‘Bittersweet and Strange’, ‘Tale as old as Time’, ‘Song as old as Rhyme’, ‘Certain as the Sun, rising in the East’ – the evolution, demise and revival of the modern day Irish language

Is Mise Stephen. Cad é mar atá sibh ? An bhfuil sibh go maith ? An-mhaith !
Táimid ag foghlaim
faoi stair teanga na hÉireann ! (Hi. I’m Stephen. How are you. Are you good ? Lets learn about the history of the Irish language).

Just thought I’d get that in there – thanks to the incredible bitesizeirish.com https://www.bitesize.irish/ for starting me on my new life long journey to learn my third language, the beautiful language of Éireann, and especially to Gabrielle and Siobhann of bitesizeirish.com, without whom I could not have possibly put together the opening line in Irish after just two weeks of learning the language (I didnt just copy and paste it – well ok I admit the last bit I did from Google translate but I do really know by heart the first part of it up to ‘sibh’ !).

Ok so I missed my call in life to be an investigative journalist ! In this article I attempt to explain the plight of the Irish language. It should make for an interesting read, and draws on some excellent literature – fiction and non-fiction – I have read recently and an allegory from the fairy tale ‘Beauty and the Beast’ ! The sources are diverse, from a historical novel by a pagan author, to a study by a university in Iceland, to a Drew University lecture, to a 260 year old Irish-English dictionary !

You will have to forgive my indulgence as I became totally absorbed in a book by Diana L Paxson on Queen Boudica so in the first part of this article I go a bit off track to say the least – but actually the story it tells explains why Latin became the dominant influence on the English language as the Romans defeated Boudica changing the course of history forever, which ultimately leads to – seventeen centuries later – Queen Elizabeth the First coming to the throne of England, and with her foreign policies on Ireland starts to unfold the reasons for the demise of the Irish language. It also explains why the Mórrigan is my adopted Goddess.

AD60 – Queen Boudica /bdɪˈsiːə/ , the Mórrigan – shape shifting Celtic War Goddess, and the infamous ‘Final Battle’ of Watling Street

Lets head back to AD60 and Brittania is under the Roman yoke, but the Roman arms did not reach Ireland – and this is a critical piece of the jigsaw – and explains why modern day Irish is the best preserved of the remaining contemporary Celtic languages and free of any Latin influence.

Queen Boudica is the famous Celtic warrior queen. The name derives from the Proto-Celtic feminine adjective *boudīkā, “victorious”, that in turn is derived from the Celtic word *boudā, “victory” (cf. Irishbua (Classical Irish buadh), BuaidheachWelshbuddugoliaeth), and that the correct spelling of the name in Common Brittonic(the British Celtic language) is Boudica, pronounced Celtic pronunciation: [bɒʊˈdiːkaː] [1].

So the story goes, Queen Boudica as a child was first possessed by the Mórrigan, while as a strong-willed and defiant Celtic princess she was sent to the isle of Mona to learn the ways of the Druids [2]. The Mórrigan is the great Celtic War Goddess, phantom Queen and Shapeshifter of Irish mythology. Boudica becomes the leader of the Iceni tribe the Trinovantes and leads an uprising against the Romans. She is said to have been flogged by the Romans who raped her two daughters – and rape of the enemy was very much a part of the subjugation of the enemy during those times practised by the Romans.
Mórrigan unleashes her deadly and awesome power when she possesses Boudica again and slaughters her Roman captives and her children’s rapists when she escapes her bonds (1). This utter, devastating, humiliation at the hands of the Roman invader caused Boudica to commence the revolt against the Roman invader. Her military genious is attributed in the novel by Paxson to be due to the possession of her mind by the Mórrigan.

When the Roman governor Gaius Suetonius Paulinus was annihalating the Druids on Mona, Boudica led the Iceni, the Trinovantes, and others in revolt against the invader, successful at first, but in the infamous ‘Final Battle’ of Watling Street (somewhere in the Midlands off the old Roman road from London to Wales), the Romans under Paulinus massacred the Celtic army. They were a brutal and awesome destructive power, unassailable, with a wedge formation and flanking cavalry, the Roman fighting military machine decimated the Celtic army cutting them to pieces with no mercy and slaughtering their women and children who had come to watch at the back of the battle field thinking the defeat of the Romans was a certainty, but were trapped by their wagon train set up for enjoying the show. Boudica escaped and commits suicide at Avalon, but one of her two daughters, who had become a warrior, fell on that fateful day.

