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Keltfacts: Irish

We would love to get you acquainted with the Celtic culture in our series Keltfacts. In this blog, we dive into the Irish language, one of the Celtic languages.

Previously, we got you acquainted with Breton and Welsh. These languages belong to the same category Celtic languages; the Insular-Celtic languages. The most well-known language that belongs in this category is Irish.

The official Irish language

The Irish language is often referred to as Irish-Gaelic in English. This originates from the Irish word for the Irish language: Gaeilge. Together with English, they form the two official languages of the Republic of Ireland. Around 41% of the Irish population claims they can speak Irish and all native Irish speakers are also fluent in English.

Even though not everyone speaks Irish, the language takes precedence over English. When dealing with the government, people have the right to do so in Irish and road signs contain both Irish and English. The Constitution is written in both languages as well, but when the translations conflict with each other the Irish version prevails.

Why do the Irish speak English?

These days in Ireland, the English language is dominant. Most media, at work and even politician’s speeches are all in English.

For most of Irish history, the English ruled Ireland. Speaking Irish was never banned, but it was fairly discouraged. Later, when the Great Famine (1845-1850) hit, a big part of the Irish population died or emigrated to other English speaking countries.

From 1830 on, the English created national schools to educate people. In school all education was in English and Irish was forbidden. It could not be prevented that people still spoke Irish at home, but it was again strongly discouraged. To motivate the switch to English, Irish was presented as the peasant’s language, only the potato farmer would speak it. Sophisticated businessmen spoke English. Even the Catholic Church supported this framing.

Irish is very descriptive

The Irish names of places are often very descriptive. They often tell you about the landscape. Places with ‘lough’ indicate the presence of a lake. ‘Beg’ means small, ‘carrick’ means rocky and ‘dona(gh)’ indicates the presence of a church. ‘Ennis’ or ‘inis’ is an island and ‘glen’ talks about a valley.

But not always are the names descriptive of the landscape. Sometimes they leave it to the imagination, like with the mountain Magairlí an Deamhain. In English the mountain is called the Devil’s mother, but the official translation of the Irish name is The Demon’s Testicles.

Want to learn a few Irish words?

  • Hello - Dia dhuit
  • Thank you! - Go raibh maith agat! (literally: May you have goodness)
  • Please - Le do thoil
  • a ‘thing’ - yoke (‘that thing over there’ when you don’t remember the real word for it)
  • Two Guinness, please - Dha Guinness le do thoil
  • Cheers! - Sláinte!
  • Farewell - Slan

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