The Irish Language


The first thing I should mention is that Irish is not Gaelic. The language may be called gaelige in Irish, but in English, Gaelic is the name of a language family that includes Scots Gaelic and Manx as well as Irish.

Having got that out of the way, I can go on to say that Irish is one of the most confusing languages I’ve come across (although it doesn’t even begin to compare with Welsh.) I think it’s mostly because they use most of the standard Roman alphabet, but half the letters don’t make the same sounds they do in English, French, or any other language I know that uses the Roman alphabet. They used to have their own alphabet, similar to ours, but it fell victim to government policy in the mid-20th century. So even though I know it’s a foreign language, I can’t help but think of the English pronunciation of the letters. As I am about to explain, this is a big mistake.


If you ever visit Ireland, you can amuse the locals by trying desparately to pronounce Irish words phonetically. Dublin, for example, is written Baile Áth Cliath. It is pronounced (ball’-ya ahh clee-aw’). The Irish word for prime minister is taoiseach, but is pronounced (tee’-shok). There are patterns that emerge once you’ve been exposed to it for a while, but overall it’s very confusing. I’m using very approximate pronunciations, because a) I am not a dictionary, and b) some of the sounds in Irish aren’t found in English at all. The word for the police (gardai), for example has an unusual /d/ sound. The best I can explain it is this: the same thing you do with a /t/ to make a /th/ sound – you do that to the /d/

There are 17 letters in the Irish alphabet. Vowels can have an acute accent (fada) added, and consonants can be modified by a following h. The h is not a letter, it’s just like an accent (if you think about it, the h sometimes serves this purpose in English, with ch, gh, ph, sh, and th.) It used to be represented by a dot (sí buailte) over the letter, but that was discarded when they switched over to the Roman alphabet. Here’s a rough pronunciation guide, although there are all sorts of exceptions, as with any language.

Letter Pronunciation
Broad* Slender*
a ah
á aw
b b b
bh v w
c k k
ch guttural
d d j
dh guttural
e eh
é ay
f f
fh silent silent
g g g
gh guttural
i i
í ee
l l l
m m m
mh w v
n n n
o aw
ó oh
p p p
ph f f
r r r
s s sh
sh h h
t t ch
th h h
u uh
ú oo

*Broad and Slender

Consonants are considered broad when surrounded by a, á, o, ó, u, or ú. They are considered slender when surrounded by e, é, i, or í. The vowels on either side of a consonant are required to be the same class, except with some foreign words.

Place Names

For anyone wanting to visit the country, here’s a list of common words that you’ll see in town names. Keep in mind many of these were anglicized during British occupation. So, for example, Dun Moíre, which originally meant “the large fort,” would be called Dunmore. (Irish is similar to French, in that adjectives usually come after the noun they are modifying.)

Irish word English adoption translation Example
baile bally town Ballymun
bun bun foot (of a river) Bunratty
carrig carrick/carrig rock Carrick-on-Suir
cill kill church Killester
cluain clon field Clontarf
dubh dub black Dublin
dún dun fort Dundrum
inis ennis/innis land Inniskillen
leitir letter hillside Letterkenny
loch loch/lough lake Glendalough
moír more big Tramore
noc knock hill Knock
rath rath fort Rathmines
trá tra beach Tramore

Common Words

Some other words you might come across…

Irish English pronunciation
Éire Ireland (air’-a)
Éireann Irish (air’-an)
fáilte/fáilte isteach welcome/welcome in (fawl’-cha)/(fawl’-cha ish’-tock)
fir men (feer)
garda/gardai a police officer/the police (gar’-da)/(gar-dee’)
iarnród railroad (ee-arn’-rod)
an lár city centre (on lar)
mná women
slán/slán abhaile goodbye (slawn)
Taoiseach prime minister (tee-shok’)
Tánaiste deputy prime minister (taw’-nish-ta)
uisce water (ish’-ka)


There are some unusual names, or common names with unusual pronunciation. I’ll give the English equivalent if it sounds the same, or the pronunciation if it doesn’t.

Irish Pronunciation
Aisling (f) (ash’-ling)
Eithne (f) (et’-na)
Emer (f) (ee’-mer)
Eoin (m) Owen
Grainne (f) (grawn’-ya)
Kieran (m) (kee’-ron)
Micheál (m) (mee’-hall)
Niamh (f) (neev)
Nuala (f) (noo’-la)
Oife (f) (ee’-fah)
Oisin (m) (oh’-sheen)
Padraig (m) (por’-ig)
Ruaraidh (m) Rory
Róisín (f) (rosh’-een)
Seán (m) Shawn
Siobhán (f) (shuh-vawn’)

English Usage

The Irish have a unique way of phrasing many English constructions; often this is related to how the same phrase is used in Irish. The most noticeable example is the use of the word “after” as a verb modifier. “I’m after having seen that new film,” which would mean that the speaker has just recently seen the film. This phrasing is a literal translation from the Irish. This literal translation also results in a question such as “How long are you a teacher?” The speaker is asking how long the person has been a teacher. Fairly straightforward, but it can be confusing if you are living in Ireland and people ask, “How long are you in Ireland?” What do they mean? How long have I been here? Or how long will I be here?

Another notable construction is in responses to questions. “Will we see you tonight at the pub” could (but likely wouldn’t) be answered by “You will not.” Similarly, “Can I have a biscuit?” could be answered by, “You can of course,” or just “You can.” Some sources I’ve seen claim that this stems from a lack of words for yes and no in Irish, but my understanding is that there are such words, at least in modern Irish. Similar sounding but unrelated, if you were offered a biscuit and declined it, you could expect your polite host to insist, “You will.” (or, “You will of course.” Irish hostesses can be very insistent.) Beware! Further refusal may be met with cries of “Go on!”

Questions are often followed by the answer the speaker expects to recieve. For example, “The film was crap, yeah?”
And whereas the American use of “like” is to insert it as a placeholder in the middle of a sentence (“That was, like, so funny.”), the Irish put it at the end (“That was real funny, like.”) In both cases it is, of course, completely useless.

External Links

I find the English language to be endlessly fascinating. Likewise with others’ use of it. Here are a few pages I’ve found interesting that relate to the Irish use of English.