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Learning Irish Through Reading – Part 1

We’ve been told it all our lives: Reading is one of the best hobbies going. It expands your horizons, opens up new worlds, challenges your mind, whets your intellect, and gives you something to do when the power is out and the rest of the family is moaning because they can’t watch TV or play video games.

It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, then, that reading also one of the best things you can do to help yourself learn a new language.

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I’m not talking about digesting grammar tomes and trying to memorize the dictionary either. One of the best things you can do to enhance your language learning is read the kinds of things you enjoy reading in your native language: novels, short stories, poetry, graphic novels, newspaper and magazine articles, etc.

But I’m just a beginner!

You might think that you need to wait until you reach a certain level before you can read anything of interest. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, one very good way to start honing your language skills, right from the start, is to try reading something that is very familiar to you in your native language.

I’ll never forget encountering the following on an internet discussion forum shortly after I started learning Irish:

I bpoll sa talamh a bhí cónaí ar hobad. Níor pholl gránna, salach, fliuch é, lán le péisteanna stróichthe agus le boladh láibe. Níor pholl tirim, lom, gainmheach a bhí ann ach an oiread, gan aon rud ann le n-ithe ná suí síos air; poll hobaid ab ea é agus is ionann sin agus compord.

I started laboriously picking out the Irish words I knew or could guess, and suddenly, with a shock, I realized I was reading a very familiar paragraph: one I’d read at least once a year in English since I was 14 years old (maybe you’re familiar with it too):

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.

Sure enough…the post was an announcement of the impending translation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” into Irish!

It would be almost nine years before the fully translated book was available (in fact, I just got my copy a few months ago), which was just as well, as I was nowhere near ready to tackle it in its entirety.

That said, I spent a very happy and productive afternoon looking up words and asking on-line friends about constructions in the translated paragraph, making note of the word choices the translator made and marveling at how closely he was able to replicate the tone of the English original.

A lot of familiar material out there

When I started to think about it, I realized that, even back then, quite a lot of familiar material was out there in translation, just waiting to be read. In my case, as a life-long church chorister, I decided to tackle the psalms.

An on-line friend had just sent me a copy of An Bíobla Naofa (a translation of the Bible) on CD, and I got into the habit of  reading the weekly psalm in Irish after church each Sunday.

Because these pieces were so very familar to me, I was able to follow them even though the language was still beyond my level. I was also able to pick up and retain a lot of new vocabulary and idiom. Not surprisingly, I also came up with new grammar questions to ask my on-line teachers and friends each week!

Tolkien and the Bible may not be to your tastes in reading material, but fortunately there’s plenty of other familiar stuff out there. A very quick skim of various on-line bookshops this morning revealed the following:

Na Tógálaithe (“The Buiders”) by Maeve Binchy

Harry Potter Agus an Órchloch (“Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone”) by J.K. Rowling

Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer

An Prionsa Beag (“The Little Prince”) by Antoine de Saint-Exubéry

Even though it may be some time before you’re ready to actually sit down and read these books as you would a book in English, time spent reading well-known passages (both silently and aloud) will be well-spent indeed!

Bilingual books

If you can’t find something familiar in translation, another option is the growing number of bilingual books in Irish.  These usually have the Irish text on one side and the English on another, allowing you to compare line-by-line or paragraph-by-paragraph.

Perhaps you’d enjoy something like this:

Cúirt an Mheán Oíche/The Midnight Court: Described asA racy, word-rich, bawdy poem that has earned enduring popularity since it was written around 1780 and is regarded as one of the finest pieces of comic literature in Irish.”

(In short: The Bible it ain’t!)

Novels for adult learners

Once you’ve reached a certain point in your learning, you’ll begin to feel ready to tackle an actual story written entirely in Irish.

Fortunately, there’s quite a wide (and growing) selection of short novels available that are specifically geared toward adult learners. These books tend to be short (usually around 60 pages), use simple language, and have a glossary at the end. Some also put translations of more unusual words or phrases at the bottom of the page.

These novels have, in the past, tended to lean heavily toward the murder mystery genre (and those are still available if mystery is your thing!). The choice is constantly expanding, however. Other common themes include romance, immigration and (not surprisingly!) the challenges of being an adult language learner.

As an added bonus, some of these books are also available with an audio CD.

