Panu Petteri Höglund, Åbo Akademi University, January-April 2004


The need for a separate standard Irish/Gaelic in Ulster has been articulated several times since the re-intellectualisation of the Irish language caught momentum in the beginning of the twentieth century. To start with, Irish was to be revived as it had been written by the classical authors, above all the 17th century Jesuit Geoffrey Keating (Seathrún Céitinn), as his style was in its own time extraordinarily colloquial and thus seemed to be appropriate as a link between classical Irish literature and modern colloquial language. The Keatingian approach to the revival is most often associated with the name of Richard Henebry, a.k.a. Risteard de Hindeberg (+ 1916); however, his stylistic ideals were attacked by those writers advocating a policy more accommodating to contemporary colloquial dialects, notably Patrick Pearse (Pádraig Mac Piarais) and Peadar Ua Laoghaire. Tomás Ó FLOINN has in his reassessment of Henebry’s career as literary figure in Irish [Pages 231-252 in: Ó FLOINN, Tomás: Cion Fir. Aisti Thomáis Uí Fhloinn in Comhar. Eag. Liam Prút. Comhar Teoranta, Baile Átha Cliath 1997] tried to nuance the traditional image of Henebry as an uncompromising archaiser; however, the conventional view can still be defended, in evidence of the quotations included in Ó HÁINLE [Ó HÁINLE, Cathal: Ó Chaint na nDaoine go dtí an Caighdeán Oifigiúil, pages 745-793 in: STAIR NA GAEILGE in ómós do Pádraig [sic!]Ó Fiannachta. In eagar ag Kim Mc Cone et al. Coláiste Phádraig, Maigh Nuad 1994. Cf. especially Henebry’s opinions regarding certain words on Page 760, Paragraph 6.9. It should be noted that Henebry’s lexicographical conservatism had probably few Classical precedents.]. Peadar Ua Laoghaire himself was an avowed advocate of colloquial dialect as a source of enrichment for literary language, and he practiced what he preached.

Nevertheless, Ua Laoghaire’s rich literary production had a more profound impact upon the development of modern standard Irish than his personal opinions. Ua Laoghaire definitely preferred all writers to use their own dialects, so that a literary standard language would develop as a naturally mixed koine: ”The proper thing to do is to preserve most carefully all provincialisms [...]. Let us preserve, not only provincialisms, but even the most isolated localisms. Ink and paper are not very expensive. Certainly they cannot be turned to better use than the preservation [...] of our language.”[quoted in: Ó HÁINLE, Page 761, Paragraph 7.1.] However, the reality seems to have been, and still to be, to some extent, that Munster dialect, as used in his novels and other writings by Ua Laoghaire (a native speaker of West Cork Irish, still spoken to some extent in the Cúil Aodha – Muskerry Gaeltacht), became the model for second language learners and even for officialese. This tendency to favour southern dialects was reinforced by the fact that the autobiographies associated with the Great Blasket Island in Kerry became influential as school lecture. Even native writers seem, to some extent, to have tried to ”correct” their language to accommodate those proficient primarily in Munster Irish. Notably, the Central Donegal writer Seán Bán Mac Meanman introduces in his earliest writings [i.e. those collected in: MAC MEANMAN, Seán Bán: An Chéad Mhám, edited by Séamus Ó Cnáimhsí, Coiscéim, Baile Átha Cliath 1990] typically Munster verb forms with synthetic endings: ”Rachad [Sic! In Munster, raghad would be preferred as coming nearer the actual pronunciation] féin leis an chéad teachtaire a chasfar orm, mura stopa sibhse mé” (”Myself, I will go with the first messenger that I happen to meet, unless you stop me”) – in Ulster, you would expect rachaidh mé instead of rachad for ”I will go”. This quotation comes from a story which is set in a historical context [Seanchránaithe nachar Cailleadh (”Mavericks who weren’t lost”), Pages 18-28 in: MAC MEANMAN 1990. The story is about two Ulstermen, a father and a son, who are driven into exile by Ireland’s troubles in the seventeenth century and find asylum in a Spanish monastery], where the usage of synthetic forms can be perceived and accepted as archaism, but such forms are in those early writings found even in contexts where they have no such justification, such as in Seán Bán’s foreword [Pages 4-5 in: MAC MEANMAN 1990]: ”bheadh cupla ceann de na scéalta a chuireas [my emphasis] chuig a bhFeis-sean sa tiomsú seo” (instead of ”a chuir mé”[Using chuireas in the (typically Munster) sense of ”I put” (past tense) may even lead those most proficient in Ulster Irish astray, as it tends to be perceived as a relative form of present tense .- “(the one) who puts”. Consequently, this form indicates that he is accommodating readers of Munster Irish even with the risk of alienating Ulster readers.]). In the same foreword (originally dated in 1915) he also tells us that he ”made use of the forms preferred by the best and most exact writers” (”rinneas [Note even here the synthetic form: rinneas instead of rinne mé or the more provincial Ulster rinn mé. However, rinneas would probably not be used by a genuine Munster writer, as the current Southern past stem for this verb is dhein-, thus dheineas or do dheineas. – Úsáid a dhéanamh de for “to make use of” is a calque of the English equivalent; contemporary language is more fond of úsáid a bhaint as.] úsáid de na foirmeacha atá ag na húdair is fearr is is beaichte”), which can be interpreted either as referring to classical and post-classical writers of earlier centuries, or as indicative of new revival writers – at this point in time, Patrick Pearse’s and Peadar Ua Laoghaire’s writings must already have been available to Seán Bán. He stresses his desire to reach to wider audiences beyond Ulster – ”tá súil agam go dtuigfidh an Muimhneach is an Connachtach an chaint chomh réidh agus chomh maith leis an Ultach” – and it is rather interesting that he seems to perceive the use of such synthetic forms as were only extant in Munster speech as relevant part of interdialectal understanding. In his later writings, though, Seán Bán reverted to more consequently Ultonian usage: actually, his greatest achievement as a writer is the fact that he made otherwise unrecorded Central Donegal words and phrases available, readable, and learnable.

Other Ulster writers, the Grianna brothers from Reann na Feairste (Ranafast) in the Rosses, have from the beginning shown a distanced, even facetious attitude towards what they seem to perceive as prescribed usage of Munster Irish. In his autobiography [Ó GRIANNA, Séamus. Nuair a Bhí Mé Óg, Mercier Press, Cork & Dublin 1979/1986], Séamus Ó Grianna mocks the bad Irish of non-native speakers with the following paragraph [Page 86 in Ó GRIANNA 1979/1986]:

”I gyown desna hepistiliv do scree Pole, Abstal naifay, hunn a Rivawnack, doh yin shay taggirt dosna cuspoaree ahaw reektanack hun shinnay do lawnoo. Iss shay an ched rud is aigin doon a yeinoo egg tossnoo yoon ar an mishoon so naw...naw...naw kest a hur orring feinig caw veel ar dreel...”

In a more Irish orthography, it looks like this:

”I gceann desna heipistilibh do scrígh Pól, Apstal naofa, chun na Rómhánach, do dhein sé tagairt dosna cuspóirí athá riachtanach chun sinne do lánú. Is é an chéad rud is éigean dúinn a dhéanamh ag tosnú dhúinn ar an misiún so ná... ná... ná ceist a chur orainn féinig cá bhfuil ár dtriall...”

(”In one of the Epistles that Paul, the holy Apostle, wrote to the Romans, he referred to the objectives that it is necessary for us to fulfil. The first thing that we must do, beginning this mission, is to... to... to ask ourselves the question where we are heading...”)

