The age of the Irish language

The continued log jam of the political system in the north of Ireland is as a result of the need or not for an Irish-language act. The main unionist party, the DUP, refuse to accept that an Irish-language act should be passed. Their opponents, Sinn Féin, insist that an Irish-language act should be implemented. It is the main obstacle that prevents an agreement being reached.

The political impasse has given rise to much debate in the letters’ page of various newspapers. Recently, a reader of the Newsletter newspaper, a conservative unionist journal, wrote to say that the Irish language had been launched in 1943.

Sinn Fein using the Irish language not as a cultural initiative but to divide society

Leave aside the fact that the dialects of Irish Gaelic are merely descendants of the language spoken by the Iberian Celt blow ins who only invaded us as lately as around 500 BC.

Leave aside the fact that since the island was inhabited for thousands of years before it can hardly claim to be our original tongue.

What cannot be left aside is that Sinn Fein’s call for an ‘Irish’ language act is based on a transparent and cynical political fiction. The very concept of an Irish language is an wholly political construct.

It was launched in a RTE radio speech in 1943 (Language and the Irish nation) when De Valera said that to be recognised as a nation Ireland must have its own national language.

Given the experience of the likes of the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand using English that seems questionable.

Anyway, he went ahead, gathered up the different dialects into standard ‘Irish’.

He made its teaching in schools mandatory as was speaking it for employment in teaching, police or civil service. The employment policy largely failed and was abandoned in the 1970s.

Interesting to note that a man in the Republic recently had a demand for his trial in court to be conducted in ‘Irish’ rejected.

Sinn Fein’s language act demand here is not a cultural initiative but an attempt to waste more money, gum up the works, further divide society and discriminate against non ‘Irish’ speakers.

It should be resisted not only for those reasons but because as soon as it’s implemented another red line, sticking point demand will be waiting to make sure Northern Ireland remains permanently ungovernable.

Davy Wight,


There is much about the letter that I find annoying but the claim that really stuck in my craw, or got on my wick to use an Ulster phrase, was the nonsense about the Irish language being launched in 1943.

My response

I sent the following letter to the Newsletter to eliminate any idea that the Irish language was only launched in 1943.

I read Davy Wight’s letter claiming that the Irish language was launched in 1943 (‘SF language bid to divide society,’ Oct 9).

Perhaps he meant it as a joke but unfortunately, I have the feeling that he was not trying to be funny.

The Irish language has been spoken in Ireland for give or take 2,500 years. No one is sure what language was spoken before that as no records from that time exists. Mr Wight makes this point when he called it “the language spoken by the Iberian Celt blow-ins who only invaded us as lately as around 500 BC.”

It is worth mentioning that at that time 2,500 years ago what was to become the English language was a German dialect spoken somewhere between the present Netherlands and Denmark. English did not become the English language until the 430s when the Jutes, Angles and Saxons began moving to Britain. It is interesting that the Germanic blow-ins to Celtic Britain only invaded that land 1,600 years ago – about nine hundred years after the Gaelic speaking people settled in Ireland.

Not only is the Irish language the best part of a millennium older than English, the latter language was not spoken in any large measure in Ireland until the 1400s and did not become the main language of Ireland until the 1860s, having gained its dominant position by over a million Irish speakers dying due to famine and more than a million emigrating.

If Mr Wight would like clear, unimpeachable proof that the language was called Irish, he need look no further than an Irish language primer that was presented to Queen Elizabeth I. It is divided in three parts: an introduction in English; an account in Latin of the antiquity of the Irish race and language; and a description of the Irish alphabet, with a small collection of Irish words and phrases with parallel translations in Latin and English.

The introduction makes clear that it was prepared for Elizabeth I at her request.

In the many Irish dictionaries published from the early 1700s onwards, the compilers called the native language of Ireland Irish. That would seem strange if the language was not launched until 1943.

Mr Wight claims it was Éamon de Valera who amalgamated many dialects to create a language. He may be confusing that for laying out an official standard for writing. Many languages, including German, Spanish, Italian, have official written standards that vary from the spoken word. None of these languages were created from thin air like Esperanto when the official written standards were compiled. The languages existed long before the written standards were laid down. It should also be noted that the official standard for Irish was first published in 1958.

Mr de Valera’s speech in 1943 was to commemorate the founding fifty years earlier of Conradh na Gaeilge, whose first president was Douglas Hyde, the son of a Church of Ireland minister. De Valera dealt with many aspects of the Irish language in what is a rather long speech.

Some of it chimes with Mr. Wight’s thoughts – “The Irish language spoken in Ireland today is the direct descendant without break of the language our ancestors spoke in those far off days. A vessel for three thousand years of our history, the language is for us precious beyond measure. As the bearer to us of a philosophy, of an outlook on life deeply Christian and rich in practical wisdom, the language today is worth far too much to dream of letting it go.”

