A Historian of the Irish Language

A Conversation with Dr. Aidan Doyle

Episode #1

Joining me on episode one, is Dr. Aidan Doyle, senior lecturer in the Department of Modern Irish in University College Cork. He is also the author of A History of the Irish Language. I found this conversation with Aidan fascinating and revealing to see his excitement and enthusiasm when he first encountered the language as a living spoken language, and then how his views on the language have evolved from a lifetime spent working in the language. He shares some honest and insightful perspectives that as he says himself, some will find controversial.

Podcast Notes

A Historian of the Irish Language

Aidan, a Cork native, grew up with little exposure to the Irish language in his surroundings. While his primary and secondary schools had different approaches to teaching Irish, he felt there were prejudgments associated with the language at that time. However, in his final year of school, he became interested in Irish and began reading about it himself. This interest eventually led him to study Irish at university, where he had the opportunity to stay with local families in Kerry.

Finding Motivation to Learn the Irish Language

Aidan’s interest in learning Irish was motivated by a personal desire to learn the language as well as a longing to strengthen his cultural and national identity. He notes that classroom learning has its limitations and that individual effort is what counts when someone is serious about their language goals. It’s never too late to go back and study the language, but it requires putting in the work.

The Irish Language in Practice

Aidan mainly practices Irish with friends who work in the same business. He notes that Irish is mainly confined to the education and media spheres and can sometimes be perceived as elitist. While some of his colleagues speak Irish at home, this doesn’t apply to him. Aidan primarily associates Irish with work and rarely reads anything in Irish outside of work. However, there are Irish language media available, but he prefers to read the English media due to their better resources.

The Irish Language in English?

Aidan suggests that writing in Irish is not practical because there is a limited readership, and publications will not be read as much as when they are written in English. He wrote his book in English and aimed for a big publisher to distribute it widely. Having books about the Irish language, its history, and culture available in English makes these resources more accessible to those with an interest in the language.

A Historical Perspective on the Irish Language

Aidan argues that Irish is not widely read because it was never meant to be mass literacy. Unlike Welsh, which had higher levels of literacy due to the importance of the Bible in the Protestant tradition, the Gaelic literati never tried to share their knowledge with the masses. This became a great weakness when mass culture and printing emerged.

The decline of the Irish language began in the 16th century and continued until the late 19th century. The definition of a “speaker of Irish” can be contentious because many people in Ireland had knowledge of English before 1800. Aidan speaks of Daniel O’Connell as an example of someone who was bilingual but primarily spoke English. However, at that time, there was no such thing as a “first language,” and many people in Ireland likely knew Irish but circumstances, such as schooling and writing in English, pushed them towards primarily using English.

….. for a deeper dive into the historical significance of the Irish language with Dr. Aidan Doyle, and its evolution throughout the centuries, be sure to tune in to the full podcast above, or download the full transcript below.

More on Dr. Aidan Doyle

Dr. Aidan Doyle Headshot

A graduate of UCC, Aidan Doyle studied for a PhD in linguistics in Poland, where he taught for a number of years. He also spent some time Germany as a Humboldt Fellow, working on a post-doctoral degree (habilitation), which he obtained in 2004. He returned to UCC in 2002.

In the Irish department, he teaches modules on phonetics, the social and cultural history of Irish, academic writing (MA), and practical language classes.

Research: His main area of research is general linguistics, with a special emphasis on morphology, syntax, language contact, and historical linguistics. He is also interested in translation theory and the relation between language and identity.

Bhain Aidan Doyle céim MA amach sa Nua-Ghaeilge i gColáiste na hOllscoile, Corcaigh. Ina dhiaidh sin chaith sé tamall de bhlianta ag múineadh sa Pholainn, áit ar bhain sé amach céim dochtúireachta sa teangeolaíocht. Bhí sé ina chomhalta de chuid Institiúid Humboldt sa Ghearmáin, ag gabháil do thaighde i gcomhair céim iar-dhochtúireachta, habilitation, a bronnadh air sa bhliain 2004. D’fhill sé ar Chorcaigh sa bhliain 2002.

You can Find Aidan’s book “A History of the Irish Language” available to purchase here.

Free Irish Learning Resources Guide

Whether you are just starting out or have already begun your language learning journey, I have compiled a collection of resources that should help you along the way.