Friday, 1 August 2014

Is Leinster Irish really totally forgotten?

Fitzgerald's famous estimate of pre-Famine Irish-speaking areas by district electoral division (DED), worked back from those over 60 in 1911. The mass of white in the south-east wrongly implies the region was devoid of Irish (it in fact shows areas where less than three per cent returned themselves as Irish-speaking, and the author deliberately excluded Dublin, incorrectly presuming it only contained 'revival Irish' and migrants, so Glenasmole is not shown). Many scattered Irish speakers, often elderly and isolated, remained, and many bilinguals did not return themselves as Irish-speaking. (Source: Fitzgerald 2003).

Memories of Irish and Irish-speaking areas in Leinster

Since starting this blog, I have been lucky enough to be contacted by readers in or connected to Leinster who have told me that elderly relatives either spoke some Irish, or recounted to them (as children) tales of other elderly individuals in the area who knew Irish. These elderly relatives or individuals referred to by them were typically born in the late nineteenth century, and lived well into the twentieth century.

These statements concur with the findings of local historians and researchers in the 1930s and 1940s, and in some parts of north Leinster well into the 1970s, for whom it was no great difficulty to find people who either remembered Irish spoken by the old people when they were young, or who remembered fragments of Irish themselves. Moreover, the English spoken by the elderly - even in Dublin, Wicklow, Kildare et al - was usually peppered with words, and often whole sentences, from what had been the local dialect of Irish.

Local remnants, easily ignored

Such memories of Irish are far more important than they at first might seem. Yet what they represent in 2014 is a direct link to the Irish-speaking past of places far removed from Irish-speaking areas of our own time and - where the odd sentence and word can be remembered (no matter how seemingly garbled by time and failing memory) -  consequently, to the local dialect of Irish spoken there. 

Someone born in 1930, for example, would remember the old people of their childhood; in many cases these might have been born as early as 1850. In 1850 many parts of Leinster still had remnant Irish-speaking communities, and many more areas had individual, elderly Irish speakers. Even knowing that Irish was not spoken in a certain area among the old people can be a valuable clue as to when Irish died out in that area.

In many cases we have little otherwise recorded of the Irish of these locations. Remarkably, I sometimes see glossaries of Irish words in local dialects of Irish English that try to 'correct' these words in spelling and pronunciation to make them conform to today's standard Irish. The dialect aspect of them is ignored unless you know what you are looking for.

Yet time marches on. Many people still believe that 'no one is interested' in what they remember of their old granny's tall tales, or the sentences that old Seán down the road in 1960 used to insist were Irish. They do not tell anyone what they remember. They believe that Irish was not spoken in their area for hundreds of years, and that the words they heard as a child were just slang or gibberish.

The importance of acting quickly

Consequently, much of the remnants of Leinster Irish has been and is still in the process of being lost. This is nothing new; in 1933, Donn Piatt could plead:
"[You] can visit Shannonbridge, Ballykilty (Wexford) [...] and South Dublin, and I can offer [you] every help in seeking out old people - moreover, in nearly all cases the words on which my arguments are based are words current in the speech of people of forty to fifty or under, so that for twenty years to come it will be possible for other workers to test their accuracy - the words I get from the Ballykilty area being in the greatest danger, owing to the age of my informants." (p. 31)
"I would suggest that the RIA [Royal Irish Academy] try to have records made at given points in Leinster and North Tipperary, old people to speak through the microphone and give a list of Irish words used natively, in some form such as 'This is so-and-so, of such an age, speaking at _______. The following are the only words used here which seem to be Irish...' - and give the natural pronunciation. This work is vital, as no man's ear is infallible." (ibid.)
To my knowledge - and I would be delighted if I were wrong - the Royal Irish Academy never followed up on Mr Piatt's suggestion, and no records of the Irish remnants in the English spoken in Leinster were ever systematically made (although a number of individual studies were). This is a great shame.

Maybe you can help!

Yet all is not lost. If you know of an elderly relative or acquaintance who knows what they think might be Irish, or who can tell you of when they think Irish was last spoken natively in a district, or are able to direct you to someone who can, you will be doing very great and important research work. If you can record these words in any way - if you can actually record the conversation - then you will be providing us with valuable data on not just whether Irish was spoken in your area but also when and of what type.

Everything is of value, whether you at first recognise it or not.

My thanks to those who have contacted me already on this matter. It is not easy to pluck up the courage to send an e-mail or a tweet into the dark, especially when you might think that your family's memories of Irish are of no importance; but if you happen to suspect that you might know someone who knows something about the Irish that was once spoken in your area, do get in touch with them and in turn with this blog.