Ó Grianna, of course, uses an Anglified orthography as a kind of eye dialect to suggest that the good priest is unable to pronounce Irish ch’s correctly; the speaker also struggles with syntax and meaning, producing the hilarious chun sinne do lánú, which is supposed to mean ”for us to fulfil”, but strikes one rather as meaning “in order to fill/mould us”. Besides calquing English syntax, this construction also uses the verb lánaigh/lánú – ”to fill, to mould with earth” – for ”fulfilling” (comhlíon/comhlíonadh would be more to the point). Interestingly, this parody at inept second-language Irish also incorporates several typically Munster features, such as the (italicised) stress on non-initial long vowels (”Rivawnack” for ”Rómhánach”), the intrusive -s- in ”dosna” (for do na = ”to the”, plural), the pronunciation of ”t-” in ”tá” as [h], an initial mutation usually written as /th/ but in this particular word seldom so spelt, even by Munster authors; the pronunciation of ”scríobh” without a final [w] sound (post- long vowel bh’s and mh’s usually disappear in Munster), ”tosnú” for ”tosú” (in Ulster, ”toiseacht”, in Northern Mayo ”toisiú”) for ”beginning”, the past tense form ”dhein” (instead of the standard form ”rinne” or the more provincially Ulster ”rinn”) of the verb déan/déanamh = ”to do”, as well as the continuing existence of the particle do before past tense forms (do dhein, do scrígh).

Séamus Ó Grianna’s brother, Seosamh Mac Grianna, joked [Page 168 in MAC CONGAIL, Nollaig: Rí-Éigeas na nGael – Léachtaí Cuimhneacháin ar Sheosamh Mac Grianna, Coiscéim, Baile Átha Cliath 1994] about the bureaucracy of the Irish Free State in this vein:

”I was in mortal terror of leaving my hat behind in the office, lest I should have to fill several forms of applications for its return, and lest there should be a separate file opened for it by the secretary, perhaps a separate department, a ’Roinn um SeanHataí’, and that there should be endless papers, red, white and blue, made awe-inspiring by the Ministerial signature to be faced.”

Even here, it might not be entirely out of place to note that the little snippet of bureaucrat-Irish in the midst of that paragraph incorporates a Munster feature – the preposition um (= about, around – faoi in its various incarnations, including fé and – in this particular meaning in Ulster – fá, is preferred in other dialects), which is by now firmly entrenched in Irish legalese – laws and decrees are in Irish usually um something – but is, as far as I know, quite unknown outside Munster.[Even in Munster, this preposition is nowadays only used in the Muskerry/West Cork/Cúil Aodha dialect, except in set phrases. Indeed, it seems to be one of the most lasting memories Peadar Ua Laoghaire, a native speaker of this particular dialect, left in standard Irish.]

Of course, contemporary Irish is much less tolerant of Munster provincialism. Above all, such synthetic verb endings as -f(e)ad/-ód, -eod (future first person singular) and -f(e)am/-óm, -eom (future first person plural) are nowadays hardly ever seen in print, except where genuine Munster usage has been deliberately reproduced by a native speaker or a proficient learner of the dialect. However, although those personal grammatical endings typical of Munster [But not all: such forms as bheinn = “I would be”, bheifeá = “you (singular) would be”, and glanaim = “I clean”, for example, still prevail over their analytical equivalents bheadh mé, bheadh tú, and glanann mé, respectively, although all the latter three are certainly heard in the spoken language, and at least the last one must by now be considered quite acceptable written Irish.] have become marginalised in the written language, much of Munster Irish vocabulary still retains a standard status. It is well known that most Irishmen usually speak just a couple of words or cupla focal in Irish, but their cupla focal usually seem to come from Munster – or, if I am excused to put it in a more facetious way: the Irish usually do not speak Irish, but the Irish they do not speak is Munster Irish. For instance, if you ask an Irishman who is not conversant in Irish, what is Irish for ”how are you”, you will probably hear that it is conas tá tú, which is definitely Munster [In Connemara, cén chaoi a bhfuil tú (“what condition are you”, i.e. “in what state are you”) is preferred, while Ulster uses cad é mar atá tú (“what is it as you are”, i.e. “what is the way you are”)]. The Munster interrogative conas = ”how” does not even serve very well as an interregional word, as it can in Ulster be confused with the local expression for ”because”, i. e. cionn is [Cionn is “because” is in Ulster used very much the same way as the more standard toisc, i.e. to introduce both subordinate clauses and verbal noun constructions. It is usually followed by a go/nach claus].

While some quarters seem to insist on keeping the dialects separate and fight every adulteration from other dialects as a matter of principle, I would not go that far. It would indeed be foolish to try to keep the Gaeltachtaí from influencing each other’s popular speech, especially in a situation where the pressure from English is a going concern. However, due to the geographic and political position of Northern Ireland, it is quite probable that for practical purposes the codification of a separate standard for public and official usage can be needed for Ulster – including Donegal. The standardisation of a language is basically an agreement upon what is viewed as the best possible usage, most acceptable for all concerned parties. As regards language planning in Northern Ireland, those who are concerned are above all the following two groups: Irish-language enthusiasts from Northern Ireland and traditional native speakers of Donegal.

From the point of view of Donegal native speakers, I think a good approximation of what they might consider the best model is the literary production of local Irish-language writers: at least those have a claim of representing an established literary usage. On the other hand, non-native speakers will resent recent English loan-words and insist on such neologisms as micreathonntán for ”microwave oven”, físeán for ”video” and so on. A standard language must accommodate both parties: if we want Donegal native speakers and Northern Ireland Gaeilgeoirí to be able to cooperate in matters linguistic, it is crucial that they should not disagree in any major way upon what kind of Irish is the best.


I am not going to dwell at length upon phonology, as I have little formal training in phonetics; however, as the old orthography – or the ”full orthography”, an litriú iomlán, to borrow Ciarán Ó Duibhin’s phrase (he would probably prefer to write it as an litriughadh iomlán) – still seems to enjoy some currency in Ulster, it is worthwhile to point out some characteristic traits of Ulster phonology which at least give some plausibility to the cause of those advocating reversion to the old spelling. I am myself not in favour of resurrecting it in its entirety, but I admit that the idea merits some investigation instead of summary dismissal.

Ulster dialects exhibit some phonological features which, were a separate standard language to be defined in open defiance to that used in the Republic, could give rise to radical innovations in orthography. One is the realisation of written /ch/s in Ulster.. Theoretically, it should be pronounced either as a German ich-Laut [ç] (the so-called slender /ch/) or as an ach-Laut [χ] (the so-called broad /ch/). However, listening to spoken Ulster Irish soon reveals that it is not quite that easy. Both intervocalic /ch/’s seem largely to have merged with the intervocalic /th/ - usual recommended pronunciation: [h], although it may be pointed out that the Ulster [h] is very strong and indeed approaches an ”ach-Laut”. Intervocalic /ch/’s certainly do not disappear or merge with surrounding vowels in the way a slender /ch/ might do in Connemara [Indeed, the Ulster realisation of droichead [drohəd] ~ [drïhəd] is very different from the Connemara [dre:d], [draiəd], which suggests rather *draighead or *droighead as written form. Note that the slender nature of the /ch/ might in Ulster be reflected by the pronunciation of the preceding vowel as [ï].].

