A Beginner’s Guide to Old Irish Pronunciation

by Annie Loughlin. Do not reprint without permission.

Ogham inscription

Old Irish, or Sengoídelc, is the language that was spoken in Ireland from around the seventh to the tenth centuries C.E. This language evolved out of an earlier form of Irish which is most commonly called Primitive Irish, or Gaeilge Ársa. This Primitive Irish is the earliest known form of a Goidelic language, and it only survives in a fragmentary form, preserved on some ogham inscriptions which date from around the fourth century C.E. at the very earliest. It’s an unfortunate fact that we don’t know when this early form of Irish was first spoken, or how it developed in the first place.

The ogham inscriptions that preserve examples of Primitive Irish are usually limited to only giving the name of the person being commemorated on the stone. Sometimes the inscription tells us who their father or some other important ancestor of there’s was, and sometimes they might tell us which people (or population group) they belonged to. These ogham inscriptions were produced into the Old Irish period, up until around the eighth century or so, and linguists have studied them to learn more about how the Irish language evolved over time.

As a language evolves, certain things – like spelling and pronunciation – can change. A lot of the time these changes are gradual, but sometimes they can appear quite sudden, especially when there are quite dramatic changes in society that prompt the need for new vocabulary – like the arrival and adoption of a new religion, or foreign invaders, for example. Even without these big things, change is pretty much inevitable anyway. After Old Irish we move into the Middle Irish period, for example. Middle Irish was spoken from around the tenth century up until the thirteenth century, and then, by the thirteenth century, the language had changed enough to be classified as Early Modern Irish (or Classical Irish), which was spoken up until the eighteenth century. This is when Modern Irish officially emerged, and so we have a good 1,00 years and change between the emergence of Old Irish and the emergence of Modern Irish.

The Old Irish period is pretty significant in Irish history because (amongst many other things) it saw the beginning of Ireland’s manuscript tradition. These manuscripts were somewhat concerned with producing ecclesiastical materials, but the scribes also concentrated on writing down Ireland’s own myths, poems, laws, the genealogies of important royal dynasties, and they also detailed annals of some of the most important events of the day, amongst many other things. This manuscript tradition represents the earliest body of vernacular literature in the whole of western Europe, and although very few of the manuscripts that have survived to the present day can be dated to this early period (most date from around the twelfth century onwards), the scribes didn’t always modernise the language as they copied from older manuscripts, leaving us with a pretty good understanding of Old Irish. These texts may therefore include the names of many of Ireland’s deities, and also words and phrases that may be relevant to Gaelic Polytheism, and Gaol Naofa in particular. We learn from poems that date from as early as the sixth or eighth century, for example, that the gods were understood as dé ocus andé, or ‘gods and ungods,’ before they later came to be known as the Tuatha Dé Danann, while the people of Leinster traced the ancestry of their kings back to figures like Núadu Necht and Núadu Fuildiu, who may represent Núadu as an ancestral deity in a localised form. These are invaluable insights into Ireland’s pagan beliefs, and there are many more to be found if we look closely enough.

These names and phrases are Old Irish in form, and a lot of the literature you will probably end up reading – whether it’s the myths or more academic literature that talks about them, or some of our articles and pages here – will often default to the Old Irish spellings a lot of the time. This is for simplicity’s sake, if anything, but it’s also often just the convention… If you prefer modern spellings and pronunciations that is absolutely fine!

For beginners it can often be rather daunting and distracting when you’re having to wrangle spellings and pronunciations that aren’t familiar to you while you’re also trying to learn the basics about the myths, or gods, or our beliefs in general. Getting an understanding of some of the basics of pronunciation for Old Irish can be a big help, even if you don’t intend to learn the language to any degree of fluency. For one, it helps remove the potential distraction; you begin to read the words easily instead of fumbling and stumbling over them, so you can concentrate on the content instead of worrying about what the hell that word is. It can also help you gain more confidence in your practices. Really, it’s a win all round.

There is a simple list of Old Irish names, words and phrases with simplified pronunciations given for each of them further down this page if you want to skip straight to it, but the following information is helpful to know!

The Basics

The spelling and pronunciation of Old Irish can be very different when we compare it with modern Irish (or Scottish Gaelic, or Manx, which are also Goidelic languages), so things can get a little confusing sometimes. While there are some very obvious similarities between the languages, since they all have a common origin, there are also some very obvious differences when it comes to pronunciation, so what applies to one language doesn’t necessarily apply to another.

