Sounds and Spelling of Irish

In 2014, I gave a presentation at an Irish language weekend on how to pronounce words in Irish when you see them written. I walked them through a handout that covered some key concepts. When I was done, the group asked me if I could record what I had just said. A few months later I did that, and posted the video on YouTube as “Sounds and Spelling of Irish”

The video is based on that initial handout. Since then, I’ve updated the handout several times. This PDF is the latest version of the handout, from 2020.

Doing this was important to me because I initially gave up trying to learn Irish when I couldn’t figure out how to say the words (it was before the internet and all I had was a book written for speakers of British English). Years later I watched with amazement as the talented Irish educator Ray Mac Mánais taught the basics of Irish pronunciation to a class in Milwaukee in just a few minutes, giving people a usable foundation for reading written Irish.

The handout presents:

first page of the handout
  • Broad and slender
    • Consonants – not all of them, but ones that differ greatly between broad and slender
    • Vowels
  • How the fada changes vowel pronunciation – I have read explanations that say it’s purely a difference in length, but that isn’t how it sounds to me. (e.g., mol vs. ól)
  • Vowel combinations, which I group into most consistent and less consistent
  • Syllable stress
  • Initial mutations
    • Séimhiú (aka lenition or aspiration) with examples for each consonant, in broad and slender contexts
    • Urú (aka nasaliztion or eclipsis) with examples for each consonant, in broad and slender contexts

I hope you find these resources useful. I plan to produce additional videos that offer more targeted practice.

(The handout no longer matches the video exactly. The video has “úrú” for “urú” throughout. And when I made the video I didn’t know about contexts where ‘r’ is broad despite adjacent slender vowels.)

An Bhliain Cheilteach – Celtic year and festivals

Close to the first of May, I thought I’d like to show my students a bit about the Celtic year. Based on my notes from class with Ray Mac Mánais, I replicated a circular diagram that shows the major Celtic festivals and months in Irish. I put it into a handout with a bit about Bealtaine. An Bhliain Cheilteach

It doesn’t have any particular pagan or Wiccan aspect to it – there are far more detailed diagrams available online, but this one’s in Irish. It’s got:

  • laethanta cinn ráithe = quarter days (e.g. grianstad an tsamhraidh = summer solstice)
  • laethanta trascheathrún = cross-quarter days (e.g. Samhain, Imbolc, Bealtaine, Lúnasa)
  • na séasúir = seaons (e.g. an samhradh, an fómhar)
  • na míonna = months

You’re welcome to re-use the diagram in your own handouts.

References I used:

Iasc! Go Fish as Gaeilge

I’ve had a really good response to introducing Go Fish as soon as people have counting numbers up to ten. Students are pleased that they can conduct the whole game in Irish. They are using the language for something meaningful (if trivial). They get plenty of practice saying the same things over again.

How to play “Go Fish” in Irish

The goal is to assemble sets of four cards that have the same number. Aces are “a haon”, twos are “a dó” etc.

Prepare the pack of cards by removing face cards and jokers.

Deal 5 cards to each player and place the remainder of the cards face down in the middle of the table.

LIAM: A Nancy, an bhfuil a trí agat?
NANCY: Tá. (she gives Liam every ‘3’ card in her hand)

  • If you have more than one of a card someone is asking for, you must turn over all of them.
  • Whether or not Liam is successful, his turn is now over. This is a departure from standard rules that keeps the game moving to more players.
  • Now it’s the turn of the next person on the left.

NANCY: A Mháire, an bhfuil a seacht agat?
MÁIRE: Níl. Tóg cárta! (Nancy draws a card from the pile on the table)

The game is finished when one player runs out of cards altogether. The winner at that point is the person who’s assembled the most sets of four. (four of a kind = ceathair) If no one has any sets, then the person who’s run out of cards is an buaiteoir.

I use these trifold table toppers to help people remember what to say. If you like, do a dummy round first with everyone’s cards face up. (You’ll need to deal fresh hands after that.)

Go Fish Table Topper

Keep your Irish going this summer

If you’re not in an Irish class right now, here are some ideas for using Irish in your daily life. What tips can you add to the list?

Listen to Raidió na Gaeltachta. For phones or tablets, try the RTÉ Radio Player for Android or Apple.

Listen to the Gaeilge Gan Stró! CDs that came with your textbook (in the car, for example).

Make a calendar or daily to-do list in Irish.

If you use Facebook, set the language to Irish. (There’s even a Facebook page for using Facebook in Irish – how meta!)

If you use Firefox or Twitter, set the language to Irish.

Firefox as Gaeilge anois

Set your Android phone’s system language to Irish.

Count in Irish: reps of exercises, people ahead of you in line, eggs left in the carton, strokes as you’re brushing your teeth, cars without their lights on at dusk…

Read numbers in Irish – house numbers, phone numbers on TV ads, license plate numbers

Write your shopping list in Irish (as much as you can)

Tell off telemarketers in Irish. Keep an index card by the phone with your script.

Use Gmail as Gaeilge. (Thanks to Midwesterner Dr. Kevin Scannell!) It only works in Gmail, not Inbox.

Cén dath atá air sin? Name the colors of things you can see around you: items in the room, cars on the road, clothing…

Choose a motto (could be a seanfhocal or some other phrase that has meaning to you) and put it on a sticky note where you’ll see it. (monitor, fridge, bathroom mirror, dashboard, near the doorknob on your way out…)

Seanfhocail (old sayings or proverbs) are great little nuggets of Irish. You can find a lot of them on Quizlet:

Speaking of Quizlet, you could always fire up the app and play with a Quizlet set. All mine are here: . This user (tuigim) has many sets as well: You can work with the flashcards, but also try a game or a quiz.

How many malairtí can you do? (Good for a private place in front of a mirror!)

Read a poem aloud. It doesn’t matter if you don’t understand it – just read it for the sound. You can read any kind of text, but poems are usually written to be spoken aloud, so they’re a nice choice.

Check out the Irish text-to-speech engine:  – paste Irish text into it and try the different dialects.