A Dialect of Donegal/Introductory

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A desire to make myself acquainted with spoken Gaelic led me to think of spending the long vacation in Ireland in 1903. Types of southern and western Irish are already familiar from the descriptions of Henebry, Finck and Pedersen, and the hope of finding some closer connection, either in sounds or forms, between the Gaelic of the north of Ireland on the one hand and that of Scotland and Man on the other determined me to endeavour to investigate the form of Irish spoken in Donegal.

Meenawannia is the name of a townland about four miles from Glenties, running due east from the main road to Donegal. It contains some seven cottages, and the inhabitants practically without exception are able to speak Irish. In putting Meenawannia on the title-page of this sketch I do not wish to imply that the townland has a peculiar dialect of its own or that I have not associated with speakers from outside, but simply that the persons to whom I have had most opportunity of listening are natives of the townland. The speech of this small community of between 30 and 40 souls is perhaps even less homogeneous than might otherwise be expected. One of the parents in each family – usually the mother – must almost of necessity come from outside, and the speech of the children is therefore a compromise. Hence in one family cha predominates as the negative, while another has ní almost exclusively, and variants such as an uile, gach uile (gα·fwel′ə), and amárach, amáireach are similarly distributed among the various cottages. On the other hand the difference between the generations is almost incredible. Meenawannia has so far been practically unaffected by the efforts of the Gaelic League, though I believe more Irish is now spoken there than was the case 10 or 15 years ago. The phonetic decay of the speech of the younger people will be constantly exemplified in this sketch, but more appalling is the introduction of English words. Numbers of the people have been in America or Scotland for longer or shorter periods, and when they return the Irish they speak is often little better than a jargon. Examples such as the following may be heard from at least 80 per cent. of the people – tá sé mend-ál anois acht tá sé an-bleach-áilte – fail-ál mo rye orm – set-áladh an trap – chuala mé go robh gains (= biseach) oirthí!

Practically no attempts have been made so far to arrest the decay of the language. It is true that a society has recently been formed to preserve Ulster Irish, but some time must elapse before much can be done. There is little or no temptation for the people to learn to read Irish at present as, apart from the excellent little texts published by J. P. Craig, Donegal Irish is practically unrepresented in literature and the dialect is too far removed from Munster and Connaught speech for the publications of the Gaelic League to be intelligible. Even the simple Connaught tales published by Douglas Hyde are found difficult. English is the language of the people’s devotions, and the schoolmasters seldom know sufficient Irish to teach it intelligently. In one respect they are free from blame, viz. that there is a dearth of suitable text-books.

As I had never heard any Irish spoken before I first went over in 1903 my first summer was spent in learning to understand and make myself intelligible. The initial difficulties were stupendous. I had a fair theoretical knowledge of Connaught pronunciation which had to be unlearnt, and the vocabulary was in large measure strange. Worst of all, however, was the difficulty in getting away from English, a difficulty which has dogged me all through. That I was able to overcome all these and other difficulties is due solely to the unfailing kindness of my host, John Hegarty. J. H. is my chief source of information, and a word about him may not be out of place. He was born in 1831, and has spent all his life in Meenawannia, with the exception of about 18 months. He possesses a far better knowledge of Donegal Irish than any other person I have met, and, as far as I can judge, he has been little, if at all, influenced by book Irish. He has an immense store of tales and Fenian poems in the vernacular, and it is only a few of the oldest men and women like himself that are able to speak Irish in its purity. I take this opportunity of thanking him most cordially for all his trouble, and for the interest he has taken in me.

Two courses lay open to me. The one was to rely upon the language of conversation, jotting down anything of interest. The other was to take down a large number of stories and poems from dictation. The latter course I attempted during my first visit, but abandoned it, as what I took down was frequently very far removed from the colloquial language, and further I was often suspicious of Connaught influence. The texts printed at the end of this volume, however, have all been very carefully revised, and represent J. H.’s speech as far as lay in my power. Hence the bulk of my material has had to be collected whilst herding cows, or chatting at night by the side of a peat fire.

The mode of transcription I have adopted is that of the Association Phonétique, and the only new symbols are o̤, ö̤, ⅄, which represent vowels peculiar to Gaelic. I regret that I have not always been consistent in writing U, and w before consonants. Finck's Araner Mundart has been freely utilised in the present sketch, and I am only sorry that Meyer's Contributions to Irish Lexicography are not further advanced.

Before perusing the texts it is exceedingly important that the paragraphs on Sandhi should be read.

It should perhaps be observed that in the case of the consonants the term palatalisation is here used to denote palatal temper or quality and that it therefore does not imply that the sounds in question are palatalised as opposed to palatal.
Atk. Atkinson's Glossary to the Passions and Homilies from Leabhar Breac.
Cl. S. Claidheamh Soluis.
Craig, Iasg. Craig, Iasgaireacht Sheumais Bhig, Dublin 1904.
D. P. Derry People.
Di. Dinneen's Dictionary.
Diss. Die lautliche Geltung der vortonigen Wörter und Silben in der Book of Leinster Version der Tāin bō Cualnge, Greifswald 1900.
Finck Die Araner Mundart i, ii.
G. J. Gaelic Journal.
Henebry A contribution to the phonology of Desi-Irish.
Hogan Luibhleabhrán, Dublin 1900.
Macbain Etymological Gaelic Dictionary.
Meyer Contributions to Irish Lexicography.
Molloy Grammar of the Irish Language, Dublin 1867.[1]
Pedersen Aspiration i Irsk.
Rhys Outlines of Manx Phonology.
Sg. Fearn. Lloyd, Sgeulaidhe Fearnmhuighe.
Spir. Rose Spiritual Rose, Monaghan 1825.[2]

Vowels: α, æ, ɛ, e, ï, i, ɔ, o, U, u, y, o̤, ö̤, ⅄, ə.
Consonants: h, j, w, L, l, N, n, R, r, m, ŋ, ɲ, f, v, χ, ℊ, ç, s, ʃ, p, b, t, d, k, g.
· before a syllable denotes strong stress.
′ after a consonant denotes that that consonant is palatal (palatalised).
` after a final vowel or consonant is sometimes employed to indicate marked shortness of the preceding sound.
: after a vowel denotes length.
˜ denotes nasalisation.

Notes (Wikisource)
  1. Missing: O’R. = Edward O’Reilly, Irish-English Dictionary
  2. Missing: Wi. = Ernst Windisch, Irische Texte mit Wörterbuch