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Ulster Irish

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Ulster Irish

The Gaeltachtaí
The percentage of people in each administrative area in Ulster who have the ability to speak Irish. (Counties of the Republic of Ireland and District council areas of Northern Ireland.)

Ulster Irish is the dialect of the Irish language spoken in the province of Ulster. It "occupies a central position in the Gaelic world made up of Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man".[1] Ulster Irish thus has more in common with Scottish Gaelic and Manx than other Irish dialects do. Within Ulster there have historically been two main sub-dialects: West Ulster Irish and East Ulster Irish. The Western dialect was spoken in County Donegal and parts of neighbouring counties, hence the name Donegal Irish. The Eastern dialect was spoken in most of the rest of Ulster and northern parts of counties Louth and Meath.[1]


  • History 1
  • Lexicon 2
  • Phonology 3
  • Morphology 4
  • Syntax 5
  • See also 6
  • References 7
  • External links 8


Irish was the main language spoken in Ulster from the earliest recorded times until the 17th century Plantation of Ulster by English and Scots speakers. Since the Plantation, Ulster Irish was steadily replaced by English and Scots. The Eastern dialect died out in the 20th century, but the Western lives on in the Gaeltacht region of County Donegal. In 1808, County Down natives William Neilson and Patrick Lynch (Pádraig Ó Loingsigh) published a detailed study on Ulster Irish called An Introduction to the Irish Language. Both Neilson and his father were Irish-speaking Presbyterian ministers. When the recommendations of the first Comisiún na Gaeltachta were drawn up in 1926, there were regions qualifying for Gaeltacht recognition in the Sperrin Mountains and the northern Glens of Antrim and Rathlin Island. The report also makes note of small pockets of Irish speakers in northwest County Cavan, southeast County Monaghan, and the far south of County Armagh. However, these small pockets vanished early in the 20th century while Irish in the Sperrins survived until the 1950s and in the Glens of Antrim until the 1970s. The last native speaker of Rathlin Irish died in 1985.

In the 1960s, six families in Belfast formed the Shaw's Road 'Gaeltacht', which has since grown.[2][3] The Irish-speaking area of the Falls Road in West Belfast has recently been designated the 'Gaeltacht Quarter'.[4]


The Ulster dialect contains many words not used in other dialects—of which the main ones are Connacht Irish and Munster Irish—or used otherwise only in northeast Connacht. The standard form of Irish is An Caighdeán Oifigiúil. In other cases, a semantic shift has resulted in quite different meanings attaching to the same word in Ulster Irish and in other dialects. Some of these words include:

