by Natalie Nic Shìm

Irish (Gaeilge /ge:lɪg/, or Gaoluinn /gë:ɫɪŋj/ in Munster Irish) is a Goidelic Celtic language spoken in Ireland. It remains the everyday language of Gaeltachtaí (Irish-speaking districts) in counties Donegal, Mayo, Galway, Kerry, Cork, Meath and Waterford, and is also spoken by many people outside of these areas. Additionally, there are significant numbers of competent speakers in the United States, Canada and Australia. According to 2011 census figures for the Republic of Ireland, 1,774,437 people (41.4% of the population) professed some knowledge of Irish, although only 77,185 claimed to speak it on a daily basis outside of the education system. The 2011 census for Northern Ireland recorded that 10.65% of the population claimed ‘some ability in Irish’, although only 0.24% gave Irish as their ‘main language’.

Under the Constitution of Ireland (enacted 1937), ‘the Irish language as the national language is the first official language’. In 2007, Irish became the 23rd official language of the European Union. Irish-medium immersion education is available at all levels and Irish is a compulsory subject of the Leaving Certificate in the Republic of Ireland.

There are three main dialects of spoken Irish – Ulster, Connaught and Munster – which demonstrate clear differences of grammar, syntax, pronunciation, stress, vocabulary and idiom. A written standard, An Caighdeán Oifigiúil, was introduced in 1958, with a revised edition published in 2012.

Phonology and Orthography


The Irish alphabet has 18 letters: 5 vowels and 13 consonants:

a b c d e f g h i l m n o p r s t u


Vowels in Irish can be either long or short. Long vowels are demarcated by an acute accent (´), known as the síneadh fada.

Pronunciation varies somewhat between the dialects. Munster Irish tends to place greater emphasis on long vowels, elongating vowels before a double consonant, in spite of the absence of a síneadh fada.

  Front Central Back
High i [ɪ]
í, ao [iː]
  u [ʊ]
ú, adh, amh, ubh, umh [uː]
Closed Mid e, ei [ɛ]
é, ae, ao [eː]
a, e, adh, amh [ə] o [ɔ]
ó [oː]
Low   a [a]  á [ɑ]


  • generally when a broad vowel is preceded or followed by a slender vowel, or falls between two slender vowels, only the broad is pronounced. The slender vowels serve purely to modify neighbouring consonants. The exceptions are the long vowels indicated by the síneadh fada, which always maintain their basic sound quality, and the diphthongs described below.
  • ao and ae are considered broad vowels; they become aoi and aei before a slender consonant (see, for example, the pairing of 'broad with broad' in laethanta 'days').
  • /ə/ only occurs in unstressed syllables
  • vowel (and diphthong) quality and pronunciation may vary depending on whether the sound falls at the beginning, in the middle or at the end of the word.
  • consonant quality also influences vowel pronunciation. Vowels adjacent to nasal consonants are often nasalised. In Connaught and Munster Irish, vowels preceding double consonants are elongated (except when immediately followed by a vowel), in spite of the absence of a síneadh fada.  
  • the sequences omh, omha(i) are pronounced /oː/


Irish has four basic diphthongs /əi, əu, iə, uə/, but the actual quality of these sounds varies greatly depending on the adjacent sounds. The table below shows some of the spellings for each sound:

əi adh, aidh, agh, aigh, eidh, eigh, odh, oidh, ogh, oigh
əu abh, eabh, amh, eamh, obh, odh, ogh, omh


Each consonant has two forms in Irish: broad and slender. This distinction affects their pronunciation and can be identified by the neighbouring vowel. Consonants or consonant clusters preceded or followed by an a, o or u are classed as broad, whereas those preceded or followed by an e or i are said to be slender.

 Vowels on either side of a consonant or consonant cluster must be in agreement: caol le caol, leathan le leathan ‘slender with slender, broad with broad’. (E.g. in the word siopadóireacht ‘shopping’, the s and r are slender; the p, d, ch and t are broad. The two i's and the e are not pronounced but are there purely to slenderise the neighbouring consonants.)

Pronunciation varies quite considerably between dialects and idiolects.

