Dialect divisions of Modern Irish
The size of the Irish-speaking areas has been continually shrinking over the past few centuries. This trend has not been arrested despite the efforts of the government of Ireland since independence in 1922 to support these areas by improving their infrastructure and generally offering financial assistance to the communities of Irish speakers.
The term for an Irish-speaking area is Gaeltacht ‘Irish region’, plural Gaeltachtaí. In present-day Ireland a distinction is made between two types of Gaeltacht, depending on the numbers of Irish-speakers living there: (1) Fíor-Ghaeltacht, lit. ‘true Irish-area’ refers to those areas with a high-percentage of speakers (though the threshold for this has not been officially defined) and (2) Breac-Ghaeltacht, lit. ‘part Irish-area’ which has considerably fewer Irish speakers. Occasionally the English-speaking areas are referred to collectively as Galltacht ‘region of the non-Irish’, the stem Gall- being the same as in Donegal ‘fortress of the foreigners’.
The standard dialect survey of Irish is Heinrich Wagner’s comprehensive atlas (see Wagner 1958-64). But even when this was being compiled, some 50 years ago, the speakers were older males whose Irish was frequently moribund. The situation today is that large tracts of Ireland have no historically continuous Irish-speaking areas any more. There are no such areas in Northern Ireland or in the province of Leinster in the east. In Munster there are remnants in Ring (Co. Waterford) and in Muskerry (Co. Cork) along with a more robust community at the end of the Dingle peninsula in Co. Kerry.
Irish in Mayo has declined drastically, and studies like those of de Búrca (1958) and certainly that of Mhac an Fhailigh (1968) are of communities which hardly exist anymore. Coastal areas in Co. Galway, the Aran Islands, as well as North-West and to a less extent South-West Donegal, represent the most vibrant communities today.
One should mention that many language enthusiasts throughout Ireland put much effort into maintaining the language outside the historically continuous areas. These speakers are concentrated in urban centres, chiefly in Dublin and also in Belfast. Virtually all these individuals are not native speakers, but their dedication to the language makes it most likely that this group will be that which will survive among coming generations and carry the language forward. There are also Irish-medium schools throughout the country, especially in the larger cities.
The consequences of the survival of non-native varieties of Irish and the demise of the remaining communities of true native speakers are yet to be seen, but it may well be that much of the phonology of the language as described academic studies of Irish will no longer apply. It can already be observed among enthusiastic but poor speakers of the Irish that they neglect many distinctions of the language, such as the application of the initial mutations, the distinction between palatal and non-palatal sounds and the observation of grammatical gender.
In the following sections, the main phonological differences between the dialects of Irish, as recorded in the available literature, are given in summary form. The references are to individual studies. More general literature is also available (and has been discussed briefly above). Among the latter studies one can mention the general works by O’Rahilly (1932) and Ó Cuív (1951) as well as the ‘generative’ approach to dialect differences to be found in: Ó Múrchú (1969), Ó Siadhail and Wigger (1975), Ó Siadhail (1989). The main differences between the dialects are to be found among vowels which is why it is so difficult to arrive at a common pronunciation for all three main dialect areas (but see Ó Baoill 1986). Most general works on Irish often fudge the issue by not giving pronunciations (the official standard does not either). One or two are based on a particular dialect, such as Ó Siadhail (1980) which relies on western Irish pronunciation.
There are many morphological and lexical differences between the dialects which add considerably to their divergent natures. In particular inflections tend to vary, e.g. fir is the plural of ‘man’ in Western Irish, but this is fearaibh in Southern Irish, teanga with a final schwa is the singular of ‘tongue’ in the west and south but this word has a final long /i:/ in the north as do many other words. Gender assignment also tends to vary, e.g. the word for ‘bucket’ is feminine in the north but masculine in the west and south.
