Irish Language: Small But Significant

One of the most interesting aspects of Ireland is its pride in its first official language, Irish Gaelic. Although many people from outside the country refer to is as Gaelic, it is more commonly referred to as “Irish.”  As a study abroad student here in Dublin, I have had the opportunity to learn a lot about this language, its history, and its importance to the Irish people.

Before the British colonized Ireland, Irish was its only language. Now, Irish is spoken as a first language by only a minority of the people in the Republic of Ireland, and is considered only a minority language in Northern Ireland. Even so, all public primary school students in the Republic of Ireland are required to study Irish, and all teachers must pass an exam to prove that they are proficient in the language. Signs on the highway and in the city are all written in both Irish and English, and oftentimes, the Irish translation is written before the English one. Signs throughout the Trinity libraries are always posted in pairs, one written in Irish and the other written in English.

Having spoken to some Irish students studying here at Trinity, I have discovered that the integration of Irish into home and social life differs across families. I met one student at Trinity who never studied Irish in primary school because she is dyslexic and took extra reading classes instead. Her family does not speak any Irish at home. She feels that she is missing out on an important part of her Irish heritage.

Most people I have talked to only remember greetings in Irish while some students use Irish words as slang. A common slang greeting in Ireland is, “What’s the craic?” The phrase is equivalent to “What’s up?” with craic pronounced like “crack.” To say something is “good craic” is to call it a “good time.” The word is also sometimes used in English, as in the phrase, “What’s crackin’?”

Orthographically, Irish mostly uses the English alphabet. However, some of the letters have different sounds, so it is difficult to pronounce an Irish word simply from reading it. As far as I can tell, almost all counties and cities in Ireland have both Irish and English names, some of which sound the same but are obviously written differently. For example, the Irish name for Dublin is “Baile Átha Cliath”, which is pronounced like “blah-klee-ah” by some. There is also one city close to Dublin that only has an Irish name: “Dun Laoghaire” (which is pronounced “Dunleary”).

The Irish are very proud of their language, and nobody likes that it has steadily been falling in use. Irish is only spoken as a first language mostly  along the western coast of the country. But, with all the signs in the country being in both languages, and many attempts to integrate Irish more into urban areas, hopefully the Irish language will not fall into complete disuse.


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