After the conversion to Christianity in the fifth century, Old Irish begins to appear as glosses and other marginalia in Latin manuscripts, beginning in the 6th century, until it gives way in the 10th century to Middle Irish which was slightly influenced by Norse. Early Modern Irish was a literary language which preserved 13th century Middle Irish. It was used by writers until the 17th century, in the course of which they began writing in the vernacular dialects, Ulster Irish, Connacht Irish, and Munster Irish. However, after the last of the Munster poets had died in the late 18th century, the Irish language largely ceased to be used as a written language until the late 19th century, at which point only the vernacular dialects were used.
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The grammar of Early Modern Irish is laid out in a series of grammatical tracts written by native speakers and intended to teach the most cultivated form of the language to student bards in Ireland and Scotland. The tracts were edited and published by Osborn Bergin as a supplement to Ériu between 1916 and 1955.
Linguistically, this stage of Irish represents a transition between Middle Irish and Modern Irish. For example, neuter nouns still trigger eclipsis of a following complement, as they did in Middle Irish, but less consistently. The distinction between preposition + accusative to show motion toward a goal (e.g. san gcath "into the battle") and preposition + dative to show non–goal-oriented location (e.g. san chath "in the battle") is lost during this period, as is the distinction between nominative and accusative case in nouns.
Verb endings are also in transition. The ending -ann, today the usual 3rd person ending in the present tense, arose in the Early Modern period, but was found only in verbs in so-called "conjunct position", i.e. verbs preceded by one of various grammatical particles such as ní "not". Thus Early Modern Irish contrasted molaidh sé "he praises" from ní mholann sé "he does not praise" (cf. Middle Irish ní mhol sé), whereas Modern Irish has molann sé and ní mholann sé. This innovation is not found in Scottish Gaelic, which still follows the Middle Irish pattern: glacaidh e "he will grasp" but cha glac e "he will not grasp".
Queen Elizabeth I encouraged the use of Irish even in the Pale with a view to promoting the reformed religion. She was a proficient linguist and is reported to have expressed a desire to understand Irish, so a primer was prepared on her behalf by Sir Christopher Nugent, ninth baron of Delvin.
The first book printed in any Goidelic language was published in 1564 in Edinburgh, a translation of John Knox's 'Liturgy' by Séon Carsuel, Bishop of the Isles. He used a slightly modified form of the language shared by Ireland and Scotland at the time and also used the Roman script. In 1568 the first book in Irish to be printed in Ireland was a Protestant 'catechism', containing a guide to spelling and sounds in Irish. It was written by John Kearney, treasurer of St. Patrick's Cathedral. The type used was adopted to what has become known as the 'gaelic' script. This was published in 1602-3 by the printer Francke. The reformed Church of Ireland undertook the first publication of Scripture in Irish. The first Irish translation of the New Testament was begun by Nicholas Walsh, Bishop of Ossory, who worked on it until his untimely death in 1585. The work was continued by John Kearny, his assistant, and Dr. Nehemiah Donellan, Archbishop of Tuam, and it was finally completed by Uilliam Ó Domhnaill (William Daniell, Archbishop of Tuam in succession to Donellan). Their work was printed in 1602. The work of translating the Old Testament was undertaken by William Bedel (1571-1642), Bishop of Kilmore, who completed his translation within the reign of Charles the First, however it was not published until 1680, in a revised version by Narcissus Marsh (1638-1713), Archbishop of Dublin. William Bedell had undertaken a translation of the Book of Common Prayer in 1606. An Irish translation of the revised prayer book of 1662 was effected by John Richardson (1664 - 1747) and published in 1712.
The Irish language has been a minority language at least since the 19th century. Though its number of speakers has been in decline since the 19th century, it is an important part of Irish nationalist identity. A combination of the introduction of a primary education system (the 'National Schools'), in which Irish was prohibited until 1871 and only English taught by order of the British government, and the Great Famine (An Gorta Mór) which hit a disportionately high number of Irish language speakers (who lived in the poorer areas heavily hit by famine deaths and emigration), hastened its rapid decline. Irish political leaders, such as Daniel O'Connell (Domhnall Ó Conaill), too were critical of the language, seeing it as 'backward', with English the language of the future. The National Schools run by the Roman Catholic Church discouraged its use until about 1890. This was because most economic opportunity for most Irish people arose at that time within the United States of America and the British Empire, which both used English. Contemporary reports spoke of Irish-speaking parents actively discouraging their children from speaking the language, and encouraging the use of English instead. This practice continued long after independence, as the stigma of speaking Irish remained very strong. Despite the policy of successive Irish governments to promote the language the decline in the number of native speakers (language shift) within the Gaeltacht has accelerated although the number of those elsewhere in the country able to speak it (as a second language) has increased albeit not to the extent that many hoped.