As far as Old Irish goes, there are some very basic rules that can be followed, which can help you get the hang of things. Remember, though, while these rules apply to Old Irish, that doesn’t mean they necessarily apply to modern Irish or any other Goidelic language!

In Old Irish, the pronunciation of a letter can be affected by a number of factors, but the main ones are:

  • Where the letter is in the word — at the beginning, or in the middle/end of the word
  • Which letters come before or after it
  • In the case of vowels, whether they are accented or not (á ó ú é í, as opposed to the simple a o u e i)


The Old Irish alphabet is based on the Latin alphabet and consists of eighteen letters:


Compared to our modern English alphabet, there are a few letters missing, then. As with English, specific combinations of letters can produce specific sounds, so once we get the hang of the basic rules, pronunciation is pretty straightforward. Sometimes there may be exceptions to the rules (aren’t there always!), but try not to worry too much about that.


Before looking at how the vowels are pronounced, there are a few background details that we should look at. This will help you figure out pronunciations for yourself later on, and it will also introduce you to some terms that you will need to be familiar with if you decide to look into Old Irish in more detail. We’ll try to keep the jargon to a minimum, but some of these fancy terms are really necessary to know.

When it comes to vowels, one of the most important things you need to know is that vowels are split into two groups: broad and slender vowels.

Broad vowels are: a, o and u
Slender vowels are: e and i

This is why we tend to find the vowels listed in a different order than we might find in English — a o u e i, instead of a e i o u (as can be seen in discussions about the ogam alphabet, for example).

Slender vowels (e, i) can affect the way certain letters are pronounced, and they can cause palatalization. In most cases — and in very simple terms — this is where a ‘yuh’ or ‘uh’ sound is introduced into a word, like with the word bile (meaning ‘sacred tree’). The final e is palatalized, giving a ‘yuh’ sound here. Bile is therefore pronounced BIL-yuh.

Where slender vowels (e, i) are found with the letter s, we often end up with a ‘sh’ sound. An example here is senchas (meaning ‘lore’) — pronounced SHEN-uh-chas. In this case, the slender vowel also slenderizes the syllable after it, giving an ‘uh’ sound between the sen- and -chas. 

Generally speaking, the vowels are pronounced like so:

a — in the first syllable of a word, it is lengthened, as in farther or arse (or rather, if you have a posh or southern English accent!)
a — in the second syllable of a word, it is a shortened sound, as in ass
o — a short sound, as in hot
u — a short sound, as in but
e — in the first syllable of a word, a short sound as in pet
e — in the second (and subsequent) syllable of a word, it is often a shortened a sound, as in ass
i — a short sound, as in sit, but remember the sound can be changed by other vowels next to it

But! A vowel with an accent is often pronounced differently, with the accent lengthening it:

á — on its own, with no other vowels beside it, it gives an ‘ah’ sound, as in bra
áe — gives an ‘eye’ sound, as in bye or lie
ái — gives an ‘a’ sound, as in and
 — gives an ‘ee’ sound, as in breed
ó — on its own, ‘ow’ or ‘oh,’ as in flow
óe — with an e after it, the sound changes to ‘ey,’ as in hey
ú — an ‘oo’ sound, as in food
é — an ‘ey’ sound, as in hey
í — an ‘ee’ sound, as in seed


Sometimes the sound of a consonant can change depending on where they are in a word. As a general rule, b, c, d, m, p and t all change their sounds depending on whether or not they appear at the beginning, or in the middle or end of a word, for example. However, when the same letter is repeated — such as in the name Ólamm — the initial pronunciation is kept. In this case, the ‘mm’ will give a ‘m’ sound, whereas on its own (at the end or middle of a word), m would usually give a ‘v’ sound.

