How Can I Learn Old Irish?

I’m posting this FAQ, not because I’m an expert teacher (I’ve never taught Old Irish), but because I’m an expert learner, in that I have made most of the mistakes students can make in learning a language. I took Old Irish twice, from two very different teachers, using two different syllabi. I was fortunate to have excellent teachers, and my comments are based on their classes, and my own trials and errors. I assume that you are primarily interested in learning Old Irish in order to read the medieval texts, and that you already have an understanding of English grammar, including conjugations, declensions, subjects, objects, and indirect objects. There’s a book list at the end of this page listing all the books mentioned here. They are all available from Books for Scholars.

Old Irish: Getting Started

I was lucky enough to start learning Old Irish in a small class. We used Thurneysen’s Old Irish Grammar and the Old Irish Paradigms and Selections from the Glosses by Strachan and Bergin. The Paradigms and Glosses contains useful paradigms for various conjugations and declensions, and exercises for translation. The translation exercises are derived from medieval Irish glosses to texts from the Latin Bible. The extracts are not themselves Bible verses, but rather glosses by Irish monks attempting to make sense of the Latin. The glossary and extensive notes at the back help you translate the extracts. I used the Paradigms and Glosses with frequent foraging in the Thurneysen Grammar to figure out how things worked and didn’t work in Irish.

Beginning with the Paradigms and Glosses was, and is, a good way to learn Old Irish, but not perhaps the easiest if you are on your own. Instead, you might want to use Thurneysen’s Old Irish Grammar, and a copy of the second edition of the Lehmanns’ An Introduction to Old Irish Grammar. The Lehmanns’ book offers a readable but very basic introduction to the grammar and vocabulary. It is designed to get you started translating medieval Irish right away; it is not intended to make you an expert on Celtic and Irish linguistics, and there are errors. The lessons are mostly based on translating the wonderful, and very humorous, “Tale of Mac Da Tho’s Pig,” the Scéla Mucce Mac Dathó. The whole story is included, as are a number of delightful poems, with all the materials you need to do the translation. You still should get a copy of Strachan and Bergin’s Paradigms and Glosses, and you might also want a copy of the separate edition of Scéla Mucce Mac Dathó edited by Thurneysen, since it often makes things clear where the Lehmanns are a bit confusing.

Once you finish the Lehmanns’ book (or the extracts in the Old Irish Paradigms and Selections from the Glosses), you might try the small booklet of stories that have been selected from the Táin and glossed and normalized for beginning students, Stories from the Táin. When you finish Stories from the Táin there’s a series of learner’s editions from the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies called the Mediaeval and Modern Irish Series. These are complete texts carefully prepared by scholars, with glossaries, notes, introductions and the like, of a number of Irish texts. You might want to start with Compert Con Culainn, which contains one version of Cu Chulainn’s conception, the story of how his only son Connla died, and a few other short tales.

My Preferred Method for Translating

One way to translate Irish is to make lists of the unfamiliar or difficult words in a text (or really, a short passage of a text) and label each word in terms of the part of speech (noun, verb, pronoun, the tense or mood, the person (first, second, third, singular or plural, etc), and any particularly interesting characteristic of syntax or etymology. Then try to make coherent English out of the text verbally, as you look at your notes and the original Irish. This is tedious, but it has the virtue of making you really internalize the language. Gradually, you will find that you have an increasingly large Irish vocabulary of “sight words” which you know when you see them, and don’t have to look up, parse, and write down. I know it is much easier to simply translate the Irish into modern English in writing, but do first try doing it without writing down your translation. It also helps, I find, to read the Irish aloud, doing your best to pronounce things correctly. Reading the Irish aloud helps me remember the words better. When you get tired of translating, spend time gradually working your way through Thurneysen’s Grammar, a few paragraphs at a time. Keep Thurneysen close by as you translate so you can look things up as you encounter them. Often you find the bit you are trying to figure out is one of the examples Thurneysen uses to explain a particular grammatical feature.

The gloss and annotate method, where you parse the text word by word, is a fairly standard way of translating older texts and languages. I find an extra step is often helpful, and fun, in an odd way. Once I’ve done a verbal translation (usually, in my case, as part of a class) I often like to translate a passage, writing it down, and then try to put it back into Old Irish, without looking at the Old Irish text itself. The virtue of this is that I find it helps me learn the language in a deeper way, particularly in terms of learning the syntax. After I’ve made “my” Old Irish version, I look back at the original. The goal is not so much to duplicate the original, as it is to produce a reasonable piece of Old Irish. At first I would only work with a sentence at a time—since it really is difficult—but you can gradually expand the amount of text you work with. A side effect of this method is that you can see how scribal redactions take place; sometimes the story we remember isn’t the story we read or heard.

