Wednesday, 2 December 2015

Wicklow Irish

The baronies of Wicklow, 1900. Click to zoom. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Updated: 10 January 2017 (the sounds of Wicklow Irish, see below)

The Irish of Co. Wicklow

I was recently contacted by two correspondents asking about the Gaelic dialects historically spoken in what is now Co. Wicklow. 

Wicklow, like North Kildare, is an area of particular interest to this blog as it is likely that the dialects spoken in Co. Wicklow – especially its northern half – were at once quite similar to and yet appreciably different to the (sub)dialects spoken in Co. Dublin. In particular the dialects of the far south of Co. Dublin (e.g. Glenasmole, Brittas) and the far north of Wicklow (e.g. Glencree, Powerscourt) were likely to have been substantially the same. By the same token, the Irish of South Wicklow almost certainly shared a great many features with the Irish of North Wexford, whilst that of West Wicklow probably shaded gradually into the Irish once spoken in South Kildare and Carlow.

Here, we will take a brief look at the decline of Irish in Wicklow and then discuss some of its key features.

How did Irish die out in Wicklow?

Elsewhere on this blog it was pointed out that Irish seems, rather inexplicably, to have retreated more quickly in Wicklow and parts of Wexford, Laois, Kildare and Carlow than in parts of Co. Dublin. Even the well-known dialect investigator Donn Piatt, who is very much given to maximising (or even exaggerating) the potential survival of pockets of traditional Irish in his 1933 booklet The Gaelic Dialects of Leinster strikes an uncharacteristic note of caution when it comes to parts of Co. Wicklow, viz.: 
Until a very recent date, some in the county spoke Irish, but the mines of Tigroney, near Avoca, and the Glendalough mines caused a strong immigration from surrounding counties, and it must be remembered that districts such as North Kilkenny, North Wexford, South Dublin, and quite near, were intensely Irish-speaking [sic!] at O'Donovan's time [i.e. the Ordnance Survey Letters], a century ago. This creates the absolute need of verification of the origin of every old man or woman in Wicklow claiming to have known Irish, dating 1830, 1848, etc. (p. 10)
Wicklow seems nevertheless to have been the first county to lose its Irish: Fitzgerald’s 1983 study of minimum levels of Irish speaking at the barony level – extrapolated backwards from levels of Irish speaking recorded amongst the oldest age groups in the 1881, 1861 and 1851 censuses – states that as little as one per cent of the Wicklow population born in 1771-1781 and 1801-1811 may have been Irish speaking (although the unreliable nature of the data, with many not wanting to return themselves as Irish speakers, means the actual proportion may have been a little – although not much – higher). 

Wicklow was thus undoubtedly the county in Ireland with the lowest proportion of Irish speakers in the nineteenth century. By 1831-1841, this proportion was even less than one per cent and Irish must have stopped being passed on at all (the figures for Kildare and Wexford are not very much higher; by contrast, in Dublin at least seven per cent of the 1771-1781-born cohort was Irish speaking, and even two per cent of the 1861-1871-born cohort in Dublin was Irish speaking, although some of this latter cohort must have been the children of Irish speakers from elsewhere).

This to some extent matches the otherwise exaggerated observations of the Statistical Survey of Wicklow (1801), namely: ‘It is very remarkable, that although the Irish language is common in all the counties around, in the county of Wicklow the Irish language is unknown. Nor did I find any of the natives of this county, even in the most remote vales in the midst of the mountains, accustomed to speak the Irish language’ (see Ó Cuív 1951: 81). The Irish language was certainly not ‘unknown’ in Wicklow, and it was scarcely likely that it was ‘unknown’ ‘even in the remote vales in the midst of the mountains’ given that O’Donovan on his Ordnance Survey travels encountered ‘[a] few old people who [spoke] Irish’ in Kilcommon parish (Arklow barony) nearly forty years later in 1839. 

What is certain, though, is that compared to neighbouring counties in the early nineteenth century, Wicklow was the most English-speaking (and the least Irish-speaking) of them all; that pockets of Irish were almost impossible to find, and that there were very, very few Irish speakers – including bilinguals – left in the county, even before the Famine.