The interesting thing about this [h] is, that it also appears as a hiatus sound: ”Seo, a Shorcha!” (”Now, come on, Sarah!”) is thus pronounced as [s’ohə horahə][As heard on the Raidió na Gaeltachta recording of Séamus Ó Grianna’s novel Caisleán Óir. Note that a non-initial, historically short /a/ is in Ulster quite distinct in pronunciation before /ch/, instead of becoming a [ə] sound. The fact that the name Sorcha has an [a] between /r/ and /ch/ suggests that this also applies to epenthetic vowels before /ch/.]. Now, if we were to develop an entirely new orthography for Ulster Irish, we might find it worthwhile to abolish the intervocalic /ch/ - /th/ opposition in writing, or write out the hiatic [h]s. However, I would prefer to use the traditional orthography as regards the /ch/ - /th/ opposition, as innovations would be innovations for their own sake, getting us further from both Irish and Scots Gaelic standard language. As regards the hiatic [h]s, I think they are entirely predictable and do not need to be transliterated in any particular way – for didactic purposes, a special phonetic transcription can always be used.

The /ch/s have indeed been weakened in several ways in Ulster – the word-final ones are usually left unpronounced, except where they resurface as hiatic [h]s. Still, it is recommendable to write them out, because, for instance, the final vowel of the name Mac Grianna [ə] is still very different from that of the name-form Griannach [a]. In words such as ocht = ”eight” or bocht = ”poor”, the /ch/ is often pronounced ass [r], especially if there is no danger of confusion. (Ort = ”on thee”[It should probably be pointed out that the pronouns thou, thee, thine in the English translations of Irish words are here used only to emphasise the fact that Irish, unlike English but similarly to Finnish, Swedish, Icelandic, French, Spanish, German, Russian, Polish, Czech, Slovak, and most other European languages, has distinct pronouns and pronominal derivatives for second person singular and second person plural. Although the English thou and its derivatives are by now entirely confined to solemn and archaic contexts, similar stylistical elevation of the Irish words and phrases involved must not be inferred.], for example, has an epenthetic vowel between [r] and [t] and sounds very different indeed from ocht [ort].)

A typical Ulster characteristic is also the pronunciation of short /o/s as [a], as well as that of shortening historical long vowels in non-initial (unstressed) position – this means, of course, that non-initial /ó/ also becomes [a], and the word foclóir = ”dictionary”, comes to sound like its Scots Gaelic counterpart faclair. Now, if we were to aim at an Ulster Gaelic approaching the Scots Gaelic standard, such an orthography as faclair (or maybe *facláir?) would indeed be thinkable. However, if the aim is to keep as near to the current Irish orthography as possible, without undue sacrifices of important phonological or grammatical distinctions of spoken dialect, I think it would constitute bad language planning to impede interdialectal understanding by reflecting every phonological or grammatical innovation – with stress on the word innovation – in writing [To name an example of bad language planning masquerading as dialect loyalty, it has lately become fashionable with Munster writers and publishers of Munster Irish writing to show in print the typically Munster loss of the past tense verbal particles ending in –r. Thus, “go gcaith sé” is used instead of “gur chaith sé”. While it is obvious thar Munster Irish with its intricate system of verbal endings, its distinct intervocalic [h]s and its /idh/s pronounced audibly as [ig’], does not have any trouble telling apart “go gcaith sé” and “go gcaithfidh sé”, it would be more accommodating towards a Connemara speaker to stick to “gur chaith” instead, as the only real difference between “go gcaithfidh sé” and “gur chaith sé” might in Connemara pronunciation be the initial mutation of the verb].

A more important and more problematic question is that of the historical -/idhe/- or .-/ighe/-, which is in the official standard now written -/í/-. In such words as ríocht = ”kingdom”, filíocht = ”poetry”, gaiscíoch = ”hero”, buíoch = ”grateful”, Ulster speakers still pronounce the -/ío/- as two syllables, i.e. more like righeacht, filidheacht, gaiscigheach, buidheach – the slender /dh/ or /gh/ then denotes the separation of syllables, and there is an audible [a] before the -/cht/[See Ó BAOILL, Dónall P.: An Teanga Bheo – Gaeilge Uladh. Institiúid Teangeolaíochta Éireann, Baile Átha Cliath 1996. Page 11]. In one particular instance at least, the automatic standardisation has given rise to a ghost form that does not correspond very well the pronunciation in any dialect: when Ulster writers used aistidheach (for (aisteach = ”queer, strange”) in order to suggest a three-syllable pronunciation [as’t’ija(h)] or [as’t’iha(h)] when using the old spelling, editors of new standardised editions usually modernised this to aistíoch, which suggests the non-existing pronunciation *[as’t’i:(ə)x].

If the old -/ighe/-, -/idhe/- were to be reintroduced in such words, it would indeed be a great departure from the present norm, and I can imagine it would inspire great resistance. Indeed, it could be interpreted as an attempt to ”Scotticise” the Gaelic of Ulster. However, it would bring the orthography definitely much nearer the actual pronunciation of living Donegal speech and should thus be at least seriously considered, above all as a way to promote a culture of literacy and book-reading among Donegal speakers. However, instead of a large-scale reversion to the old orthography, I would prefer a more piecemeal approach strictly based upon the actual Donegal pronunciation. Entirely etymological /gh/’s and /dh/’s should in the present author’s opinion not be reintroduced, if they have no backing in living everyday speech.

Reintroducing some final -/idh/s and -/dh/s would also be an important measure: the official standard, for example, has jettisoned the final -/idh/ of cruaidh = ”hard”, so that it is supposed to rhyme with ”nua” = ”new”, which it certainly does not do in Ulster speech: the Ulster pronunciation is triphthongic, ending in a distinct –[i].

The future and conditional of second conjugation are pronounced bisyllabically, so that even now, much printed matter in the dialect [Notably Niall Ó Donaill’s edition of Séamus Ó GRIANNA’s short stories, Cora Cinniúna 1-2, An Gúm, Baile Átha Cliath 1993.] prefers to use -óchaidh, -eochaidh for the [ahi] in future tense, -óchadh, -eochadh for the [ahu] (or [ahət’] before ”sé, sí, siad”) in conditional mood. But this already belongs to the next chapter, that of verbal morphology.

The way intervocalic /gh/’s and /dh/’s have developed in Ulster differs substantially from their development in most other dialects, as well as the standard pronunciation offered in the small two-way dictionary Foclóir Póca and its larger version, An Foclóir Scoile. To start with, Ulster Irish is not very fond of diphthongising, and even word-internal /amh/, /abh/, /omh/, /obh/ usually develop into a long [o:] – though distinguishable from orthographical /ó/, which usually is more open and approaches the Connemara pronunciation of orthographical /á/. However, where the diphthong [ai] or [əi] is expected, Ulster Irish frequently prefers a long, closed [e:] sound – what is more, even the /ogh/ in words such as togha, is realised as [e:]. (Thus, the /odh/ in bodhar [bo:r] and the /ogh/ in togha [te:] are quite distinguishable.) The [e:] instead of an expected [ai] was much more widespread in the now-defunct dialects of East Ulster; and if the resurrection of these dialects is intended by language activists in, say, Belfast, an [e:] pronunciation in words such as maighdean, which usually has [ai] even in Donegal but was demonstrably pronounced with [e:] in East Ulster, could be at least accepted or recommended, and students should of course be informed as a matter of routine that East Ulster poetry frequently only scans correctly if an [e:] is substituted for an [ai].

Verbal Morphology

It seems that verbal morphology is one of the most important reasons why Ulster speakers tend to shun the current standard language. We already saw that the typical long ó in the future and conditional of the second conjugation of verbs tends in Ulster to manifest itself as [ah] in pronunciation, a fact that supports the old orthography -óchaidh, -eochaidh, -óchadh, -eochadh, for this kind of inflectional endings. Besides, these endings tend to spread to first conjugation, especially to frequent verbs such as féach-, amharc- and so on. However, there are other features requiring attention, notably the intrusive long ó’s in future and conditional.

