Although Ireland is now an English speaking country, it does have its own national language called Irish or Gaeilge. It was once spoken throughout Ireland, but today due to many factors, it’s a minority language, which can still be heard in particular parts of the country. It’s still considered our first language though, and it’s also recognised as one of 23 official languages in the EU.
So where did the Irish language come from you might ask? Well, it’s believed it was the Celts who first brought an early form of Gaelic to Ireland. It was a Celtic language closely related to Scottish Gaelic and Manx Gaelic (spoken in the Isle of Man). The earliest form of primitive Irish in Ireland can be seen on ogham stone inscriptions around the 4th century. Modern Irish evolved around the 16th century and up until the 19th century, Irish was widely spoken in the country.
Nowadays, if you want to hear Irish people speaking in their native tongue, then you’ll have to go to Gaeltacht areas when in Ireland. Gaeltacht areas are places in Ireland (mainly in the west) where the Irish language is still the everyday spoken language of the local people. Gaeltachts are not only Irish speaking areas, but are also the places where Irish customs, traditions, folklore, song, music and dance are very much kept alive. Most Gaeltacht speaking areas have summer schools where Irish is taught to students, while you might also stumble across some beginners classes if you want to learn the basics.
The biggest Gaeltacht area in Ireland is in County Galway. If you happen to be in this part of Ireland, go west of Galway city to an area called Connemara and you’ll discover a land where it feels as if time has stood still. A landscape of unspoilt scenery, quite country roads, bogs, valleys, uncrowded and unpolluted sandy beaches is what you’ll find here.
You’ll also find Irish customs, traditions and the language at the very heart of the community. The Aran Islands off the coast of Galway are also part of the Irish speaking Gaeltacht. You might also be lucky enough to hear Irish spoken in Galway city, where you see bilingual signs and names of shops still in Irish.
Ireland’s second largest Gaeltacht area is in County Donegal in the very north west of Ireland. Fringed by the Atlantic Ocean, Donegal is a county of outstanding natural beauty. The Gaeltacht can be found mainly in the west of the county, so head to areas like Fanad, Gweedore, Glencolmcille, Tory Island and Aranmore Island.
The Gaeltacht area in County Mayo is also quite extensive. If you want to visit an Irish speaking area here, then head for the little picturesque towns of Carrowteige, Aughleam and Tourmakeady.
The Gaeltacht area in County Kerry can mainly be found on the Dingle Peninsula, the most western tip of Europe. This rugged peninsula has some of the most spectacular scenery. It’s jammed packed with about 2,000 archaelogical sights, picturesque villages, a coastline dotted with islands, beaches, cliffs and a vibrant town with its own resident dolphin!
If you happen to be in west County Cork you can explore one of four Irish speaking communities. Ballyvourney is a picturesque little village which can be found just inside the Cork/Kerry border. Not far from Ballyvourney you can visit two other Irish speaking areas, namely Ballingeary and Coolea. Clear Island off the south coast of County Cork is a charming little island where Irish is also spoken as the everyday language.
The only Gaeltacht in the south east of Ireland can be found in County Waterford. The Irish language, culture and traditions are very prevalent here in an area known as Ring (An Rinn) and Old Parish (An Sean Phobal). To find this Gaeltacht area just drive about 10km south of Dungarvan town.
In the royal county of Meath, you’ll find two little pockets of Irish speaking communities – Rathcairn and Gibbstown (about 70km from Dublin). The history of these two Irish speaking communities is quite different to others, in that they were formed when Irish speaking families from Connemara were resettled here back in the 1930′s.
Experience a Gaeltacht area for yourself when you visit Ireland and maybe learn some ‘cúpla focal’ (Irish words). Gaeltacht areas are the last remaining unique and special parts of Ireland where there is a distinctive “Irishness” to be seen. So if you really want to get a feel for the Irish language and culture, put a trip to one of these Gaeltachts on your itinerary.
Want to learn the basics of Irish? Have a look at our Irish Sayings and Phrases blog article.
Have you been to a Gaeltacht area in Ireland? Let us know what you thought of it?
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