The Development of the Irish language 3

An overview of the development of the Irish language 3: Early Christian Ireland

The earliest form of writing known in Ireland is ogham or ogam. This uses a system of strokes to represent the Latin alphabet. The fourteenth century Book of Ballymote includes various ogham alphabets, giving their Latin equivalents.

Ogham was used to inscribe people’s names on pillar stones, which may have been memorials or boundary markers. A typical inscription in Co Cork says that the stone is that of GRILAGNI MAQI SCILAGNI (Grilagnos son of Scilagnos).

Over 300 ogham inscriptions have been found on stones in Ireland, mostly in Cork and Kerry, dating from between AD300 and 600. Others have been found in south Wales, Scotland and
southwest England.

The art of writing using the Latin alphabet came to Ireland with Christianity and the
Roman empire, probably arriving in the fourth century. Latin brought words relating to Christianity and literacy to Irish. Examples are sagart (priest) from sacerdos, Domhnach (Sunday) from dies dominicus (the Lord’s Day), léigh (read) from lego, and scríobh (write) from scribo. 

Saint Patrick

Saint Patrick came from Britain as a missionary in the fifth century. He wrote about his life in Latin in his Confessio. This justifies his work in Ireland and is quite plain in content. Other authors writing later in Irish recorded the colourful legends about how he confronted druids and converted pagan kings.

One such legend relates how Patrick challenged the king at Tara. He prepares by chanting a prayer which invokes the Trinity’s protection against, among others, ‘ban ocus goband ocus druad’—women, smiths and druids:

Attomriug indiu neurt nime.
                        soillsi gréine
                        etrochta ésci.
                        áne thened
                        déne lóchet.

Whitley Stokes translates:

I bind myself today to the virtue of Heaven.
                         light of Sun,
                         brightness of Moon,
                         splendour of Fire,
                         speed of Lightning.

Churches and monasteries

In early Christian Ireland, society was made up of peoples (tuatha) headed by kings, elected from particular kin-groups. Many families lived in ring-forts, circular farmsteads protected by banks and ditches or stone-walls.

Churches and monasteries multiplied, often placed beside rivers or the sea, the main routeways of the time. They were under the patronage of the king who provided the land, and the bishop might be one of his relatives. Monasteries were like villages, encircled by one or more walls, and both men and women lived in them. Learning and literacy were concentrated in the monasteries, which included a scriptorium or special building for writing and illustrating manuscripts.

Irish scribes developed their own version of the Latin script, borrowing from various sources, possibly including Italian, Spanish and north African scripts. Their early script continued to be used for written and printed Irish until the 1960s, when the Irish authorities changed to the more common Roman script. The old script is still widely used for decorative purposes.

Ireland’s monasteries attracted scholars from far and wide, and sent missionaries overseas. Celebrated schools included those at Armagh, Bangor and Movilla. The monastery at Bangor was on the site of the present Abbey Church: from here Columbanus and St Gall went to evangelise on the continent. The famous Derry missionary Colm Cille was educated at Movilla (Maigh Bhile, ‘plain of the sacred tree’). Two walls of a medieval abbey still stand in Movilla graveyard in Newtownards.

Nature poems

The monks’ chief labour was copying religious texts in Latin, but they also wrote poems in Irish. These are composed with a light and skilful touch and shine with love of nature:

Int én bec
ro léic feit
do rinn guip
fo-ceird faíd
ós Loch Laíg,
lon do chraíb

David Greene and Frank O’Connor translate: ‘The little bird has whistled from the tip of his bright yellow beak; the blackbird from a bough laden with yellow blossom has tossed a cry over Belfast Lough.’

One monk, wandering in Europe in the ninth century, left a notebook of jottings, which is now in the monastic library at St Paul in Carinthia, Austria. It includes a poem he possibly penned himself, affectionately describing his cat:

Messe ocus Pangur Bán . cechtar nathar fria saindan
bíth a menmasam frí seilgg . mú menma céin im saincheirdd.

