Irish Sign Language (ISL)

irish sign language
Irish Flag

Irish Sign Language (ISL) is the sign language used in Ireland (primarily in the Republic of Ireland).

ISL is also used in Northern Ireland, but British Sign Language (BSL) is used there as well. ISL is more similar to American Sign Language and French Sign Language than British Sign Language and is not related to either spoken English or Irish. ISL arose between 1846 and 1849 and is a language of the hands, face, and body that has existed for hundreds of years. It was developed by deaf people within Deaf communities.

ISL has influenced sign languages in South Africa and Australia. ISL was brought to Australia, South Africa, Scotland, and England by Catholic missionaries. You can still see remnants of ISL in some variations of BSL and used by some elderly Auslan Catholics today.

The first deaf school in Ireland was founded by Dr. Charles Orpen in 1816. Originally, these schools did not teach children to speak. It wasn’t until 1887 that there was a reported change from manual to oral deaf education. The switch to oral education came later with the Catholic schools. St. Mary’s School for Deaf Girls switched to an oral approach in 1946 and St. Joseph’s School for Deaf Boys switched in 1956. This didn’t become an official state policy until 1972. Like in the US, sign language was suppressed when schools moved to the oral approach.

An interesting fact is that because there were (and are) separate Catholic schools for boys and girls, there was a “gender Irish Sign Language” variation that was created. Males and females would use different signs for the same word and the girls would learn the boys’ signs through dating and marriage. You can read more about this on the ISL research page at CSULB.

ISL Alphabet Video

The ISL alphabet is very interesting in that it is similar to the ASL manual alphabet. See if you can find the similarities!

If you want to learn more about ISL, we recommend these sites:

Even though you’re having fun with ISL, don’t forget to learn ASL too!


5 Responses

  1. Hello –
    I am fluent in American Sign and there are quite a few similarities between ISL and ASL. Can you provide me with a place where I can find tutorials and perhaps talk to someone in sign to improve skills? I’d like o be able to expand my knowledge in sign from different countries.
    I live in Alaska and I am able to meet on Zoom, keeping in mind the 10 hour time difference.
    Thank you!

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