How to Pronounce Irish
[Please note: This was compiled from several sources but interpreted and simplified according to a rather modest personal experience of the language. See also Irish Phrases, Irish Words, and Focal an Lae (A Word a Day). A good course for learning Irish was published by The Irish People in New York (click).]
There are 18 letters in the Irish alphabet. From earliest times there has been a literary standard, but four distinct spoken dialects (of which three remain: Munster (S), Connacht (W), and Ulster (N)). This guide reflects the “central dialect” and spelling reforms established in the 1940s and ’50s. Note that equivalent English and French sounds as provided here are only approximate and greatly simplified. This is a rough guide only, as there are many exceptions — even the same word may be pronounced differently according to context, custom, and dialect. For example, in maidin mhaith (good morning), mhaith is prounounced ‘vah’ in the south, ‘wah’ in the west, and ‘wye’ in the north.
Stress is generally placed on the first syllable or, if present, the syllable containing a long vowel (marked with an accent).
Vowels are either short or long, the latter indicated with an accent, and either broad (a, o, u) or slender (e, i). The short vowels are generally pronounced very short, between their English short vowel sounds and the schwa sound (ə, ‘uh’).
The accent, called the síneadh fada, meaning ‘long mark’ and usually referred to simply as fada, is important because its presence can indicate an entirely different word: e.g., Seán (‘shawn’) = John; sean (‘shan’) = old; and séan (‘shay-n’) = omen.
Short (unaccented) vowels may be pronounced longer before m, rd, doubled consonants ll, nn, and rr, and softened consonants gh and th. Examples: peann (pen) is pronounced ‘pyown’ (‘ow’ as in cow); thall (yonder) is pronounced ‘howl’.
Before th, gh, or dh, a may indicate an ‘ah’ sound, e.g., dath (color), pronounced ‘dah’.
The slender vowels e and i after nn, and e after l, may be pronounced ‘yeh’, especially at the end of a word, e.g., baile (home), pronounced ‘bal-ye’. Or at the end of a word, particularly a plural noun, e may be pronounced í, e.g., daoine (people), pronounced ‘deenee’.
Between an initial consonant, e.g., c, n, p, or t, and a broad vowel, the slender vowels e and i may indicate a resulting faint ‘y’ sound (peann = ‘pyown’).
Double and triple vowels
Often, one of the vowels is completely silent, inserted to make the preceding or following consonant or consonant group broad (a, o, or u) or slender (e or i; see below and peann, above). Common examples include eo or ea after a consonant, in which the e is silent but indicates that the consonant is slender, and ai after a consonant, the a being silent but indicating that the consonant is broad. This usage may also be an application of the spelling rule that the vowels around a consonant or consonant group in the middle of the word must both be broad or slender (caol le caol agus leathan le leathan).
Other than the above cases (which of course you can’t know unless you already know how to pronounce the word), most combinations of short vowels combine (roughly) the sounds of the vowels as written to create (generally) a longer short vowel sound. Combinations including a long (accented) letter are mostly shaped by that letter. Some combinations stand out:
Combinations such as ao, aoi, ae, aei, ui, oi, and ai are sometimes pronounced with a slight ‘w’ before them after hard consonant sounds, such as c, g, b, and p.
Hidden vowel sound
Many Irish people pronounce the English word film as fillum. This reflects Irish pronunciation rules. When a consonant pair such as cn, gn, lb, lch, lg, lm, ln, nbh, nch, nm, rb, rch, rf, rg, rm, rn, rth, thr, etc. is preceded by a short stressed vowel, an additional short vowel is heard between them. For example: bolg (stomach) is pronounced bolug; garbh (rough) is garev; dorcha (dark) is doracha; gorm (blue) is gorum, and ainm (name) is anum.
The consonants — b, c (always hard [‘k’]), d, f, g (always hard), h, l, m, n, p, r, s and t — are said more or less as in English (though see below), particularly with broad vowels.
Consonants are broad or slender, which is indicated by the vowel(s) before and/or after (a consonant or consonant group can not be flanked by a broad vowel on one side and a slender on the other).
The letters j, k, q, v, w, x, y, and z do not exist in Irish (except as borrowed for foreign words).
The sounds of consonants can be changed by softening or eclipsis.
Aspiration of a consonant is caused by adding the letter ‘h’ (or in the past a dot, called the séimhiú, over the letter). This is also called lenition when changing the case of nouns and associated adjectives: cóta (a coat), mo chóta (my coat); Máire (Maura), a Mháire (being addressed).
A consonant can also be silenced (or rather, nasalised) at the start of a word by another consonant placed before it (eclipsis, úrú). This generally happens in the prepositional and possessive cases of nouns and interrogative forms of verbs. Pronunciation is determined by the eclipsing consonant only, which is the result of a nasal hum while saying the eclipsed consonant. Examples: na mban (of women) = nah mon; i bpaipéar (in the paper) = i bapair; i gcathair (in the city) = i gahar.