Ok so you’re probably wondering why I included all of that stuff about Boudica. Well its because I read an awesome book about her of course ! which was an obsession of mine for a while, before I moved onto the next one ! She was a Celt and a heroin for the Celtic people and she spoke gaelic or gaeilige which is what this post is all about right ? Later, there were more invasions by the Anglo-Saxons, Vikings, and the Normans in 1066 with this latter being the last time there was a successful one. So the last time England was defeated on its own soil was nearly 1,000 years ago.

Lets fast forward in time to the 16th century and the reign of Elizabeth I, Queen of England and Ireland. Now England has emerged as a global, imperialist power, whose influence on global affairs is arguably without rival. Ireland has by now been a colony of England since around 1200. In 1494 the English crown officially claimed Ireland as part of England. So this was the case when Queen Elizabeth I started her reign in 1533 during which Ireland for the first time in history falls 100% under the rule of England.

Now lets have an interlude !

Interlude: the allegory for Ireland of the fairy tale ‘Beauty’ and the ‘Beast’

So something strange happened when I was working on an earlier version of this as Youtube just started playing completely at random this song which is one of my favourites – sung by Celine Dion and Paebo Bryson. So I started to look for something allegorical – hidden meaning in poetry – and thought well if there is a ‘beauty’ it would be the isle of Erin, Eriú – the Emerald Isle in poetry. But is there a ‘beast’ ? And the only one I could think of was ‘Queen Elizabeth the First’ who I hold no time for various reasons I wont go into. Anyway, I thought we could have a nice interlude and just enjoy this song from a fairy tale !

Interlude continued: ‘Bittersweet and Strange’- ‘Proof’ that Iberno-celtic was spoken in England before English

This is really interesting. I found this really old Irish-English dictionary [3] on Google dated 1768, and its author says that the Irish were in England before the English more or less, and the proof is in the form of ‘living evidence’, I think he said. He says that heaps of place names, mountains, rivers, towns etc all over Britain have as their root an Iberno-Celtic word. I just include the two most fascinating cases which are how London and the Thames are derived. I include in the Appendix some of his text which is really cool old English, very stilted but a pleasure to read as is so different to modern English, and remember this blog is all about languages right ? I found a really interesting example of his case in point and that is how the names for London and the Thames could be derived from Iberno-Celtic.

How “London” derives from an Irish word possibly ?


‘Long’ = ship

Díon = place of safety, strong town, a covered or walled town


Long-dion changed by the Romans to Londinium


Long-díon (Iberno-celtic) changes to Londinium (Latin) changes to London (English)

How the ‘Thames’ derives from an Irish word possibly ?


Támh = still, quiet, gentle, smooth




Caesar calls it ‘Isis’ – the latin for water latinises ‘Isc’ (uisce)

The Romans call it ThamiSis

say it quickly it changes to Thames so….


Támh-isc (Iberno-celtic) changes to ThamiSis (Latin) changes to Thames (English) !

This part also is very interesting and taken from the Preface:

“your language, says he to the Irish nation, is better situated for being preserved, than any other language to this day spoken throughout Europe’.

‘His reason without doubt for this assertion, was because languages are best preserved in Islands and in mo-untain countries, being the most difficult of access for strangers; and especially because the Roman arms never reached Ireland, which received no Colonies but from the Celtic countries’.

‘Tale as old as Time’, ‘Song as old as Rhyme’- The demise of the Irish Language over one half of a millenium

Now we’ve finished our really interesting interlude and back onto the serious stuff about what has happened to the Irish language. Most of this is taken from the sources quoted so what is provided is not something I’ve made up. Lets remember though and be positive about this. History is history and we cant change it. What we can change is the present and the future. It is fantastic that there is a rejuvenation of the Irish language both in Ireland and globally, and I am very pleased and proud to be a part of it.

So lets start recounting what has happened to the Irish language in recent centuries according to learned observers who know way more than I ever will. I present this as a series of dot points below. This period of demise spans nearly one half of a millenium – 500 years.

A chronology of the demise of the Irish language since the 16th century with insights into the causes

General observation

“Although the Irish are proud of their heritage, they lost their traditional Celtic language, also known as Gaelic (author note: should be Gaelige), in the 18th century. Only 1 to 3 % of the Irish population speaks Irish on a daily basis, especially in areas in the west of Ireland, called Gaeltacht. This is a result of English colonization and poverty in Ireland.”[4]

The remaining text is all paraphrased from reference [5]

16th Century

The Tudor conquest of Ireland of Queen Elizabeth the first of England marks the first real push to impose English as the language of the country.

