Document of the Day -Peadar Ó Laoghaire: Discovering Script and Spelling Development of the Irish Language

by Miriam van der Molen, Project Archivist


Gaelic Script

As somebody who learned Irish in school in the nineties and noughties, I never came across the old Gaelic script used for writing

SP PA 816

Irish, except on the odd sign on a pub or a telephone box. I began working on a collection of mainly manuscript material, created by Peadar Ó Laoghaire from the late nineteenth to the early twentieth century. An interesting thing about this collection is the fact that Ó Laoghaire writes everything in Irish in the Gaelic script. The script looks very decorative and is almost like a form of calligraphy.

Irish translation of Psalm 57 PP3/2/1/22

There is surprisingly little information about the history of the Gaelic script online. While both the Gaelic and Roman scripts were used for Irish after the use of the Ogham alphabet ceased, it appears to have been mainly the Gaelic one used until the general era of 1950s–1960s, when the government decided to use the Roman script exclusively in school textbooks. As a result, few people today use the Gaelic script.

Peadar Ó Laoghaire always wrote Irish in the Gaelic script. The collection at Maynooth University Library also material by Ó Laoghaire that was printed in newspapers. Here, again, is the Gaelic typeface used, as distinct from the Roman one. Both the typeface and the handwritten script have a more rounded look than the Roman script used for Irish, and many other languages, today.

 Letiriú Shímplí

I already knew about the change in the spelling conventions of Irish before embarking on cataloguing the Peadar Ó Laoghaire collection. This happened in the 1940s, and to some extent before that, in order to shorten the length of Irish words which had many silent letters. What I did not know about was the experiment to simplify the spelling of the Irish language early in the twentieth century in another way, basing it on the phonetics of the language. This was known as ‘Letiriú shímplí’, and was instigated by Shán Ó Cuív with Osborn Bergin and Father Richard O’Daly. There was even a Cuman um Letiriú Shímplí (Society for the Simplification of [Irish] Spelling) set up. While Ó Laoghaire initially opposed a simplification of spelling, he appears to have changed his mind quite soon. While the Letiriú Shímplí was used by some newspapers, such as ‘Glór na Ly’ and ‘Sinn Féin’ and in some books and pamphlets, it did not survive for very long.

When I initially saw the simplified spelling Ó Laoghaire had used for some of his publications, I was very confused! It is a spelling which does not quite look like Irish when first glanced at, not least because of the many ‘v’s employed for which Irish normally uses ‘bh’ or ‘mh’, a sound which occurs a lot in the language. The spelling is based on modern phonetics of Irish, in Ó Laoghaire’s case specifically the West Cork dialect. The spelling makes most sense when saying the word in your head, or out loud, as otherwise it can initially be a little cryptic!


Peadar Ó Laoghaire produced ‘Letiriú Shímplí’ versions of his Irish translation of ‘Don Quixote’ and of his novel ‘Séadna’. The proofs of the ‘Letiriú Shímplí’ version of ‘Don Quixote’, called ‘Don Chíchóté’, are present in the Peadar Ó Laoghaire archive.


Letter concerning Séadna PP3/1/1/2













Gaelic Script

Gaelic Typefaces (Fonts): Accessed October 2016.

Irish (Gaeilge): Accessed October 2016.

Letiriú Shímplí

Vaughan, W.E. A New History of Ireland: Ireland Under the Union, 1870-1921, Volume VI.
(Oxford: 2010) pp. 428-430.

Niall Murray, ‘Phonetic Irish language newspaper shone briefly’, ‘Irish Examiner’, 1 February 2016: Accessed September 2016.

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