b — at the beginning of a word, it usually takes the same sound as in English. Elsewhere it may take a ‘v’ sound
c — at the beginning of a word, it always takes a hard ‘c’, as in cat or Celtic. Elsewhere it may take a hard ‘g’ sound, as in got
d — at the beginning of a word, followed by a broad vowel, it sounds as usual, as in dad
d — at the beginning of a word, but with a slender vowel, it can take on more of a ‘j’ sound. Danann is therefore DAN-ann, whereas may be pronounced more like ‘jay’
d — elsewhere in a word, it becomes a hard ‘th’, as in the or that (as opposed to the softer sound in think)
f — a bit complicated! Stick with the usual ‘f’ sound
g — always a hard ‘g’, as in ‘gave’, but the sound changes slightly when it occurs at the middle or end of a word — it is still hard, but the sound begins at the back of the throat, almost like you’re trying to swallow it as you say it
h — does not generally occur on its own in Old Irish, but combines with other letters like ch and th (see below); if it does occur at the beginning of a word, it can give the usual ‘h’ sound, as in English
l — as in English, but slender vowels (e or i) can give it a palatalized sound — a ‘lyuh’ sound
m — as usual at the beginning of the word, but elsewhere it can take on a ‘v’, or sometimes a ‘w’ sound (though see the note on nasalization below)
n — as in English, but may also palatize with slender vowels — a ‘nyuh’ sound (though see the note on nasalization below)
p — a normal ‘p’ at the beginning of a word, but elsewhere it can take on a ‘b’ sound
r — as in English
s — when appearing with broad vowels (a o u), it gives a soft ‘s’, as in puss,
— when appearing with slender vowels (e i), whether they come before or after the ‘s,’ it takes on a ‘sh’ sound
t — as usual at the beginning of a word, but elsewhere it can take on a soft ‘d’ sound or a ‘ch’ sound when palatalized, with the exception of when it appears in combination with a ‘ch’ before it, such as in the name Dian Cécht; in this instance the t retains the same sound as at the beginning of a word

Other sounds:

ch — never a ‘ch’ sound like chance, always pronounced as in loch or when a Scottish person says och!
ph — a ‘f’ sound, as in philosophical
th — a soft ‘th’, as in thing (as opposed to the ‘h’ sound it now produces in modern Irish and Gaelic)

One final point on consonants… Nasalization:

n and m — sometimes you will see these letters coming before the consonants b, d, and g. An example can be found with the phrase nem nglas, “the blue sky.” The presence of the n in nglas indicates nasalization, where the n is formed in the back of the throat before pronouncing the rest of the word. It effectively kills the sound of the next letter, so in this case the g should not be heard, and the word should sound something like “nlass,” all one syllable, not “nuh-glass” or “nuh-lass.”


In most cases (for our purposes) the first syllable of the word is always stressed, and remember — this can sometimes change the way some letters are pronounced, as in the case of a and e, above.

Pronunciation Guide

Here are some names, words and phrases that you might find useful, with suggested pronunciations, which should give you an idea of how all of the above works in context.

Getting to grips with the basics can be confusing enough as it is without having to learn the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) as well. For this reason, we’ve tried to keep pronunciations here as simple as possible, although this means that they inevitably cannot be as nuanced or as accurate as they would be using the IPA. The capitalised syllable shows which part of the word should be stressed (where applicable).

For reference, ‘ow,’ as given in the guide below, will sound as in “flow” (as opposed to the sound you find in “cow,” for example). Because some letters produce similar sounds — where d can give a hard ‘th’ as in “the”, while th gives a soft ‘th’, as in “think — these will be distinguished in the guide by the use of:

dh — for a hard ‘th’ (the)
th — remains for the soft ‘th’ (think)


gh — to show the slight change in sound of a g in the middle of a word, where it should be sounded at the back of the throat as if you are almost swallowing it
g — remains for the initial sound
dj — denotes the slight softening of d when it occurs at the beginning of a word with a slender vowel
tch — giving a ‘ch’ sound like chomp