Glendalough, 1890s. (Wikimedia Commons)

Nineteenth century survivals and semi-speakers

Nevertheless, isolated speakers (or in some cases semi-speakers) could still be found in Wicklow well i
nto the nineteenth century. Piatt (1933: 6) reports that ‘Andrew and Hanna Byrne of Glenealy, who both died in 1830, are the last absolutely authentic native speakers I can find in that area’ and claims the grandmother of a Mr John Byrne of Cloneen ‘dead about the Famine period, knew Irish’ (ibid, p. 2) – probably a semi-speaker. A grandson of Irish-speaking Connacht immigrants to Glenmalure told Piatt that Irish was still spoken in that area when his father, who died in 1884, was a boy, i.e. around 1810

In his masterpiece Labhrann Laighnigh (2011, p. 140-141), Ó hÓgáin relates an 1875 report of a ‘carman from Wicklow, a Mr Murphy of Derrybane [i.e. Derrybawn] near the Seven Churches’ who ‘[u]pon being asked whether there was any Gaelic or Irish spoken by the people in the surrounding valleys, he said no, but that he himself had when young learned [some] rhymes from his grandmother, which he supposed was Irish, for he did not understand one word of it.’ Again, Mr Murphy’s grandmother sounds like a semi-speaker, and it thus seems Irish had actually disappeared as the community language of Derrybawn during her parents’ generation, around 1795. All these examples broadly match Fitzgerald’s data above.

Glenmalure, Co, Wicklow (Wikimedia Commons)

Where was Wicklow Irish last spoken?
At an even more local level, Fitzgerald (2003) further extrapolated Famine-era Irish-speaking by working backwards from the 1911 census returns: by looking at the proportion of those aged over 60 years in 1911 who returned themselves as Irish speaking, Fitzgerald calculated the relative strength of Irish at the district electoral division (DED) level circa 1851: i.e. if five per cent of those over 60 years of age said they spoke Irish in 1911, it would be reasonable to assume that that DED was at the very least five per cent Irish-speaking sixty years previously.

In Co. Wicklow, Fitzgerald could identify only two DEDs in which a proportion of those aged 60+ in 1911 spoke Irish and where Irish had thus possibly been a community language at the time of the Famine: Kilpipe, where five per cent of those over 60 in 1911 were returned as Irish-speaking, and Aughrim, where three per cent of those aged over 60 were Irish-speaking in 1911. Both of these are in the south of the county: indeed, Aughrim (the northernmost of the two) and Kilpipe (to the south) are scarcely 5km apart, and lie roughly 5km north of the Wicklow-Wexford county border in the barony of Ballinacor South (see map above).

Unfortunately, Fitzgerald’s methodology in this instance seems mildly compromised by precisely the concerns raised by Piatt in 1933: namely that Fitzgerald apparently did not check the counties of origin of those aged 60+ in 1911. Specifically, in the Kilpipe DED, one of the three elderly Irish speakers – Moses Doyle (72 years) of Toberpatrick – is recorded as originally being from Co. Wexford. (The same methodological flaw also means, for example, that Fitzgerald overstates the Famine-era status of Irish in North Kildare and the Meath-Kildare border.)

Of course, Mr Doyle’s parents may have been from Wicklow; but a cross-check of counties of origin is necessary to prevent Irish speaking migrants to Wicklow, of which there were many, skewing the already extremely low levels of statistical Irish speaking in the county in 1901 and 1911 – as Piatt rightly warned.

Interestingly, of Aughrim Piatt writes – based on local knowledge passed to him – that ‘[i]n the Aughrim area Irish seems to have lasted nearly to the Famine’ (1933: 7), raising the question of whether Piatt, unusually, was actually under-estimating rather than exaggerating the survival of Irish in an area. In any case, any Aughrim ‘speakers’ in 1911 may only have had memories of semi-speaker Irish (i.e. they were not fluent themselves, and neither had their parents been).

Nevertheless, the available evidence strongly suggests that Irish survived longest and strongest in a broad area west of Avoca, as that is where most mentions of Irish survivals and last speakers (and semi-speakers) in Wicklow cluster. 

In the north of Wicklow, the last place where Irish was spoken natively may have been Glencree, directly adjacent to the last Irish-speaking area of South Co. Dublin, Glenasmole. Piatt (1933: 6) reports that around 1900 ‘people in the hills near Glencree knowing a little Irish, prayers, snatches of songs, etc., but not fluent’ implying a situation remarkably like that of Derrybawn in 1875. We may therefore assume a similar four-generation time span and that Irish had died out around Glencree circa 1820 at the latest.

