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Irish History

Irish Culture & History Series: Gaelige, the Irish Language


Irish Culture & History Series: Gaelige, the Irish Language

Irish Culture & History Series


Irish Language


by John Slattery


Irish Gaelic, or simply Irish, is an ancient Indo-European language with similar roots to nearly all European languages. Elements of it have been shown to be very similar to Sanskrit. It is part of the so-called ‘Celtic Branch’ which includes 5 other languages including Scottish Gaelic, Welsh, Breton, Cornish, and Manx - the latter three of a separate subgroup, ‘P Celtic’. The term Celtic has been applied to these languages for only about 300 years.

Reading Irish is difficult for a reader of modern English, undoubtedly. However, I’ve been fascinated to find that there are many roots of English words in the Irish language. This is not something I see discussed anywhere as conventional thought views Irish as “primitive” (because it came from a “primitive” culture, they tell us) and views any of its contributions as being influenced by Latin, or the Roman or Greek cultures.

Currently, the written Irish language uses 18 letters of the Latin alphabet plus five vowels with the fada (meaning “long”; á, é, í, ó, ú) for a total of 23. All the Irish letters are identified by their Latin names or pronunciation. Interestingly, the 18 letters used in the Scottish Gaelic alphabet are pronounced similarly to the “letters”, or fidh, of Ogham. Many argue that Ogham is the forbearer of the Irish written language. Although that may be true, I am more inclined to believe that Ogham (and its dozens of variations) was designed for use by trained members of a culture based on knowledge transmission via oral tradition, and perhaps there were other known written languages that are no longer extant or available in any retrievable form that can be dug up from the Earth.

Perhaps the association with Ogham sounds in Scottish Gaelic displays a more ancient tradition of speaking and writing that’s still present within Scotland, but had been stamped out due to severe persecution in Ireland, in centuries past.

So much is wrapped up in a nation’s language. To say it is a nation is to imply a political domain, but when the domain considered is cultural, its reach can extend beyond political boundaries, yet be acknowledged by all.

Interestingly, in the Lebor Gabála Eireann (“The Book of the Invasions of Ireland”) which goes back as far as 350 years after The Great Flood (based on the work of many scientists and authors, and the legends of indigenous peoples all over the world, I place the date of The Great Flood at around 11,000-10,000 BC) and details each migration to or “invasion” of Ireland beginning with Nemed (although the Irish language is conventionally believed to have developed about 3,000 years ago), the first colonist to arrive after the flood. They are all recorded as having spoken the same language, Irish. This includes the Fir Bolg, the Tuatha Dé Danaan, and the Gael, who are the forebears of today’s Irish people, it is said. One overthrowing the previous in sequential bloody battles for the rule of this great and fertile land. Somehow, they all knew each other’s language and spoke it fluently as their first and primary tongue. Some may argue this is a contrivance of myths and legends as the Irish priests of the Middle Ages attempted to reconcile the “true knowledge” of the world with the peculiar myths and legends of Ireland, surely embellished around the campfire over generations by simple hunter gatherers or agricultural peoples. Perhaps. I feel there is an inherent wisdom, as well as very important information encoded within these stories by our ancestors as they understood the power inherent in these stories, that these stories could not be eliminated by suppression and oppression, and that the wisdom and knowledge inherent in their telling would one day help us to rediscover the truth of our ancient past and in turn nourish us throughout time, should we continue to love these stories, their characters, and the ground which sustained us and held the place names relevant to each of these stories.


Tír gan teanga, tír gan anam.


"A land without a language, is a land without a soul." 


One discerning feature of Gaelic languages is that the verb is often placed at the front of the sentence (think of how Yoda speaks). This feature sets Gaelic and Breton language groups apart from other Indo-European languages. It is also evident in the phraesology of modern Irish and perhaps what gives it such a musicality.

As mentioned, there are some striking similarities between the Irish language and Sanskrit. In fact, the word Sanskrit itself rings of ancient Irish. Sean scríobh (pronounced shan-SKREEVE) means "ancient writing" in Irish. Arya, in Sanskrit, has been translated to mean, “freeman” or “noble one”. This is similar to the Irish word aire, meaning “nobleman”.

