeilge, don’t give up!Although it can be tempting toquit after a few failed attempts of pronouncing new words, it’s important to keep going and practice constantly. Learning the Irish language (or any language) requires dedication and commitment - and the more you practice, the easier it will become.
It might help to set aside a certain amount of time each day dedicated solely to learning Irish, so that your skills can improve at a consistent rate. Don’t forget to reward yourself for the progress you make!