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The Name of the Irish Language

If you’re learning Irish, and especially if you don’t live in Ireland, sooner or later you’re sure to hear the following:

  • “They have their own language?
  • “Do you mean you’re learning to speak with an Irish accent?”
  • “Are you talking about ‘Gaelic’?”

An identity crisis

Outside of Ireland, the Irish language seems to suffer from an identity crisis. Surprisingly few people seem to know that the Irish have ever spoken a language other than English.

Among those who are aware that English hasn’t always been the majority language in Ireland, the tendency is to refer to the language as “Gaelic,” and to assume that it is dead, or nearly so.

Because of this, proponents and teachers of the language outside of Ireland often compromise — using”Irish Gaelic” (as is done here at Bitesize), to avoid confusion.

“Irish Gaelic” is not a term you will typically hear in Ireland, however, and some proponents of the language actively dislike the term.

Within Ireland, where the language is very much alive, the preferred term is “Irish,” and some will defend the term vociferously, even to the point of saying that the use of the word “Gaelic” is incorrect.

Is the word “Gaelic” incorrect?

There really is nothing technically incorrect about referring to Irish as “Gaelic.”  It is a Gaelic (Goidelic) language, brought to Ireland by a Celtic tribe known as The Gaels.  In Irish, it’s called An Ghaeilge.

What’s in a name?

You may wonder, then, what all the fuss is about. If “Gaelic” isn’t technically incorrect, why not use it?

There are actually quite a few very good reasons to prefer the term “Irish,” including:

  1. “Irish” is the most commonly used English name of the language. If you’re speaking to people from Ireland, they will know immediately what you mean by “Irish.”
  2. It isn’t the only “Gaelic” language. Manx and Scottish Gaelic are also members of the Goidelic (Gaelic) branch of the Celtic family tree.
  3. “Gaelic” by itself is typically used for the language of Scotland. Irish and Scottish Gaelic are closely related and have a lot of similarities, but they are different languages.
  4. The Irish language is the heritage of all Irish people, not just those of Gaelic ancestry. Many Irish people come from various backgrounds, and Irish is their language too!

Despite the fact that it isn’t used in Ireland, however, there are very good reasons for people outside of Ireland to use the term “Irish Gaelic” on occasion, including:

  1. Many people outside of Ireland don’t realize there is such a thing as an Irish language, or think that “learning Irish” equates to learning Hiberno-English.
  2. Not everyone realizes that Irish and Scottish Gaelic are different languages. Using “Irish Gaelic” makes it easier for them to find resources for the language that interests them.

So, what should I call it?

Generally speaking, “Irish” is the best term to use. It is the preferred English name for the language.

It’s particularly important to use “Irish” if you’re looking for learning resources, such as dictionaries, self-teaching programs, etc. Some may use the term “Irish Gaelic,” but most will simply use “Irish.”

It is very important, when looking for such resources, to avoid using the word “Gaelic” without qualification.  When “Gaelic” is used by itself, Scottish Gaelic is typically what is meant.

When speaking with people who are unfamiliar with the two languages, however, “Irish Gaelic” isn’t technically incorrect, and may be useful for the sake of clarity.

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5 thoughts on “The Name of the Irish Language”

  1. I’m writing from Australia, and here the language has traditionally been referred to as Gaelic, because the speakers of the langauge who arrived here mostly arrived before Irish independence. The most common word at the time was Gaelic and the name has stuck.

    Irish independence gave more “validity” to the language it seems and as the official language of Ireland, it does make sense to call it “Irish”, but using this name does exclude speakers of Scottish Gaelic, Manx Gaelic, and other dialects which have developed around the world over the last few hundred years. I personally feel that as these languages were once on a dialect continuum, there would be more solidarity among the Gaels of Ireland, Scotland, the Isle of Man, and the rest of the world if we continued to use the name Gaelic for all these languages with “Irish, Scottish or Manx” as a prefix.

    It amazes me seeing Irish speakers commenting online that they are shocked to find they can understand quite a lot of Manx or Scottish Gaelic in videos. For those of us in other countries “pop up Gaeltachts” often have speakers of all three languages communicating with each other, and aside from a few hiccups, we usually do ok with it. If it weren’t for the name, I think Irish Gaelic speakers could be much more connected to their neighbours, and be able to support smaller Gaelic speaking groups with a vitalisation of their languages.

    As you said above, not all Irish speakers are ethnic Gaels of course, but also not all Irish people speak the language, and not all speakers of the language are Irish citizens, so for me (and many other speakers of a Gaelic language outside of Ireland), the word Gaelic is the most historically correct and inclusive.

  2. My only question is when and how did this become a controversy in the first place? And the answer seems to be elusive.

    There is surely a historical reason that some Irish people at some point in the past no longer thought it appropriate to call the language “Gaelic”. Why was it okay to call the organization that helped revive the language “The Gaelic League” (Conradh na Gaeilge)? And why and how did it stop being okay?

    What makes it more confusing is that “Gay-lick” continues to be the way the name of the language in pronounced in some Irish dialects (I believe it was once particularly common to use that pronunciation in the Sligo-Southern Donegal area and I’ve seen it spelled in that dialect as “Gaeilic” rather than “Gaeilge”).

    In addition, Scots Gaelic and Irish don’t make a differentiation. In Scots Gaelic, the Irish language is “Gàidhlig na h-Èireann”. And in Irish, Scots Gaelic is “Gaeilge na hAlban”. So why the differentiation in English? Again, there must be a historical reason.

    You also see many contemporary native Irish speakers (particularly in Ulster) writing it as Gaelic and calling it “Gay-lick” while speaking English. Irish teachers like Linda Ervine in Belfast have also been quoted as calling it “Gaelic”.

    One theory I recently saw suggested that in the late 19th Century, “Gaelic” as the name for the language became associated with sectarian Irish Catholic nationalism—the xenophobic ideology that only Catholic Irish Speakers were really Irish. Which of course ended up alienating many Unionist native Irish speakers. I can’t find anything solid to back up this theory, but there are some clues in this article about Irish Speaking Loyalists before WWI: https://www.rte.ie/news/regional/2021/1230/1269156-belfast-wwi-language/

    In addition, after the formation of the independent Irish state, and as you mentioned in the article, maybe the thought at the time was that the Irish language is the birthright of all members of the Irish nation, regardless of background, so Irish is the only correct name for the language. But again, that’s just a hunch, and I haven’t seen any sources that back it up. Maybe it was debated in newspapers of the time. Maybe even in Dáil Éireann in the 1920s.

    Maybe someone reading this comment has a more solid understanding of the history behind all this. Would love if there is some primary sources out that anyone can point to that could help make sense of when and how this became an issue.

  3. I have a doctorate degree and I did not know this distinction. I’ve even been to Ireland Dublin and Belfast.
    Thank you for educating this ignorant American!!

  4. Oh thank you..
    I keep Corte ting my friends and family and I don’t know why. You have helped me pick up some info to help me. I will use “irish” when talking about ireland. Thanks

  5. Really good info, Audrey. Thanks for sharing this with our readers.

    The Irish vs Gaelic vs Irish Gaelic is something we’ve had trouble settling on in the past. But as long as we can educate people who start researching “Gaelic” (and having Ireland in mind), I’m happy to continue using the “Irish Gaelic” label.

    If there’s one take-away here for new readers, it’s: call the Irish language as “Irish” where possible (as long as the people around you know what you’re referring to).