Adomnán – A-dov-nawn 
 — EYE-dh (to rhyme with “scythe”)
Aífe — EE-fuh
Aillenn AL-yan
Ailill — AL-il
Áine — AHN-ya (or, later, AWN-ya)
Airmid — AR-vidh (or ARA-vidh)
Amairgen — AV-ir-ghen
An Dagda — an DAGH-dha
An Morrígan — an MOR-ree-ghan
Anu — AN-oo
Badb — BADH-uv
Banba — BAN-va (or BAN-a-va)
Bóand (Bóann) — BOW-an (BOW- as in a “bow” and arrow)
Bodb Derg — BODH-uv DJER-ug
Boruma — BOR-u-wa
Brian — BREE-an
Bricriu — BRIK-roo
Brigit — BRIGH-id
Bres — BRESS (like “chess”)
Buí — BWEE
Cáer Íborméith — KYRE IV-ar-vayth (KYRE rhyming with “tyre”)
Cailleach — KAL-yach
Caílte (Caoilte) — KYLE-tcha (or KWEEL-tcha; the “w” sound being pretty soft/almost unheard)
Cermait Milbél — KYER-mad MIL-vayl (-vayl rhymes with “pale”)
Cessair — KESS-ar (or KyESS-ar)
Conaire — KON-ur-uh
Conall — KON-al
Conchobar — KON-chav-ar
Cormac — KOR-mac
Credne — KREDH-nya
Crom Crúach —
Crom Dub(h) —
Cú Chulainn
Cú Roí — KOO ro-EE
Dian Cécht — DJEE-an ce-cht
Díarmait — DJEE-ar-mad
Domnall — DOV-nal
Donn — DON
Donnchadh – DON-a-chadh
 — EL-ath-a
Emer — EH-ver
Eochaid Ollathair — YOKH-adh oll-ATH-ar
Éremón — AY-ra-vone
Ériu — EYHR-yoo
Étaín — AY-dine (in modern pronunciation it’s AY-deen, which some people favour over the OI)
Ethliu — ETH-lyoo
Fáelán — FAY-lawn
Fand — FANN
Fer Díad — fer DEE-a
Finnabair – FIN-av-ir
Finn mac Cumaill — fin mac KUH-vahl
Fintan mac Bóchra — FIN-tan mac BOW-chra
Flidais — FLIDH-ash
Fótla — FOHD-la
Gabrán — GAV-rawn
Goibniu — GOV-nyoo
Gráinne — GRAWN-ya
Grian — GREE-an
Indech  IN-yech
Iuchar — YUCH-ar
Iucharba — YUCH-ar-va
Lí Bán — LEE VAHN (sometimes given Lí Ban, in which case: LEE VAN)
Lir — lyir
Lochlann — LOCH-lan
Lóegaire — LOYGH-a-ra
Lug Lámfada — lugh LAH-va-dha (later, as Lugh, the pronunciation becomes LOO)
Lugaid — LUGH-adh
Macha — MACH-a
Mael Dúin — MAYL doon (or if spelled Máel: MYLE)
Manannán mac Lir — MAN-ann-ahn mac LYEE-r
Medb — MEDH-uhv
Miach – MEE-uch
Midir — MIDH-ar
Míl Éspáine — MEEL ESS-pahn-ya
Nemain — NyEV-an
Néit — NyEHT
Noisiu — NOY-shoo
Núadu Argatlám — NOO-adh-oo AR-gad-LAHV (or NOO-adh-a for Núada as it’s sometimes spelled)
Óengus — OIN-ghas (or EYN-guss/ENG-guss, more of an Anglo-Irish pronunciation)
Ogma — OGH-ma
Oisín — OSH-een
Ólamm — OW-lam
Ollathair — oll-ATH-ar
Partholón — PARTH-al-own (like “Parth-alone”)
Rúad — ROO-adh
Rúadan — ROO-adh-ahn
Sadb — SADH-uhv (very different to the modern pronunciation for Sadhbh, which is SIVE)
Samildánach — SAV-il-dahn-ach
Scáthach — SCAW-thach
Sétanta — SHAY-dan-da
Sinand — SHIN-ann
Suibne — SIV-nyuh
Tadg — TADH-ug
Tailltiu — TAL-tyuh
Trénfher — TRAY-ner
Uisliu — ISH-loo


