Ireland Languages

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Languages

The native language of Ireland is Irish (also known as Gaelic, a name shared with the Manx and Scottish versions). In the Republic of Ireland, Irish has official status, but in Northern Ireland it has little or none, although it

Most records used in Irish research were begun in the late eighteenth or early nineteenth centuries and were written in English. The other language you may have to deal with is Latin. Government records were written in Latin until 1733, some Catholic Church records used Latin until the mid-nineteenth century, and older records written in English often latinized names and relationships. Some knowledge of Latin will help you read these records.

Irish language

Irish (Gaeilge, formerly written as Gaedhilge) is a member of the Goidelic branch of the Celtic languages. It is closely related to Manx and Scottish Gaelic, and more distantly to Welsh, Cornish and Breton.

Irish was spoken natively in Northern Ireland into the twentieth century, in areas such as Rathlin Island, and the Sperrin Mountains. The 1901 & 1911 Censuses reveal that it was spoken by both the Roman Catholic and the Protestant communities.

In the Republic of Ireland, formerly the Irish Freestate, Irish has been an official language since independence in the 1920s. One can see both Irish and English used on official documents from the ROI. The republic has also set up Gaeltachts, which are areas in which Irish is supposedly used by much of the community (the definition and the reality are often at odds) - these are generally scattered along the west coast.

Irish gives rise to many Irish surnames, including any beginning with:

  • Mac, Mc, M' or Mag- e.g. Maguire, McDonnell, MacGuinness. "Mac" means "son of".
  • O' e.g. O' Dwyer, O' Higgins. "O" means "grandson of".

It was quite common for many families to drop the Mac or O' from their surnames, so some of the surnames above might also reappear as Dwyer, Higgins, Guinness etc, in the same family. In certain names, "Mac" also became "Fitz" e.g. Fitzgerald.

Many other Irish names also derive from Irish Gaelic, e.g. Branagh (Breathnach)

The old Gaelic naming system is extremely complex, and exists mainly in oral tradition.

Many personal names such as Shaun (John), Kevin, Conor, Neil, Maeve and Kathleen all ultimately derive from the language too. There are other, traditional, Gaelic names which have no direct equivalents in English: Domhnall, which is normally rendered as the unrelated Daniel or Donald; Grainne, for which there is nothing similar in English, and it is rendered as 'Grace'; Cathal, which is "matched" with Charles.

In the last hundred years, many people have given their children Irish names in the original spelling, e.g. the actors Saoirse Ronan and Ciarán Hinds. This is more common in the Republic, and when it occurs in Northern Ireland is usually connected with people who come from a Roman Catholic or Nationalist/Republican background.

Ulster Scots

Ulster Scots (also known as Ullans or Ulster-Scotch), is a vernacular used by a few people in County Donegal in the Republic and parts of Northern Ireland, especially County Antrim. Although commonly portrayed as a "Protestant" language, it is in fact used by members of both the Roman Catholic and the Protestant communities. It has very limited official recognition.

Genealogists may encounter an occasional word of Ulster Scots when looking at old documents, but the language is not distinct enough to cause major problems.

Latin

Latin was used for written records in Ireland over a thousand years ago, prior to the Anglo-Norman, and even the Norse invasions. It continued to be used long after the Anglo-Norman invasion of Ireland.

Shelta

This is the traditional language of Irish travellers. One is unlikely to ever come across this in records, much less so than Irish.

Online Databases

Books

For help in reading Latin, see:

  • Ainsworth, Robert. Thesaurus Linguae Latinae Compendiarius: Ainsworth's Latin Dictionary. 1752. Reprint. London, England: Frederick Westly and A. H. Davis, 1836. (Family History Library book Ref 473 Ai65a 1836; film 599788.) This is a Latin dictionary. Most libraries have a similar work.
  • Latin Genealogical Word List provides translations of Latin words often used in genealogical records.
  • Martin, Charles T., comp. The Record Interpreter. 2d ed. Dorking, England: Kohler and Coombes, 1976. (Family History Library book Ref 422.471 M363re.) This book is a collection of abbreviations, Latin words, and names used in British historical manuscripts and records.
  • McLaughlin, Eve. Simple Latin for Family Historians. 3rd ed. Birmingham, England: Federation of Family History Societies, 1988. (Family History Library book Ref 478 M222s.) This book lists Latin words that frequently appear in parish registers.

The meanings of words may also have changed over time, making some records difficult to understand. The following book can help you understand strange usages as it provides examples of British word usages in different time periods:

  • Murray, Sir James A. H., ed. Oxford English Dictionary. 13 vols. plus supps. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1933. (Family History Library book Ref 423 M964o.)

Spelling may make some records difficult to read. Prior to 1900, spelling was often phonetic. Family and place-names were often spelled as they sounded to the writer. And given names were often abbreviated.

Handwriting may also make records difficult to read. Writing styles have changed over time. With practice you should be able to decipher most of the difficult words and letters you will encounter in Irish records.

Other language helps available at the Family History Library are listed in the Place Search of the catalog under:

IRELAND - LANGUAGE AND LANGUAGES