History of the Irish Language

Irish and her sister languages, Welsh and Breton, are among the oldest living languages in Europe. Written records go back to the early Christian period when Latin was often the usual written medium. Irish scribes would sometimes 'gloss' or annotate in the margins of their manuscripts, and it is from these glosses that much of our knowledge of 'Old Irish' has come. Another form of early writing was 'Ogham', consisting of a code of strokes and dots representing the letters, and usually incribed on the edges of upright stones. Hundreds of these 'Ogham Stones' still survive and they usually contain the name of a person, probably as a memorial. They were sometimes erected in honour of dead chieftains or warriors.

Irish developed from one of the Celtic dialects brought to bronze age Ireland and Britain by the iron age Celts, who inhabited Central Europe some three thousand years ago. Ireland was invaded many times and factual evidence is sometimes difficult to obtain. The oral tradition, however, refers consistently to specific events such as 'The Great Plague' and 'The Great Flood' etc. in very factual terms, along-side obviously mythological events. Quite often the claims of 'folk history' are corroborated by documentary and other evidence. The invaders of the pre-Celtic period such as Parthalon, Tuatha De Danann, Fir Bolg, Milesians, Picts (or Cruithni) are all considered as being ancient inhabitants of Ireland. It can be assumed that when the Celts eventually succeeded in conquering the country that it was a land of many diverse languages, cultures and peoples, even though the population must have been small, and these pre-Celtic languages are thought to have had some influence on what we now call Irish.

Irish was first called 'Gaelic' or 'Goidelic' ('Gaeilge' is the Irish word for the language) by the Welsh. Gaelic mythology and folklore abounds in typically Celtic themes and motifs, such as 'dicheannu' (beheading one's slain enemy) or the 'curadhmhir' (the champion's portion at the feast), as well as many others. Some months of the year are named after pagan Celtic deities 'Lunasa', the month of August, after the god Lugh, as is the town of Lyons in France. There are, of course, hundreds of Irish place-names with Celtic/pagan origins.

The Viking invasions between the eighth and tenth centuries left lasting traces on the culture and language of the population, and many typically Scandinavian words are found in modern Irish, in particular those relating to ships and navigation. The next settlers, the Normans in the twelfth century, brought about a strong French influence, in particular on the literature of the period. Some of the southern dialects of Irish are still detectably influenced by Norman French, and contain several typically French words like 'garsun' (boy).

In the seventeenth century, under English rule, many Irish chieftains and teachers were forced either to emigrate or go into hiding, and for many people education continued only in the illegal 'hedge schools', in fields, barns and sheds. This led to the curious situation where a landlord would address a tenant in English, only to be answered in Greek or Latin. When the first ordnance survey team arrived in Ireland in the early nineteenth century to map the country it enlisted the help of local people, and this team established the anglicised versions of place-names which are in use to-day.

It was also at the beginning of the nineteenth century that scholars, notably Germans, began to unravel the mysteries of 'Old Irish' and Irish studies became a recognized scholarly pursuit. Towards the end of the century the Irish cultural revolution, or 'renaissance', began. Conradh na Gaeilge (The Gaelic League) was founded in 1893 with the principle aim of reviving the Irish language, which was showing signs of decline. There are branches of the Conradh in most towns and these provide excellent classes in Irish at all levels. It is possible that it was only constant pressure from and per severance of this group that prevented the complete loss of Irish in both the Gaeltacht and in the country as a whole. One of the successes of Conradh na Gaeilge has been the re-establishment of Irish writing as an artistic medium. For about a century Irish writing has been on the increase and the short story has emerged as the medium par excellence of this literature. There is also a wide selection of journals, newspapers and magazines available and these are of considerable benefit to learners of the language as well as being a useful vehicle for writers of all types.