The Irish Language old and New
From time to time a little confusion arises regarding my representation of the Irish (Gaelic) form of names on coats of arms. So this short page is by way of explanation.
It is not meant to be a lesson in Irish grammar and pronunciation but rather an aid to understanding how some Irish names got their English forms and why they appear as they do on the coats of arms I prepare.
Irish, Scots Gaelic, Welsh, Manx and Cornish are all Gaelic languages that are part of the Indo-European group of languages. This is a very old group of languages that has its origins with the Celts who dominated Europe over 2000 years ago. As the power of the Celts waned and their communities grew isolated from each other, regional variants arose which gave rise to the various different tongues around today and many more that have not survived. Even within Ireland regional dialects emerged and grew stronger. Three main variations came to the surface, Munster Irish, Connacht Irish and Ulster Irish. Leinster seems to have been a melting pot for all three dialects. The original form of the language seems to have survived only in the Connacht area. The Munster Irish was influenced by the Anglo-French of the Normans who came here in the 12th century. In Ulster the language was affected to a considerable degree by the large number of Scots brought in during the plantation of the 17th century. All school children in Ireland are required to study Irish through primary and secondary school and so most 18 years olds will have over ten years of study. Despite this the language is hardly spoken except in Gaeltacht (Irish speaking) areas. Still, it is our official first language (English is also official) and road signs, etc. are displayed in both Irish and English. Increasingly shops and businesses are using Irish more.
Irish uses a Latin alphabet, however it employs fewer letters than English, i.e. A B C D E F G I L M N O P R S T U plus the letter "h", always in lowercase, as a modifier. But more of that later.
Anyone who has heard Irish spoken will know that the language has a vast range of sounds, so how is that possible with so few letters. The answer is in vowel accents and consonant aspiration. Let's deal with the vowels first as they are simpler.
All of vowels are used plain or with an accent, which in Irish is called a "síne fada" or simply "fada". The effect of this is to broaden the vowel over which is its placed. For example
The Irish word "te" (meaning "hot") is pronounced TEH while the word "té" (meaning "the person" or "the one") is pronounced TAY. So

As a postscript I should also mention that combinations of vowels are not pronounced in Irish as you might expect from English. For instance the word "leat" which you might utter as LEET is actually pronounced LYAT. But I think this is starting to venture beyond my self imposed remit.
Was that easy or what? Ok then, on to the consonants.
The letter b, c, d, f, g, m, p, s and t can all be aspirated. In their normal, unaspirated form, they are pronounced as in English ("c" is always hard as in crack), but how the aspirated forms are pronounced is subject to regional variation. Here is my best shot at explaining - aspirated forms only ....

"Very nice" you may say, "but how do I recognise these aspirated consonants?". Well, in modern (very modern in fact) Irish the aspiration is denoted by placing the letter "h" after the letter to be modified. So, the Irish word "cloth" (meaning rumour) might look like it should be pronounced like the English word of the same spelling, but in fact is pronounced CLUH.
I mentioned that the use of the "h" modifier is very modern. In fact, even when I was in school the old system of using a "buailte" (pronounced BOO-ILL-CHE) was still in use. This consisted of using a single dot of the letter to be aspirated. Unfortunately, while a regular font can display the accented vowels, it does not include characters that can represent modified consonants in this way. This, by the way, is precisely why the modern system was adopted - it was almost forced on us by the printing industry who claimed that the original system was too expensive. I can show you the characters by means of a graphic....

UPPERCASE

lowercase

You will no doubt notice that the letters don't look quite the same as the regular alphabet. This is not a mistake or an attempt to look fancy, it is how the letters were written.

In fact even the letter "s" is modernised, the older form looking like.
You can actually display these characters, plain, aspirated and accented, on your PC, thanks to the enthusiasm of some font makers, who have developed Irish TrueType Fonts. The one is used above is called Gaeilge2 and there is a copy here that you may download and install (zip version in case of difficulty). The complete alphabet looks like this.

You will see that it includes the full English alphabet, so you can use it to give any document an old Irish flavour.
There's another way that the letter "h" is used to modify letters and this is significant for names with the prefix "O" - which in Irish is really Ó (O-fada). Much in the same way as we say "an egg" rather than "a egg", for ease of speech, when two words are used together in Irish, the first ending with and the second beginning with a vowel, then an "h" is inserted before the beginning of the second word. Let me clarify by referring to an example of an Irish surname. The name Aodh (like pay without the initial "p"), is angicised as "Hugh" has given rise to several surnames including Mac Aodha (literally "son of Hugh" or perhaps "Hughson"). This name is variously anglicised as McHugh, McKay, MacKay, McKee, McKey, McCoy, Eason, Hewson, Hughes and several other forms. A similarly derived surname has the prefix "Ó" but because of the two-vowel situation it becomes Ó hAodha (grandson or descendant of Hugh). This name has been anglicised as O'Hea, O'Hay, O'Hugh, Hay, Hayes, Hughes and so on. While there is some overlap, it is unlikely that many people would see the similarity between MacKay and O'Hea, yet all becomes clear when you look at the Irish form.
This exercise also helps to explain why so many Irish name begin with "C" and "H". Mac and O prefixes became very "non-you" during the period of late English rule and these were often dropped from names to make them look more English. Where the Irish name (or at least the bit after the prefix) began with a vowel (and in some cases where it began with a consonant), very often the ending "c" of the Mac was retained. Similarly in the case of O-names the modifying "h" after the O was retained. In this way names like Cadden (Mac Adáin), Curtin (Mac Airteáin), Keogh (Mac Eochadha), Hyland (Ó hAoileáin), Harrigan (Ó hArragáin) and many more too numerous to list, arose.
Well this endeth today's lesson. As I said at the outset, it was not intended to be an all inclusive Irish lesson, but I hope it helps to clarify the origin of some Irish names and my use of the traditional Irish font style on coats of arms graphics. If you really want to follow up and learn more about the Irish Language, some links are provided below.

Bye Bye for now

Back to Heraldry