In syncopated verbs – a subdivision of the second conjugation, where the second syllable of the verbal stem includes a short obscure vowel disappearing before a verbal ending, such as díbir! “expel”, díbríonn “expels” – the long ó of the second conjugation is sometimes inserted into the verbal stem, to replace the disappearing short vowel, so that, say, the verb foscail (Ulster Irish for oscail “open!”) has the future form foscólfaidh [faskalhi] in addition to fosclóchaidh (standard Irish: osclóidh). According to Ó BAOILL [Page 33 in Ó BAOILL 1996], intrusive futures and conditionals are especially typical of Teileann (Teelin), i.e. the southern borders of Irish-speaking Donegal. This intrusive long ó is a feature of Classical Irish [7.6B, 7.7 (pages 400-402) in: McMANUS, Damian: An Nua-Ghaeilge Chlasaiceach. Pages 335-445 in: Stair na Gaeilge in ómós do Pádraig Ó Fiannachta, edited by Kim McCONE et al., Roinn na Sean-Ghaeilge, Coláiste Phádraig, Maigh Nuad 1994]; thus, speaking of the separate Ulster standard language, intrusive future and conditional forms cannot simply be dismissed as a peculiarly Ulster innovation impeding interdialectal understanding. The intrusive ó is not entirely unknown to speakers of other dialects, either: the verb inis “tell!” (verbal noun insint [standard], inseacht [Connemara], inse [Ulster]), has in Munster usually the future form neosfaidh, in guide books to dialectal pronunciation rendered as neósa [See page 54 in: Ó SÉ, Diarmuid: An Teanga Bheo – Corca Dhuibhne, Institiúid Teangeolaíochta Éireann, Baile Átha Cliath 1995, as well as page 83 in: Ó BUACHALLA, Breandán: An Teanga Bheo – Gaeilge Chléire, Institiúid Teangeolaíochta Éireann, Baile Átha Cliath 2003]. Besides, all readers of Peig Sayers’s Peig should remember the intrusive future tosónfaidh of tosnaigh!/tosnú, which is the Kerry form of tosaigh!/tosú “begin!/beginning” – the verb is actually not even a syncopated one, but can at least accommodate an intrusive ó.[Of course, its forms in other dialects – tosaigh/tosaí (Connemara), toisigh/toisiú (Northern Mayo Irish), and toisigh/toiseacht could not even contain an intrusive ó.]

The present author is of the opinion that the peculiar Ulster future and conditional forms of syncopated verbs, both intrusive and non-intrusive, should be allowed in an eventual Ulster standard language. For non-intrusive syncopated forms, it is proposed that the endings be spelt as -eocha[i]dh, -óchaidh, as this kind of orthography is both historically most correct, the least confusing for speakers of other dialects, and a good clue to the actual pronunciation. Similarly, -eo-/-ó- should be preferred in the representation of intrusive forms. If a particular group of recipients be targeted, it is probably wise to take into account the preferences of their particular dialect, but otherwise, I cannot see why, say, foscólfaidh and fosclóchaidh could not be used even side by side in the same text and by the same author.

A more controversial question is that of the verbs ending in –áil. It is well known that new verbs borrowed from English are assimilated to this subclass of the first conjugation, although makers of contemporary scientific terminology have been rather reluctant about employing this long-established pattern of loan-word assimilation, preferring other models instead – thus clónú “cloning” is officially preferred to clónáil. Nonetheless, -áil remains a popular element of word-building in all Irish dialects, a fact amply illustrated both by raw loan-words such as the infamous contemporary jargonism enjoyáil (as the indigenous Gaelic ways to express the concept of enjoyment are constructed syntactically in a very different way, such as sult a bhaint as rud, i.e. “to derive enjoyment from something”, frequent contact with English and resulting exposure to English syntactic models gives rise to this kind of loans, allowing the speaker to impose the syntactic pattern of English upon Irish) and by words built out of indigenous materials, such as dea-oláilte “well-oiled”. The participle ending –áilte is also a very popular way to integrate English adjectives: thus, stobarnáilte “stubborn” (also, for instance, dáigh, stuacánta, cadránta, dochomhairleach), handáilte “handy” (also áisiúil and in Ulster samhlaiste), scaoileadh fríáilte “to set free” (even scaoileadh saor is quite frequent), and so on. Indeed, lots of –áil verbs (and –áilte adjectives) are found in the established vocabulary of any Irish dialect and sub-dialect, and this particular word-building element must be considered as entrenched as any.

In Ulster, the future and conditional of this subclass end in –álfaidh [alhi] and –álfadh [alhu] respectively, and there is really no difference in pronunciation between this and the –ólfaidh, -ólfadh of the intrusive futures and conditionals of those syncopated verbs whose stem ends in the consonant L. (Remember that non-initial long vowels are shortened, and that short, non-blurred o’s generally merge with ditto a’s in Ulster Irish.) The natural and predictable consequence is, that such a form as sábhálfaidh will be perceived as the intrusive future of a syncopated second-conjugation verbs. The verb is then assimilated to the entire paradigm of this kind of verbs, producing forms such as the present sábhlaíonn instead of the prescribed sábhálann, as well as the non-intrusive, syncopated future and conditional forms sábhlóchaidh and shábhlóchadh.

This development is entirely predictable – it really does not take much linguistics to independently figure out the above – and as a hint at how an Ulster Gaelic native speaker’s tacit knowledge of how his language functions in this particular instance, Niall Ó Dónaill has in his modern editions of Séamus Ó Grianna’s works used such orthographical representations as sábhólfaidh. However, understandable as this particular characteristic of Ulster Irish may seem, I am personally not terribly partial with it, or willing to accept it into my idea of a separate Ulster standard Irish/Gaelic. It is an innovation of the kind I do not like to encourage in literary language, on a par with, say, the loss of the final -r of verbal particles and copula forms in Munster, and while dialectal archaisms and survivals of classical usage not currently accepted in the Official Standard Irish should in my opinion always be allowed, dialect-specific innovations should be shunned if they impede understanding. Archaisms in literary language are usually more acceptable, if enough isolated remnants of, say, a literary grammatical category survive in the spoken language to make it accessible. This is probably the underlying normative principle that justifies the continued use of genitive inflection and grammatical gender in today’s literary Irish, although both features have in many dialects been greatly weakened [Indeed, all but entirely disappeared in Ros Goill Irish, as Leaslaoi LÚCÁS’s research into that dialect has demonstrated. See, for instance, the samples of the dialect found in: LÚCÁS, Leaslaoi: Cnuasach Focal as Ros Goill. Acadamh Ríoga na hÉireann, Baile Átha Cliath 1986].

