This summer, my family and I spent a few days traveling in southwestern Ireland, and while we (unsurprisingly) didn’t have any trouble communicating in English (Irish English and American English aren’t that different), we did have some trouble when asking for directions using Irish place names that we’d never heard pronounced before. The puzzled looks of the people we asked told us that we were far from correct in our pronunciation. In most cases the signs and the map we were using presented the English version of the name as well (e.g. Cill Chainnigh = Kilkenny), but some smaller towns in more rural areas were labeled on our map only in Irish. In those cases, I realized a few rules of thumb for pronouncing Irish could be a big help to non-Irish-speaking traveler, such as myself. So I wrote to our e-Tutor, Caroline, for help.
LL: While traveling on the Dingle peninsula we passed through a town called Cloghane, which a hapless American tourist might (not pointing any fingers here) think is pronounced /klah gawn/ or /klah-gayn/, but in fact, we heard it pronounced /kluh hawn/. So what’s going on here?
Caroline: Cloghane is the anglicized version of An Clochán (“the little stone”). In Irish, certain consonants can be lenited or “softened” in certain cases, which is what the –h in gh represents. Without the h, g is pronounced /g/. Depending on the vowels which surround it, ch in Irish (written gh in the English version) is pronounced like Scottish loch /x/ or /h/.
Another thing to keep in mind is that generally, Irish words are stressed on the first syllable. When an o is stressed it is pronounced /o/ as in the English top or /u/ as in put.
LL: We saw quite a few place names that begin with bally/balla which were spelled baile in Irish (e.g. Baile an Sceilg à Ballyinskelligs). How is that pronounced and what is the origin?
Caroline: Baile (pronounced /̍bal´ə/ or BAL-ya) means “town” or sometimes “townland”, which is an old Gaelic land division. Sceilg (/̍skelig´/ means ‘rock’ and refers to the rocky islands off the coast of Kerry called the Skelligs. The phrase an Sceilg is in the genitive case, i.e. Baile an Sceilg means “The Town of the Rock”. (The genitive case simply means that one noun modifies another, as in this case where the genitive indicates possession.)
LL: While in Dingle, we ate Murphy’s Ice Cream (which was soo delicious) just down the street from Murphy’s Pub, where presumably we could’ve ordered a Murphy’s Stout. Can you tell us a bit about the Irish origins of this common surname?
Caroline: Murphy is the most common surname in Ireland and derives from the Irish Ó Murchadha “descendent of Murchadh”. Murchadh is made up of the elements muir “sea” and cath “battle”.
LL: Below I’m listing a few place names we read and mispronounced in our heads until we were corrected. Can you give us any rule for the pronunciation of the underlined letters?
Slea Head Drive – Slí Cheann Sléibhe
> bh is pronounced /v/ as in English sleeve
Dunquin – Dún Chaoin
> aoi is pronounced the same way as í /i:/ as in English keep
Ballyferrier Baile an Fheirtéaraigh
> aigh is also pronounced the same way as í /i:/ as in English fairy
LL: I happened to see Baile Átha Cliath, the Irish name for Dublin, in our guide and was curious about it since the English name and Irish name are so different. Can you tell us more about that?
Caroline: When the town of Dublin was founded by the Vikings in the 10th century, it was named Dubhlinn “black pool”. The river that flowed through the town was named Life “Liffey” and eventually a fording point (áth) was built from wattles (cliath) from one side to another. Eventually, this point became so well-known that the town was named after it – Baile Átha Cliath – “the town of the wattle ford”.
LL: Any other Irish language tips that might come in handy for travelers? (E.g. we saw signs saying ‘go mall’ which I guess means “slow” from the picture accompanying it. Other common signs we might see in Irish or important place names?)
Caroline: Go mall does indeed mean “slow”, but another sign to watch out for is Géill slí meaning “yield” or “give way”. Outside of the Gaeltacht (Irish-speaking region) signs are bilingual so they should be fairly easy to comprehend. In the Gaeltacht you may come across signs solely in Irish, which may be confusing. To avoid getting lost, here are a few common place-name elements with their pronunciation in between slashes:
Ros /ros/ “peninsula” (anglicized as Ross, e.g. Rosslare)
Inis /ˈinis´/ “island” (anglicized as Inish, e.g. Inishmore)
Carraig /ˈkarig´/ “stone” (anglicized as Carrick, e.g. Carrickfergus)
Doire /ˈdirə/ “oak grove” (anglicized as Derry)
Béal /be:l/ “river mouth” (anglicized as Bel, e.g. Belfast)
Maigh /mai/ “field” (anglicized as May, e.g. Maynooth)
Droim /drim´/ “ridge” (anglicized as Drum, e.g. Dundrum)
Dún /du:n/ “fort” (anglicized as Dun, e.g. Dungannon)
Gleann /g´lan/ “valley” (anglicized as Glen, e.g. Glengormley)
Cill /kil´/ “churchyard” (anglicized as Kil(l), e.g. Kildare)
If you want to go further with your Irish, take a look at our Irish online course, which comes with access to online tutoring sessions with Caroline. You can see a sampling of the content of this course at our Language Lab.