  Labial Dental Alv'r Postalveolar Palatal Velar Glottal
Stop p
/p pj/
/b bj/
Nasal   m
/m mj/
Tap   r
/ɾ ɾj/
Fricative f
/ɸ ɸj/
Approximant       l

*broad consonants are in blue, slender consonants are in red.

Initial Mutations

Irish has two initial mutations: lenition/aspiration (séimhiú), and eclipsis/nasalisation (urú).

Radical Lenition Eclipsis
b bh /w βj/ mb /m mj/
c ch /x ç/ gc /g ɟ/
d dh /ɣ j/ nd / nj/
f fh silent bhf /w βj/
g gh /ɣ j/ ng /ŋ ɲ/
m mh /w βj/    
p ph /ɸ ɸj/ bp /b bj/
s sh /h/    
t th /h/ dt / dj/

Generally, dental consonants are not aspirated if they occur after another dental consonant (e.g. an tír ‘the country’, bean deas ‘a nice woman’).



Irish has no indefinite article. The definite article has two forms:

  • an is used with singular nouns in the nominative and dative cases and masculine singular nouns in the genitive.
  • na is used with all plural nouns and feminine singular nouns in the genitive.

The nominative singular article lenites feminine nouns (except those beginning with a dental consonant) and prefixes a t to those beginning with an s-. Likewise the genitive masculine singular article. The genitive plural article eclipses nouns of both genders.


Irish nouns are either masculine or feminine in gender.

Plurals in Irish are categorised as either weak or strong, with this distinction influencing their genitive form.

There are two types of weak plural:

  • those formed by slenderisation (adding an i before the final consonant/consonant cluster in order to transform it from broad to slender). E.g. cat ‘cat’ → cait.
  • those formed by adding an a to the end of the word. E.g. fuinneog ‘window’ → fuinneoga.

All other plurals are classed as strong plurals and are formed by adding a plural termination. These include -(a)í, -(e)acha, -(e)anna, -ta, -te, -tha and -thaí.

On rare occasions, changes to the end of the word are accompanied by minor internal changes:

  • the slenderisation of a broad consonant (as in ubh ‘egg’ → uibheacha);
  • the broadening of a slender consonant (as in spéir ‘sky’ → spéartha);
  • or the loss of a superfluous vowel (as in béal ‘mouth’ → béil).

Noun Cases

Irish still makes a distinction of case and nouns are inflected accordingly.

The accusative case is not mentioned as it is the same as the nominative. (However, 3rd person pronouns take different forms in the nominative and accusative cases.)

The dative case (used after prepositions) is usually marked by initial mutation (lenition or eclipsis) in the singular. Additionally, some speakers still use older inflected forms which also survive in a few fossilised phrases, e.g. bolg le gréin ‘sunbathing’, ar na mallaibh ‘recently’.

The vocative case (used in direct address) is indicated by aspirate mutation and inflection, and preceded by the vocative particle, a.

The genitive case signifies a relationship between two nouns and is also used after the verbal noun or a compound preposition. It is formed through inflection, with all nouns being identified as belonging to one of five declensions according to their behaviour in the genitive singular:

  • 1st declension: slenderise (add an i before the final consonant/consonant cluster). E.g. capall ‘horse’ → capaill, bád ‘boat’ → báid. (The ending -(e)ach changes to -(a)igh: e.g. Éireannach ‘Irishman’ → Éireannaigh.)
  • 2nd declension: slenderise, if necessary, and add an e to the end of the word. E.g. bróg ‘shoe’ → bróige, páirc ‘field’ → páirce. (The ending -(e)ach changes to -(a)í: e.g. gealach ‘moon’ → gealaí).
  • 3rd declension: broaden (remove the i before the final consonant/consonant cluster), if necessary, and add an a to the end of the word. E.g. múinteoir ‘teacher’ → múinteora, loch ‘lake’ → locha.
  • 4th declension: no change. E.g. cailín ‘girl’ → cailín, ‘king’ → .
  • 5th declension: various. The 5th declension serves as a ‘catch-all’ declension for all nouns not fitting the pattern of the other four declensions and therefore includes a number of groups displaying different behaviours, plus various irregular nouns. E.g. máthair ‘mother’ → máthar, cathair ‘city’ → cathrach, talamh ‘land’ → talún, bean ‘woman’ → mná.