I will finish by correcting another claim that Mr Wight made in his letter. Éamon de Valera did not make the teaching of Irish mandatory in schools. That decision was made by the Provisional Government in 1922. Historians claim that it was Ernest Blythe, a County Antrim Protestant, who was the minister who made the most effort to promote Irish.

It was he, as minister for finance, who launched many of the rules regarding compulsory Irish in the civil service and in education.

I hope that this letter has educated Mr Wight and others who might not know much about the history of the Irish language.

Is mise,

Seanán Ó Coistín,



Read more at:

I like to believe that response was clear, respectful, informative and factual leaving no one in any doubt as to the antiquity of the Irish language. Much more could have been written about the Irish language and its achievements.

Positive responses

The day that the letter was published in the Newsletter, I received messages on Facebook from people who I do not know but who took the time to search for me and compliment me on the letter. It was very kind of them to do so.

Seanan, a chara,

Nil aithne agam ort, ach comhghairdeas ar an litir eirimiúil sa Belfast Newsletter.

Eamon Hanna

(Dear Seanan,

I do not know you, but congratulations on the intelligent letter in the Belfast Newsletter.

Eamon Hanna)

I replied to thank him and said that I like to send letters to the newspapers.

Eamon replied:

Nos usaideach! Ta an meid aineolais faoin Ghaeilge anseo sa Tuaisceart naireach.

(A useful habit! The amount of ignorance about the Irish language here in the North is shameful.)

Another man contacted me the same day. He wrote simply:

Excellent letter in the News Letter, sir.

When I asked him how he found me, he wrote:

Yes, just typed your name in the search bar. Yes, I knew a fair bit about the history of the language but certainly not to the extent that your letter brings out. I was fortunate in that I spent many happy summers in the Gaeltachts of Gaoth dobhair when I was a lot younger.

I wouldn’t be surprised if you hear from others. It will be interesting to see and read what counter arguments, if any, the News Letter publishes in the coming days. I’d expect the “usual suspects” are frantically trying to come up with something to discredit, politicise and deflect from your excellent analysis.

One of my colleagues sent me a message on WhatsApp to say:

An-litir a Sheanáin, maith thú

(Fantastic letter Seanán, well done)

Negative responses

So far so good. But then all of a sudden someone I do not know started complaining on Twitter about a certain aspect of my letter.

I was a bit taken aback by the tone of these tweets. At first I thought that they were from a unionist who wanted to thrash my arguments. It turned out that it was a Dutchman, Gaston Dorren, who writes about languages that picked up on my letter and was REALLY annoyed by the idea that a language can be dated and some are older than others.

Curious to find out why he thought like this, I engaged in polite replies to Gaston. His point of view is that languages all develop from a parent language and that they are fluid so it is difficult to say how old a language is. I understand this point but I do not agree with it. I believe that a language can have an approximate age. For Irish it is about 2,500 years. No one is sure when the language first began to be spoken or where it emerged from. There are no records from that time. Perhaps the language evolved from the language already spoken by people in Ireland. There are definite indicators of the influence of a previous language on the Irish language. Perhaps Gaelic speaking people arrived from Britain or from Iberia and conquered Ireland about 2,500 years ago and became the dominant element of Irish society and imposed their language on everyone. It is impossible to tell. All we know from archaeology is that a Celtic people lived in Ireland at this time, therefore they must have been speaking Irish.

In this way we can say Irish is older than most European languages. English only emerged as the English language in the 400s. French only became a distinct language in the 800s. The Latin derived languages of Iberia were still developing about this time. It was not until later that Portuguese, Galician, Castillian, Catalan, Asturian, Leonese became distinct languages. Hungarian did not become Hungarian until the Magyars showed up in central Europe in the late 800s. The Slavs spoke the same language until roughly 1000 when their dialects had become different enough to be considered different languages such as Polish, Russian, Slovene, Bulgarian, Slovak etc.

This is why I am prepared to say that Irish is older than many languages. Irish was the first language to be written in the vernacular as Irish writers started writing in their own language as against Latin or Greek. Irish monks invented the space between words which is the most important Irish invention ever. Ireland is one of only 17 places in the world where an alphabet, ogham, was created. The Greeks and the Romans were the only other Europeans to invent their own alphabet. All of this means that the Irish language was well established and very bisiúil as we say in Irish. Bisiúil means productive.

A happy ending for all

The result of this exchange between Gaston and I was that he wrote a blog posting to explain what happened and his thoughts on the age of languages. Read it here.

To Seanán, on the other hand, whatever he thinks of the above, I’d like to say ‘thank you’ for responding with more civility than I invited.

The upshot for me (and him) was that I discovered more about him and that he wrote a book about languages, Lingo. I bought the book and am enjoying it (though not necessarily agreeing with his analysis of Scottish Gaelic).

age of languages, Celtic, English, Geaeilge, Irish language, languages, Lingo, Newsletter

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