Ulster Irish

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Ulster Irish
Ulster Gaelic, Donegal Irish
Gaeil(i)g(he), Gaeilic or Gaedhlag
Early forms
  • Western (Donegal)
  • Eastern
Latin (Irish alphabet)
Irish Braille
Language codes
ISO 639-1ga
ISO 639-2gle
ISO 639-3gle
Gaeltachtai le hainmneacha2.svg
Gaeilig in Uladh.jpg
Percentage of population in each administrative area (Counties in Republic of Ireland and District council areas in Northern Ireland) in Ulster who can speak Irish.
This article contains IPA phonetic symbols. Without proper rendering support, you may see question marks, boxes, or other symbols instead of Unicode characters. For an introductory guide on IPA symbols, see Help:IPA.

Ulster Irish (Irish: Canúint Ultach, Ulster Scots: Ulstèr Airish) is the variety of Irish spoken in the province of Ulster. It "occupies a central position in the Gaelic world made up of Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man".[1] Ulster Irish thus has more in common with Scottish Gaelic and Manx. Within Ulster there have historically been two main sub-dialects: West Ulster and East Ulster. The Western dialect is spoken in County Donegal and once was in parts of neighbouring counties, hence the name Donegal Irish. The Eastern dialect was spoken in most of the rest of Ulster and northern parts of counties Louth and Meath.[1]


Ulster Irish was the main language spoken in Ulster from the earliest recorded times even before Ireland became a jurisdiction in the 1300s. Since the Plantation, Ulster Irish was steadily and forcibly replaced by English. The Eastern dialect died out in the 20th century, but the Western lives on in the Gaeltacht region of County Donegal. In 1808, County Down natives William Neilson and Patrick Lynch (Pádraig Ó Loingsigh) published a detailed study on Ulster Irish. Both Neilson and his father were Ulster-speaking Presbyterian ministers. When the recommendations of the first Comisiún na Gaeltachta were drawn up in 1926, there were regions qualifying for Gaeltacht recognition in the Sperrins and the northern Glens of Antrim and Rathlin Island. The report also makes note of small pockets of Irish speakers in northwest County Cavan, southeast County Monaghan, and the far south of County Armagh. However, these small pockets vanished early in the 20th century while Ulster Irish in the Sperrins survived until the 1950s and in the Glens of Antrim until the 1970s. The last native speaker of Rathlin Irish died in 1985.


The Ulster dialect contains many words not used in other dialects—of which the main ones are Connacht Irish and Munster Irish—or used otherwise only in northeast Connacht. The standard form of written Irish is now An Caighdeán Oifigiúil. In other cases, a semantic shift has resulted in quite different meanings attaching to the same word in Ulster Irish and in other dialects. Some of these words include:

  • ag déanamh is used to mean "to think" as well as "to make" or "to do", síleann, ceapann and cuimhníonn is used in other dialects, as well as in Ulster Irish.
  • amharc or amhanc (West Ulster), "look" (elsewhere amharc, breathnaigh and féach; this latter means rather "try" or "attempt" in Ulster)
  • barúil "opinion", southern tuairim - in Ulster, tuairim is most typically used in the meaning "approximate value", such as tuairim an ama sin "about that time". Note the typically Ulster derivatives barúlach and inbharúla "of the opinion (that...)".
  • bealach, ród "road" (southern and western bóthar and ród (cf. Scottish Gaelic rathad, Manx raad), and bealach "way"). Note that bealach alone is used as a preposition meaning "towards" (literally meaning "in the way of": d'amharc sé bealach na farraige = "he looked towards the sea"). In the sense "road", Ulster Irish often uses bealach mór ("big road") even for roads that aren't particularly big or wide.
  • bomaite, "minute" (elsewhere nóiméad, nóimint, neómat, etc., and in Mayo Gaeltacht areas a somewhat halfway version between the northern and southern versions, is the word "móiméad", also probably the original, from which the initial M diverged into a similar nasal N to the south, and into a similar bilabial B to the north.)
  • cá huair, "when?" (Connacht cén uair; Munster cathain, cén uair)
  • caidé (cad é) atá?, "what is?" (Connacht céard tá; Munster cad a thá, cad é a thá, dé a thá, Scottish Gaelic dé tha)
  • cál, "cabbage" (southern gabáiste; Scottish Gaelic càl)
  • caraidh, "weir" (Connacht cara, standard cora)
  • cluinim, "I hear" (southern cloisim, but cluinim is also attested in South Tipperary and is also used in Achill and Erris in North and West Mayo). In fact, the initial c- tends to be lenited even when it is not preceded by any particle (this is because there was a leniting particle in Classical Irish: do-chluin yielded chluin in Ulster)
  • doiligh, "hard"-as in difficult (southern deacair), crua "tough"
  • druid, "close" (southern and western dún; in other dialects druid means "to move in relation to or away from something", thus druid ó rud = to shirk, druid isteach = to close in) although druid is also used in Achill and Erris
  • eallach, "cattle" (southern beithíoch = "one head of cattle", beithígh = "cattle", "beasts")
  • eiteogaí, "wings" (southern sciatháin)
  • , "about, under" (standard faoi, Munster , and is only used for "under"; mar gheall ar and i dtaobh = "about"; fá dtaobh de = "about" or "with regard to")
  • falsa, "lazy" (southern and western leisciúil, fallsa = "false, treacherous") although falsa is also used in Achill and Erris
  • faoileog, "seagull" (standard faoileán)
  • fosta, "also" (standard freisin)
  • Gaeilg, Gaeilig, Gaedhlag, Gaeilic, Gaelighe, "Irish" (standard and Western Gaeilge, Southern Gaoluinn, Manx Gaelg, Scottish Gaelic Gàidhlig) although Gaeilg is used in Achill and was used in parts of Erris and East Connacht
  • geafta, "gate" (standard geata)
  • gairid, "short" (southern gearr)
  • gamhain, "calf" (southern lao and gamhain) although gamhain is also used in Achill and Erris
  • gasúr, "boy" (southern garsún; garsún means "child" in Connemara)
  • girseach, "girl" (southern gearrchaile and girseach)
  • gnóitheach, "busy" (standard gnóthach)
  • inteacht, an adjective meaning "some" or "certain" is used instead of the southern éigin. Áirithe also means "certain" or "particular".
  • mothaím is used to mean "I hear, perceive" as well as "I feel" (standard cloisim) but mothaím generally refers to stories or events. The only other place where mothaím is used in this context is in the Irish of Dún Caocháin and Ceathrú Thaidhg in Erris but it was a common usage throughout most of northern and eastern Mayo, Sligo, Leitrim and North Roscommon
  • nighean, "daughter" (standard iníon; Scottish Gaelic nighean)
  • nuaidheacht, "news" (standard nuacht, but note that even Connemara has nuaíocht)
  • sópa, "soap" (standard gallúnach, Connemara gallaoireach)
  • stócach, "youth", "young man", "boyfriend" (Southern = "gangly, young lad")
  • tábla, "table" (western and southern bord and clár, Scottish Gaelic bòrd)
  • tig liom is used to mean "I can" as opposed to the standard is féidir liom or the southern tá mé in ann. Tá mé ábalta is also a preferred Ulster variant. Tig liom and its derivatives are also commonly used in the Irish of Joyce Country, Achill and Erris
  • the word iontach "wonderful" is used as an intensifier instead of the prefix an- used in other dialects.

Words generally associated with the now dead East Ulster Irish include:[1]

  • airigh (feel, hear, perceive) - but also known in more southern Irish dialects
  • ársuigh, more standardized ársaigh (tell) - but note the expression ag ársaí téamaí "telling stories, spinning yearns" used by the modern Ulster writer Séamus Ó Grianna.
  • coinfheasgar (evening)
  • corruighe, more standardized spelling corraí (anger)
  • frithir (sore)
  • go seadh (yet)
  • márt (cow)
  • práinn (hurry)
  • toigh (house)
  • tonnóg (duck)

In other cases, a semantic shift has resulted in quite different meanings attaching to the same word in Ulster Irish and in other dialects. Some of these words include:

  • cloigeann "head" (southern and western ceann; elsewhere, cloigeann is used to mean "skull")
  • capall "mare" (southern and western láir; elsewhere, capall means "horse")


The phonemic inventory of Ulster Irish (based on the dialect of Gweedore[2]) is as shown in the following chart (see International Phonetic Alphabet for an explanation of the symbols). Symbols appearing in the upper half of each row are velarized (traditionally called "broad" consonants) while those in the bottom half are palatalized ("slender"). The consonants /h, n, l/ are neither broad nor slender.

Labial Coronal Dorsal Glottal
Bilabial Labio-
Dental Alveolar Alveolo-
Palatal Velar

Tap                   ɾˠ

The vowels of Ulster Irish are as shown on the following chart. These positions are only approximate, as vowels are strongly influenced by the palatalization and velarization of surrounding consonants.

Ulster Irish vowel chart.svg

The long vowels have short allophones in unstressed syllables and before /h/.

In addition, Ulster has the diphthongs /ia, ua, au/.