  1. Some words still in use in Offaly - "dark lukers" which was what my late father called lizards or newts found on the bog. We only learned later that the Irish is an t-earc luachra. Another is the "hugadas" meaning trick-or treating at Halloween or St Stephen's day. I've asked a few native speakers of Irish about that and they don't recognise it as Irish but I still prefer to take my kids "on the Hugadas" rather than trick-or-treating!

    1. Thank you for your very interesting reply, Brian.

      You are quite right about 'dark lukers' originating in 'an t-earc luachra'. In his fine resource 'A Dictionary of Anglo-Irish' Ó Muirithe (2000) reports (p. 91):

      "Earc. n. Dimunitive, earcán. A lizard. 1. In compound earc luachra: a newt, in form dark lyooker GC (Laois). 2. Figuratively, a small child, man or woman. 'You wouldn't believe it, but Dolly Parton is only an earc of a woman' R (N. Clare); 'Earcán: a brat' Mac C (Monaghan)"

      The etymology of the fascinating 'Hugadas' is more elusive - would any other readers be able to help out?

      'On the Hugadas' sounds much more fun (at least to me) than 'to go trick-or-treating'!

    2. Thanks for the reply, and well done on the blog, very interesting stuff. I'm sure there are loads of other words in use in Offaly and elsewhere that people use without thinking too much about. I've always wondered what "Offaly Irish" would have sounded like - are there any recordings of other Leinster dialects anywhere? It would be great if what few recordings there are could be digitized and available to be listened to online.

    3. Thank you for your very kind comments about the blog.

      There is a little on Offaly Irish, notably Williams, Nicholas, 'The Irish Language in County Offaly' in Nolan, William and O'Neill, Timothy. Offaly: History and Society (1988). This should be available in your local library if you live in Offaly.

      The late Professor Dáithí Ó hÓgáin's Labhrann Laighnigh (Coiscéim, 2011) includes 33 pages of Offaly Irish texts, and gives a great flavour of the dialect.

      Donn Piatt's Gaelic Dialects of Leinster (1933) has a bit but he does not go into much detail about Offaly (one page, in fact).

      Finally, O'Rahilly's Irish Dialects Past and Present (1932) - which I recommend to anyone interested in historical dialects - has a few scant mentions of Offaly, but again like Piatt's they are very meagre indeed.

      Unfortunately there are no sound recordings of the Irish dialect of Offaly (or of the dialects of Laois, Dublin, Kildare, Carlow, Wicklow, Wexford, Roscommon, Longford, Westmeath, Meath, Fermanagh, Monaghan or Down). You can nonetheless enjoy recordings of dialects from the remaining counties by visiting - a fantastic resource I strongly recommend.

    4. Doesn't doegen have recordings for RosCommon?

    5. Hello, Seaghan. Thank you for pointing out that error in listing.

      You are right, of course. There are indeed two Doegen recordings from Roscommon - 'Céadach agus an cat' (speaker: Mary Ellen Sarsfield) and 'Mac Rí Chonnacht' (speaker: Thomas Ganley) - which can be heard here:

      Also, point 32 in LASID is Ceathrú an Tairbh in Co. Roscommon.

    6. Dubh Linn, I've heard that there's a recording of Douglas Hyde's acceptance speech for the presidency in Roscommon Irish and he'd learnt it from older people around Frenchpark in his youth.

  2. Thanks for that, will check out those sources. I live in County Galway now (mar mhúinteoir i nGaelscoil, mar a tharla!) agus i Gaillimhigh iad mo pháistí. Aontaím leis an méid a deir tú áit éigin eile sa bhlag -gur chóir dúinn tacú leis na canúintí atá fós beo sa tír seachas iaracht a dhéanamh canúint atá imithe i léig a thabhairt ar ais. Mar sin féin, is ábhar suimiúil é!
    (Dóibh siúd gan aon Ghaeilge - I agree that it's better to support the dialects that remain than try to recreat vanished ones but it's still an interesting subject!)

    1. Go ndéana a mhaith duit.

      Aontaím leat - is iontach suimiúil é. Ba droichead theangeolaíoch idir Gaeilge na Gaillimhe agus Gaeilge Uíbh Fhailí í an chanúint i nGallimh Thoir, ar ndóigh.

  3. Is fíor duit é sin faoi Ghaeilge Ghaillimh Thoir, an-suim agam anois breathnú ar agus na foinsí eile sin. Ard-obair ar siúl agat, nár laga Dia do lámh!

    1. Míle buíochas, a Bhriain. Bain sult as an bhlag.

  4. Seans gur ionann "on the Hugadas= ar do ghogaide?

  5. GRMMA, a Eoin. Pointe ar fheabhas. Ach cad é an nasc séimeantach idir 'squatting' agus 'trick-or-treating'?

  6. An etymological explanation for 'on the Hugadas' is found in Williams, N. J. A. 'The Irish Language in County Offaly' in the O'Neill, Timothy P., and Nolan, William (eds.). Offaly History & Society (Dublin: Geography Publications, 1998).

