Page 2 of 3
The history of Irish
Irish in modern times
The history of Irish
Origin of Irish
The Celtic Language we now know as Irish came to Ireland before 300BC. The first evidence of writing in Irish can be found in the markings on commemorative stones known as Ogham. Ogham was a way of writing names using notches or strokes. Only when Christianity was well established in the 5th Century did true literacy in Irish begin. Using Roman lettering, Irish monks wrote little poems or phrases in the margins of manuscripts. Many of those manuscripts, such as the Book of Kells, still exist today. The coming of Christianity and, with it, Latin brought many new terms to Irish, especially those concerning literacy and religious life.
The golden years of Irish
During the Early Christian Period, expanding Irish tribes established settlements in southern Scotland and introduced their language and culture to the Picts. Saint Columba, from Derry, is believed to have converted the Picts to Christianity in the middle of the 6th Century. As the Irish strengthened their political, military and economic position, their language rapidly spread eastwards and northwards across Scotland. In modern Scotland that language is now called Gaelic and there are still many similarities between it and the Irish spoken in Ireland. The very term 'Scot' was first used by the Romans to describe raiding parties from Ireland and later became associated with the Irish abroad.
By the 9th Century the Irish language had spread over much of Scotland, parts of Northern Britain and the Isle of Man. Viking raids and settlements were to shake the Gaelic world and introduced many new maritime and commercial words into Irish. However, when the Vikings were defeated at the battle of Clontarf near Dublin in 1014, the Irish-speaking world of Ireland and Scotland seemed to be at the height of its political and cultural power.
In the 12th Century, Irish was to see a new cultural and linguistic influence with the Anglo-Norman conquest of Ireland. Many of the new settlers spoke Norman-French and some spoke English. Because of their small numbers and good relations with the natives they were quickly assimilated into the Irish speaking world. They too left their linguistic mark on Irish. Many words in Irish originate from Norman-French, especially words relating to legal and military matters and terms relating to architecture. Also, pronunciation and accent changed in those areas of southern Ireland where the Normans were strongest, something which still differentiates the dialects today.
From the time of the Norman Invasion, the English language was confined mainly to the area around Dublin. Outside this area, which was known as The Pale, the buoyant native culture and society thrived and blossomed right up until the Tudor period.
The decline of Irish
The Gaelic aristocratic world was to collapse in 1601 when a last rally of Gaelic Ireland against the English conquest failed. From then on dispossession, plantation and new legal and economic systems ensured that the Irish language went into decline. The Irish language had no official status and was actively discouraged or suppressed. By 1800, Irish had ceased to be the language of anyone in Ireland who had political, social or economic power. The language was killed at the top of society and its position was one of increasing weakness among the entire population.
It is estimated that there were still about four million speakers of Irish in the early 19th Century. These were mainly the poor who comprised the vast majority of the population. During the 19th Century, a massive language shift occurred in Ireland making English the main language and leaving increasingly isolated Irish speaking areas. Various factors contributed to this shift. Famine and emigration decimated the populations of the poorest areas and led people to believe that they should speak only English to their children to prepare them for leaving. Other influences were the growing market economy, increased government centralisation, the education system, and a general feeling that Irish was associated with poverty, ignorance and backwardness.