Irish 101

There are a number of distinct dialects of Irish. Roughly speaking, the three major dialect areas coincide with the provinces of Munster ( Cúige Mumhan ), Connacht ( Cúige Chonnacht ) and Ulster ( Cúige Uladh ). Newfoundland, in eastern Canada, is also seen to have a minor dialect of Irish, closely resembling the Irish spoken during the 16th to 17th centuries (See Newfoundland Irish).

Munster Dialects

Munster Irish is mainly spoken in the Gaeltacht areas of Kerry ( Contae Chiarraí ), Ring ( An Rinn ) near Dungarvan ( Dún Garbháin ) in County Waterford ( Contae Phort Láirge ) and Muskerry ( Múscraí ) and Cape Clear Island ( Oileán Chléire ) in the western part of County Cork ( Contae Chorcaí ). The most important subdivision in Munster is that between Decies Irish ( Na Déise ) (spoken in Waterford) and the rest of Munster Irish.

Some typical features of Munster Irish are:

  1. The use of personal endings instead of pronouns with verbs, thus "I must" is in Munster caithfead , while other dialects prefer caithfidh mé ( means "I"). "I was and you were" is Bhíos agus bhís in Munster but Bhí mé agus bhí tú in other dialects.
  2. In front of nasals and ll some short vowels are lengthened while others are diphthongised.
  3. A copular construction involving is ea is frequently used.
  4. Stress is often on the second syllable of a word, e.g. bio-RÁN ("pin"), as opposed to BIO-rán in Connacht and Ulster.

Connacht Dialects

The strongest dialect of Connacht Irish is to be found in Connemara and the Aran Islands. In some regards this dialect is quite different from general Connacht Irish but since most Connacht dialects have died out during the 20th century Connemara Irish is sometimes seen as Connacht Irish. Much closer to the larger Connacht Gaeltacht is the dialect spoken in the smaller region on the border between Galway ( Gaillimh ) and Mayo ( Maigh Eo ). The northern Mayo dialect of Erris ( Iorras ) and Achill ( Acaill ) is in grammar and morphology essentially a Connacht dialect; but shows an affinity in vocabulary with Ulster Irish, due to large-scale immigration of dispossessed people following the Plantation of Ulster.

There are features in Connemara Irish outside the official standard—notably the preference for verbal nouns ending in -achan , e.g. lagachan instead of lagú , "weakening". The non-standard pronunciation with lengthened vowels and heavily reduced endings give Connemara Irish its distinct sound. Distinguishing features of this dialect include the pronunciation of broad bh as[w], rather than as[vˠ] in Munster. For example mo bhád ("my boat") is pronounced[mˠə wɑːd̪ˠ] in Connacht and Ulster as opposed to[mˠə vˠɑːd̪ˠ] in the south. In addition Connacht and Ulster speakers tend to include the "we" pronoun rather than use the standard compound form used in Munster e.g. bhí muid is used for "we were" instead of bhíomar elsewhere.

Ulster Dialects

Linguistically the most important of the Ulster dialects today is that of the Rosses ( na Rossa ), which has been used extensively in literature by such authors as the brothers Séamus Ó Grianna and Seosamh Mac Grianna, locally known as Jimí Fheilimí and Joe Fheilimí. This dialect is essentially the same as that in Gweedore ( Gaoth Dobhair = Inlet of Streaming Water), and used by native singers Enya ( Eithne ) and Máire Brennan and their siblings in Clannad ( Clann as Dobhar = Family from the Dobhar [a section of Gweedore]) Na Casaidigh, and Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh from another local band Altan.

Ulster Irish sounds very different and shares several unusual features with Scottish Gaelic, as well as having lots of characteristic words and shades of meanings. However, since the demise of those Irish dialects spoken natively in what is today Northern Ireland, it is probably an exaggeration to see Ulster Irish as an intermediary form between Scottish Gaelic and the southern and western dialects of Irish. For instance, Scottish Gaelic has many non-Ulster features in common with Munster Irish.

One noticeable trait of Ulster Irish is the use of the negative particle cha(n) in place of the Munster and Connacht version . Even in Ulster, cha(n) —most typical of Scottish Gaelic—has largely ousted the more common (except in níl "is not") in northernmost dialects (e.g. Rosguill and Tory Island).

An Caighdeán Oifigiúil

An Caighdeán Oifigiúil ("The Official Standard"), often shortened to An Caighdeán , is the standard language, and was introduced in the 1950s/1960s in an attempt to make Irish easier to learn, as it was composed using elements of the Munster and Ulster dialects, but strongly based on the dialect of Connacht. It is the form of Irish that is taught in most schools in Ireland.

The dialects of Irish native to Leinster, the fourth province of Ireland, became extinct during the 20th century, but records of some of these were made by the Irish Folklore Commission among other bodies prior to this.

The present-day Irish of Meath (in Leinster) is a special case. It belongs mainly to the Connemara dialect. The Irish-speaking community in Meath is mostly a group of Connemara speakers who moved there in the 1930s after a land reform campaign spearheaded by Máirtín Ó Cadhain (who subsequently became one of the greatest modernist writers in the language).

What has been called "Dublin Irish" and "Gaelscoil Irish" is also spoken in the capital and amongst the students of Irish-speaking schools throughout the country. This is, arguably, simply the national standard of Irish, or An Caighdeán Oifigiúil but with strong influence from English in the form of idioms and expressions.

Varience in Dialects

The differences between dialects are considerable, and have led to recurrent difficulties in defining standard Irish. A good example is the greeting "How are you?". Just as this greeting varies from region to region, and between social classes, among English speakers, this greeting varies among Irish speakers:

  • Ulster: Cad é mar atá tú? ("What is it as you are?" Note: caidé or goidé and sometimes are alternative renderings of cad é )
  • Connacht: Cén chaoi a bhfuil tú? ("What way [is it] that you are?")
  • Munster: Conas taoi? or Conas tánn tú? ("How are you?")
  • Leinster (Casual Dublin): Con's 'tá? ("How are [you]?")
  • Standard Irish: Conas atá tú? ("How are you?")

In recent decades contacts between speakers of different dialects have become frequent and mixed dialects have originated. With the growth in the Irish language media—and in particular the television channel TG4—it has become much easier for speakers of different dialects to understand one another, although this is mostly seen in the younger generations.

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