For nouns forming weak plurals in the nominative, the genitive plural form is the same as the nominative singular, whereas strong plurals remain the same in the genitive as in the nominative. E.g. bád ‘boat’ → báid (a weak plural) → seolta na mbád ‘the sails of the boats’, cailín ‘girl’ → cailíní (a strong plural) → leabhair na gcailíní ‘the girls’ books’.


Adjectives should agree with the noun they modify in number and case. Adjectives modifying feminine singular nouns in the nominative case are lenited (as are those modifying plurals formed by slenderisation). Adjectives usually follow the noun, although there are some notable exceptions, including sean- ‘old’, droch- ‘bad’ and dea- ‘good’ (all of which lenite the noun they modify).

As a general rule, nominative plural forms are created by adding -a to adjectives finishing on a broad consonant and -e to those finishing on a slender consonant. However, there are a few groups that behave slightly differently: e.g. adjectives ending -(i)úil and -ir (as in cairdiúil ‘friendly’ → cairdiúla, deacair ‘difficult’ → deacra, saibhir ‘rich’ → saibhre). With the exception of irregular adjectives, those ending on a vowel do not change.

Like the noun, the adjective makes a distinction of case, and there are clear parallels between the inflective patterns of nouns and adjectives.

nom m sg gen m sg nom f sg gen f sg nom pl
mór ‘big’ fear mór hata an fhir mhóir bean mhór hata na mná móire daoine móra
ciúin ‘quiet' fear ciúin hata an fhir chiúin bean chiúin hata na mná ciúine daoine ciúine
salach ‘dirty' fear salach

hata an fhir shalaigh bean salach hata na mná salaí daoine salacha
misniúil ‘brave’ fear misniúil hata an fhir mhisniúil bean mhisniúil hata na mná misniúla daoine misniúla
láidir ‘strong’ fear láidir hata an fhir láidir bean láidir hata na mná láidre daoine láidre

The genitive plural of the adjective will depend on whether the noun it modifies is a weak or a strong plural. As with nouns, in the case of weak plurals, the genitive plural of the adjective is the same as the nominative singular, whereas for strong plurals, the genitive plural is the same as the nominative plural.


Equative comparison is made through periphrasis (e.g. chomh dubh le ‘as black as’), whereas the comparative and the superlative require the inflection of the adjective. The comparative and the superlative forms of the adjective are the same: they are distinguished by the copular forms, níos and is (often ní ba and ba/ab in the past tense, both of which lenite the following adjective). The comparative/superlative form is the same as the genitive feminine singular form of the adjective.

Comparative Superlative
casta ‘complicated’ níos casta is casta
ciallmhar ‘sensible’ níos ciallmhaire is ciallmhaire
deacair ‘difficult' níos deacra is deacra
díreach ‘straight’ níos dírí is dírí
fiáin ‘wild’ níos fiáine is fiáine
geanúil ‘affectionate níos geanúla is geanúla
óg ‘young’ níos óige is óige
trom ‘heavy’ níos troime is troime

E.g. tá Máire níos óige ná Seán ‘Máire is younger than Seán’, seo an cheist is deacra ‘this is the most difficult question’.

There are a small number of adjectives which are compared irregularly.

Comparative Superlative
beag ‘little’ níos lú is lú
breá ‘fine’ níos breátha is breátha
fada ‘long' níos faide is faide
furasta ‘easy’ níos fusa is fusa
gearr ‘short’ níos giorra is giorra
maith ‘good’ níos fearr is fearr
mór ‘big’ níos mó is mó
olc ‘bad’ níos measa is measa
te ‘hot’ níos teo is teo
iomaí ‘many’ is/ní lia