  • ag déanamh is used to mean "to think" as well as "to make" or "to do", síleann, ceapann and cuimhníonn is used in other dialects, as well as in Ulster Irish.
  • amharc or amhanc (West Ulster), "look" (elsewhere amharc, breathnaigh and féach; this latter means rather "try" or "attempt" in Ulster)
  • bealach, ród "road" (southern and western bóthar and ród (cf. Scottish Gaelic rathad, Manx raad), and bealach "way"). Note that bealach alone is used as a preposition meaning "towards" (literally meaning in the way of: d'amharc sé bealach na farraige = "he looked towards the sea")
  • bomaite, "minute" (elsewhere nóiméad, nóimint, neómat, etc.)
  • cá huair, "when?" (Connacht cén uair; Munster cathain, cén uair)
  • caidé (cad é) atá?, "what is?" (Connacht céard tá; Munster cad a thá, cad é a thá, dé a thá, Scottish Gaelic dé tha)
  • cál, "cabbage" (southern gabáiste; Scottish Gaelic càl)
  • caraidh, "weir" (Connacht cara, standard cora)
  • cluinim, "I hear" (southern cloisim, but cluinim is also attested in South Tipperary). In fact, the initial c- tends to be lenited even when it is not preceded by any particle (this is because there was a leniting particle in Classical Irish: do-chluin yielded chluin in Ulster)
  • doiligh, "hard"-as in difficult (southern deacair), crua "tough"
  • druid, "close" (southern and western dún; in other dialects druid means "to move in relation to or away from something", thus druid ó rud = to shirk, druid isteach = to close in)
  • eallach, "cattle" (southern beithíoch = "one head of cattle", beithígh = "cattle")
  • eiteogaí, "wings" (southern sciatháin)
  • , "about, under" (standard faoi, Munster , and is only used for "under"; mar gheall ar and i dtaobh = "about"; fá dtaobh de = "about" or "with regard to")
  • falsa, "lazy" (southern and western leisciúil, fallsa = "false, treacherous")
  • faoileog, "seagull" (standard faoileán)
  • Gaeilg, Gaeilig, Gaedhlag, Gaeilic, "Irish" (standard and Western Gaeilge, Southern Gaoluinn, Manx Gaelg, Scottish Gaelic Gàidhlig)
  • geafta, "gate" (standard geata)
  • gairid, "short" (southern gearr)
  • gamhain, "calf" (southern lao and gamhain)
  • gasúr, "boy" (southern garsún; garsún means "child" in Connemara)
  • girseach, "girl" (southern gearrchaile and girseach)
  • gnóitheach, "busy" (standard gnóthach)
  • inteacht, an adjective meaning "some" or "certain" is used instead of the southern éigin. Áirithe also means "certain" or "particular".
  • mothaím is used to mean "I hear, perceive" as well as "I feel" (standard cloisim) but mothaím generally refers to stories or events.
  • nighean, "daughter" (standard iníon; Scottish Gaelic nighean)
  • sópa, "soap" (standard gallúnach, Connemara gallaoireach)
  • stócach, "youth", "young man", "boyfriend" (Southern = "gangly, young lad")
  • tábla, "table" (western and southern bord and clár, Scottish Gaelic bòrd)
  • tig liom is used to mean "I can" as opposed to the standard is féidir liom or the southern tá mé in ann. Tá mé ábalta is also a preferred Ulster variant.
  • the word iontach "wonderful" is used as an intensifier instead of the prefix an- used in other dialects.

Words generally associated with the now dead East Ulster Irish include:[1]

  • airigh (feel, hear, perceive)
  • ársuigh (tell)
  • coinfheasgar (evening)
  • corruighe (anger)
  • frithir (sore)
  • go seadh (yet)
  • márt (cow)
  • práinn (hurry)
  • toigh (house)
  • tonnóg (duck)

In other cases, a semantic shift has resulted in quite different meanings attaching to the same word in Ulster Irish and in other dialects. Some of these words include:

  • cloigeann "head" (southern and western ceann; elsewhere, cloigeann is used to mean "skull")
  • capall "mare" (southern and western láir; elsewhere, capall means "horse")


The phonemic inventory of Ulster Irish (based on the dialect of Gweedore[5]) is as shown in the following chart (see International Phonetic Alphabet for an explanation of the symbols). Symbols appearing in the upper half of each row are velarized (traditionally called "broad" consonants) while those in the bottom half are palatalized ("slender"). The consonants /h, n, l/ are neither broad nor slender.

Labial Coronal Dorsal Glottal
Bilabial Labio-
Dental Alveolar Alveolo-
Palatal Velar

Tap                   ɾˠ

The vowels of Ulster Irish are as shown on the following chart. These positions are only approximate, as vowels are strongly influenced by the palatalization and velarization of surrounding consonants.

The long vowels have short allophones in unstressed syllables and before /h/.

In addition, Ulster has the diphthongs /ia, ua, au/.

Some characteristics of the phonology of Ulster Irish that distinguish it from the other dialects are:

  • The only broad labial continuant is the approximant [w]. In other dialects, fricative [vˠ] is found instead of or in addition to [w]. No dialect makes a phonemic contrast between the approximant and the fricative, however.
  • Often in Ulster dialects, [tʲ] can become [tʃ] as in "teach" (Pronounced as the English "ch"). Likewise [dʲ] can become [dʒ] as in "dearg" (Pronounced as the English "j"). This is particularly evident in younger speakers of this dialect. Such pronunciation of the slender "t" and "d" is also the case in Scottish Gaelic and Manx.
  • There is a three-way distinction among coronal nasals and laterals: /n̪ˠ ~ n ~ ṉʲ/, /l̪ˠ ~ l ~ ḻʲ/, and there is no lengthening or diphthongization of short vowels before these sounds and /m/. Thus, while ceann "head" is /cɑːn/ in Connacht and /caun/ in Munster, in Ulster it is /can̪ˠ/
  • /ɔː/ corresponds to the /oː/ of other dialects. The Ulster /oː/ corresponds to the /au/ of other dialects.
  • Long vowels are shortened when in unstressed syllables.
  • /n/ is realized as [r] (or is replaced by /r/) after consonants other than [s]. This happens in Connacht as well.
  • Orthographic -adh in unstressed syllables is always [u] (this includes verb forms).
  • Unstressed orthographic -ach is pronounced [ax], [ah], or [a].
  • According to Ó Dochartaigh (1987), the loss of final schwa "is a well-attested feature of Ulster Irish". This has led to words like fada being pronounced [fˠad̪ˠ].[6]

Differences between the Western and Eastern sub-dialects of Ulster include the following:

  • In West Ulster and most of Ireland, the vowel written ea is pronounced [a] (e.g. fear [fʲaɾˠ]), but in East Ulster it is pronounced [ɛ] (e.g. fear /fʲɛɾˠ/. J. J. Kneen comments that Scottish Gaelic and Manx generally follow the East Ulster pronunciation. The name Seán is pronounced [ʃɑːnˠ] in Munster and [ʃæːnˠ] in West Ulster, but [ʃeːnˠ] in East Ulster, whence anglicized spellings like Shane O'Neill and Glenshane.[1]
  • In East Ulster, th or ch in the middle of a word tends to vanish and leave one long syllable. William Neilson wrote that this happens "in most of the counties of Ulster, and the east of Leinster".[1]
  • In East Ulster, /x/ at the end of words (as in loch) tends to be much weaker. For example amach may be pronounced [əˈmˠæ] and bocht pronounced [bˠɔt̪ˠ]. Neilson wrote that this is found "in all the country along the sea coast, from Derry to Waterford".[1]
  • Neilson wrote that the "ancient pronunciation" of broad bh and mh as [vˠ], especially at the beginning or end of a word "is still retained in the North of Ireland, as in Scotland, and the Isle of Man", whereas "throughout Connaught, Leinster and some counties of Ulster, the sound of [w] is substituted". However, broad bh or mh may become [w] in the middle of a word (for example in leabhar).[1]


Initial mutations

Ulster Irish has the same two initial mutations, lenition and eclipsis, as the other two dialects and the standard language, and mostly uses them the same way. There is, however, one exception: in Ulster, a dative singular noun after the definite article is lenited (e.g. ar an chrann "on the tree") (as is the case in Scottish and Manx), whereas in Connacht and Munster, it is eclipsed (ar an gcrann), except in the case of den, don and insan, where lenition occurs in literary language. Both possibilities are allowed for in the standard language.


Irish verbs are characterized by having a mixture of analytic forms (where information about person is provided by a pronoun) and synthetic forms (where information about number is provided in an ending on the verb) in their conjugation. In Ulster and North Connacht the analytic forms are used in a variety of forms where the standard language has synthetic forms, e.g. molann muid "we praise" (standard molaimid, muid being a back formation from the verbal ending -mid and not found in the Munster dialect, which retains sinn as the first person plural pronoun as do Scottish Gaelic and Manx) or mholfadh siad "they would praise" (standard mholfaidís). The synthetic forms, including those no longer emphasised in the standard language, may be used in short answers to questions.

The 2nd conjugation future stem suffix in Ulster is -óch- (pronounced [ah]) rather than -ó-, e.g. beannóchaidh mé [bʲan̪ˠahə mʲə] "I will bless" (standard beannóidh mé [bʲanoːj mʲeː]).