As far as irregular verbs are concerned, the most saliently Ulster feature might be the more precise distinction between absolute and dependent verbal forms. While, say, both standard Irish and Connemara dialects prefer to use faigheann “gets, finds” for both absolute and dependent habitual present of the verb faigh! “get, find!”, Ulster Irish still retains both gheibh and faigheann – the first one is used independently, the second one after such particles as go “that”, ní “not”, nach “that…not, whether…not, not?”, an “whether, ?” – thus: an bhfaigheann sé? “does he get/find?”, ní fhaigheann sé “he does not get/find”, “go bhfaigheann sé” “that he gets/finds”, and so on. On the other hand, Munster Irish tends to generalise the absolute form even to such environments where the dependent form would be preferred: an ngeibheann sé?, go ngeibheann sé, and so on. (The addition of the -ann to the unsuffixed absolute present form is a frequent feature of colloquial Irish everywhere, however: such forms as deireann, gheibheann, t[ch]íonn, or bheireann for deir “says”, gheibh “gets, finds”, t[ch]í “sees”, and bheir “gives”, are probably entirely acceptable even in colloquial Ulster Irish.) The absolute/dependent distinction of regular verbs has disappeared in Ulster as completely as anywhere else, although the old absolute form (amharcaidh as opposed to amharcann “looks”) seems to have been employed by the writer Séamus Ó Grianna a couple of times, to represent historic present tense in a context where past tense (d’amharc “looked”) would be expected. This might, however, be due to the fact that past tense in Irish expresses a momentaneous act and has a rather strong flavour of perfective aspect, while the very ending -ann suggests not only present tense, but also habitual or imperfective aspect. In fact, the reason why Ó Grianna used the old absolute form might be that it was unfamiliar enough to feel less “habitual” than the current present form, and thus more suitable to be used together with punctual past tenses. Thus, for all practical purposes, the old absolute forms of the present tense of regular verbs must be considered as dead as a dodo, if we are to give Ulster Irish a separate standard. On the other hand, forms such as gheibh, tchí, bheir, thig (for tagann “comes”), and the like should certainly not be “silently” corrected or studiously avoided in printed materials aimed at a predominantly Ulster audience, be it native or non-native. As regards such forms as gheibheann, tchíonn, bheireann, or deireann for that matter, I do not think they should be proscribed either, at least in texts written by native speakers who know what they want to say, and in what kind of style.

Another important question of verbal morphology regards the usage of separate subjunctive forms. The general tendency in contemporary written language – and most central dialects, I reckon – is the ousting of subjunctive forms by future tense (present subjunctive) or conditional mood (past subjunctive). However, in Ulster Irish the expansion of conditional mood has been towards ousting the imperfect (a.k.a. past habitual) tense, while both subjunctives seem to survive largely intact. This should be taken into account both in standardisation and school tuition. In fact, if elementary learning materials wish to dispense with habitual past/imperfective, which is often viewed as a difficult form to master, they should do so boldly and use conditional mood instead. At the same time, if an Ulster norm compatible with at least some colloquial dialects of Donegal is the goal, it is advisable to teach subjunctive forms, and it should in my opinion be quite possible too, as their usage is very much determined by the context they appear in (mainly after the conjunctions mura “unless” and sula “before”): the learner does not actually need to use much judgment beyond pure rote-learning in order to determine, where a subjunctive form is expected. In any case, I think subjunctive forms are certainly to be insisted upon as part of any separate standard for Ulster Irish to be taken seriously.

The same applies very much to the direct relative present and future forms of verbs – that is, those forms of verbs that are used in direct relative clauses (relative clauses where the correlate of the relative clause is either its subject or its object, and it is not written out in the relative clause itself: an té a thiocfas ar cuairt go cladach Ceann Dubhrann, má théid sé isteach chun na reilige […], tchífidh sé uaigh Labhráis Óig.[Page 102 in Mo Dhá Róisín by Séamus Ó GRIANNA, according to Ciarán Ó DUIBHIN’s database Tobar na Gaedhilge.] The direct relative –s is not a feature of the standard language, although it is certainly used both in Ulster and Connacht, and in a future Ulster standard, it should be not only tolerated, but mandatory. This would certainly not be divisive, but rather make the Ulster standard language more accessible even to speakers of Connacht Irish.

4. Verbal Particles

The verbal particle cha[n] for “not” (instead of ní) is mostly used in Scots Gaelic; in Ireland it is confined to Ulster Irish. It usually lenites the following verb, with the exception of those beginning with d- or t-, which are eclipsed, and those beginning with s-, which is unaffected (thus cha samhlóchainn a leathbhreac “I would not even think of anything like it”). The final –n is added, if the verb begins with a vowel (or a silent fh-). Those forms of the verb bí (or tá, as it is usually referred to) that begin with b- can be either lenited or eclipsed. This insecurity is frequently interpreted as evidence for the particle being a relatively recent import from Scots Gaelic, maybe even a linguistic consequence of the Scottish plantation of Ulster. It is thus quite thinkable that Protestant speakers or learners of Irish will want to use cha[n] as a marker of their linguistic identity and in order to emphasise their affinity with Gaelic-speaking Scotland. Besides, the usage of cha[n] is quite common in the works of locally or regionally important Ulster poets, such as Art Mac Cumhthaigh. Thus, guidelines for the standard usage of this particle are needed. I would tentatively propose the following, which is broadly based on traditional usage as it occurs to me after reading both original literature in Ulster Irish and its grammatical analyses:

Cha[n] is never used together with future tense forms, as cha[n] + present tense conveys both a present and a future meaning. (Thus, chan fhuil covers both níl [< earlier ní fhuil] = ”is not” and ní bheidh = ”will not be”.) Cha[n] is used above all when a statement is answered, but not as the answer of a yes/no question.

Cha combines with the –r [< ro-] of past tense verbal particles, yielding char. This should be used according to the second of the above guidelines.

I have been informed by a personal contact that cha[n] is often perceived as vulgar or brutally colloquial even by those who do use it naturally in their colloquial variety. Thus, the invariant use of ní or níor by those who feel awkward about cha[n] or char should definitely be allowed. However, as the mastery of this particle is so obviously important for those who learn the language to be able to read local poets, as well as due to above-mentioned identity reasons, cha should not be overlooked either by Irish language teachers in the North, or by the ligeadóirí agus casadóirí of a possible regional standard language.


The present standard is probably in no particular way less suitable to the noun declension of Ulster Irish than it is to that of the other dialects. Especially the still audible difference between final -/adh/ -[u] and -/idh/ -[i] in such words as cogadh ”war”, genitive cogaidh, reinforces standard written usage much better than, say, Connemara Irish does. However, there are some points that should be discussed.

There is a whole class of verbal nouns ending in -/ó(dh)/, genitive -/óidh/, which have no currency at all in standard Irish (although modernised editions of local writers do sometimes take this usage into account). While differences and fluctuations in verbal noun morphology in Irish are notorious and any standardisation is bound to reduce the diversity found in living dialects quite harshly, it should be at least considered to introduce such forms as iompódh or caochlódh in a standardised Ulster Gaelic, if this class of verbal nouns is big enough to constitute a characteristic feature of the dialect.

In all Irish Gaelic dialects, there is a tendency to make plurals less ambiguous. This results in generalising the so-called strong plural endings –í, -acha, and –anna; in fact, although the English plural –s has some currency in Irish even beyond obvious English loan-words, it has never been able to challenge the spread of strong plurals, which is the great change in contemporary Irish morphology of nouns. In this, Irish contrasts strikingly with Welsh, which has long ago integrated the English –s into its rich and varied arsenal of plural markers.

Irish is quite happy to add several strong plural suffixes one after another, and it is neither odd nor uncommon to hear colloquial triple plurals such as paróistíochaí ”parishes” (paróiste ”parish” followed by plural –í, another plural –acha, becoming, according to contemporary orthography, -ocha after a long /í/, and, finally, another –í). Quadruple plurals such as léintíochaí ”shirts” (léine ”shirt” + -te + -í + -acha + -í) are less common, and the most conspicuous examples are probably Connemara Irish. Indeed, it is above all a common colloquial development, and the question, whether multiple plurals should be allowed or encouraged in written Ulster Irish, is a question of style, not of dialect. For many speakers, the final extra –í seems to have become an automatic addition to the –acha and –anna suffixes, and if learners get accustomed to this usage once they make their first contact with native colloquial Irish, it might be superfluous to add the –í there in writing, as everybody will do it anyway when reading a text aloud.