Cardinal Cardinal + Noun
(with bád 'boat')
(for counting people)
(with capall 'horse')
1 a haon (aon) b(h)ád amháin (aon) duine (amháin) an chéad chapall
2 a dó dhá bhád beirt an dara capall
3 a trí trí bhád triúr an tríú capall
4 a ceathair ceithre bhád ceathrar an ceathrú capall
5 a cúig cúig bhád cúigear an cúigiú capall
6 a sé sé bhád seisear an séú capall
7 a seacht seacht mbád seachtar an seachtú capall
8 a hocht ocht mbád ochtar an t-ochtú capall
9 a naoi naoi mbád naonúr an naoú capall
10 a deich deich mbád deichniúr an deichiú capall
11 a haon déag aon bhád déag aon duine dhéag an t-aonú capall déag
12 a dó dhéag dhá bhád déag dháréag an dara capall déag
13 a trí déag trí bhád déag an tríú capall déag
14 a ceathair déag ceithre bhád déag an ceathrú capall déag
15 a cúig déag cúig bhád déag an cúigiú capall déag
16 a sé déag sé bhád déag an séú capall déag
17 a seacht déag seacht mbád déag an seachtú capall déag
18 a hocht déag ocht mbád déag an t-ochtú capall déag
19 a naoi déag naoi mbád déag an naoú capall déag
20 fiche fiche bád an fichiú capall
21 fiche a haon bád is fiche an t-aonú capall is fiche
22 fiche a dó dhá bhád is fiche an dara capall is fiche
30 tríocha tríocha bád an tríochadú capall
40 daichead daichead bád an daicheadú capall
50 caoga caoga bád an caogadú capall
60 seasca seasca bád an seascadú capall
70 seachtó seachtó bád an seachtódú capall
80 ochtó ochtó bád an t-ochtódú capall
90 nócha nócha bád   an nóchadú capall
100 céad céad bád   an céadú capall
1000 míle míle bád   an míliú capall

There are some slight variations in colloquial use and some of the older generation of native speakers still prefer to count in scores (e.g. tá mé sé bliana thar na ceithre scór ‘I’m eighty-six’).

Certain nouns take special forms after the cardinal numerals (e.g. bliain ‘year’ → trí bliana).


1sg mise mise
2sg tusa thú thusa
3sg m seisean é eisean
3sg f sise í ise
1pl muid / sinn muidne / sinne muid / sinn muidne / sinne
2pl sibh sibhse sibh sibhse
3pl siad siadsan iad iadsan

Possessive Adjectives

  Sg Pl
1 moL árN
2 doL bhurN
3m aL aN
3f aH

L causes lenition
causes eclipsis and prefixed n- to vowels
prefixes h- to vowels

Possessive adjectives are also used in certain verbal-noun constructions in the place of an accusative pronoun (e.g. tá siad do mo cheistiú ‘they are questioning me’) and with compound prepositions (e.g. tá an teach os bhur gcomhair ‘the house is in front of you’).


Conjugation is determined by the imperative 2nd person singular form of the verb. It is also necessary to establish whether the final consonant or vowel of the first syllable is broad or slender.

Irish verb forms can either be synthetic (in which the verb and subject pronoun are combined in a single word) or analytical (in which the verb and the subject are separate). In certain tenses and persons only the synthetic form is used (e.g. the conditional 1st person singular), but on many occasions either form is permissible. Munster Irish tends to favour the older synthetic forms, whereas Ulster Irish predominantly features analytical forms. The Caighdeán Oifigiúil permits both, listing the more widely used first.

Additionally, every verb will have an independent and a dependent form. The independent form is used in positive statements in independent clauses, whereas the dependent form is used in all other cases, when the verb follows a particle (negative, interrogative, relative, etc.). For regular verbs these forms are the same, although the dependent form will be mutated by the particle preceding it. However, in the case of irregular verbs, these forms may be very different: e.g. chuaigh ‘went’ v. ní dheachaigh ‘didn’t go’.

Regular Verbs

Regular verbs are divided into two categories.

Type 1: Verbs with a monosyllabic imperative 2nd person singular and polysyllabic verbs with a síneadh fada in the final syllable. The latter category are broadened (the final i removed) before the appropriate termination is added.

