Irish Pronunciation
the basics

A very, very basic guide to the pronunciation of written Irish - to help English speakers with getting performers and song/tune names somewhat more correct than we usually do.

A note about names: Distinctively Irish surnames tend to begin with Ó, Ní, Mac or Nic (sometimes written as 'ac or 'ic).  Mac and Nic mean 'son/daughter of', Ó and mean 'of the family of' - for male and female names respectively.  However, this is not a hard and fast rule - you will find a few male s and female Ós too.

Formal names for married women are more complicated - Seán Ó Conaill's wife, Máire, could be formally addressed as Máire Bean Uí Chonaill - literally 'Moira, woman of O'Connell'.  Other name forms are even more complex.  Fortunately for us, in traditionally Irish speaking areas, married women tended to be known informally by their maiden names.

Some Common (male) Surnames
Ó ConaillO'ConnellÓ MathúnaO'Mahoney  
Ó Dochartaigh   DohertyÓ CinnéideKennedy
Ó RiagáinRe(a)ganÓ MurchúMurphy
Ó CeallaighKellyMac Mathúna   McMahon
Mac CárthaighMcCarthyMac CraithMcGrath
Mac GearailtFitzGerald   BreathnachBranagh

Female versions of male names like those above, will often have an h added as the secong letter - resulting in a change in pronunciation:

remember, the ch sound is as in loch
Ó ConaillNí ChonaillNee Chonuil
Ó MurchúNí MhurchúNee Wurachoo
Ó CeallaighNí CheallaighNee Chyala
Ó SéNí ShéNee Hay

The Guide:

The Irish Alphabet:



When they have an accent, called a sína fada (sheena fodda), they are pronounced long - e.g. Érin is pronounced 'Aerin', bán (meaning white) is pronounced 'bawn' and the man's name should be written Seán, otherwise it ought to be pronounced 'shan', as in sean nós.

Long Vowels are 'pure' vowel sounds as in German, French or Italian, and do not end with y or w glides as do the corresponding sounds in English.

Long Vowels
ílike English ee in meet = she (she)
élike French é or German eh = meh (I or me)                          
álike English aw in bawl = law (day)
ólike French au or German oh               = beau (cow)
úlike English oo in pool = too (you)

Short Vowels
ilike English short i in pitsin (that) sounds like English shin  
elike English short e in gette (hot)
aeither as in English tap or topfada = fodda
olike English book, but with the mouth more open
ulike the English oo in looktugann (gives)

As in English, vowels are often combined to procuce another sound:

ei = e in get, e.g. ceist (question) (pron. kesht)
ea = a in hat, e.g. bean (woman) sounds rather like English ban
ai = between a in hat and o in hot, e.g. baile (town) (pron. bolle)
ui = ui , e.g. cuid (part) is like quid; muid (we) sounds like mwid
oi = a sound between e and o, e.g. scoil (school)
io = i between consonants, e.g. mion (tiny).

... or composite sounds:

ceol (pron. kyol) (music)
píosa ceoil (a piece of music) (pron. pisa kyoil)
feoil (meat) (pron. fyoil)
cíuin (quiet) (pron. kyuin)
buíoch (grateful) (pron. bweeoch)

When they occur at the beginning of a word, some combinations lose their first vowel:

eo is pronounced like o - eolas (information) (pron. ohlas)
iu is pronounced like u - Iúil (July) (pron. uil)
ui is pronounced like i - uisce (water) (pron. ishke)
oi is pronounced like i or e - oifig (office) (pron. ifig or efig)


Generally pronounced much as in English - except that s is almost always sh. (except in is (is)); Seán (John) pronounced Shawn.  Muiris (Maurice) sounds like mwirish. Sheila is spelled  Síle.

In some areas, t and d sound like English ch and j respectively:
te (hot) pron. che
deoch (drink) pron. juch.

A symbol called a sí buailte (she boo-ilta) was once used to change the sound of some consonants in written Irish.  With the advent of the typewriter, the letter h was substituted for this purpose, but often retains the Irish name.

Consonant + h
bhvSean Bhan Bhocht = Shan Van Vocht    
chgutteral ch or k/q    Taoiseach = Teeshock
dhsilent or gceilidh = kayli
fhsilentFhear Muí = Are Mwee
ghg or y or silentBean an Tigh = Ban a' Tee
mhv, w or silentNiamh = Neev
phfStíophán = Stefawn
shsilent or hNí Shé = Nee Hay
thhthug (gave) = hoog - pron. as in hook

There are many, many more rules - 'broad' and 'slender' consonants, vowels written but not pronounced, vowels pronounced but not written, beginnings or endings of words 'mutated' by what comes before or after them, capitals inside words ....... It has even been suggested, in certain quarters, that they only do it to confuse the English!

This has been nothing but the most basic of guides.  I hope it may have helped a little.

My sincere thanks to friends Ruarí Ó Caomhanach and Alain De Búrcha for their help in putting it together.

Please let us know if it has been helpful - and if you think that sound clips of some of the pronunciations would be a useful addition.

Rod Stradling - 15.8.98


Rod Stradling - e-mail: rod@mustrad.u-net.com    Tel: 01453 759475
snail-mail: 1 Castle Street, Stroud, Glos GL5 2HP, UK

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