The Irish language has been spoken here in Armagh for more than 2000 years and it is still used and promoted with pride and passion today.
The Gaelic tongue echoes in our local placenames, such as: Armagh – Ard Mhacha -The Height of Macha; Killylea – Coillidh Liath – The Grey Wood; Drumadd – An Droim Fhada – The Long Ridge; Loughgall – Loch gCál – the Lake of the Kale; These names show that Irish has had an unbroken presence in Armagh for thousands of years.
Where did Irish come from?
Irish is a Celtic language closely related to Scottish Gaelic and Manx, and more distantly related to Welsh, Breton and Cornish. The Celtic languages all derive from a common Indo-European source.
Before the arrival of Christianity, the Irish had developed a form of writing known as Ogham. It was a system of notches inscribed on stone or wood. Almost 400 stone carvings have survived.
The Ulster Cycle
Eamhain Mhacha (The Navan Fort), is the ancient capital of Ulster, a place full of mythology and magic, celebrated in the heroic tales and legends of the Ulster Cycle.
The Ulster Cycle describes the exploits of Cú Chulainn and the Red Branch Knights and which is comparable to the Greek Iliad in theme and tone.
The Gaelic world across Ireland, including in Armagh, was shaken when Vikings came from Scandinavia to raid and plunder.
During the Middle Irish period (900-1200 AD) some loanwords came from the Scandinavian language into Irish, words like ‘pingin’ (penny), and ‘margadh’ (market). Despite the upheaval of the Viking period, Gaelic literary and political culture thrived and we have significant manuscripts that survive from this era.
The Anglo-Normans had a great influence on politics and culture in Ireland, and on the Irish language.
Among the words they introduced into Irish are ‘giúistís’ (justice), ‘bardas’ (corporation), ‘cúirt’ (court), ‘garsún’ (boy) and many, many more. The Anglo-Normans developed towns and introduced new religious orders such as the Dominicans, the Franciscans and the Augustinians.
Many of our great Gaelic stories were written in these monasteries.
The Tudor Conquest
The Tudor dynasty of English sought to subdue Gaelic Ireland by curbing the power of the Gaelic lords and restricting the use of the Irish language. English expansion outside of the Pale (the English controlled area around Dublin) was attempted but ended with poor results.
Queen Elizabeth I, however, encouraged the use of Irish to promote the Protestant religion. An Irish language beginner’s book was prepared for her.
Despite early successes, the Irish under Aodh Mór Ó Néill were eventually defeated by Queen Elizabeth I’s Army at the Battle of Kinsale in 1601. Six years later he and other Gaelic leaders of Ulster left Ireland for mainland Europe in the hope of returning to win back their lands.
The Seventeenth Century
In the 17th century English law was established and the old Gaelic system and way of life declined.
Ulster, previously the most Gaelic of all the provinces of Ireland, was planted with large numbers of English speakers, who were loyal to the crown. While the 17th Century was a traumatic period for Irish speakers, it was an age during which Irish literature and prose was invigorated.
Historical and religious texts were published in Irish – particularly in Irish colleges on mainland Europe.
The Eighteenth Century
By the 18th century people who wished to improve or even maintain their position in society had to learn English. The majority still spoke Irish but they had few rights in the eyes of the government and lived in dire poverty. English was necessary for official administrative, educational and legal affairs. Hidden from the English world, Irish language literature, history, poetry and composition continued to thrive in Ulster, the area most abounding in manuscripts and composition being Orialla (Oriel).
Séamus Dall Mac Cuarta (1647-1733), was an itinerant blind poet who travelled around composing poems and satires.
Séamas Mac Murfaidh (1720-1750) was a raparee and poet from Carnally near Béal Átha an Airgid (Silverbridge). He was hanged in Armagh for writing a satire in Irish on the notorious raparee hunter, John Johnson of Roxborough, better known as Johnson of the Fews.
Peadar Ó Doirnín (1700-1769) whose poems lament the loss of the ancient Gaelic order.
Art Mac Cumhaigh (1738-1773) was born at Creggan near Crossmaglen whose poem Úrchill an Chreagáin is an Armagh anthem.
The 19th Century
In the early 1800s Ulster Presbyterians led the movement to restore the Irish language. Robert MacAdam and R.J. Bryce founded the Ulster Gaelic Society in 1830 along with James McDonnell, a member of the Church of Ireland.
In 1835, the Presbyterian General Assembly passed a motion requiring Irish (which in 1841 it referred to as “our sweet and memorable mother tongue”) to be studied by candidates for the ministry. The Presbyterian Church is the only church to have made the Irish language a compulsory subject of study for its clergy.
The Gaelic Revival
In the late-nineteenth-century there was a national reawakening of interest in the Irish language and Irish Gaelic culture (including history, mythology, sports, music and arts).
Conradh na Gaeilge (The Gaelic League) was founded in Dublin on 31 July 1893. Its first president was Douglas Hyde, the son of a Church of Ireland rector.
From its foundation in 1921 the Northern Ireland government sought to marginalize Irish. Nevertheless, the Irish-language movement in the north promoted and preserved Ulster Gaelic in social, recreational and educational settings.
Native speakers of Irish in the Glens of Antrim and the Sperrin Mountains of Tyrone and Derry survived into the 1950s and 1970s respectively. The Armagh dialect survived until the early 1940s.
A co-operative housing scheme in Belfast aimed at creating an urban Gaeltacht opened in 1969 in Shaw’s Road, followed by the first Irish medium primary school, Bunscoil Phobal Feirste in 1971.
Since then, due to increasing community activism and growing awareness of the importance of cultural heritage, the Irish language has started to blossom.
Irish in Space!
In 2013, Canadian astronaut Commander Chris Hadfield sent a tweet captioned in Irish from the International Space Station. This marked the first time the Irish language had been used in outer space!
“Tá Éire fíorálainn! Land of green hills and dark beer. With capital Dublin glowing in the Irish night.”
According to the 2016 Census, the Republic has over 1,762,420 Irish speakers (40% of the population), 73,000 of whom speak Irish on a daily basis. In Northern Ireland, according to the 2011 Census, 184,898 (10.65% of the population) have some knowledge of the Irish language. In the Armagh area more than 18% of the population have some knowledge of the Irish language.
Irish Medium Education
Over 30,000 children avail of Irish medium education in the Republic of Ireland and more than 6,000 children are enrolled in Irish-medium education in Northern Ireland. In Co. Armagh we have 8 pre-schools, 4 primary schools and an Irish medium second level unit, Colaiste Caitríona, in Armagh City.
The Irish language belongs to everyone, whether they speak it or not. It enriches all our lives by adding to our cultural diversity and by broadening our outlook and experience. Everyone, whether they speak Irish or not, will be welcome in Aonach Mhacha. The new Cultúrlann is symbolic of a new stage in the development of Irish as a continuous spoken language in Armagh.
Aonach Mhacha (the Assembly of Macha), is named after a place where people came together in ancient times to share ideas, trade and to make agreements. Aonach Mhacha is special in that it is mentioned both in early Christian writings and also in the pre-Christian, Gaelic legends.