Faelidsem cu ndene dul . hinglen luch inna gerchrub
hi tucu cheist ndoraid ndil . os me chene am faelid.

Kuno Meyer translates:

I and my white Pangur
Have each his special art:
His mind is set on hunting mice,
Mine is upon my special craft.
He rejoices with quick leaps
When in his sharp claw sticks a mouse:
I too rejoice when I have grasped
A problem difficult and dearly loved.

Peoples on the move

The early Christian period saw substantial population movement, which helped to decide the languages we speak today.

When the Romans left Britain in AD407 after nearly 400 years, the country was still inhabited by Celtic-speaking peoples. From about AD450, the Angles and Saxons from modern-day Denmark and Germany began landing in eastern England. They pushed the Britons westwards into Wales, Cumberland and Cornwall. At the same time, Gaels pressed in from the west, so many Britons emigrated south to Armorica, now called Brittany, meaning ‘little Britain’.

The Anglo-Saxons virtually obliterated the British language in the lands they occupied, but many English rivers kept Celtic names, such as the Avon (like the Irish abhainn, river), the Dee (dia, god), and the Don (after the goddess Danu). Some cities and towns also have Celtic names, including Carlisle, Dover, Leeds, London and York.

The English named themselves after the Angles, but Gaelic speakers still know them as Sasanaigh—Saxons. The Irish call the English language Béarla, which simply means ‘speech’.

From around AD500, members of the Dál Riata people in northeast Ireland migrated to Argyll (Earra Ghaidheal, coastland of the Gael) and to the Isle of Man.

The Irish were known to the Romans as Scotti, and Scotland is named after them. Scotland’s existing inhabitants were the Picts. The Romans called them Picti—the painted people—while the Gaels called them Cruithnigh, probably connected to the word for wheat.

Eventually Gaelic became the language of the Hebrides and the Highlands and much of the rest of Scotland. For several centuries, Scotland and Ireland shared a common literary language and ‘high culture’, and learned people moved freely between the two lands.


Vikings from Scandinavia raided Ireland repeatedly from 795 onwards. Irish monks listed their raids in their annals. The Vikings caused havoc in the monasteries, whose riches were easy pickings. A scholar jotted this verse in the margin of a Latin grammar:

Is acher ingáith innocht . fufuasna fairggae findfolt
ni ágor réimm mora minn . dondlácchraid lainn ua lothlind.

Kuno Meyer translates:

Bitter is the wind tonight,
It tosses the ocean’s white hair:

Tonight I fear not the fierce warriors of Norway
Coursing on the Irish Sea.

Ireland’s most famous manuscript, the Book of Kells, is probably a survivor of the Viking terror. Work on this wonderfully illuminated gospel book may have begun in the monastery founded by Colm Cille on Iona, off the Scottish coast. When the Vikings raided, the monks fled, carrying the book with them.

By the mid ninth century, the Vikings were a permanent presence. They established Ireland’s first towns at Dublin, Wexford, Waterford, Cork and Limerick as bases for their inland raids and for overseas trade. They brought words to Irish relating to ships and trade, including long (ship), pingin (penny) and seol (sail).

Further reading

An Leabhar Mór—The Great Book of Gaelic (2002) edited by Malcolm Maclean and Theo Dorgan; Women in a Celtic Church (2002) by Christina Harrington; Living Places (1997) by Colm Donnelly; The New Oxford Book of Irish Verse (1986) edited by Thomas Kinsella; The Irish Hand (1984) by Timothy O’Neill; A Golden Treasury of Irish Poetry (1967, 1990) edited by David Greene and Frank O’Connor; Medieval Irish Lyrics (1967, 1985) by James Carney; The Irish Tradition (1947, 1966) by Robin Flower; Ancient Irish Poetry (1913, 1994) by Kuno Meyer; A Literary History of Ireland (1899) by Douglas Hyde; The Tripartite Life of Patrick (1887) edited by Whitley Stokes

Photographs by Liz Curtis. © Liz Curtis 2004