Additional Learning Aids

Remember that there are a number of resources on the web for learning medieval Irish. Be sure to read Dennis King’s “Reading Old Irish: The Values of the Letters,” and his helpful “Triads of Ireland” page.

If you have some spare cash, there are a few other books you might want to consider. Other people’s translations are useful, and interesting. Cross and Slover Ancient Irish Tales, and Gantz Early Irish Myths and Sagas both offer a wide selection, but keep in mind that they may not be using an Irish text from the same manuscript you are, and translations will vary. Green’s Old Irish Verbs and Vocabulary is a collection of verb paradigms, and two lists (Irish to English, English to Irish) of common vocabulary. It’s very inexpensive, and astonishingly helpful. Many use Quin’s Old Irish Workbook, a series of short exercises designed as a supplement to the Paradigms and Glosses, useful as a structured introduction to Old Irish grammar. The Workbook includes answers to the exercises, so even students on their own can benefit from it. I found it a bit boring, but helpful. Ultimately you will want the DIL, the Dictionary of the Irish Language from the Royal Irish Academy in the photo-reduced or “compact” edition. It isn’t a cheap book, running between $90.00 and $100.00, so you might want to wait a bit. If you are serious about Old Irish, you will eventually have to have the DIL. Dinneen’s Irish-English dictionary is helpful once you begin to work with late Middle Irish and Early Modern Irish.

Book List

Cross, Tom Peete and Clark Harris Slover. Eds. Ancient Irish Tales. Totowa, New Jersery: Barnes and Noble Books, 1936.

Dinneen, Patrick S. Foclóir Gaedilge agus Béarla: An Irish-English Dictionary. Dublin: The Irish Texts Society, 1927; rev. 1934. ISBN 1870166000.

Amazon UK catalog page for Foclóir Gaedilge agus Béarla: An Irish-English Dictionary

Gantz, Jeffrey. Trans. Early Irish Myths and Sagas. London: Penguin Books, 1981. ISBN 0140443975.

Amazon catalog page for Early Irish Myths and Sagas

Amazon UK catalog page for Early Irish Myths and Sagas

Green, Antony. Old Irish Verbs and Vocabulary. Somerville, MA: Cascadilla Press, 1995. ISBN-1-57473-003-7.

Lehmann, R. P. M. and W. P. Lehmann. An Introduction to Old Irish. New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 1975. ISBN 0-87352-288-5. Be sure to get the revised reprint from 1991 or later; the previous version is full of errors, and some remain even in the revised edition. The cost is $19.75 plus shipping from the MLA voice (212) 614-6382; FAX (212) 358-9140. Modern Language Associatation, Customer Services, 10 Astor Place, Ney York, N. Y. 10003-6981.

Quinn, E. G. Gen Ed. The Dictionary of the Irish Language Compact Edition. Dublin: Royal Irish Academy, 1983. ISBN 0901714291.

Amazon UK catalog page for The Dictionary of the Irish Language Compact Edition

Quinn, E. G. Old Irish Workbook. Dublin: Royal Irish Academy, 1975. ISBN .

Strachan, John, and Osborn Bergin. Old Irish Paradigms and Selections from the Old Irish Glosses. Dublin: Royal Irish Academy, 1949. Fourth ed. 1984. ISBN 0901714356.

Amazon UK catalog page for Old Irish Paradigms and Selections from the Old Irish Glosses

Strachan, John, and Osborn Bergin. Eds. Stories from theTáin. Dublin. Royal Irish Academy, 1944; Repr. 1976.

Thurneysen, Rudolf. A Grammar of Old Irish. Trans. and revised by D. Binchy and Osborn Bergin. Dublin: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1946; repr. 1980. ISBN 0901282332.

Amazon UK catalog page for A Grammar of Old Irish

Thurneysen, Rudolf. Scéla Mucce Meic Dathó. Mediaeval and Modern Irish Series Vol. IV. Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies: Dublin, 1986. ISBN .1855000229

Amazon UK catalog page for Scéla Mucce Meic Dathó

Van Hamel, A. G. Compert Con Culainn and Other Stories. Mediaeval and Modern Irish Series Vol. III. Dublin: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1978. ISBN .

Amazon UK catalog page for Compert Con Culainn and Other Stories.

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