Among the lexical differences one could point out úr ‘new’, achan ‘every’, in the north but nua, gach in the west and south (where úr means ‘fresh’). Easca ‘easy’ and réidh ‘ready’ are found in the north and west but simplí, furasta and ullamh in the south. Still other words vary across all three dialects, e.g. ‘somewhat’ is rud beag in the north, sách in the west and cuíosach in the south. There are also phraesological differences, e.g. it is normal to greet someone with cé chaoi a bhfuil tú?, lit. ‘what way that is you’, in the west but with conas tá tú?, lit. ‘how are you’, in the south.
Hickey, Raymond 2011. The Dialects of Irish. Study of a Changing Landscape. Berlin: de Gruyter Mouton, 508 pages + DVD.
Hickey, Raymond 2014. The Sound Structure of Modern Irish. Berlin: de Gruyter Mouton, xiii + 481 pages.
Ó Baoill, Dónall 1986. Lárchanúint don Ghaeilge. [A common pronunciation for Irish] Dublin: Linguistics Institute.
Ó Cuív, Brian 1971 . Irish dialects and Irish-speaking districts. Dublin: Institute for Advanced Studies.
O’ Murchú, Mairtín 1969. ‘Common core and underlying representations’, Ériu 21, 42-75.
O’Rahilly, Thomas F. 1976  Irish dialects past and present. Dublin: Browne and Nolan.
Ó Siadhail, Mícheál 1980. Learning Irish. Dublin: Institute for Advanced Studies.
Ó Siadhail, Mícheál 1989. Modern Irish. Grammatical structure and dialectal variants Cambridge: University Press.
Ó Siadhail, Mícheál and Arndt Wigger 1975. Córas fuaimeanna na Gaeilge. [The sound pattern of Irish] Dublin: Institute for Advanced Studies.
Old Irish had phonological length which was lost in the Middle Irish period. Perhaps as a strategy for maintaining quantity in syllable-rhymes, short vowels before former sonorant geminates were lengthened. The quality of these vowels varied and later became a chief indicator of dialect differences. The sonorants in question are described as ‘tense’ (Irish teann) in the relevant literature.
Reflexes of short vowels before geminate sonorants
/i> /ai/ cinn ‘heads’
/o/ > /au/ trom ‘heavy’
/a/ > /au/ crann ‘tree’
The realisation of <ao> This is pronounced /e:/, e.g. glaoch /gle:x/ ‘call’. See O’Rahilly (1932: 27-38) for an overview in all the dialects including Scottish Gaelic.
Sonorants A two-way distinction is found for N and L. Velar stops are retained in post-nasal position, i.e. teanga is [tæŋgə] ‘tongue’.
The realisation of coronal stops These show only slight palatalisation (contrast with Northern Irish where they are in fact affricates). The non-palatal stops T and D are alveolar.
Word stress Long vowels in non-initial syllables attract stress, e.g. cailín /kaˡlʲi:nʲ/ ‘girl’. This may be the result of Anglo-Norman influence (in the south-east) after the twelfth century as older authors like O’Rahilly seem to think (1932: 86-98) and certainly applied to many French loanwords, e.g. buidéal /bəˡdʲe:l/ ‘bottle’. See Hickey (1997) for further discussion.
Déise Irish, Ring (South Co. Waterford), Henebry (1898), Breatnach (1947), Sheehan (1944)
West Muskerry (West Co. Cork), Ó Cuív (1944)
Dunquin (Dingle Peninsula, Co. Kerry), Sjoestedt-Jonval (1931, 1938), Ó Sé (2000)
Breatnach, Risteard B. 1947. The Irish of Ring, Co. Waterford. Dublin: Institute for Advanced Studies.
Henebry, Richard 1898. A contribution to the phonology of Déise-Irish. PhD thesis: University of Greifswald.
Hickey, Raymond 1997. ‘Assessing the relative status of languages in medieval Ireland’, In Jacek Fisiak (ed.), Studies in Middle English linguistics Berlin: Mouton, 181-205.