Some characteristics of the phonology of Ulster Irish that distinguish it from the other dialects are:

  • The only broad labial continuant is the approximant [w]. In other dialects, fricative [vˠ] is found instead of or in addition to [w]. No dialect makes a phonemic contrast between the approximant and the fricative, however.
  • There is a three-way distinction among coronal nasals and laterals: /n̪ˠ ~ n ~ ṉʲ/, /l̪ˠ ~ l ~ ḻʲ/ as there is in Scottish Gaelic, and there is no lengthening or diphthongization of short vowels before these sounds and /m/. Thus, while ceann "head" is /cɑːn/ in Connacht and /caun/ in Munster, in Ulster it is /can̪ˠ/ (compare Scottish Gaelic /kʲaun̪ˠ/)
  • /ɔː/ corresponds to the /oː/ of other dialects. The Ulster /oː/ corresponds to the /au/ of other dialects.
  • Long vowels are shortened when in unstressed syllables.
  • ⟨n⟩ is pronounced as if it is spelled ⟨r⟩ (/ɾˠ/ or /ɾʲ/) after consonants other than ⟨s⟩. This happens in Connacht and Scottish Gaelic as well.
  • -⟨adh⟩ in unstressed syllables is always [u] (this includes verb forms), as it is in the Scottish Gaelic dialect of Cowal and most of Sutherland.[3]
  • Unstressed -⟨ach⟩ is pronounced [ax], [ah], or [a].
  • According to Ó Dochartaigh (1987), the loss of final schwa "is a well-attested feature of Ulster Irish". This has led to words like fada being pronounced [fˠad̪ˠ].[4]

Differences between the Western and Eastern sub-dialects of Ulster include the following:

  • In West Ulster and most of Ireland, the vowel written ⟨ea⟩ is pronounced [a] (e.g. fear [fʲaɾˠ]), but in East Ulster it is pronounced [ɛ] (e.g. fear /fʲɛɾˠ/ as it is in Scottish Gaelic (/fɛɾ/). J. J. Kneen comments that Scottish Gaelic and Manx generally follow the East Ulster pronunciation. The name Seán is pronounced [ʃɑːnˠ] in Munster and [ʃæːnˠ] in West Ulster, but [ʃeːnˠ] in East Ulster, whence anglicized spellings like Shane O'Neill and Glenshane.[1]
  • In East Ulster, ⟨th, ch⟩ in the middle of a word tends to vanish and leave one long syllable. William Neilson wrote that this happens "in most of the counties of Ulster, and the east of Leinster".[1]
  • In East Ulster, /x/ at the end of words (as in loch) tends to be much weaker, e.g. amach may be pronounced [əˈmˠæ] and bocht pronounced [bˠɔt̪ˠ]. Neilson wrote that this is found "in all the country along the sea coast, from Derry to Waterford".[1]
  • Neilson wrote that the "ancient pronunciation" of broad ⟨bh, mh⟩ as [vˠ], especially at the beginning or end of a word "is still retained in the North of Ireland, as in Scotland, and the Isle of Man", whereas "throughout Connaught, Leinster and some counties of Ulster, the sound of [w] is substituted". However, broad ⟨bh, mh⟩ may become [w] in the middle of a word (for example in leabhar "book").[1]


Initial mutations[edit]

Ulster Irish has the same two initial mutations, lenition and eclipsis, as the other two dialects and the standard language, and mostly uses them the same way. There is, however, one exception: in Ulster, a dative singular noun after the definite article is lenited (e.g. ar an chrann "on the tree") (as is the case in Scottish and Manx), whereas in Connacht and Munster, it is eclipsed (ar an gcrann), except in the case of den, don and insan, where lenition occurs in literary language. Both possibilities are allowed for in the standard language.


Irish verbs are characterized by having a mixture of analytic forms (where information about person is provided by a pronoun) and synthetic forms (where information about number is provided in an ending on the verb) in their conjugation. In Ulster and North Connacht the analytic forms are used in a variety of forms where the standard language has synthetic forms, e.g. molann muid "we praise" (standard molaimid, muid being a back formation from the verbal ending -mid and not found in the Munster dialect, which retains sinn as the first person plural pronoun as do Scottish Gaelic and Manx) or mholfadh siad "they would praise" (standard mholfaidís). The synthetic forms, including those no longer emphasised in the standard language, may be used in short answers to questions.

The 2nd conjugation future stem suffix in Ulster is -óch- (pronounced [ah]) rather than -ó-, e.g. beannóchaidh mé [bʲan̪ˠahə mʲə] "I will bless" (standard beannóidh mé [bʲanoːj mʲeː]).