However, it is possible that the standard written plural seems to bear no relation to how the plural form is really pluralised in the spoken language. Typical examples are such verbal nouns as cruinniú ”meeting” or the above-mentioned ones ending in -/ódh/, such as caochlódh ”change of weather; mutation; deterioration” (standard form claochlú, with an extra -/l/-) with the recommended plurals cruinnithe and claochluithe, while cruinníocha and caochlaíocha [As used in Anraí Mac Giolla Chomhaill’s edition of Ó DÓNAILL, Eoghan: Scéal Hiúdaí Sheáinín, An Gúm, Baile Átha Cliath 1997 (first edition 1940)] would come nearer the actual pronunciation. In such cases, it should at the very least be considered to have the regional standard to conform to the actual colloquial pronunciation of the dialect.

The genitive singular of arbhar, which is the generic term for corn and cereals, is arbha in Ulster – in addition to the regular form arbhair preferred by the standard language. Here it would probably not be a bad idea to revert to the older form in the written standard, if it is really used in the dialect.

Another problematic question is posed by the feminine genitives ending in a short –[u] sound, written -/(e)adh/ - such as in áit na tineadh ”the fireplace”. In the current standard language, these nouns (such as tine ”fire”) often end in an invariable -/e/, both in nominative and in genitive case. However, if we should propose to introduce the -/(e)adh/ in the genitive of such nouns, it might lead to unwanted side-effects. Basically, the class of such nouns has adopted the old dative form – such as coillidh – as new nominatives, and if we were to give the tinidh/tineadh opposition recognition in the new standard, we might be compelled to introduce a set of new nominative forms (such as coillidh), essentially old dative forms now functioning as nominatives. This would lead to the Ulster orthography drifting far from the current standard, and it would probably be in violation of the general language planning principles proposed in this essay, i.e. it would be more about giving a kind of official sanction to a new, separate (and in a way, separationist) development rather than protecting older features still present in the dialect.

6. Syntax

The standardisation of Irish and the creation of normative grammar has entailed amazingly little research into, or work upon, syntax. This might be due to an excessive influence of German philology [Suggested by Breandán Ó BUACHALLA in an interview with Irish Times in the nineties.] upon the exercise of Celtic linguistic studies in Ireland. While the lexical purism of non-native Irish speakers has often gone to disturbing lengths [See, for instance, some of the quotes in Ó HÁINLE, p. 760/paragraph 6.9], syntax has mostly been left to the students to learn by doing. The concept of what is idiomatically Irish seems also to have equated natural, native idiom with a sustained assault of cryptic folkloristic expressions and (not always quite digested) idioms at the reader, every single wording having been deliberately chosen not to bear the slightest resemblance to its English equivalent. I am not saying this kind literature is automatically bad Irish or bad literature – the fact that we still read Séamus Ó Grianna is enough to prove the opposite. However, in the way that Sean-Phádraic Ó Conaire’s work was eclipsed by less literary and more didactic writers, points of syntax seem to have been neglected by writers, teachers, and didacticians, who have found it more necessary to concentrate upon the collector’s task of lexicography and been more concerned about the inflection of the genitive than of its role in the sentence.

The predictable consequence has been, that syntactic constructions with little or no backing in traditional Gaeltacht speech or literature have made alarming inroads into Irish literature as written by non-native speakers. Even in works written by authors who have taken considerable trouble to learn a rich and varied Irish as far as vocabulary and idiomatic expressions go, certain typical learners’ constructions still may appear often enough to make a book unreadable for someone who has come into the language by reading folklore and literary works by native authors. The well-publicised fact that native speakers are not terribly keen on reading Irish-language newspapers and books might indeed be due to the fact that in the literary culture of the language, their kind of Irish is being marginalised by the onslaught of non-native Galltacht Irish. While it is quite clear that even Gaeltacht Irish is being invaded by loans and loan constructions from English, this does not mean that syntactic and lexical borrowing from English would happen by the same ways, routes, and patterns in native Irish as it does in non-native Galltacht Irish.

A syntactic trait especially typical of non-native Irish is the usage of ag to signify the agent of an autonomous verb, arising from the tendency of non-native learners to equate Irish autonomous verbs with English passives. Irish has several passive constructions employing the preposition ag in this way, but the problem is that they are either so-called Zustand passives, conveying the idea of a result but not that of an action (tá an obair críochnaithe ag Seán “the work has been finished by Seán” [word for word “the work is finished by Seán”, but the idea is rather like the German die Arbeit ist von Seán ausgeführt]), or they are progressive or iterative constructions, focusing on the action, but not on its completion (tá an obair á críochnú ag Seán “the work is being finished by Seán”). In English, a passive construction such as the work was finished by Seán indicates both the action and its completion, and a native English-speaker tends to fill in the gap with such a construction as ?críochnaíodh an obair ag Seán. However, the autonomous verb is not strictly speaking a passive at all, but an impersonal active form, and as such it has ab object. It is thus used in order to evade the necessity of mentioning an explicit subject; however, the English passive is also used in order to shift the emphasis: Gavrilo Princip shot the Archduke in Sarajevo (and not, for example, the Austrian emperor in Zagreb or in Vienna); the Archduke was shot by Gavrilo Princip (and not, for instance, by his fellow terrorist Nedeljko Cabrinovic, who threw a bomb, instead). In Irish, this kind of emphasis is usually expressed in a way which probably seems counterintuitive to the English speaker, i.e., by fronting the subject without changing the form of the verb: scaoil Gavrilo Princip an tArd-Diúc in Sarajevo; b’é Gavrilo Princip [seachas Nedeljko Cabrinovic, cuir i gcás,] a scaoil an tArd-Diúc. Note that in the English version, the agent by Gavrilo Princip comes in the end of the sentence, while in the Irish version, the fronted subject precedes the rest of it.

The use of an agent preposition with the autonomous verb is not entirely unknown to native Irish, but it is supremely rare or nonexistent in literature written by natives or in native folklore. In the whole literature of Ulster as collected by Ciarán Ó Duibhin in his database Tobar na Gaedhilge, I have managed to found only one example of the preposition ag used in this way – in the novel Bean Ruadh de Dhálach by Séamus “Máire” Ó Grianna, significantly enough written towards the end of his life, after him spending several decades in Dublin in a largely English-speaking environment: Ní raibh sa tairngreacht, dar leo, ach scéal a chuaigh ar seachrán agus a cuireadh as a riocht ag daoine gan eolas [Page 22 in Bean Ruadh de Dhálach, according to the textbase Tobar na Gaedhilge. The orthography of the quote has here been standardised]. As regards other dialects, I have been told that Tomás de Bhaldraithe, the supreme authority on Connemara and Aran Irish, had noticed the use of ó in this context, but I have not been able to find any quotes. In Munster, this usage has according to Seán UA SÚILLEABHÁIN appeared sporadically, but only in what he calls caint fhoirmiúil na scéalaíochta is na véarsaíochta [Page 519, paragraph 8.20 in: UA SÚILLEABHÁIN, Seán: Gaeilge na Mumhan. Pages 479-538 in: STAIR NA GAEILGE] - “the formal spoken language of storytelling and verse” – while it is not probable to be heard in everyday colloquial Irish – ní móide go gcloisfí a leithéid sa ghnáthchaint [ibid.].To complicate the matter further, I once asked the writer Pádraig Ó Cíobháin, a native speaker himself, how he saw this particular construction, and he was quite unambiguous that he perceived it as an English influence to be avoided [In private conversation in Spring 1999] - despite the fact that he as a Kerry speaker could be expected to see it as part of his natural dialect. So, although the construction itself might be found in Kerry Irish, its frequent usage is not stylistically natural or desirable even there.