Art's Lough, Co. Wicklow. (Wikimedia Commons)

Claimed (improbable) monolinguals, 1901

The 1901 census records 18 Wicklow-born people from Co. Wicklow returned themselves as speaking only Irish. Of these, seven were over 50 years of age: four belonged to one household (the Merrigans of Laragh West, Brockagh) and two to another (the Lynches of Ballinroan Lower, Eadestown). It is extremely unlikely these people actually were monolingual in Irish, although they may have known some Irish.

Claimed bilinguals, 1901         

In 1901, there were 273 Wicklow-born people returned from Co. Wicklow as speaking both Irish and English. Of these, 29 were 50 years of age or over (cf: Fitzgerald’s methodology above). These 29 Irish speakers were however scattered throughout 16 DEDs: four belonged to one household alone (the Coogans of Clogh Upper, Baltinglass, where all were returned as speaking both Irish and English) and three to another (the Butlers of Ballard, Ballinaclash, similarly all returned as speaking both languages). 

Four other older bilinguals were recorded living separately from one another in Bray; at least one of whom – Daniel Butler (aged 60, a grocer) – is stated as having been born locally (in Callary). Luke Cuddy (aged 50), returned as a bilingual, is recorded in Brockagh about a kilometre away from the Merrigan household mentioned above.

Two Byrnes (a John Byrne aged 60 in Bray and a second John Byrne aged 71 in Drumgoff, Ballinacor) and one Toole (aged 80, Ashford) were the only specifically Wicklow surnames among the 29 oldest bilinguals. Merrigan is perhaps also a Wicklow surname.

Claimed bilinguals, 1911        

A decade later, in the 1911 census, 571 Wicklow-born people returned themselves as bilingual in both Irish and English. Of these, 15 were 60 years of age or over (and hence belonging to the Famine generation) yet only two individuals – Joseph John Lambert of Tinnakilly Upper, Aughrim (returned as 49 in 1901, but 62 in 1911!) and Bridget Nolan of Bray (aged 65 in 1901, 78 in 1911) – were recorded as knowing Irish in both censuses. 

None of those who returned themselves as Irish-speaking monolinguals in Wicklow in 1901 returned themselves as monolinguals in 1911. It is clear both the 1901 and 1911 census data was characterised predominantly by revival Irish.

So, what did Wicklow Irish actually sound like?

As with the Irish of all other counties, it is extremely unlikely that the Irish of Co. Wicklow was a single homogeneous dialect: the Irish of South Wicklow would have had similarities with the Irish of Wexford and Carlow; the Irish of North Wicklow with the adjacent dialects spoken in South Co. Dublin and North Kildare; and the Irish of Mid- and West Wicklow most likely shared features with neighbouring dialects in South Kildare.

Nevertheless, we can from a number of sources identify some general yet key features of the Irish dialect(s) of Co. Wicklow. A great many of these come to light through spelling mistakes in texts in Irish written in Wicklow whilst Irish was still the spoken language of the area, which reveal the pronunciation of the writer (primarily the Leabhar Branach or Book of the O'Byrnes, a book of poems composed in Glenmalure between c. 1550 and 1630); secondly, other idiosyncrasies of local pronunciation have been preserved in place-names (the place-names of Wicklow were painstakingly studied by the late Dr. Liam Price until his death in 1967); lastly, we can infer a great deal about the dialect(s) in question from the few Irish words that have survived in the Hiberno-English of Wicklow, primarily collated by the late Diarmuid Ó Muirithe.

The sounds of Wicklow Irish

-adh, -amh and -abh
As in South Dublin and Offaly (at the very least), the endings -adh, -amh and -abh in e.g. déanamh 'do', talamh 'land' etc. were invariably pronounced the same throughout Wicklow, namely as -a (i.e. most likely as a schwa sound like the -a in Eng. sofa). This is perhaps the most quintessentially Leinster feature of the Wicklow dialect (and of the dialects of South Dublin and Offaly, and probably Kildare too); the rule elsewhere in Ireland is to differentiate between -adh, -amh and -abh. Very generally, north of this area these are pronounced(as in Ulster, although this feature was the norm at least as far south as Athlone, Longford Town and South Meath), and southeast of it -amh is pronounced -av, -adh (in nouns) as -a, and -adh (in the past tense) as -ag (as in Ossory and Munster). The Leinster dialect, of which the Wicklow dialect was a central member, was thus particularly distinct in this regard.