    This is the book mentioned above and I strongly advise anyone interested in Irish history to investigate Geography Publications' County History & Society series, available here:

    Williams writes of 'on the Hugadas': 'In Garrycastle in Offaly the Halloween mummers were known as the hugadas. The name is derived from the fact that the opening words of their rigmarole was chugat an púca 'the pooka to you', i.e. 'watch out for the pooka!'. We can, therefore, be confident that Offaly used chugam, chugat, chugainn rather than [Munster forms] chúm, etc.' (p. 553)

    So, thanks to Williams, O'Neill and Nolan, now we know!

    1. Just found my way back to this blog via a circuitous route - and over 7 years - to see your comment on my word hugadas deriving from "chugat an púca". A very satisfying explanation. I wonder how the rest of the rigmarole went? There was also a fecebook conversation a year or two ago amongst people from the Daingean / Croghan area of Offaly regarding the term hugadas in use there. Anyway, looking forward to going on the hugadas with my children at the end of the month!

  7. A Dhubh Linn,

    Chòrd e rium glan seo a leughamh. Tha e fuasach coltach ris an obair a tha sinn ris ann am Meadhan Arra-Gháidheil an Albann:

    In case you can't read Scottish -I am more or less OK with Irish, but there is occasionally a gap or two!- I have long wanted to know more about the Gaelic of Wicklow -being an Ó Broin- and have never come across anything substantial.

    It's gutting to read that there are no extant recordings from the area. That said, is there anything in the way of discussion of local accent and idiom available anywhere?

    Gu robh math agaibh!

  8. A Àdhaimh, a chara,

    Gu robh math agad. I can read Scottish, and I am very interested indeed in the dialects of Scotland (as well as the dialects of Ireland and Mann). Nils Holmer, Máirtín Ó Murchú, Seumas Grannd and Nancy Dorian (among others) have done a great deal of outstanding work on individual dialects in Scotland (often including, crucially, their positions relative to their sister dialects in Ireland and Mann), typically in highly neglected places. Without their superlative efforts our knowledge of the Gaelic dialect continuum would be significantly impoverished, and their work remains both a great resource and a great inspiration.

    I look forward to you updating the site! Your Droitseach contributions are also an excellent resource and highly recommended to any regular visitors to this blog - anyone interested in the dialects of Ireland and Mann would find a great deal of fascinating material there.

    In response to your post, and to a request from another correspondent, I have written a post going into detail about Wicklow Irish. It will be updated as time permits and I hope to present as full a phonological overview of the dialect as I can manage, with full references for further reading. As you may imagine, the O'Byrnes feature heavily in the history of Wicklow Gaelic!

    Once again, thank you for your interest in the blog and I hope you find my piece on Wicklow engaging and thought-provoking. Keep up the good work with your own dialect efforts!

  9. Just read this for the first time: in South Dublin we used call the newts Darkie-Loo-keys never saw it written but that's how we pronounced it. Regarding Hugadas would it not be more likely to have derived from chugat deas , something nice to you ?
    Roscommon Irish , I read once that Dr. Douglas Hydes inaugural presidential speech was in Roscomman dialect Irish and that the dialect died out with his generation, but surely there is at least a written record of it

    1. Thank you for your comment, Con.

      'Darkie-Loo-keys' is an interesting variation of this very widespread term (< an t-earc luachra), even more conditioned by similar English words than one finds elsewhere - and this term in particular has one of the widest distributions of any survival. I would be interested to know how much of Ua Broin's South Dublin glossary from the 1940s and Piatt's from the 1930s you recognise - if you send me an e-mail via the contact form I can send you both lists and you can do some fieldwork for us!

      Hugadas < chugat deas certainly fits the shape of the word, although I am not in a position to say if it would be idiomatic Offaly Irish. If Professor Nicholas Williams, the author of the 1998 Offaly Irish article, is reading this, it would be good to know his thoughts on that.

      With regards to President Hyde's dialect, I too recall once reading that his address was all that was ever recorded of Roscommon dialect. This assertion - as with a disproportionately large amount written about Irish dialects - is patently incorrect and misleading. There are two recordings from Roscommon in the Doegen archives (one from north Roscommon and the other from south Roscommon, which you can hear and read here:; Hyde's Frenchpark dialect is only 5km to the northeast of one of these speakers - Thomas Ganley of Cloonmaul - and must therefore have been quite similar to Ganley's speech.

      A recording of President Hyde's inauguration speech can be heard here:

      Once again, thank you for your comment and enjoy the blog!