It seems, though, that one preposition has been used in Classical Irish for this purpose – le. While it is the normal preposition for indicating the author of an article or a literary work – Hamlet, le William Shakespeare – it seems to be the received truth that its use for agent constructions with autonomous verbs is obsolete in today’s Irish [See, for instance, the article le1 15. (Of author, agent), page 754 in: Ó DÓNAILL, Niall (a chuir in eagar): Foclóir Gaeilge-Béarla. An Gúm 1977/1992. While the dictionary does recognise this usage, it is qualified by the abbreviation Lit:, which usually denotes classical literary usages, meanings, words and forms not found in the contemporary language, confined to Classical Irish or to now-defunct dialects]. However, in Ulster, sporadic examples can be found even in the works of such contemporary writers as Pádraig Ó Baoighill and Conall Ó Domhnaill: Cuireadh seo [= obair Chonradh na Gaeilge a bheith go hiomlán i nGaeilge] i ngníomh. Agus chomh maith leis sin, rinneadh atheagrú ar an chontae uilig – liom féin, le mo dheartháir, Aodh, Peadar Ó Ceallaigh, Ciarán Ó Conaill, an Dochtúir Ó Droma agus go leor eile [Page 62 in: Ó DOMHNAILL, Conall: Mairfidh na Filí má mhaireann ár gCuimhne. Cló Iar-Chonnachta, Indreabhán, Conamara 1999]. While this usage of le is very rare [with the exception of obviously archaising contexts] – about as rare as that of agentive ag with autonomous verbs in native Gaeltacht Irish – it seems to have enough footing in Ulster Irish to justify the question, whether it should be taken into account in possible future standardisation of the dialect. Its use by contemporary writers does imply that a native Ulster speaker of some erudition prefers it to the ag construction, which can with some justification be viewed as an Anglicism. It is possible that Ó Baoighill and Ó Domhnaill have picked the le construction up from Scots Gaelic, where it is live contemporary speech [Page 167 in: MACKINNON, Roderick: Teach Yourself Gaelic. Teach Yourself Book, Hodder & Stoughton, Sevenoaks 1971/1985]; and it is worth our while to ask, whether the standardisation of Ulster Irish should not be generous and accommodating towards naturally occurring Scots Gaelic influences in the language as it is written and spoken by native Donegal speakers, especially if such features can be used instead of what seems to be an Anglicism, unacceptable or only marginally acceptable by native speakers. However, in any case English passive constructions including an agent should preferably be rendered into Irish with an active construction, where the special emphasis conveyed by the use of passive in English would be expressed by fronting. In fact, in order to train students to avoid any questionable use of the ag agent, special care should be taken to teach them techniques to reconstruct an English passive sentence into an Irish active one. [It should be noted that it is entirely possible to use indirect relative clause where the correlate is the direct object of the relative clause. Thus, if we want to translate This is the story of the man who was killed by the murderer, it is entirely possible to render it as (1) Seo é scéal an fhir ar mharaigh an murdaróir é – although there is no reason whatsoever to avoid this usage, many non-native writers would instead prefer the awkward-looking (2) ?Seo é scéal an fhir a maraíodh ag an mhurdaróir. The reason is, of course, not just the English structure influencing the writer, but also the fact that a direct relative clause would in this instance be misleading: (3) Seo é scéal an fhir a mharaigh an murdaróir would preferably be understood as ”This is the story of the man who killed the murderer”, i.e. the other way round. It is rather surprising to see, however, that no text-books of Irish seem to bother about informing their users of the possibility (1).]

Other syntactic features that should be considered in this context are much more unanimously native speech, but seem to be at variance with wider Irish-speaking world – namely, the so-called ”infinitive of purpose” construction and certain peculiarities in the usage of present tense after the verbal particle nach ”that...is not”.

Irish language has, as should be well known, no infinitive as morphological category. In a dictionary, the verbs are alphabetically ordered by the second person singular imperative, which is the same as the stem of the verb. The nearest equivalent of the infinitive of other languages is the verbal noun, which cannot be perceived as the basic or dictionary form of the verb – it is a derivative of the verb, and it shows quite a variety in how it is derived. If the term ”infinitive” has any meaning in Irish, then only as the name of a function performed by a verbal-noun construction.

The Ulster ”infinitive of purpose” is constructed in a way that seems exactly the opposite of the usual ”infinitive-like” verbal noun construction: the verbal noun comes first, preceded by the a particle – etymologically speaking, it is the preposition do, of course – and followed by the object of the verbal noun, preferably in genitive case. In the usual ”infinitive” construction, of course, the object of the verbal noun comes first, followed by the leniting a (< do) and the verbal noun.

The ”Ulster infinitive of purpose” is not entirely confined to Ulster, as it is used in such constructions as dul a chodladh and cur a chodladh even in other dialects [Note, for instance, the following examples from Connacht: Bhí mé in ann iad a chur a chodladh is a dhúiseacht nuair ba mhian liom é (page 12 in Ó DIREÁIN, Máirtín: Feamainn Bhealtaine, according to the Tobar na Gaidhlige database), Chuireamar in uisce iad roimh dul a chodladh dúinn (id., page 61), Théadh, ach thagadh sé abhaile ar a naoi a chlog agus théadh a chodladh.]; and it does not only express purpose; it is probably above all an inchoative construction, as it is usually used, in addition to cuir/cur, téigh/dul [In Ulster, dul is replaced by a kind of worn-down, permanently lenited form of gabháil, often written ghoil. However, as anybody who has started learning Irish by studying Mícheál Ó Siadhail’s popular textbook of the Connemara dialect, Learning Irish, knows that this development is hardly confined to the Ulster dialect.], and tar/teacht, after the verb tosaigh/tosú – or its Ulster incarnation, toisigh/toiseacht – instead of the progressive ag construction: Níorbh fhada gur tharraing sí amach haincearsair póca agus gur thoisigh a thriomú a súl[Page 3 in Ó GRIANNA, Séamus: Mo Dhá Róisín, according to the Tobar na Gaedhilge database. The orthography has been slightly modernized by the present author.]. A more standard way to put it would probably be Níorbh fhada gur tharraing sí amach ciarsúr póca agus gur thosaigh ag triomú a súl. In fact, even in Ulster, the le construction is a less ambiguous way to express a purpose. Rather, I would tend to see this particular construction as grammatically or syntactically required by certain verbs, and as such, it should be treated and taught as a mandatory grammatical feature of Ulster Irish.

Somewhat more problematic is the sometime usage of present indicative in negative optative clauses, where future or present subjunctive might feel more appropriate from a less provincially Ulster standpoint, e.g. Tá dúil aige nach mbíonn mo dhiúltú ort, ós í seo an achainí dheireanach [Page 78 in Ó GRIANNA, Séamus: Mo Dhá Róisín, according to the database Tobar na Gaedhilge. Again, the orthography is made a little more modern by the present author.]. (A counter-example is provided by the same author: Tá súil agam nach mbeidh sé riachtanach [Page 42 in Ó GRIANNA, Séamus: Bean Ruadh de Dhálach, according to the database Tobar na Gaedhilge. Here, it was not deemed necessary to amend the orthography in any way.].) This tendency is generally seen as influence from the peculiarly Ulster negative particle cha[n], which, as we saw above, gives even the present tense a future meaning. It is, however, a fact that in the Irish as spoken and written by many non-natives, indicative present tenses tend to infiltrate even positive optative constructions, so that instead of the acceptable constructions Tá súil agam go n-éirí leat or Tá súil agam go n-éireoidh leat, we see and hear the markedly less acceptable ?Tá súil agam go n-éiríonn leat. To counteract this tendency, it might be advisable to ask, whether present tense should not be avoided for purely didactic reasons even in negative optative clauses, even though it is part of traditional Ulster speech.