Singular Plural Passive
1 2 3 1 2 3
molaim molann tú molann sé
molann sí
molann muid
molann sibh molann siad moltar
Preterite mhol mé
mhol tú
mhol sé
mhol sí
mhol muid
mhol sibh
mhol siad
Imperfect mholainn mholtá mholadh sé
mholadh sí
mholadh muid
mholadh sibh mholaidís
mholadh siad
Future molfaidh mé
molfaidh tú molfaidh sé
molfaidh sí
molfaidh muid
molfaidh sibh molfaidh siad molfar
Conditional mholfainn mholfá mholfadh sé
mholfadh sí
mholfadh muid
mholfadh sibh mholfaidís
mholfadh siad
Present Subjunctive go mola mé go mola tú go mola sé
go mola sí
go molaimid
go mola muid
go mola sibh go mola siad go moltar
Imperative molaim mol moladh sé
moladh sí
molaimis molaigí molaidís moltar

Singular Plural Passive
1 2 3 1 2 3
brisim briseann tú briseann sé
briseann sí
briseann muid
briseann sibh briseann siad bristear
Preterite bhris mé
bhris tú
bhris sé
bhris sí
bhris muid
bhris sibh
bhris siad
Imperfect bhrisinn bhristeá bhriseadh sé
bhriseadh sí
bhriseadh muid
bhriseadh sibh bhrisidís
bhriseadh siad
Future brisfidh mé
brisfidh tú brisfidh sé
brisfidh sí
brisfidh muid
brisfidh sibh brisfidh siad brisfear
Conditional bhrisfinn bhrisfeá bhrisfeadh sé
bhrisfeadh sí
bhrisfeadh muid
bhrisfeadh sibh bhrisfidís
bhrisfeadh siad
go mbrise mé go mbrise tú go mbrise sé
go mbrise sí
go mbrisimid
go mbrise muid
go mbrise sibh go mbrise siad go mbristear
Imperative brisim bris briseadh sébriseadh sí brisimis brisigí brisidís bristear

Type 2: Verbs with a polysyllabic imperative 2nd person singular (except those with a síneadh fada in the final syllable). The -(a)igh is removed then the appropriate termination added. Polysyllabic verbs in this category which do not end -(a)igh usually syncopate (lose the vowels in the final syllable): e.g. imir ‘play’ → imr-imríonn ‘plays’, oscail ‘open’ → oscl- → osclaíonn ‘opens’.

ceannaigh ‘buy’ Singular Plural Passive
1 2 3 1 2 3
Present Indicative ceannaím ceannaíonn tú ceannaíonn sé
ceannaíonn sí
ceannaíonn muid
ceannaíonn sibh ceannaíonn siad ceannaítear
Preterite cheannaigh mé
cheannaigh tú
cheannaigh sé
cheannaigh sí
cheannaigh muid
cheannaigh sibh
cheannaigh siad
Imperfect cheannaínn cheannaíteá cheannaíodh sé
cheannaíodh sí
cheannaíodh muid
cheannaíodh sibh cheannaídís
cheannaíodh siad
Future ceannóidh mé
ceannóidh tú ceannóidh sé
ceannóidh sí
ceannóidh muid
ceannóidh sibh ceannóidh siad ceannófar
Conditional cheannóinn cheannófá cheannódh sé
cheannódh sí
cheannódh muid
cheannódh sibh cheannóidís
cheannódh siad
Present Subjunctive go gceannaí mé go gceannaí tú go gceannaí sé
go gceannaí sí
go gceannaímid
go gceannaí muid
go gceannaí sibh go gceannaí siad go gceannaítear
Imperative ceannaím ceannaigh ceannaíodh sé
ceannaíodh sí
ceannaímis ceannaígí ceannaídís ceannaítear

Singular Plural Passive
1 2 3 1 2 3
Present Indicative éirim éiríonn tú éiríonn sé
éiríonn sí
éiríonn muid
éiríonn sibh éiríonn siad éirítear
Preterite d'éirigh mé
d'éirigh tú
d'éirigh sé
d'éirigh sí
d'éirigh muid
d'éirigh sibh
d'éirigh siad
Imperfect d' éirínn d'éiríteá d'éiríodh sé
d'éiríodh sí
d'éiríodh muid
d'éiriodh sibh d'éirídis
d'éiríodh siad
Future éireoidh mé
éireoidh tú éireoidh sé
éireoidh sí
éireoidh muid
éireoidh sibh
éireoidh siad éireofar
Conditional d'éireoinn d'éireofá d'éireodh sé
d'éireodh sí
d'éireodh muid
d'éireodh sibh d'éireoidís
d'éireodh siad
Present Subjunctive go n-éiri mé go n-éirí tú go n-éirí sé
go n-éirí sí
go n-éirímid
go n-érí muid
go n-éirí sibh
go n-éirí siad go n-éirítear
Imperative éirím éirigh éiríodh sé
éiríodh sí
éirímis éirígí éirídís érítear

Irregular Verbs

There are eleven irregular verbs in Irish, including the verb ‘to be’.


