Irish lexicography

Lexicography evolved in order to serve one of two needs i.e. in order to explain in a simple way difficult words and expressions or in order to explain the words and expressions of one language in another. In this case we can trace the tradition of lexicography in Irish back to the 8th century.


Around 750 A.D. an anonymous Irish student studying in Würzburg in Germany, wrote down explanations in his native tongue on the Latin text of the Epistles of Saint Paul as an aid to help him understand the Latin. The text and explanations still survive in Würzburg. This is the earliest known attempt at bilingual lexicography in Irish. Lexicography of various kinds has been practised in Irish from that time down to our own day – a journey of about 1,250 years.


The first dictionaries compiled in Irish independent of an accompanying text are described as Glossaries. It is most likely that these were put together from glosses already appended to other texts. Sanas Cormaic (Cormac’s Glossary) is the most famous of these and was compiled over one thousand years ago. The compiler Cormac Mac Cuileannáin died in 908. It is an encyclopaedic dictionary containing simple synonymous explanations in Irish or Latin of the headwords. In some cases he attempts to give the etymology of the words and in others he concentrates on an encyclopaedic entry. It is held to be the first linguistic dictionary in any of the non-classical languages of Europe. Cormac was Bishop of Cashel and king of Munster.

Ó Cléirigh

Mícheál Ó Cléirigh was a Franciscan and head of the Four Masters. He compiled another famous glossary called ‘Sanasán Mhichíl Uí Chléirigh’ (Michael O’Clery’s Glossary). This glossary was printed in 1643 during the author’s lifetime. These two glossaries and others are valuable for the etymological and encyclopaedic information contained in them. They are of equal value for their explanations of difficult words and because they contain words for which there is no evidence to be had apart from the spoken language of the present day.


In 1662 Richard Plunkett, a Franciscan living in Trim, Co. Meath, finished the first great bilingual dictionary containing the Irish language, his Latin-Irish Dictionary. The manuscript was never published and is now held in Marsh’s Library in Dublin. Despite this fact, subsequent lexicographers made copious use of this work.[1]

18th century

Edward Lhuyd, a Welsh speaker was one of the first to make good use of Plunkett’s dictionary, in the dictionary of multilingual lists (encompassing the Celtic languages, Latin and English) which he published in 1707. During the 18th century two major English-Irish dictionaries and two Irish-English dictionaries were compiled. In Paris in 1732 the first comprehensive English-Irish dictionary[2] was published and in the same city in 1768 a similar Irish-English work was published. Conchubhar Ó Beaglaoich, a priest and private tutor in Paris and Aodh Buí Mac Cruitín, a scholar from Co. Clare compiled the 1732 dictionary.[3] Seán Ó Briain, bishop of Cloyne and Ross was the compiler or the 1768 dictionary.[4] Tadhg Ó Neachtain’s Irish-English Dictionary (1739) and Crab’s English-Irish dictionary remained in manuscript form and were never published.[5]

19th century

During the 19th century three English-Irish dictionaries and the same number of Irish-English dictionaries were compiled. Four of these were published, Tadhg Ó Coinialláin’s English-Irish dictionary(1814), that produced by Domhnall Ó Foghludha (1855), Edward O’Reilly’s Irish-English dictionary (1817, 1821, 1864)[6] and that compiled by Thomas de Vere Coneys (1849). Clareman, Peadar Ó Conaill’s Irish-English dictionary[7] and Robert MacAdam’s English-Irish Dictionary (c. 1850) remain in manuscript form. MacAdam was a business man from Belfast, a Protestant and Irish revivalist.

20th century

During the 20th century four English-Irish dictionaries were published and three major Irish-English dictionaries. The English-Irish dictionaries were produced by Edmund Fournier d’Albe (1903), Timothy O’Neill Lane (1904, 1918),[8] Lambert McKenna (1935) and Tomás de Bhaldraithe (1959). The Irish-English dictionaries included Dineen’s[9] famous work (1904,[10] 1927)[11] also Contributions to a dictionary of the Irish Language (1913–76) published by the Royal Irish Academy, which was a reference work of Old and Middle Irish, and Ó Dónaill’s Foclóir Gaeilge-Béarla (1977).[12] A considerable number of terminological dictionaries, dictionaries relating to specific dialects, dictionaries for school use and pocket dictionaries were also published in the last century. Two dictionaries were also produced containing Irish and a language other than English for the first time since Plunkett’s dictionary in the 17th century. These were Risteaird de Hae’s Irish-French dictionary (1952) and the Irish-Breton dictionary compiled by Loeiz Andouard agus Éamon Ó Ciosáin (1987).[13]