  10. Acht na dTithe (Gaeltacht) 1929 had seven areas in Roscommon classified as Gaeltachtaí, including Ballaghadereen. All had disappeared within 30 years.
    Has a list of Irish words recorded in 1989.

    1. Thank you for your comment and a very interesting link.

      The administrative delimitation of various Gaeltacht instruments, especially in the first half of the twentieth century, are for the most part beyond the scope of this blog but the consensus is that the earliest Gaeltacht orders were based on an over-enthusiastic mixture of wishful thinking and idealism, including very many areas where Irish was already fatally marginalised, limited to the oldest generation and thus extremely weak (and of course many where the language was in relatively good health but is nevertheless gone now!). Parts of Roscommon would be a good example of the former; parts of Co. Sligo (e.g. around Kilmacteague) perhaps of the latter.

      The link you provide to the Irish language in Clonown page by the Drum local history group is an excellent example of the crucially important work done - usually of a very high standard - by local history groups in researching the local characteristics of Irish. A great deal of the information we now have about Irish at the local level, especially in Leinster, is down to these hard-working groups, and they deserve great praise and encouragement for their efforts.

      Unfortunately in the Clonown example, the author chose to replace dialect forms in almost every instance with standard Irish equivalents, thereby robbing the list of almost any dialect relevance, and merely supplying us with a list of standardised Irish 'dictionary words' whilst giving us little to no indication of how these words were pronounced in Clonown.

      However, the Linguistic Atlas and Survey of Irish Dialects (LASID), has extensive phonetic material from Carrowntarriff (LASID pt. 32) in South Roscommon, about 15-20km west of Clonown, and it is probable that the two dialects shared some features, although I cannot say how many and what type.

      The Drum website is particularly interesting for the focus it puts on the Irish of the area slightly to the west of Athlone, which of course has a very special place in the history of the Irish language as it was the native dialect of the prolific Seán Ó Neachtain (c. 1645-1729), father of Tadhg (1670-1752). Tadhg - also a prolific scribe - is one of the few sources we have of the Irish dialects of Dublin.

      Lastly, the Irish of Drum would of course have been the geographically most central dialect of Ireland (although not the most central of the entire Gaelic-speaking area, which stretched from Cape Clear to Cape Wrath in Scotland!), which makes it particularly interesting with regard to the mixed features it must have contained.

  11. I don't know if this fits into the conversation. My father was a second generation Irish American, born in 1906. His grandfather Martin Fahy was born in Roscommon in 1841 and his grandmother Bridget Burke was born in Galway in 1844. I am sure they both spoke both English and Irish. My father would often use the Irish word amadon whenever we would act up. "Stop acting like a bunch of amadons." I believe it means fools. There were other Irish words he would use, but he died when I was young, and I don't remember them.

  12. Just to add that dearcan-luachrach is the Scottish Gaelic for lizard. The Halloween visiting in Scottish English is called 'guising' and the children are 'guisers' as they disguise themselves.

  13. Is there a way of following you on twitter, Facebook, etc?

    1. Thank you for your interest, Cillian.

      This blog is the only 'Dublin dialect' online presence I have, so check back here for updates.

  14. Hi, fascinating blog.

    I grew up in north Kildare, and spent many summers in the bog, we pronounced the name of the little lizards as dacha luchers.

    Another Irish word I remember as a child was to describe an innocent girl as "an oinseach-irish word is óinseach.

    My mother had a saying sometimes; "As weak as a July crow that had to catch a traneen to sh**e", a tráithnín being a blade of dry grass.

    My granny referred to myself as "a mhic mo chroi" and was fond of "arragh musha" when summing up something. Mar Dhea also featured prominently in her speech.

  15. My father grew up in the south east of Kilkenny and recounts elderly people talking in Irish after mass outside the church. Seemingly these were people after the famine times with his own grandparent speaking Irish natively

  16. My maternal great-grandfather was born in South Co. Kilkenny during the famine and was a native speaker. This Irish would have been quite similar to the Déise dialect. I believe that in Kilkenny Irish the slender r often had an 'sh' sound. As a child I remember old people referring to a lane as a 'bóisheen' i.e 'bohereen'.

  17. Hi there, an old relative of mine used a phrase which went 'By the (pronounced bee-da) moth he sat' This was in the mid offaly Blueball, Kilcormac area. It was used when she was cross or annoyed. I'm wondering if it is irish in origin or if it was just a saying. I've been guessing it could be 'Bí tha maith is saith' be there good and bad. I came across online that 'idir maith is saith' means both good and bad. Or possibly 'Bí tha maith Íosa' be there good Jesus, I'm not even sure if it is irish but if anyone could shed some light it would be great.