Ó Cuív, Brian 1944. The Irish of West Muskerry, Co. Cork. Dublin: Institute for Advanced Studies.
Ó Sé, Diarmuid 2000. Gaeilge Corca Dhuibhne. [The Irish of Corkaguiny (Dingle Peninsula)] Dublin: Linguistics Institute.
Sheehan, M. 1944. Sean-chaint na nDéise. [The old dialect of the Deise (Co. Waterford)] 2nd edition Dublin.
Sjoestedt-Jonval, Marie-Louise 1931. Phonétique d’un parler irlandais de Kerry. Paris: Ernest Leroux.
Sjoestedt-Jonval, Marie-Louise 1938. Description d’un parler irlandais de Kerry. Paris: Champion.
Note. The Irish of Ring (Co. Waterford) is quite similar to that in Muskerry/Ballyvourney (Co. Cork) and Dingle Peninsula (Irish: Corca Dhuibhne, Co. Kerry) but it does not have the wide intonational range of Irish in Cork and Kerry. There are some minor features which are exclusive to Ring, e.g. the lenition of the verb tá ‘is’ in declarative sentences. There are also a few Irish speakers left on Cape Clear island (Irish: Oileán Chléire) off the south coast of Cork.
Reflexes of historical vowels before former geminate sonorants
/i/ > /i:/ cinn ‘heads’
/o/ > /u:/ trom ‘heavy’
/a/ > /a:/ crann ‘tree’
The realisation of these vowels varies with the following (former) geminate. For instance, a palatal or velar L will lead to the diphthong /ai/ or /au/ respectively as in poll /paul/ ‘hole’-NOM and poill /pail/ ‘hole’-GEN.
The realisation of <ao> This is pronounced /i:/, e.g. glaoch /gli:x/ ‘call’. See O`Rahilly (1932: 27-38) for an overview in all the dialects including Scottish Gaelic.
Other vowels There is a general lengthening of low vowels and a very open [æ] after palatal sounds (Cois Fhairrge).
Consonants Intervocalic /h/ is absorbed into a preceding long vowel, e.g. oíche /i:/ < /i:hə/ ‘night’. /v/ before a non-palatal vowel is realised as [w].
Sonorants A three-way distinction is found for N and L, i.e. /nˠ – n – nʲ/ and /lˠ – l – lʲ/. Velar stops are not always retained in post-nasal position in Cois Fhairrge, i.e. teanga is [tʲæŋə] ‘tongue’.
The realisation of coronal stops These are realised in western Irish as palatals without noticeable affrication. The non-palatal stops T and D are dental.
Word stress Initial stress applies to virtually all words with the exception of one or two loanwords such as tobac /təˡba:k/ ‘tobacco’.
Cois Fhairrge (Mid-West Co. Galway), de Bhaldraithe (1945, 1953)
Inishmaan (middle Aran Island, Galway Bay), Finck (1899)
Tourmakeady (South Co. Mayo), de Búrca (1958)
Erris (North-West Co. Mayo), Mhac an Fhailigh (1968)
Achill (West Co. Mayo), Stockman 1974
Bhaldraithe, Tomás de 1945. The Irish of Chois Fhairrge, Co. Galway. Dublin: Institue for Advanced Studies.
Bhaldraithe, Tomás de 1953. Gaeilge Chois Fhairrge. An deilbhíocht. [The Irish of Cois Fhairrge. The morphology] Dublin: Institute for Advanced Studies.
Búrca, Seán de 1958. The Irish of Tourmakeady, Co. Mayo. Dublin: Institute for Advanced Studies.
Finck, Franz N. 1899. Die araner mundart. Ein beitrag zur erforschung des westirischen, 2 Bde. Marburg: Elwert’sche Verlagsbuchhandlung.
Mhac an Fhailigh, Éamonn 1968. The Irish of Erris, Co.Mayo. Dublin: Institute for Advanced Studies.
Stockman, Gerald 1974. The Irish of Achill. Belfast: Institute of Irish Studies.