Some irregular verbs have different forms in Ulster from those in the standard language. For example:

  • (gh)níom (independent form only) "I do, make" (standard déanaim) and rinn mé "I did, made" (standard rinne mé)
  • tchíom [t̠ʲʃiːm] (independent form only) "I see" (standard feicim, Southern chím, cím (independent form only))
  • bheiream "I give" (standard tugaim, southern bheirim (independent only)), ní thabhram or ní thugaim "I do not give" (standard only ní thugaim), and bhéarfaidh mé/bheirfidh mé "I will give" (standard tabharfaidh mé, southern bhéarfad(independent form only))
  • gheibhim (independent form only) "I get" (standard faighim), ní fhaighim "I do not get"
  • abraim "I say, speak" (standard deirim, ní abraim "I do not say, speak", although deir is used to mean "I say" in a more general sense.)


In Ulster the negative particle cha (before a vowel chan, in past tenses char - Scottish Gaelic/Manx chan, cha do) is sometimes used where other dialects use and níor. The form is more common in the north of the Donegal Gaeltacht. Cha cannot be followed by the future tense: where it has a future meaning, it is followed by the habitual present.[5][6] It triggers a "mixed mutation": /t/ and /d/ are eclipsed, while other consonants are lenited. In some dialects however (Gweedore), cha eclipses all consonants, except b- in the forms of the verb "to be", and sometimes f-:

Ulster Standard English
Cha dtuigim Ní thuigim "I don't understand"
Chan fhuil sé/Cha bhfuil sé Níl sé (contracted from ní fhuil sé) "He isn't"
Cha bhíonn sé Ní bheidh sé "He will not be"
Cha phógann muid/Cha bpógann muid Ní phógaimid "We do not kiss"
Chan ólfadh siad é Ní ólfaidís é "They wouldn't drink it"
Char thuig mé thú Níor thuig mé thú "I didn't understand you"

In the Past Tense, some irregular verbs are lenited/eclipsed in the Interrogative/Negative that differ from the standard, due to the various particles that may be preferred:

Interrogative Negative English
An raibh tú? Cha raibh mé "I was not"
An dtearn tú? Cha dtearn mé "I did not do, make"
An dteachaigh tú? Cha dteachaigh mé "I did not go"
An dtáinig tú? Cha dtáinig mé "I did not come"
An dtug tú? Cha dtug mé "I did not give"
Ar chuala tú? Char chuala mé "I did not hear"
Ar dhúirt tú? Char dhúirt mé "I did not say"
An bhfuair tú? Chan fhuair mé "I did not get"
Ar rug tú? Char rug mé "I did not catch, bear"
Ar ith tú? Char ith mé "I did not eat"
Ar chígh tú/An bhfaca tú? Chan fhaca mé "I did not see"


The Ulster dialect uses the present tense of the subjunctive mood in certain cases where other dialects prefer to use the future indicative:

Suigh síos anseo aige mo thaobh, a Shéimí, go dtugaidh (dtabhairidh, dtabhraidh) mé comhairle duit agus go n-insidh mé mo scéal duit.
Sit down here by my side, Séimí, till I give you some advice and tell you my story.

The verbal noun can be used in subordinate clauses with a subject different from that of the main clause:

Ba mhaith liom thú a ghabháil ann.
I would like you to go there.

Notable speakers[edit]

Some notable Irish singers who sing songs in the Ulster Irish dialect include Maighread Ní Dhomhnaill, Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh, Róise Mhic Ghrianna, and Pádraigín Ní Uallacháin.

Notable Ulster Irish writers include Micí Mac Gabhann, Seosamh Mac Grianna, Peadar Toner Mac Fhionnlaoich, Cosslett Ó Cuinn, Niall Ó Dónaill, Séamus Ó Grianna, Brian Ó Nualláin, Colette Ní Ghallchóir and Cathal Ó Searcaigh.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g Ó Duibhín 1997, pp. 15–16.
  2. ^ Ní Chasaide 1999, pp. 111–16.
  3. ^ Ó Broin, Àdhamh. "Essay on Dalriada Gaelic" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 5 April 2018. Retrieved 22 March 2017.
  4. ^ PlaceNames NI: Townland of Moyad Upper[permanent dead link]
  5. ^ Ó Dónaill 1977, p. 221.
  6. ^ Ó Baoill 2009, p. 55.