Those great lexicographers who practiced lexicography in Irish were for the most part learned men who had a particular love for Irish. The precise methodologies employed by most of them remain unknown to us. They had no hesitancy, however, in borrowing from dictionaries that already existed. This point as been skillfully shown with no little humour in many articles written by one of the great lexicographers of the 20th century, Tomás de Bhaldraithe. In general their research and use of pre-existing sources greatly increased the value and scope of their work. They sometimes erred in selection of specific word versions which they gleaned from their sources, however. On other occasions one cannot be sure that it is not without a degree of humour that they chose to include certain comical versions. It is not clear whether ignorance or wit was responsible for the following examples from some of the aforementioned works – “giolla earbuill, a page or train-bearer”; “lachaim, to duck or dive”; “calaoiseach, a juggler”; “bol, a poet; a cow”. When in future appointing a dictionary editor perhaps the job description should state that a “siollaire” is required – “siollaire, a scanner of every word, a carper, a dictator; a beater, striker, smiter, a dexterous harper also a good singer; siollaire mná, a strong comely woman” – those are the descriptions found in some of the dictionaries for a person deemed a “siollaire”.It will be interesting to note how the word “siollaire will be employed by those lexicographers who come after us. In any case the journey of over one thousand two hundred years travelled by Irish lexicography from the glossist of Würzburg to the new Foras na Gaeilge dictionary is one of which we can be justifiably proud.[14]


  1. de Bhaldraithe, T. 1987. ‘An Pluincéadach: Ceannródaí Foclóireachta.’ Teangeolas 22: 19-26.
  2. See Mac Coinnigh, Marcas. 2012. ‘Tracing Inspiration in Proverbial Material: from The Royal Dictionary (1699 & 1729) of Abel Boyer to The English-Irish Dictionary (1732) of Begley-McCurtin’. International Journal of Lexicography 26 (2012): 23-57.
  3. Ó Beaglaoich, C, and Mac Cuirtín, A, eds. 1732. English-Irish Dictionary (An Foclóir Béarla gaoidheilge). Guerin, Paris.
  4. Ó Cearnaigh, S. 1993. ‘The Irish-English Dictionary of Bishop John O’Brien 1768.’ The Linen Hall Review 10.1: 15-17.
  5. De Bhaldraithe, T. 1958. ‘Modern Irish Lexicography’, Proceedings of the Eighth International Congress of Linguistics (Oslo): 413-415.
  6. O’Reilly, E. 1821. An Irish-English Dictionary. Dublin: A. O’Neil.
  7. Ó Conaill, P.1826. Foclóir Gaeilge-Béarla. Unpublished manuscript, MS Egerton 83, Royal Irish Academy, Dublin.
  8. O’Neill Lane, T. 1916. Larger English-Irish dictionary. Dublin: The Educational Co. of Ireland.
  9. Ua Súilleabháin, S. 2005. ‘Dinneen’s Dictionary of 1904 and 1927: Background, Use of Historical Dictionaries and of Contemporary Informants.’ In P. Riggs (ed.), Dinneen and The Dictionary 1904-2004. Subsidiary Series No. 16. Dublin: Irish Texts Society.
  10. Dinneen, P. 1904. Foclóir Gaedhilge agus Béarla. Dublin: M.H. Gill and Son, Ltd.
  11. Ó Duinnín, P. ‘Irish Lexicography─ a reply’ Irish Ecclesiastical Record: 4th series. February, 121-141
  12. Ó Dónaill, N. 1978. Foclóir Gaeilge-Béarla, An Gúm, Baile Átha Cliath.
  13. De Bhaldraithe, T. 1958. ‘Modern Irish Lexicography’, Proceedings of the Eighth International Congress of Linguistics (Oslo): 413-415.
  14. De Bhaldraithe, T. 1980. ‘Foclóirí agus foclóireacht na Gaeilge’, The Maynooth Review 6.1.:3-15.
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