I find it interesting how some Spanish and Portuguese words (both languages developed on the Iberian Peninsula; an area of great “Celtic” presence and the region figures in Irish Myths and Legends) reflect similar words in Irish. For example, boi (pronounced “boy”) means “cow” in Portuguese. In Irish, means cow (this root word is also reflected in the English, “bovine”). Another way to perceive this word in Irish is as “partnership in nature”. Aire, the Irish word mentioned above, means “nobleman”. In Spanish, aire means “air”. Consider the phrase, ‘there is an air about him’ which may refer to a person of nobility. Air is the most rarified substance, or element known. Thus, the most rarified amongst us, noblemen, lived up to high standards and set this example for all, representing the Aryans, or Airean, those who had cultivated themselves to a higher level. One of the ancient place names for Ireland is just that, Eireann.

Another ancient word for Ireland is Iberiu (EE-behr-oo), or Hibernia. This is very similar in appearance to Iberia, the peninsula occupied by Spain and Portugal today. In the Lebor Gabála Eireann, it states that Ith, son of the ruler Breogán, descendents of Goídel (who brought forth the Goidelic language of Irish) went up in their tower, in Galícia, and viewed Ireland from this place. They set out for this magical land of their destiny, and the rest is history, or legend, as they say.

What’s also interesting is that the Irish way of expressing The Milky Way is Bealach m na Bó Finne, or “the channel/path/lane of the white cow”. Where else in the world are cow’s revered so highly but in India? There’s a saying in Ireland: “Whatever butter or whisky can’t cure, cannot be cured.” If the great and majestic galaxy itself, or the Milky Way for that matter, is seen as a great expanse of cow’s milk, what does that say of butter and our relationship to it as a sacred substance?

I’ve been collecting words in Irish that seem to have influenced words we use in English, or directly derive from the Irish. Following is a selection of some of them.

Scim, meaning a thin covering of tiny particles like a limewash on a home, or the scale on a boat. It can also mean a fairy film that covers the land, a magical vision, or succumbing to the supernatural world through sleep. Scréach (pronounced “screech”) literally means screech or shriek. Triail (pronounced “tree-al”) is a word which may mean “test”, or to go through some hardship and to prove oneself worthly. It also refers to making repeated attempts and giving one’s best effort, each indicating its relationship to our word “trial”. And another word, that relates once again to Spanish and Portuguese, is féasta (pronounced “fee-esta”) and refers to a formal meal, or a large impressive meal, a banquet. In other words, not too different from a “party”, or fiesta (Spanish), or festa (Portuguese).

Here’s a few related to finance: Cáin, pronounced like how we say “coin” and means “tax”. Costais, pronounced COST-ish, means costs, expenses. Ioncam is the Irish word for “income”. Is this because these English words were once fashioned into Irish to suit the new commerce of the day? Perhaps. Or were they possibly Irish words in origin and modified to fit English?

And here are a few of my recent favorites: Spiorad (“spee-oh-rohd”) is the Irish word for spirit. It can be used as a word for soul (also, anam) or nonmaterial beings of the spirit realm. And another related word that’s used to express the fundamental nature of something, meon (pronounced “mee-own”), sounds like a way I’d imagine an Irishman or woman expressing something very much a part of who they are, or what belongs to themselves, personally: ‘‘tis me own way to be...”. Another way, perhaps, that Irish has creeped its way into English. And perhaps it was once more apparent when the crossover was fresh and recent, but now it is commonplace, kept alive by the Irish speakers of English, yet too common to notice.

I look forward to exploring more of the Irish language, ultimately, through deeper language immersion in Ireland. In the meantime, I’ve been watching some useful youtube videos to help with pronunciation and I’ve been exploring language programs available online. Follow the links below to explore some of the richness of the Irish language available online.

If your ancestors (shinsearach, in Irish) are speaking, please listen. Learning their ancient tongue is a way to derive meaning that can’t be expressed through rhetoric but is derived from the interrelated meanings derived from the relationship between language and place, mixed in with our creative spirit and imagination.