The initial moves to save the language were championed by Irish Protestants, such as the linguist and clergyman William Neilson, in the end of the eighteenth century; the major push occurred with the foundation by Douglas Hyde, the son of a Church of Ireland rector, of the Gaelic League (known in Irish as Conradh na Gaeilge) which started the Gaelic Revival. Leading supporters of Conradh included Pádraig Mac Piarais and Éamon de Valera. The revival of interest in the language coincided with other cultural revivals, such as the foundation of the Gaelic Athletic Association and the growth in the performance of plays about Ireland in English, by such luminaries as W. B. Yeats, J. M. Synge, Seán O'Casey and Lady Gregory, with their launch of the Abbey Theatre.
Even though the Abbey Theatre playwrights wrote in English (and indeed some disliked Irish) the Irish language affected them, as it did all Irish English speakers. The version of English spoken in Ireland, known as Hiberno-English bears striking similarities in some grammatical idioms with Irish. Some have speculated that even after the vast majority of Irish people stopped speaking Irish, they perhaps subsconsciously used its grammatical flair in the manner in which they spoke English. This fluency is reflected in the writings of Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde and more recently in the writings of Seamus Heaney, Paul Durcan, Dermot Bolger and many others. (It may also in part explain the appeal in Britain of Irish-born broadcasters like Terry Wogan, Eamonn Andrews, Graham Norton, Desmond Lynam, etc.)
This national cultural revival of the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century matched the growing Irish radicalism in Irish politics. Many of those, such as Pearse, de Valera, W. T. Cosgrave (Liam Mac Cosguir) and Ernest Blythe (Earnán de Blaghd), who fought to achieve Irish independence and came to govern the independent Irish Free State, first became politically aware through Conradh na Gaeilge. Hyde himself resigned from its presidency in 1915 in protest when the movement voted to affiliate with the separatist cause.
A Church of Ireland campaign to promote worship and religion in Irish was started in 1914 with the founding of Cumann Gaelach na hEaglaise (the Irish Guild of the Church). The Roman Catholic Church also replaced its liturgies in Latin with Irish and English for their liturgies following the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. The hit song "Theme From Harry's Game" by County Donegal music group Clannad, became the first song to appear on Top Of The Pops with Irish lyrics in 1982.
The new state increased attempts to promote Irish through the school system. Some politicians claimed that the state would become predominantly Irish-speaking within a generation. However, it is generally agreed that this compulsory policy was clumsily implemented (and sometimes proved even to be counter productive). The principal ideologue was Professor Timothy Corcoran of University College Dublin, who "did not trouble to acquire the language himself From the mid-1940s onward the policy of teaching English-speaking children through Irish was abandoned. In the following decades, support for the language was progressively reduced.
Whereas the first three Presidents of Ireland (Douglas Hyde, Seán T. O'Kelly and Éamon de Valera) and the fifth (Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh) were all so fluent in Irish that it became the working language in their official residence, later presidents struggled with any degree of fluency, its use declining to such an extent that it is only used now (if at all) in occasional speeches. Similarly, where earlier generations of Irish government leaders were highly fluent, recent Taoisigh (Prime Ministers) (Albert Reynolds, John Bruton, Bertie Ahern) have not been.
It is, though, disputed to what extent such professed language revivalists as de Valera genuinely tried to Gaelicise political life. Ernest Blythe did little during his time as Minister of Finance to assist Irish language projects beyond the vested interests of already established organisations. Even in the first Dáil Éireann, few speeches were delivered in Irish, with the exception of formal proceedings. None of the recent taoisigh have been fluent in Irish. The two most recent Presidents, Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese, have both become fluent in the language, though both studied while in office to improve their fluency. All Presidents to date have taken their inaugurational "Declaration of Office" in the language, but they have the option of taking the English declaration at the inauguration.
There has been some modern success stories in trying to revive the language such as Gaelscoileanna the education movement, Official_Languages_Act_2003, TG4, Raidió na Gaeltachta and the other radio stations it has inspired, Foinse and Lá.