The Irish Language

Patrick Weston Joyce

1. Dialects of Celtic. There are two main branches of the Ancient Celtic Language: The Goidelic, or Gaelic, or Irish; and the British; corresponding with the two main divisions of the Celtic people of the British Islands. Each of these has branched into three dialects. Those of Gaelic are:—The Irish proper; the Gaelic of Scotland, differing only slightly from the Irish; and the Manx. The dialects of British are: Welsh, Cornish, and Breton or Armoric. Of the whole six dialects, five are still spoken; the Cornish became extinct in the last century; and Manx is nearly extinct.

2. Three Divisions of Irish. It is usual to divide Irish, as we find it written, into three stages: I. Old Irish, from the eighth to the twelfth century. This is the language of the Irish found in the Book of Armagh, and of some few passages in the Book of the Dun Cow. II. Middle Irish, from the twelfth to the fifteenth century, marked by many departures from the pure Old Irish forms. This is the language of most of our important manuscripts, described in next Chapter; such as the Book of the Dun Cow, the Book of Leinster, the Lebar Brecc, and the Book of Ballymote. III. Modern Irish, from the fifteenth century to the present day. This is the language of most of the Ossianic tales. The purest specimens are the writings of Keating. There is a vast amount of manuscript literature in Modern Irish.

3. Ogham was a species of writing in use in early ages, the letters of which were formed by combinations of short lines and points on and at both sides of a middle or stem line called a flesc. Scraps of Ogham are sometimes found in manuscripts, but it was almost always used for stone inscriptions, the groups of lines and points generally running along two adjacent sides of the stone, with the angle for a flesc. Upwards of 200 Ogham monuments have been found in various parts of the four provinces of Ireland; but they are far more numerous in the south and south-west than elsewhere.

Nearly all the Oghams hitherto found are sepulchral inscriptions. Where inscriptions have not been injured or defaced, they can in general be deciphered, so that many have been made out beyond all question. But as the greatest number of Ogham stones are more or less worn or chipped or broken, there is in the interpretation of the majority of the inscriptions some conjecture and uncertainty.

As to the antiquity of Ogham writing, the best authorities now agree that it is a survival from the far distant ages of paganism, and that it was developed before Christianity was heard of in Ireland. But the custom of engraving Ogham on stones, and of—occasionally—writing in Ogham characters in vellum books, continued far into Christian times. In the ancient tales we find it often stated that Oghams were cut on rods of yew or oak, and that such rods were used as a mode of communication between individuals, serving the same purpose among them as letter-writing serves now.