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  • Lúcás, Leaslaoi U. (1986). de Bhaldraithe, Tomás (ed.). Cnuasach focal as Ros Goill. Deascán Foclóireachta (in Irish). Vol. 5. Dublin: Royal Irish Academy.
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  • Ó Duibhín, Ciarán (1997). "The Irish Language in County Down". In Proudfoot, L J (ed.). Down: History & Society. Geography Publications.
  • Ó hAirt, Diarmuid, ed. (1993). "Cnuasach Conallach: A Computerized Dictionary of Donegal Irish" (in Irish). Retrieved 14 June 2022.
  • Uí Bheirn, Úna M. (1989). de Bhaldraithe, Tomás (ed.). Cnuasach Focal as Teileann. Deascán Foclóireachta. Vol. 8. Dublin: Royal Irish Academy.
  • Wagner, Heinrich (1979) [1959]. Gaeilge Theilinn: Foghraidheacht, Gramadach, Téacsanna (in Irish) (reprinted ed.). Dublin: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies. ISBN 1-85500-055-5.
  • ——; Ó Baoill, Colm (1969). Linguistic Atlas and Survey of Irish Dialects. Vol. IV: The Dialects of Ulster and the Isle of Man, Specimens of Scottish Gaelic Dialects, Phonetic Texts of East Ulster Irish. Dublin: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies. ISBN 0-901282-05-7.


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  • —— (1998). Nally as Maigh Eo. Dublin: Coiscéim. [biography, the Rosses]
  • —— (2000). Gaeltacht Thír Chonaill - Ó Ghleann go Fánaid. Dublin: Coiscéim. [local tradition, the Rosses]
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  • —— (2003). Ceann Tìre/Earraghàidheal : Ár gComharsanaigh Ghaelacha. Dublin: Coiscéim. [travel book]
  • —— (2004). Gasúr Beag Bhaile na gCreach. Dublin: Coiscéim.
  • ——, ed. (2005). Faoi Scáth na Mucaise : Béaloideas Ghaeltachtaí Imeallacha Thír Chonaill. Dublin: Coiscéim.
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  • ——, ed. (1996). Amach as Ucht na Sliabh. Vol. 2. Gweedore: Cumann Staire agus Seanchais Ghaoth Dobhair i gcomhar le Comharchumann Forbartha Ghaoth Dobhair. [folklore, Gweedore]
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  • —— (1998). Seanchas na Féinne. Dublin: An Gúm. [mythology, the Rosses]
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  • Ó Gallchóir, Tomás (1996). Séimidh agus scéalta eile. Dublin: Coiscéim. [the Rosses]
  • Ó Grianna, Séamus (1961). Cúl le Muir agus scéalta eile. Dublin: Oifig an tSoláthair. [short stories, the Rosses]
  • —— (1968). An Sean-Teach. Dublin: Oifig an tSoláthair. [novel, the Rosses]
  • —— (1986). Nuair a Bhí Mé Óg. Dublin and Cork: Cló Mercier. [autobiography, the Rosses]
  • —— (1993). Cora Cinniúna. Vol. 2. Dublin: An Gúm. ISBN 1-85791-0737. [short stories, the Rosses]
  • —— (1994). Caisleáin Óir. Dublin: Cló Mercier. [novel, the Rosses]
  • —— (1994). Cith is Dealán. Dublin and Cork: Cló Mercier. [short stories the Rosses]
  • —— (1995). Tairngreacht Mhiseoige. Dublin: An Gúm. [novel, the Rosses]
  • —— (2001) [1993]. Cora Cinniúna. Vol. 1. Dublin: An Gúm. ISBN 978-1-8579104-5-2. [short stories, the Rosses]
  • —— (2002). Mac Congáil, Nollaig (ed.). Castar na Daoine ar a Chéile. Scríbhinní Mháire. Vol. 1. Dublin: Coiscéim. [novel, the Rosses]
  • —— (2003). — (ed.). Na Blianta Corracha. Scríbhinní Mháire. Vol. 2. Dublin: Coiscéim. [the Rosses]
  • Ó Laighin, Donnchadh C. (2004). An Bealach go Dún Ulún : Scéalta Seanchais agus Amhráin Nuachumtha as Cill Charthaigh. Inverin: Cló Iar-Chonnachta. ISBN 978-1-9024208-2-0. [Kilcar]
  • Ó Searcaigh, Cathal (2004). Seal i Neipeal. Inverin: Cló Iar-Chonnachta. [travel book, Gortahork]
  • Ó Searcaigh, Séamus (1945). Laochas : Scéalta as an tSeanlitríocht. Dublin: An Gúm. [mythology, the Rosses]
  • —— (1997). Beatha Cholm Cille. Dublin: An Gúm. [the Rosses]
  • Ua Cnáimhsí, Pádraig (1997). Idir an Dá Ghaoth. Dublin: Sáirséal Ó Marcaigh. [local history, the Rosses]

External links[edit]