‘to be’
Singular Plural Passive
1 2 3 1 2 3
tá mé
tá tú tá sé
tá sí
tá muid
tá sibh tá siad
bím bíonn tú bíonn sé
bíonn sí
bíonn muid
bíonn sibh bíonn siad bítear
Preterite bhí mé
bhí tú
bhí sé
bhí sí
bhí muid
bhí sibh
bhí siad
Imperfect bhínn bhíteá bhíodh sé
bhíodh sí
bhíodh muid
bhíodh sibh bhídís
bhíodh siad
Future beidh mé
beidh tú beidh sé
beidh sí
beidh muid
beidh sibh beidh siad beifear
Conditional bheinn bheifeá bheadh sé
bheadh sí
bheadh muid
bheadh sibh bheidís
bheadh siad
Present Subjunctive go raibh mé go raibh tú go raibh sé
go raibh sí
go rabhaimid
go raibh muid
go raibh sibh go raibh siad go rabhthar
Imperative bím bíodh sé
bíodh sí
bímis bígí bídís bítear

The Copula

In Irish, the verb cannot be used to express a relationship between two nouns or a pronoun and a noun. Thus it is not permissible to use in statements such as ‘the Nile is the longest river in the world’ or ‘I am a teacher’. For this, the copula is required.

The word order of standard copular clauses is determined by their function: whether they equate (as in is é Baile Átha Cliath príomhchathair na hÉireann ‘Dublin is the capital of Ireland’) or classify (as in is banaltra í Úna ‘Úna is a nurse’). The copula also features in numerous other idiomatic constructions (e.g. is maith liom ‘I like’, is cuimhin liom ‘I remember’) and is used in emphatic sentences in which the detail being emphasised is brought to the beginning of the clause.

The modern Irish copula has only two tenses: the present and the preterite/conditional, the latter of which lenites a following noun or adjective. However, different forms are used for independent, dependent and relative clauses. The following table displays the forms used in independent clauses:

  Present Indicative Preterite/Conditional
before C- or fhC- before V- of fhV-
Positive is ba b’, ba*
Negative níor níorbh
Interrogative an ar arbh
Neg. Interrogative nach nár nárbh

*ba is used before the pronouns ea, é, í and iad.


Like the other Celtic languages, Irish features ‘conjugated’ prepositions known as ‘prepositional pronouns’ (the Caighdeán Oifigiúil cites seventeen), all of which also have emphatic forms. Here are the most common:

1sg orm ormsa liom liomsa dom domsa
2sg ort ortsa leat leatsa duit duitse
3sg m air airsean leis leisean dósan
3sg f uirthi uirthise léi léise di dise
1pl orainn orainne linn linne dúinn dúinne
2pl oraibh oraibhse libh libhse daoibh daoibhse
3pl orthu orthusan leo leosan dóibh dóibhsean


Lig Sinn i gCathú by Breandán Ó hEithir

Bhí clog cársánach na hollscoile ag bualadh buillí a trí nuair a shiúil Máirtín Ó Méalóid go mall isteach an geata. Bhí an t-am tomhaiste go cruinn aige mar cé go raibh na mic léinn ar fad nach mór imithe abhaile ar saoire na Cásca, chloígh oifig an choláiste go dlúth le uaireanta oifigiúla. Ní raibh deoraí le feiceáil idir an geata agus an áirse a bhí faoi thúr an chloig ach an doirseoir, Pádraic Puirséal, a bhí ina sheasamh go sásta ag breathnú ar ghadhar beag dubh ag tochailt poll i bplásóg mhór bláthanna a bhí ar aghaidh an áirse amach.
The wheezy university clock was chiming the stroke of three when Máirtín Ó Méalóid walked slowly in through the gate. He had measured the time precisely because, although almost all the students were away home on Easter vacation, the college office stuck strictly to official hours. There wasn’t a soul to be seen between the gate and the arch beneath the clock-tower except the porter, Pádraic Puirséal, who was standing happily watching a small black dog digging holes in a large flowerbed in front of the arch.