Some irregular verbs have different forms in Ulster from those in the standard language. For example:

  • (gh)níom (independent form only) "I do, make" (standard déanaim) and rinn mé "I did, made" (standard rinne mé)
  • tchíom [t̠ʲʃiːm] (independent form only) "I see" (standard feicim, Southern chím, cím (independent form only))
  • bheiream "I give" (standard tugaim, southern bheirim (independent only)), ní thabhram or ní thugaim "I do not give" (standard only ní thugaim), and bhéarfaidh mé/bheirfidh mé "I will give" (standard tabharfaidh mé, southern bhéarfad(independent form only))
  • gheibhim (indpependent form only) "I get" (standard faighim), ní fhaighim "I do not get"
  • abraim "I say, speak" (standard deirim, ní abraim "I do not say, speak", although deir is used to mean "I say" in a more general sense.)


In Ulster the negative particle cha (before a vowel chan, in past tenses char - Scottish Gaelic/Manx chan, cha do) is sometimes used where other dialects use and níor. The form is more common in the north of the Donegal Gaeltacht. Cha cannot be followed by the future tense: where it has a future meaning, it is followed by the habitual present. It triggers a "mixed mutation": /t/ and /d/ are eclipsed, while other consonants are lenited. In some dialects however (Gweedore), cha eclipses all consonants, except b- in the forms of the verb "to be", and sometimes f- :

Ulster Standard English
Cha dtuigim Ní thuigim "I don't understand"
Chan fhuil sé/Cha bhfuil sé Níl sé (contracted from ní fhuil sé) "He isn't"
Cha bhíonn sé Ní bheidh sé "He will not be"
Cha phógann muid/Cha bpógann muid Ní phógaimid "We do not kiss"
Chan ólfadh siad é Ní ólfaidís é "They wouldn't drink it"
Char thuig mé thú Níor thuig mé thú "I didn't understand you"

In the Past Tense, some iregular verbs are lenited/eclipsed in the Interrogative/Negative that differ from the standard, due to the various particles that may be preferred :-

Interrogative Negative English
An raibh tú? Cha raibh mé "I was not"
An dtearn tú? Cha dtearn mé "I did not do, make"
An dteachaigh tú? Cha dtearn mé "I did not do"
An dtáinig tú? Cha dtáinig mé "I did not come"
An dtug tú? Cha dtug mé "I did not give"
Ar chuala tú? Char chuala mé "I did not hear"
Ar dhúirt tú? Char dhúirt mé "I did not say"
An bhfuair tú? Chan fhuair mé "I did not get"
Ar rug tú? Char rug mé "I did not catch, bear"
Ar ith tú? Char ith mé "I did not eat"
Ar chígh tú/An bhfaca tú? Chan fhaca mé "I did not see"


The Ulster dialect uses the present tense of the subjunctive mood in certain cases where other dialects prefer to use the future indicative:

Suigh síos anseo aige mo thaobh, a Shéimí, go dtugaidh (dtabhairidh, dtabhraidh) mé comhairle duit agus go n-insidh mé mo scéal duit.
Sit down here by my side, Séimí, till I give you some advice and tell you my story.

The verbal noun can be used in subordinate clauses with a subject different from that of the main clause:

Ba mhaith liom thú a ghabháil ann.
I would like you to go there.

See also


  1. ^ a b c d e f g Ó Duibhín, Ciarán. The Irish Language in County Down. Down: History & Society. Geography Publications, 1997. pp.15-16
  2. ^ Nig Uidhir, Gabrielle (2006) “The Shaw’s Road urban Gaeltacht: role and impact.” In: Fionntán de Brún (ed.), Belfast and the Irish Language. Dublin: Four Courts Press, pp. 136-146.
  3. ^ Mac Póilin, Aodán (2007) "Nua-Ghaeltacht Phobal Feirste: Ceachtanna le foghlaim?" In: Wilson McLeod (Ed.) Gàidhealtachdan Ùra; Leasachadh na Gàidhlig agus na Gaeilge sa Bhaile Mhòr. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University, pp. 57-59.
  4. ^ "All roads lead to the Gaeltacht Quarter". Belfast City Council. Retrieved 2007-10-08. 
  5. ^ Ní Chasaide, Ailbhe (1999). "Irish". Handbook of the International Phonetic Association. Cambridge University Press. pp. 111–16.  
  6. ^ PlaceNames NI: Townland of Moyad Upper

External links

  • Gaelic resources focusing on Ulster Irish (Irish)
  • A yahoogroup for learners of Ulster Irish
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