Note. The remnants of Irish in Co. Clare (transitional between the west and south) are described in Holmer (1962-5). The (former) South Mayo dialects are transitional between the central western and the northern dialects. North Mayo is clearly northern in type, but this is due to the immigration into the area during the seventeenth century by people from Ulster. Remnants of North Mayo Irish are still found on Achill Island and in the area of Ceathrú Thaidhg in the north-west corner of Mayo.
Reflexes of historical vowels before former geminate sonorants
/i/ > /i/ cinn ‘heads’
/o/ > /u/ trom ‘heavy’
/a/ > /a/ crann ‘tree’
The realisation of <ao> This is pronounced /ɨ:/, e.g. glaoch /glɨ:x/ ‘call’. See O`Rahilly (1932: 27-38) for an overview in all the dialects including Scottish Gaelic. Sometimes it is transcribed as Greek lambda [ʎ(:)], see Hamilton (1974: 131) and sometimes as inverted ‘y’, see O’Rahilly (1932: 27). This transcription is intended to indicate the retracted character of the /i:/ vowel stemming from ao.
Other vowels There is a general fronting of vowels in northern Irish. The /u:/ is pronounced as a high central rounded vowel, much as in the rest of Ulster (an areal feature covering both Irish and English), e.g. cúl [kʉ:l] ‘rear’. The long low vowel, pronounced [ɑ:] in western Irish, is often fronted to a value nearer [æ:], e.g. tá [tæ:] ‘(it) is’. A lowered and retracted variant of /e:/ is found as the reflex of /a/ and a velar fricative, e.g. slaghdán [slˠe:dənˠ] ‘cold (illness)’. The mid back vowel /o:/ is also lowered, e.g. pósta [pɒ:stə] ‘married’.
Sonorants A three-way distinction is found for N and L, i.e. /nˠ – n – nʲ/ and /lˠ – l – lʲ/, but see Hamilton (1974: 139-45) who has a fourfold distinction. Velar stops are retained in post-nasal position, i.e. teanga is [tʲæŋgə] ‘tongue’.
Consonants /v/ before a non-palatal vowel is realised as [w].
The realisation of coronal stops These are realised in northern Irish as palatals with audible affrication. The non-palatal stops T and D are dental.
Word stress Stress is on the first syllable though there is considerable shortening of post-initial long vowels (as opposed to western Irish), e.g. sceireog ‘fib, lie’ /ˡsʲkʲɛrəg/, scadán /ˡskudan/ ‘herring’, see Hamilton (1974: 160-2) and Hickey (1997) for further discussion.
Teilinn (South West Co. Donegal), Wagner (1979 )
Glenties (Central South Co. Donegal), Quiggin (1906)
Torr (Gweedore, Co. Donegal), Sommerfelt (1922)
Tory Island (North West Co. Donegal), Hamilton (1974)
Ros Goill (North Co. Donegal), Lucas (1979)
Hamilton, Noel 1974. A phonetic study of the Irish of Tory Island. Belfast: Institute for Irish Studies.
Lucas, Leslie 1979. Grammar of Ros Goill Irish. Belfast: Institute of Irish Studies.
Quiggin, E. C. 1906. A dialect of Donegal being the speech of Meenawannia in the parish of Glenties. Cambridge: University Press.
Sommerfelt, Alf 1922. The dialect of Torr, Co. Donegal. Christiania: Dybwad.
Wagner, Heinrich 1979 . Gaeilge Theilinn. [The Irish of Teelin] 2nd edition. Dublin: Institute for Advanced Studies.
Note. The Donegal Gaeltacht is divided in two, a large area in the north-west of the country, roughly between Falcarragh in the north and Dunlewy (Irish An Clochan Liath ‘The grey mound of stones’) in the south and a much smaller area in the south-west, roughly between Kilcar and Glencolumbcille. See the section ‘Sample sound files for Modern Irish’ for two maps and recordings.