Queen Elizabeth I viewed Ireland as a weak chink in her armour against her continental enemies, particularly Spain; Ireland’s rich pasture-lands were a potential goldmine, and its religious allegiance to the old faith, was a potential rallying point for rebellion against her.

The reformation with its consequent religious division among the Celtic nations lead to the decline of religious texts, poetry and prose in Irish; the language of the manuscript tradition, of saints and scholars thus lost its importance and standing within society as English gained linguistic ground among the landed classes.

Irish had become a literary language with a long tradition of writing that was sustained for hundreds of years by schools found in Ireland and Scotland.

16th and 17th Centuries

Wars, revolts and rebellions, marked the process of colonisation during the sixteenth and seventeenth century with Irish resistance to the English and Scottish presence at its greatest.

18th Century

Peace emerged from the conflict, and as a result economic and political prosperity developed.

Landowners changed their religion and accepted the advantages of the English language in order to save their estates and lead a peaceful life.

However, while Irish remained strong among the people, it was in areas where it was economically advantageous that English was embraced, and gradually the country became bilingual.

It was this opening of trade to international markets that hastened the transition from Irish to English in daily life.

19th Century

By 1800, Irish had ceased to be the language habitually spoken in the home. The pressures of six hundred years of foreign occupation by England, had almost killed the Irish language.

By the start of the nineteenth century, English had replaced Irish as the language of education. This made proficiency in Irish difficult for those to whom it would have been a second language.

To add to the above, the Catholic Church promoted the Catholic religion, rather than the Irish language, as the central badge of Irish identity, and this may also have contributed to the erosion of the language.

Four million people reportedly spoke the language on the eve of the ‘Great Famine’ which lasted between 1845 and 1849.

By 1800, the Anglicisation of the nation was advancing, with the gentry speaking English as a first language, or in much of the country no Irish at all.

Irishmen who fled the penal laws were accepted in other nations as people of great culture. The spread of the Irish language through the émigré’s, chaplains, felons and scholars around the world indicated the value and usage of the language at home at the beginning of the nineteenth century.

With 4 million Irish speakers in 1841, the numbers of people able to speak Irish as their first language fell to 680,000 by 1891. These stark figures illustrate well the shocking decline in the Irish language in a short period. As it struggled to survive, the embrace of the English language offered an alternative existence to the ravages of famine.

Rates of emigration accelerated during the famine decade with many families being assisted by the British government as well as landlords, to take the coffin ships to North America. Assisted emigration amounted to 10% of all ‘post famine emigrants’ and ‘was often eagerly sought. Unlike other European nationalities, Irish emigrants had a low return rate of 8% between 1870 and 1921.

By 1890, 39% of those born in Ireland were living outside it. Even though they were Irish speakers, many emigrants were also English speaking or familiar with the English language. Literacy rates were high with a reading ability of 47% in 1841 which reached 88% by 1911. As this increased the chance of employability, most emigration was to the English speaking world.

Twentieth Century

The population of Ireland fell dramatically in the post-famine period from 8 million people in 1846 to just under 4 million in 1911.

The population attempted to recover from the consequences of the devastation of the Great famine by making emigration a way of life, and the embrace of English a necessity in order to escape the ravages of poverty and starvation.

Following the Easter Rising of 1916, the nationalist cause used English as their language of negotiation with the British Government.

The twenty first century – ‘Certain as the Sun, rising in the East’: the revival of the Irish Language

‘Erin gra mo croí ‘ – ‘Ireland, love of my heart’.

‘Certain as the sun, rising in the East’ it is that the Irish language will be kept alive by those who love to speak this ancient and beautiful language. The native language of all of Ireland.

Ba mhaith liomsa ag foghlaim Gaelige, mar is teanga draíochta í, nach ea ?

Slán go fóill !


