How to Pronounce Irish
[Please note: This was compiled from several sources and 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 (south), Connacht (west), and Ulster (north)) as well as myriad local ones. 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 (compare, e.g., labhair (‘lauer’), tabhair (‘toor’), and tábhairne (‘TAverna’); Éire (‘ayra’) and éirí (‘īree’)), and pronunciation is greatly affected by position in the word and stress. Furthermore, the same word may be pronounced differently according to context, custom, and dialect (e.g., éigin and madra).
Stress is usually placed on the first syllable. Sometimes, and more so in the south, the syllable containing a long vowel (see below), especially in the root of the word, is stressed, e.g., scannán, arán.
Regarding the ‘accent’ mark: It is called the síneadh fada, or just fada, and indicates a long vowel in contrast to a short vowel. Long vowels should be viewed as distinct letters from their short counterparts, as is clear in many words where the fada is the only difference: e.g., Seán (‘shawn’) = John; sean (‘shan’) = old; and séan (‘shay-n’) = omen (noun), deny (verb). (A couple of other names: Órla vs. orla (vomit); Síne (‘Sheena’) vs. sine (nipple).)
Vowels are either short or long, the latter indicated with a fada, and either broad (a, o, u) or slender (e, i). When unstressed, the short vowels are generally pronounced very short, i.e., as the schwa sound (‘uh’).
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) can be pronounced ‘pyown’ (‘ow’ as in cow); thall (yonder) can be pronounced ‘howl’.
Before th, gh, or dh, a may indicate an ‘ah’ sound, e.g., dath (color), pronounced ‘dah’.
Between an initial consonant, e.g., c, n, p, or t, and a broad vowel, the slender vowels e and i may be seen as indicating the resulting faint ‘y’ sound (e.g., 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 preceding consonant is slender, and ai after a consonant, the a being silent but indicating that the preceding consonant is broad. In Irish spelling, a broad or slender consonant (see the Consonants section below) must have, respectively, broad or slender vowels both before and after it (when the consonant is not at the start or end of a word).
Other than the above cases, most combinations of short vowels combine (roughly) the sounds of the vowels as written to create (generally) a longer short vowel sound. Combinations that include a long (accented) letter are mostly shaped by that letter. Some combinations stand out:
As with ui, combinations such as ao, aoi, ae, aei, oi, and ai after a consonant are sometimes pronounced with a slight ‘w’ before them, e.g., faoi (under) = ‘fwee’.
Hidden vowel sound
Many Irish people pronounce the English word film as ‘fillum’. This reflects Irish pronunciation. When some consonant pairs are preceded by a short stressed vowel, an additional short vowel is heard between them. For example: bolg (stomach) is pronounced ‘bolug’; garbh (rough) ‘garev’; dorcha (dark) ‘doraha’; gorm (blue) ‘gorum’, and ainm (name) ‘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 in spelling by the vowel(s) before and/or after (therefore, a consonant or consonant group can not be flanked by a broad vowel (a, o, u) on one side and a slender (e, i) on the other).
In Ulster and Connacht, the n after c, g, or m is pronounced ‘r’.
The letters j, k, q, v, w, x, y, and z do not exist in Irish except for borrowed words (e.g., júdó, vaimpír).
The sounds of consonants can be changed by softening or eclipsis.
Aspiration of a consonant is indicated 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 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. Examples: na mban (of women) = nah mon; sa bpaipéar (in the paper) = sa bapair; sa gcathair (in the city) = sa gahar.
[Dictionary note: Remember to consider the fact that the beginnings of words are often mutated in Irish, as in the above examples of séimhiú and úrú, when looking up words in a dictionary. For example, cathaoir (chair) will appear in various sentences as gcathaoir and chathaoir; only cathaoir will be found in a print dictionary.]