A Journey Through Time: The Irish Language

Written by Ryan Grace on 12/05/2022

In previous articles we have discussed the concept of an Irish seanfhocail (old word), which is essentially an old Irish proverb rooted in knowledge, humour, and wisdom. Ask anyone on the streets of Ireland to give you their favourite seanfhocail and you’ll be surprised at the amount of insightful and compelling responses.

One of my favourite seanfhocails that has stayed with me since my school days is:

tír gan teanga, tír gan anam

Put simply this means that a country without a language is a country without a soul. This seanfhocail aims to highlight the importance of a country having its own native tongue, and how language forms an integral part of a nation’s cultural identity.

In this article we are taking a detailed look at the Irish language, from its origins and early development right up to its place in modern-day Ireland.

The Birth of the Irish Language

The initial use of the Irish language in Ireland is something that historians and linguistic scholars can’t quite put their finger on. Although it is widely believed that it was present and in use over 2,500 years ago. We know for certain that languages other than Irish were spoken here before the widespread adoption of Irish. This would coincide with the beginning of Ireland’s Christian era, where it spread like wildfire as the dominant tongue of the island.

In terms of Ancient Irish, there are Ogham stones from the 5th and 6th centuries that survive to this very day. Interestingly, Old Irish was written using the Roman alphabet for a time preceding the 7th century. This makes Irish the oldest written vernacular language north of the Alps. Just like any other language spoken around the world, Irish continued to grow and develop throughout what is known as the Middle Irish period from 900AD to 1200AD. During this time Irish borrowed from and was inspired by Scandinavian languages and other international influences.

The Fall and Rise of the Irish Language

After a period of widespread use, the Irish language faced some turbulent times the invasion of Britain. This swept the Irish language to the side in favour of a more anglicised society where English became the enforced choice. Irish remained popular and widely spoken in small towns and rural areas but was all but forgotten in many densely populated areas.

Fast forward to the beginning of the 18th century when scholars started to become interested in the Irish language and Irish literature once again. People acknowledged that the language was dying, and that steps needed to be taken to preserve it. The constitutions of 1922 and 1937 listed Irish as a national language just 50 years after the Society for the Preservation of the Irish Language was established in 1876.

Efforts were made to modernise the grammar and syntax of the Irish language to make it more contemporary and fall in line with how people spoke and conversed with each other. These measures, coupled with Ireland achieving status as a free and independent nation, effectively saved the language and allowed it to thrive once more.

The Irish Language in Modern Ireland

While Irish may be second chair to English in terms of language most spoken nationwide today, Irish is not without its place in modern Ireland. Irish is still fluently spoken Gaeltacht regions and other local communities particularly in the west of Ireland.

It’s still a major and mandatory part of the national school curriculum. Furthermore, the national broadcaster RTÉ has pledged to create more television and radio programmes using the Irish language in years to come.

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