  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boudica
  2. Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Ravens of Avalon
    By DIANA L. PAXSON. 2008
  3. Focalóir Gaoidhilge-Sax-Bhéarla, Irish-English dictionary by Edward Lhuyd (1768)
  4. The influence of the Irish language on Irish English An analysis of lexical items and language contact – University of Iceland School of Humanities. Department of English. B.A. Essay. Julia Gansterer. Kt.: 200987–4039. Supervisor: Þórhallur Eyþórsson. September 2016.
  5. The Decline of the Irish Language in the Nineteenth Century. Mar 08, 2015. During Seachtain na Gaeilge Ian Kennedy reflects of the decline of the Irish Language in the Nineteenth Century. This lecture was delivered as part of the Drew University Transatlantic Connections Conference 2 on Friday 16th January 2015 in the Atlantic Apartotel, Bundoran. https://www.yeatssociety.com/news/2015/03/09/the-decline-of-the-irish-language-in-the-nineteenth-century.

Appendix – Focalor. Gaoidhilge-Sax-Bhéarla. Edward Lhuyd.Paris. 1768.


“The tedious task and difficult task of compiling and correctly printing the Irish Dictionary now offered to the Public, hath been un-dertaken by its Editor with a view not only to preserve for the natives of Ireland, but also to recommend to the notice of those of other Countries, a language which is asserted by very Learned Fo-reigners to be the most ancient, and best preserved Dialect of the old Celtic tounge of the Gauls and Celtiberians; and, at the same time, the most useful for Investigating and Clearing up the aniqui-ties of the Celtic nations in General : two points which it is humbly hoped the Learned Reader will find pretty well confirmed, if not clearly verified in this Dictionary ; and which it is natural to expect may engage the Litterati of our Neighbouring Countries to this ancient Dialect of the Celtic tongue. a third consideration re-garding this language, and which is grounded on a fact that is solidly proved by Mr. Edward Lluyd, a learned and judicious antiquary, viz. that the Guidhelians or old Irish, had been the primitive Inhabitants of Great Britain before the ancestors of the Welsh arrived in that Island, and that the Celtic dialect of those Guidhelians, was then the universal language of the whole British Isle, this consideration, I say, which regards an important fact of antiquity, whole proofs shall hereafter be produced, will I am confident, appear interesting enough in the eyes of Learned foreigners, especially those of Britain, to excite their curiosity and attention towards the Iberno-Celtic Dialect, and engage them to verify by their own application, the use it may be of for Illustrating the antiquities of the greater British Isle. “

[wow that is the longest sentence I have ever read!]

“A fourth circumstance which must naturally incite the Litterati of different nations to a consideration of the Irish language, as explained in this Dictionary, is the very close and striking affinity it bears, in an abundant variety of words, not only with the old British in its different dialects the Welsh, and Armoric, besides the old Spanish or Cantabrian language preserved in Navarre, Biscaye, and Basque; but also with the Greek and Latin; and more specifically with the Latter, as appears throughout the course of this work, wherein every near affinity is remarked as it occurs, whatever language it regards. Short specimens of the affinity of the Irish with the Latin and Greek, shall be laid down in this Preface and the plain fact of this abundant affinity of the Iberno-Celtic Dialect with the Latin in such words of the same signification as no language could want, should I presume be esteemed a strong proof that the Lingua-prisca of the Aborigines of Italy, from which the Latin of the twelve tables, and afterwards the Roman language were derived, could be nothing else than a Dialect of the primitive Celtic, the first universal language of all Europe: but a Dialect indeed, which in process of time received some mixture of the Greek, especially the Aeolic, from the Colonies or rather Adventurers which anciently came to Italy from …….”


  • ‘Incitement for Learned Foreigners to take particular note of the Irish language’ …..
  • proof for the above statements – ‘we should first make appear that our assertions concerning these motives are grounded either on good reasons or respectable authorities’……
  • that the Irish language is the ‘best preserved Dialect of the old Celtic of the Gauls and Celtiberians’ and ‘the most useful for Illustrating the anitquities of the Celtic nations in general’.
  • refer to the ‘honorable testimony of the great Leibnitz, as it stands in the title-page of this work, and to several Remarks of the like nature made by the Learned and Candid Mr. Edward Lhuyd, not only in the Preface’………………’candidly acknowledges that the roots of the Latin are better and more abundantly preserved in the Irish than in the Welsh, which is the only Celtic Dialect that can pretend to vie with the Iberno-Celtic with regard to purity or perfection; and adds the following words “your language, says he to the Irish nation, is better situated for being preserved, than any other language to this day spoken throughout Europe’.
  • ‘His reason without doubt for this assertion, was because languages are best preserved in Islands and in mo-untain countries, being the most difficult of access for strangers; and especially because the Roman arms never reached Ireland, which received no Colonies but from the Celtic countries’.



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