Northern Ireland

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Northern IrelandLanguages and dialects
The three dominant languages of Northern Ireland today are Irish (Gaelic), Ulster Scots and English.

Irish (Gaelic)
The Celts came to Britain from Europe. They settled first in Ireland (anywhere between 2000-1200BC), and spoke an early form of Irish (Gaelic) often referred to as 'Primitive Irish'. Irish (Gaelic) is therefore considered the oldest of the Goidelic languages (see UK Language Tree). The earliest written form of the language is found in Ogham (the name of the Celtic alphabet) inscriptions from the fifth and sixth centuries AD.

After Ireland’s conversion to Christianity (Catholicism) in the 5th century AD, Old Irish (Gaelic), with its slight Latin influence, began to replace Primitive Irish. It evolved in the 10th century AD into Middle Irish (Gaelic), which was slightly influenced by the Viking language of Norse. Early Modern Irish was a literary language that represented a transition between Middle and Modern Irish. It was used by writers until the 17th century, in the course of which they began writing in the vernacular dialects of Ulster Irish, Connacht Irish and Munster Irish.

In Northern Ireland, Irish (Gaelic) is now a minority language. According to the 2001 census, 10.4% of Northern Ireland’s 1.8 million people had 'some knowledge of Irish'. The main dialect spoken in Northern Ireland is known as Ulster Irish.

Before the 17th century, Irish (Gaelic) was more widely spoken in Northern Ireland, although it was spoken in a variety of dialects. During the 20th century the dialects spoken in County Down, County Fermanagh, the Glens of Antrim, County Tyrone, County Londonderry, and Armagh all died out. Varieties of Irish (Gaelic) indigenous to the territory of Northern Ireland finally became extinct as spoken languages when the last native speaker of the Rathlin dialect of Irish (Gaelic) died in 1985.

Irish (Gaelic) finally received official recognition and governmental support in 1998, as part of the Good Friday Agreement that was signed between the British and Irish governments and endorsed by most Northern Ireland political parties. Education is now provided in Northern Ireland in Irish (Gaelic) as well as English.

Ulster Scots
Approximately 2% of Northern Ireland’s population of 1.8 million people speaks Ulster Scots. Most speakers of English can understand the gist of Ulster Scots when it is spoken to them. However, Ulster Scots is not considered a dialect of English; rather, Ulster Scots is a separate language. The linguistic relationship between Ulster Scots and the Lowland Scots spoken in Scotland (see page on Scotland) is less clear. Most agree, however, that Ulster Scots and Lowland Scots are dialects of the Scots language.

How did the Ulster Scots language develop in Ireland? Although population movement to and from the northeast of Ireland and the west of Scotland had been ongoing since pre-historic times, a concentrated migration of Lowland Scots to Ulster occurred mainly during the 17th and 18th centuries. As part of a planned colonisation of Ulster under the reign of King James I of England, Protestants from England and Presbyterians from Scotland established the Plantation of Ulster in 1609. Around the same time, an independent Scottish settlement was established in May 1606 in the east of the province of Ulster.

Over time, the Scots spoken in Ulster and Lowland Scotland diverged.

English is spoken as a first language by almost 100% of the population of Northern Ireland. However, the variety of English spoken in Northern Ireland might be considered a dialect of English. Words like 'wee' (meaning “little”) and 'aye' (meaning 'yes') are used in much the same way as they are in the Scots language. The dialect is of course also spoken with an 'Irish' accent – listen to the audio file below.

Cultural identity
Patron Saint
The patron saint of the whole of Ireland is St Patrick. His feast day is 17 March. In the past, St Brigid of Kildare and St Columba were also considered patron saints.

St Patrick was born in Roman Britain around 387AD. When he was a teenager, he was captured and taken to Ireland and kept as a slave. He prayed for release and found Christianity. After six years, he escaped back to Britain and then studied to be a priest in France.Shamrocks

He chose to return to Ireland, coming up Strangford Lough and then building his first church at Saul, County Down. St Patrick then travelled the length and breadth of Ireland, converting druids and chieftains to Christianity. He built an abbey in Armagh, which became the centre of Christian learning in Ireland and made it one of the most important towns in Ireland.

According to legend, St Patrick used a shamrock to explain about God. St Patrick told the people that the shamrock was like the idea of the Trinity – that in the one God there are three divine beings: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. The shamrock was sacred to the druids, so St Patrick’s use of it in explaining the trinity was clever.

Another story is that St Patrick used his staff to drive all the snakes out of Ireland. It is probable that this story is a metaphor for his introducing Christianity where previously the druids and the faith held sway.

St Patrick died in 493AD. He is believed to buried at Down Cathedral in Northern Ireland.

Politics and history
Northern Ireland is a region of the United Kingdom. The evolution of the languages spoken in Northern Ireland – and how those languages have managed to co-exist or not (as described above) – is really the story of the migration of different peoples throughout history. Such migration can occur for a number of reasons: nomadic drift, trade, colonisation, invasion, a desire to spread a religion, and so on. Every new group of people brings its own language and culture. There is often conflict as a result. Northern Ireland has seen more than its fair share of troubles, with long-standing struggles between Catholics and Protestants; those wanting to be a part of the UK and those wanting full independence; those wanting Northern Ireland to be unified with the Republic of Ireland and those wanting Northern Ireland to remain a part of the UK.

Peace in Northern Ireland became more of a reality in 1998 when the Good Friday Agreement was signed between the British and Irish governments and endorsed by most Northern Ireland political parties. Under the Agreement, voters elected a new Northern Ireland Assembly to form a parliament.

One of the most famous features of Northern Ireland’s spectacular coastline is the Giant’s Causeway. It is an area of about 40,000 interlocking basalt columns, the result of an ancient volcanic eruption. Most of the columns are hexagonal in shape.

Giant's CausewayLegend has it that the Irish warrior Finn McCool built the causeway to walk to Scotland to fight his Scottish enemy Benandonner. Finn fell asleep before he got to Scotland. When he did not arrive, the much larger Benandonner crossed the bridge looking for him. To protect Finn, his wife Oonagh laid a blanket over him so he could pretend that he was actually their baby son. When Benandonner saw the size of the 'infant', he assumed the alleged father, Finn, must be gigantic indeed. Therefore, Benandonner fled home in terror, ripping up the Causeway in case he was followed by Finn.



Like Scotland, Ireland has its own whiskies. Connoisseurs usually say that Irish whiskey tastes 'peaty', whereas Scottish whisky usually tastes 'oaky'. Notice that the name of the drink is spelt without an 'e' when we are talking about Scottish whisky, but with an 'e' when we are talking about Irish whiskey. One of the more famous whiskies from Northern Ireland is Bushmills.

Teaching ideas and resources

  • Materials for learning Irish (Gaelic)

  • Audio files and learning materials for Ulster Scots

  • Listen to the dialect of English spoken in Northern Ireland

Coming soon!

  • Some intercultural teaching activities

Activity 1
Using the UK Language Tree as a model, see if your students can draw a diagram that describes the evolution and development of Irish (Gaelic), Ulster Scots and English in Northern Ireland.

Activity 2
Using the same map as you used in Activity 1 above, see if your students can plot St Patrick’s life journey, with dates.

Activity 3
Put your students into groups. Half the students in each group will play druids, and half will play Christians. They need to study the map of Northern Ireland (six counties) and divide up the land between them. See if they can agree which counties the druids will own and which the Christians will own. Creative students may wish to 'share' certain counties, or may wish to change the boundaries between counties.

  • British Council in Northern Ireland

  • Information about visiting Northern Ireland


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