The Irish language is alive and in fine voice on the west coast of Ireland. If you’re planning a visit, why not embrace rich Gaelic tradition by trying your hand at learning some of Ireland’s lyrical mother tongue? Immerse yourself in a world where the ancient Irish language is still a major part of everyday life and learn a cúpla focal (few words) while exploring the corners of the Wild Atlantic Way...
Ever wanted to learn Irish Gaelic? With a rich and vital history, it's a language that will offer up no shortage of surprises as you go. The term ‘Gaeltacht’ refers to any of the primarily Irish-speaking regions, which were first officially recognised in the 1920s as part of a national revival of interest in the Irish language. Today, major concentrations of native speakers are found in Gaeltacht regions on the west coast in County Donegal, County Mayo, County Galway and County Kerry.
As you move down through the Wild Atlantic Way and pass through its most breathtaking locations, take note of the name on the signpost because more than likely it’s directly derived from the Irish language! For example, Carrauntoohil comes from the Irish ‘Corrán Tuathail’ (Tuathail’s Sickle – ‘Tauthail’ being one of the most popular names in medieval Ireland), Mullaghmore is taken from ‘An Mullach Mór’ (The Great Summit) and Donegal takes its title from ‘Dhún na nGall’, which translates to ‘Fort of the Foreigners’; a reference to the Vikings who set up camp in Donegal in the 9th century.
In the Northern Headlands near the striking Derryveagh Mountains and the scenic Poisoned Glen, you’ll find the Donegal Gaeltacht. It might sound sinister, but the name ‘Poisoned Glen’ is likely a quirky mistranslation. You see, the name in Irish for poison is ‘neimhe’ while the name for heaven is ‘nemhe’, so that one letter can make all the difference! ‘The Heavenly Glen’ is a much more fitting description of the place, as you can see...
The Poisoned Glen in County Donegal
The Donegal Gaeltacht is made up of a number of townlands and interesting areas where Irish song, dance and folklore abound. Cill Chartha (Kilcar), Gleann Cholm Cille (Glencolmcille) and Ard a’Ratha (Ardara) in the south are home to craft workshops that produce the world-famous Donegal Tweed. The popular Oideas Gael Irish language and culture summer school offers the perfect opportunity to learn Gaelic, playing host to morning Irish language classes and afternoon workshops in set and sean-nós (old style) dancing. You can also take an adventure as Gaeilge with fun activities such as traditional Irish music lessons, lectures, concerts, book launches and hill walking.
County Donegal boasts a series of relaxing and refreshing walks of the Donegal Gaeltacht and its surrounding islands known as Bealach na Gaeltachta. Spread across 290 kilometres, the four walks - Slí an Earagail, Slí na Rossan, Slí na Finne and Slí Cholmcille - are a great way to sample the rich landscape and culture of the region. Explore the islands further by sailing with Rock and Roam. In the north, you’ll find Donegal’s Gaeltacht Lár (central Gaeltacht) between Gweebara Bay, Gleann Fhinne and Glendowen.
A scenic walk by Mount Errigal in County Donegal
On the Bay Coast, the Mayo Gaeltacht is located mostly in the western half of the county. The region comprises three separate areas made up of parts of Achill Island, the Erris Peninsula and the rural village of Tourmakeady. On Achill Island, the week-long Scoil Acla summer school offers classes in traditional Irish music, language and culture. Here students get to grips with instruments including the tin whistle, accordion, banjo, bodhrán, fiddle and uileann pipes, with all skill levels catered for. There’s also the chance to show off your skills at one of the many trad music sessions held around the island.
The beautiful Achill Island in County Mayo
Elsewhere, take the Tourmakeady Loop and enjoy beautiful picturesque views including a spectacular waterfall or visit the Ionad Deirbhile Heritage Centre in the coastal town of Belmullet and discover the extraordinary stories of those who emigrated to Canada and the United States in the late 1800s. At Cuan Eilí (Elly Bay) near Belmullet, kick things up a notch with your Irish language mastering by swapping out the classroom for a host of adventure activities like sailing, windsurfing, kayaking, archery and climbing with Colaiste U.I.S.C.E. (meaning ‘water college’), a unique experience that promotes a positive attitude towards learning the Irish language with activities.
The waterfall in Tourmakeady, County Mayo
Connemara in County Galway is the most populated Gaeltacht region in all of Ireland with approximately 48.5% of total Gaeltacht population in Ireland residing within the designated districts and the expanding suburbs of Galway City. Off the beaten path, however, the Connemara Gaeltacht Craft Trail travels through an area with a wide variety of coastal and lake scenery throughout the Gaeltacht region and the resplendent Aran Islands of Inis Mór, Inis Méain and Inis Oírr. Along the trail you will explore craft shops and galleries, lose yourself in painting, poetry, woodcraft, jewellery, stained glass, basket-making and other arts and crafts. Meanwhile, a visit to the restored 17th century hilltop village of Cnoc Suain is an arresting and award-winning cultural retreat.
Rich heritage on Inis Oírr in Connemara, County Galway
On the Cliff Coast, the Willie Clancy Summer School attracts over 1,000 students and 4,000 visitors to its week-long run of events in County Clare where people study song and dance and take part in recitals, concerts, céili (traditional Gaelic folk dancing) and language classes.
The Southern Peninsulas is home to the Kerry Gaeltacht which consists of two distinctive areas; the Dingle Peninsula (also known as Corca Dhuibhne, which means ‘Tribe of Dhuibhne’, ‘Dhuibhne’ being an ancient Irish name) and the Iveragh Peninsula (Uíbh Ráthach). Colaiste Gaelige an Leith-Triuigh, in the stunning environs of Cloghane and Bandon, has great Irish language-related activities for adults and families, while you shouldn’t pass up the opportunity to walk ‘Cosán na Naomh’ - the Path of the Saints. Situated at the end of the Dingle Peninsula, this beautiful and intriguing ancient 18km pilgrim path goes right through the Gaeltacht to Mount Brandon, combining stunning scenery with rich early Christian history, myth and archaeology. The Cill Rialaig Arts Centre in the quaint Gaeltacht village of Dun Geagan offers further cultural opportunity with an impressive range of exhibitions, programmes and workshops.
Climbing the Path of the Saints in County Kerry
Before you visit these unique regions, why not learn a couple of handy phrases to start conversation with a local?
Céad míle fáilte
[Cade mee-lah foyle-ta]
– “A hundred thousand welcomes”
Conas atá tu?
[Cunn us ah-taw too]
– How are you?
Go maith, go raibh maith agat
[Go moh, go rev moh og-it]
– I’m well, thank you
Dha phíonta Guinness má sé do thoill é
[Gaw fee-anta Guinness maw shay duh hull ay]
– Two pints of Guinness, please
With those in your lexicon, you can follow in beloved British actor and comedian Stephen Fry’s whimsical footsteps when he humorously stumbled into popular Irish language soap opera Ros na Rún in 2011!
For more ways to learn Gaelic and experience the ancient Irish language on the west coast, tune into the unique frequency of Irish soundscapes with the Sounds of the Wild Atlantic Way. Consult our handy directory for more on how to make the most of your journey.