Aisling(e) (‘vision, dream’) — ASH-ling(-a)
 — BEL-tin-uh
Brithem (‘judge; brehon’) — BRITH-ev
Cairdes (‘friendship; pact; kinship’) — KARDH-yesh
Cethardúil (‘cosmos; universe; nature’) — KETH-ar-dhool
Cóiced (‘province; fifth’) — KOW-gedh
Comalnad (‘fulfillment; act of fulfilling’) — KOV-al-nadh
Dán (‘skill, art’) — dawn
Dindshenchas (‘placename lore’) — DIN-hen-chas (or sometimes DIN-shen-a-chas)
Dírgas (‘righteousness; uprightness’) — DJEER-gas
Dún (‘hill-fort’) — doon
Eólas (‘knowledge’) — OW-las
Feis (‘feast’) — fesh
Fían (‘war-band’) — FEE-an
Fidchell  (‘wood-sense’; a board game) — FIDH-chell
Fili, filid (p.) (‘poet, seer’) — FIL-ee, FIL-idh
Fír (‘truth’) — feer
Fir Bolg (‘men of bags’) — FEER VOL-g (or VOL-ug)
Fomoire (‘Fomorians’) — FOV-or-uh
Geis (‘prohibited act’) — gehsh
Imbolc — IM-ol-uhg
Immram (‘rowing-around; a voyage [usually overseas]’) — IM-rav
Lía Fáil (‘Stone of Destiny’)— LEE-a fahl
Lugnasad — LUGH-na-sad
Mide – MEEDH-uh
Muinter (‘community; group’) — MUN-der
Muir (‘sea; water’) — mweer
Óenach (‘assembly’) — EH-nach
Ollam (‘highest grade of the fili’) — OLL-av
Nem (‘sky’) — nev
Nemed (‘sacred; holy; sanctuary’) — NEV-adh
Samain — SA-vin
Senchas (‘lore’) — SHEN-chas (or SHEN-uh-chas)
Síabair, síabraí (‘phantoms, spectres’) — SHEE-av-ar, SHEE-av-ree
Síd (‘mound; brugh’) — sheedh (or shee)
Táin (‘cattle-raid; driving-out’) — toyn
Talam (‘land’) — TAL-av
Teglach (‘household’) — TEGH-lach
Temair (‘Tara’) — TE-vir
Tír Tairngire (‘land of promise’) — TEER TARN-gir-a
Túath (‘a people; a nation; a territory’) — TOO-ath
Túatha (‘peoples; nations; territories’) — TOO-ath-a
Uí Néill (‘descendants of Niall’) – EE NYAILL
Ulaid (‘people of Ulster’) — UL-idh

Useful phrases

Acallam na Senórach (‘Colloquy of the Ancients’) — AG-al-av na SHEN-or-ach
Áes dána 
(‘people of skill/the arts’) — ice DAHN-a
Áes síde
 (‘people of the mounds’) — ice SHEEDH-a
Auraicept na n-Éces (‘Scholar’s Primer’) — OW-ra-kept na NAY-gass
Bile Mór — BIL-yuh mowr
Brón Trogain (‘earth’s sorrowing’) — BRONE TROG-an
Cath Maige Tuired (‘[Second] Battle of Mag Tured’) — KATH MAG-a TOO-radh
Dé ocus andé (‘gods and ungods’) — DJAY oc-uss an-DJAY (or DAY oc-uss an-DAY)
Echtrae Chonnlai  (‘the adventure of Connla’) — ECH-tra CHONN-lee
Emain Macha — EH-vin MA-cha
Fír flathemon (‘ruler’s truth’) — feer FLATH-av-on
Glam Dícenn (‘extreme satire’) — glahv DIG-en
In Rúad Rofessa (‘The Red One of Great Knowledge’) — In ROO-adh ROH-fess-a
Imbas forosnai (‘great knowledge that illuminates’) — IM-ass FOR-oss-na
Lebor Gabála (‘Book of Taking’) — LEV-ar GA-vah-la (alternatively, Lebor may sound like LyOWER, to rhyme with “flower”)
Lebor na hUidhre  (‘Book of the Dun Cow’) — LEV-ar na HIR-a
Mag mBreg — MAGH mray
Mag Murtheimne — MAGH MUR-thev-na
Nem nglas, muir mas, talam cé (‘the blue sky, the beautiful sea, the present earth’) — nev nlas, mweer mas, TAL-uhv kay
Senchus Már  (‘Great Lore’) — SHEN-chas MAHR
Táin Bó Cúailnge (‘Cattle Raid of Cooley’) — toyn bow KOOL-ngya (or KOO-loing-ya)
Tochmarc Étaíne (‘Wooing of Étaín’) — TOCH-vark AY-deen-ya

References and useful resources

  • Old Irish Spelling and Pronunciation by Dennis King
  • Sengoídelc — a list of useful links and resources
  • Sengoidelc: Quotations from Early Irish Literature
  • Old Irish — Wikipedia Page
  • Tales of the Elders of Ireland by Ann Dooley and Harry Roe — gives a useful and basic summary of pronunciation, plus a guide of all the names found in the book
  • A Guide to Early Irish Law by Fergus Kelly — has a good overview of Old Irish pronunciation, but slightly more advanced (using International Phonetic Alphabet)
  • Sengoídelc: Old Irish for Beginners by David Stifter
  • An Introduction to Old Irish by R.P.M. Lehman
  • A Grammar of Old Irish by Rudolf Thurneysen
  • Old Irish Workbook (Irish Studies) by Ernest Gordon Quin
  • A first Old Irish grammar and reader: including an introduction to Middle Irish by Kim McCone
  • Old Irish Verbs and Vocabulary by Antony Green