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Learning Irish Through Reading – Part 2

Last week, in Learning Irish Through Reading – Part 1,  we talked a little about the kinds of reading materials that are available for Irish language learners and where to obtain them.

This week we’re going to talk about what to do with those materials once you have them (Yes, yes, I know…”read them.” But there’s “reading” and there’s “reading effectively,” and the latter is what we’re going to be discussing today).

First things first: A dictionary

Even though many books for adult learners contain a glossary, you’re going to want a dictionary, preferably one that’s pretty portable, unless you plan to do all your reading at home or on the computer.

Although you won’t want to get too hung up on looking everything up in the dictionary (more on that in a bit), you’re going to need one occasionally.

If you have a smart phone, one inexpensive and highly portable option is the Collins Pocket Irish Dictionary app, which is available for both Android and iPhone. As of this writing, it’s only $9.95 U.S., and comes with a free trial.

If you don’t have a smart phone, or if you prefer a paper dictionary, you’ll have to weigh portability against readability.

Really small dictionaries can be difficult to read, but if you have young eyes and want something super-portable, An Gum’s Foclóir Póca is a good choice, and is available from any on-line shop that sell Irish books (for a list of on-line Irish booksellers, see Learning Irish Through Reading – Part 1).

If you want something with larger type (but that is still very portable), An Gum also has a larger-format version of Foclóir Póca called Foclóir Scoile.

There are other dictionaries out there, of course, but these are among the best in terms of both portability and accuracy.

Getting started

If you’re an absolute beginner, one of the best ways to start is with something you’re already familiar with in your native language. Keep it short…just a paragraph or two.

Don’t pull out your dictionary yet. Instead, scan the paragraph for words you already know. Remember, they may be spelled a little differently, depending on the grammar of the passage you’re reading, but you still should be able to spot some.

You may recall that the first time I tried this was when I encountered this passage on an internet discussion forum:

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.

As an absolute beginner, I wasn’t able to read the passage, per se, but I immediately spotted several words I already knew: poll, talamh, bhí, cónaí, salach, lán, fliuch, tirim, rud, ithe, is, sin, agus, and compord. So, after just a quick skim, this is what I had:

hole sa groundwas dwelling ar hobad. Níor hole gránna, dirty, wet é, full le péisteanna stróichthe and le boladh láibe. Níor hole dry, lom, gainmheach a was ann ach an oiread, gan aon thing ann le eat ná suí síos air; hole hobaid ab ea é and is ionann that and comfort.

At that point wasn’t hard to piece together that I was looking at a translation of the opening paragraph to J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit,” and that hobad must be a phonetic rendering of “hobbit.”

Armed with that knowledge, I pulled out the English version of the book and compared the two paragraphs. I then got out my dictionary and started looking up unfamiliar words. By the time I’d finished, I had something like this:

In hole in the ground a was dwelling ar hobbit. Níor hole nasty, dirty, wet é, full le worms stróichthe and le odor láibe. Níor hole drybare, sandy a was ann ach an oiread, without any thing ann le eat ná suí down air; hole hobbit ab ea é and is equal that and comfort.

As a beginner, this is what you want to do with the passage you’ve chosen to read. Look for familiar words and constructions. Once you’ve done that, compare it with the same passage in your native language and see if you can figure out what other words in the passage might mean based on that comparison.

Only after that should you resort to the dictionary. Before looking anything up, however, you might want to take a look at our article on using an Irish-English dictionary…it’s not always as straightforward as you might think!

What if it still doesn’t make sense?

Inevitably, even in simple reading material, you’re going to run across passages that you just can’t make sense of. Even when you translate each word literally, you just can’t figure out what’s meant.

Irish has idioms that English doesn’t have (the reverse, of course, is also true), and often they just don’t seem to make sense in the other language (for more on this, see our post on literal translations from Irish to English).

In the passage from “The Hobbit” above, I had just that situation with the phrase ach an oiread. At the time, I didn’t have a copy of Ó Dónaill’s Foclóir Gaeilge-Béarla — the huge, definitive Irish-English dictionary, which also offers translations of idioms, so I was stuck.

That’s when it helps to have some kind of community to turn to for answers. If you have a teacher, you’re set, but if you don’t, you can still turn to one of the on-line communities, such as ILF or Daltaí na Gaeilge. In fact, if you’re not able to hook up with a class or a study group, joining such a community is one of the best things you can do.

In my case, it only took one quick post to the internet forum for me to learn that the confusing phrase ach an oiread (which translates “literally” as “but the amount/number”) is how one says “either” in Irish. I also got translations for some of the words that my dictionary didn’t cover.

What if I can’t find something “familiar”?

If you can’t find a familiar passage or work to start with, you still have options. One is to try one of the bilingual books mentioned in Learning Irish Through Reading – Part 1. You can also try a book geared toward young children, or perhaps a graphic novel, which will give you visual cues as to what the text means.


One of the side effects of reading like this, starting very early on in your learning, is you’ll find yourself acquiring a great deal of vocabulary quickly, and almost effortlessly.

You’ll also begin developing a feel for how Irish words change depending on how they’re used in a sentence, in a way that is, perhaps, a little less intimidating than memorizing grammar rules.

You’ll start acquiring those uniquely Irish idioms that don’t translate directly, but that are such an important feature of how the language works.

And, perhaps most important, you’ll be laying the groundwork and developing confidence for reading more advanced material as a higher-level beginner or intermediate learner (which we’ll talk about in our next installment on this subject: Learning Irish Through Reading – Part 3).

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