Books geared toward teens

Many of the short novels written for young adults are just as suitable for adult learners, as they also tend to use relatively simple language and often feature glossaries.

The nice thing about teen literature is that it offers a wider range of genres. You’ll find mystery stories in this category too, of course, but also science fiction, fantasy, and historical fiction, as well as stories built around such topical issues as drug addiction and anorexia nervosa.

Some of these books may be a little more challenging than the books specifically written for adult learners, but most are still very approachable.

It may surprise you to learn that you can even find graphic novels in Irish! Most are geared around Irish history and folklore (for example An Sclábhaí by Colmán Ó Raghallaigh, which tells the story of St. Patrick in graphic novel form).

All the news that’s fit to print

Perhaps literature’s not your thing either? How about an on-line news magazine that’s geared toward learners?

Beo!  is a monthly on-line magazine that offers stories on current events, culture, and human interest. One of its nicer features is that it allows you to mouse over certain phrases (usually those that are more difficult or obscure) and see the English translation.

The articles are mostly Irish-centered, but there’s enough there of world interest to keep the average non-Irish reader happy.

More advanced readers may also enjoy Foinse, a weekly newspaper published by The Irish Independent.

Where do I find books in Irish?

Thanks to the internet, finding books in Irish is easy, no matter where you live in the world.

Here are links to some on-line shops that specialize in books and resources in Irish:

An Siopa Gaeilge (This is the bookshop at Oideas Gael in Donegal. You can read our blog post about learning Irish in Oideas Gael here.)

Litriocht.com (Claims to have every Irish-language book in print, and I have no reason to doubt it!)

Siopa.ie (This shop is a service of Dublin-based Gaelchultúr, which also offers on-line classes, as well as the on-line book club Club Leabhar).

Siopa Leabhar (This shop is a service of Conradh na Gaeilge).

Cló Iar-Chonnachta (“West Connacht Press” is also a major publisher of books in Irish)

As shipping is a major cost in buying books from overseas, it’s a good idea to order several books at once, or, if possible, to pool your order with others in your class or study group if possible.

(Oh, and by the way…just in case you DO want to tackle the Bible, An Bíobla Naofa is now available on-line for free at www.anbioblanaofa.org).

Coming next!

Coming next: Learning Irish Through Reading – Part 2!  Now that you’ve got reading materials in Irish at hand, how do you make the most of them?

Did you find this post helpful?

Had you given much thought before to reading in Irish, even as an absolute beginner? Did you already know how much suitable reading material is out there for Irish learners, and where to find it? Let us know your thoughts below!

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9 thoughts on “Learning Irish Through Reading – Part 1”

  1. Does anyone know of a study relating to lack of reading for fun through Irish in T2 schools?

    I am hoping to do my dissertation on building confidence in Irish learning of primary students through reading.

  2. Hi,
    I find it impossible to find any Irish in editable format (that is, that I can highlight and read with Google Translate on my phone). Everything seems to be in pdf. Any suggestion?

    1. Gordon, a chara
      I am not familiar with any that I know can be translated directly on your phone. Apps such as Duolingo can help with vocabulary but I suggest trying to use a computer or laptop where you can easily copy and paste.
      Dictionaries such as teanglann.ie and the New English-Irish Dictionary have apps that can be downloaded onto your phone.

      Le beannacht

  3. Isobel Ní Riain

    I have recently written a book called Pól Schmidt which is aimed at adults learning Irish from scratch.
    There are notes throughout and a glossary at the end.
    It is published by Coiscéim (2020).
    Isobel Ní Riain

    1. I would happily buy literature like this if I could read it with the help of Google Translate. I havent found any literature like that anywhere. With Kindle the problem is similar, as there is no translate function for Irish. It only exists for big languages, but also for Welsh, funny enough.

  4. Hi Gina. Audrey here.

    I can’t find my copy of “1000 Years of Irish Poetry” (I must have loaned it out to someone), but if I recall correctly, it’s all in English (someone out there please correct me if I’m mistaken!).

    If you enjoy poetry, you might like some of Cathal Ó Searcaigh’s works (he’s a contemporary poet who writes entirely in Irish, and has done some lovely stuff).

  5. Hi Eoin,
    I recently heard of a publication titled, “1000 Years of Irish Poetry” and that it’s one of those “must haves”. Any idea if that is done in the Irish language? Love all that you’re doing with this!!!!