-igh, -aigh
As in the rest of Old Leinster, -igh was probably pronounced -e and -aigh was probably pronounced -a in Wicklow. I strongly suspect that in Wicklow (as in Dublin as far as I can tell) these two sounds had in fact fallen even further together as a schwa sound i.e. [ə] identical to -a above. This leads to the extraordinary situation of -adh, -amh, -abh, -igh and -aigh all having been pronounced as a neutral vowel (i.e. as -a in Eng. sofa) in Old Leinster (including Wicklow). How this may have affected comprehension I cannot say.

-cn, gn
Three-quarters of Ireland habitually pronounce(d) initial cn- and gn- in words such cnoc 'hill' and gnóthach 'busy' as if cr- and gr- respectively; this change took place in the Middle Ages (Williams dates it to before the thirteenth century). Almost everywhere north of a line from Clare (where both forms were used) to South Kilkenny, cr- was (and continues to be) the norm; south of this line, i.e. in parts of Clare, West Kilkenny and all of Munster, cn- and gn- remained cn-. Wicklow was no exception to this rule and throughout the region cn- and gn- were nearly always cr- and gr-, disagreeing with Munster but agreeing with all other dialects.

This spelling, in e.g. gaoth 'wind', is generally pronounced either [i:] i.e. í in Connacht, [ɯ] i.e. a close back unrounded vowel in parts of Donegal (and historically throughout most of Ulster and Louth), or as [e:] i.e. é in Munster and Ossory. In Wicklow (and South Dublin) ao was probably pronounced [e:] i.e. é with Wicklow (and Old Leinster) disagreeing with Connacht and Ulster but agreeing with Munster in this regard, e.g gaoth > gaéh.

-ch, -cht
Neilson (1808), in his introductory grammar on Irish, claimed that 'ch, before t, is quite silent in all the country along the sea coast, from Derry to Waterford' - presumably thereby including the coast of Wicklow. O'Rahilly, in his masterpiece Irish Dialects Past and Present (1932: 112) also states that -ch was silent in (presumably the coastal part of) Wicklow right up to the eighteenth century. There is, however, no conclusive evidence of this that I have seen; on the contrary, there is persuasive evidence that in Wicklow both -ch and -cht were fully pronounced in all positions, as they were in all of the country outside Ulster and Louth. The question is more one of whether -th was pronounced as -ch, as in parts of Wexford and Ossory.

-bh-, -mh-
In the Leabhar Branach medial -bh- and -mh- are typically deleted and the preceding vowel lengthened, so that e.g. leabhar 'book' > leár. In so doing Wicklow concurs with Ossory and Munster and disagrees with Connacht and Ulster.

We can confidently assign Wicklow in its entirety to the zone that used g- interrogatives (i.e. goid~gad < cad), as Labhrann Laighnigh (p. 170) records the mixed form Goidé an chaoi athá tú from Carlow, to the south east of Wicklow. Wicklow was thus surrounded to its west and north (Dublin also used goid and gad; see Labhrann Laighnigh p. 26-27) by g-forms and it is thus highly likely that Wicklow used them too, meaning the isogloss ran fairly cleanly from Tobercurry, Sligo (LASID pt. 61) to the Barrow. North Kilkenny (LASID pt. 6) also has goidé.

Further updates concerning what can be reconstructed of the phonology of Wicklow Irish will follow. I will also include lexical information about the dialect. Watch this space!

 Glenmalure, Co. Wicklow (Wikimedia Commons)


  1. Iontach ar fad. Bhí cúpla focal Gaeilge i mion-chaint m'athair mór as an tInbhear mór, flaithiúileach a déarfadh sé go minic agus an focal "generous" i gceist aige.

  2. Lovely photos, great post.

  3. Lovely photos, great post.

  4. An spéisiúil ar fad, maith thú! Aon tuairim agat faoi logainmneacha ar nós 'Bendoo' ó thaobh na foghraíochta de?

    An mbeifea in an abairt a scríobh a léireodh na fuaimeanna ar fad eg 'Bhí talamh maith ar an gcnoc = bhí tala maith ar an gcroc'?

  5. Iontach ar fad. Chomh oideachasuil. Ag tnuth go mor le blogs nua ar an t-abhar seo.