Whether there is a need for much separate vocabulary-building for our hypothetical Ulster standard Gaelic, is a multi-faceted question. If there has been any Irish vocabulary-planning of note, it has been about producing equivalents for every single item of English technical vocabulary, very often without much consideration to how the word should be syntactically treated. (Allergy, you say, is ailléirge in Irish, sensibly enough; but should we treat it as a transient illness – tá ailléirge orm – or as a more permanent ”attitude” – tá ailléirge agam?) Frequently, new words were fabricated entirely independently of live Gaeltacht speech, so that learned neologisms were devised even where traditional dialects did have a word whose meaning could by a very natural figurative use have been extended to covering the learned concept. Personally, I have no idea of what is the recommended official word for ”conviction” (i.e. a moral or political conviction, a state of being convinced of something) – after years of diligent lecture of Gaeltacht literature and folklore, I do not really feel the need for any other words than géarbharúil or diantuairim, both of Gaeltacht vintage, and the first one having, for our purposes, the additional redeeming quality of including the Ulster word barúil. (As there is the adjective barúlach for ”having the opinion that...” in Ulster, I do not see why we could not use tá mé géarbharúlach go... for ”I am convinced that...” or Ó tá muid géarbharúlach amach is amach go... for ”Being convinced in our consciences that...”) Of course, there is the usual criticism that both words only mean ”strongly held opinion” and that ”conviction” means something more in the strictly standardised terminology of some learned discipline; but in normal spoken language ”conviction” hardly ever has any other meaning than ”strongly held opinion”, and in normal language tuition a word adequately expressing this particular meaning should thus be offered the learners as the normal equivalent of ”conviction”. Certainly Irish needs specific terms for learned concepts such as dúpholl, neodrónréalta, solasbhliain, saobhdhiallas, radaiteileascóp, grianchóras, ollnóva, coibhneasacht ghinearálta [Meaning, ”black hole”, ”neutron star”, ”light year”, ”parallax”, ”radio telescope”, ”solar system”, ”supernova”, and ”general relativity”, respectively. All these terms are used on the web page that the present author, in his teens an astronomy buff, is editing in Irish about matters related to black holes, and should not present any insurmountable difficulty once properly introduced and explained in their due context.], and so on; but even though ordinary English language has been strongly influenced by diverse technical jargons and adopted many once strictly defined words of such jargons, it should not be thought that these words retain their scientific meanings in everyday language, and look for the dictionary equivalent of the English term used figuratively or facetiously in the colloquial street talk. In fact, even the hard words of scientific discourse are not always as necessary as we might think. For approximation, the new, and in many ways commendable, dictionary of science recommends the equivalent neastachán; although I like the word – I find it an amusing pun, reminiscent of the English word guesstimate – I do not think it is strictly necessary to devise such a term, as long as we have the Ulster word ballaíocht.

When we consider, if and how our hypothetical Ulster standard language should make use of the neologisms created by the official vocabulary makers such as the Coiste Téarmaíochta, I tend to recommend the same critical attitude to the users of all dialects: if the term has a clear, distinct and/or technical meaning, and cannot easily be confused with any items of the highly frequent core vocabulary, then it should be adopted and used. There is hardly any risk, say, that Ulster would need another word than leictreon for “electron”, fásteanga for “creole language”, or ardmhatamaitic for “higher maths”. However, words that are little more than learned names for everyday concepts need no new Irish equivalents, if there are already good enough everyday words in use in dialects and in the works by native writers.

Another important question is that of specifically East Ulster words. Ciarán Ó Duibhin has collected a list of them that can presently be browsed on his web pages. The work of the language movement is not only about preservation, it is also about reanimation and resurrection; and although cynical observers might scorn the attempts to resurrect the defunct dialects of East Ulster as linguistic archaeology or necrophilia, it must be noted that old regional poets, such as Art Mac Cumhthaigh, and the need to understand their work are a major source of interest in Irish among the Northern Irish, including Protestants. There is thus a certain necessity to study and teach their language and its specific words to learners who take an interest in their native district’s Gaelic past; and it is quite possible that features of the language of these poets find their way into written, maybe even spoken Irish as it is cultivated in the Northern statelet. However, such a development should not impede the other important goal of the language movement in the North, that of keeping the language alive in Donegal; on the other hand, many East Ulster words are shared by Scots Gaelic, and could thus make that language more accessible to Ulster Gaeilgeoirí.


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MAC CONGAIL, Nollaig: Rí-Éigeas na nGael – Léachtaí Cuimhneacháin ar Sheosamh Mac Grianna, Coiscéim, Baile Átha Cliath 1994

MACKINNON, Roderick: Teach Yourself Gaelic. Teach Yourself Books, Hodder & Stoughton, Sevenoaks 1971/1985

MAC MEANMAN, Seán Bán: An Chéad Mhám, edited by Séamus Ó Cnáimhsí, Coiscéim, Baile Átha Cliath 1990

Ó BUACHALLA, Breandán: An Teanga Bheo – Gaeilge Chléire, Institiúid Teangeolaíochta Éireann, Baile Átha Cliath 2003.

Ó DOMHNAILL, Conall: Mairfidh na Filí má mhaireann ár gCuimhne. Cló Iar-Chonnachta, Indreabhán, Conamara 1999

Ó DÓNAILL, Eoghan: Scéal Hiúdaí Sheáinín, An Gúm, Baile Átha Cliath 1997 (first edition 1940). Edited by Anraí Mac Giolla Chomhaill.

Ó DÓNAILL, Niall (Ed.): Foclóir Gaeilge-Béarla. An Gúm, Baile Átha Cliath 1977/1992

Ó DUIBHIN, Ciarán: Tobar na Gaedhilge. An leagan seo: 2003-11-05 [a searchable database including the greater part of the Ulster classics in their original editions as well as much other important items of early twentieth-century Irish language literature written by native authors or told by native storytellers]

Ó FLOINN, Tomás: Cion Fir. Aisti Thomáis Uí Fhloinn in Comhar [those essays by T.Ó Fl. that were published in the monthly Comhar]. Edited by Liam Prút. Comhar Teoranta, Baile Átha Cliath 1997

Ó GRIANNA, Séamus: Cora Cinniúna 1-2, edited by Niall Ó Dónaill, An Gúm, Baile Átha Cliath 1993

Ó GRIANNA, Séamus. Nuair a Bhí Mé Óg, Mercier Press, Cork & Dublin 1979/1986

Ó HÁINLE, Cathal: Ó Chaint na nDaoine go dtí an Caighdeán Oifigiúil, pages 745-793 in: STAIR NA GAEILGE…

STAIR NA GAEILGE in ómós do Pádraig [sic!]Ó Fiannachta. Edited by Kim Mc Cone et al. Coláiste Phádraig, Maigh Nuad 1994.

UA SÚILLEABHÁIN, Seán: Gaeilge na Mumhan. Pages 479-538 in: STAIR NA GAEILGE…