The Irish Language

by Dr.  Malachy O'Neill

Head of School, School of Irish Language & Literature, Ulster University 

Irish is a Celtic language of Indo-European origin. It belongs to the same linguistic group (Q-Celtic) as Scottish Gaelic and Manx. It is spoken primarily in Ireland but it is possible to locate speakers of Irish throughout the world and there is huge volume of Irish language communication on the internet. Irish is an official language of the European Union and is protected by the European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages.  

There are two states on the island of Ireland and two official languages in the southern jurisdiction. While Irish is the first official language of the Republic of Ireland it is English which is the most commonly used vernacular. Everyone studies Irish at primary and secondary school and Irish people have a great affinity for the language – 1.3 million stating that they have a competency in Irish in the most recent southern census in 2012.

In Northern Ireland, Irish is taught alongside other modern languages at post-primary level, mainly in Catholic schools, and there are now almost five thousand children attending Irish medium schools where all lessons are delivered through the medium of Irish. 94,000 people (more than 10% of the population) indicated an ability to speak Irish in the 2011 census.

A Gaeltacht is defined as an area in which Irish is the primary means of communication of the community. The majority of Irish speakers reside in the Gaeltacht regions on the western seaboard of Ireland, from Waterford in the south to Donegal in the north. The majority of these localities are isolated seaside districts but new urban Gaeltacht areas are emerging in cities such as Dublin and Belfast.

In a survey carried out by Millward Brown for Conradh na Gaeilge (‘the Gaelic League’) in early 2015, 70% of people in the south 54% of people in the north stated that services through the medium of Irish should be available to those who wish to use them. As well as that, 72% of southern residents 63% of northern residents felt that Irish medium education should be available to those who wish to avail of it. This illustrates a high level of support for the Irish language, not only from the Irish speaking community but from the wider population.

Prior to the arrival of the Anglo-Normans (1169) the entire island of Ireland was Irish speaking but the Irish language has been under increasing pressure ever since. The Anglo-Normans left their mark on the Irish language (e.g. cúirt = court; garsún = boy; seomra = room) as did the Vikings before them (e.g. bróg = shoe; margadh = market; pingin = penny) but English did not take the upper hand until the fall of the Gaelic order with the defeat at Kinsale (1601) and the Plantation of Ulster (1607) thereafter.

Two thirds of the population of Ireland (1,340,808 people) were still registered as Irish speakers in 1731 but by the end of that century only half of the population were Irish speaking. While the population was on the rise the number of Irish speakers was in decline and the Great Famine had a devastating impact on the language. By the year 1851, only a quarter of the population used Irish as a first language.

When Conradh na Gaeilge (‘the Gaelic League’) was established in 1893, only 0.8% of the population spoke Irish only while 15% were bilingual. The Irish language revival has been ongoing for over one hundred years and there are now two million people throughout Ireland who speak Irish. There are a wide range of employment opportunities for Irish speakers at home and abroad and numerous organisations (including Gael Linn!) are responsible for a great deal of work to address the needs of the Irish language community and learners of the language.

The Irish language has its own national television (TG4) and radio (Raidió na Gaeltachta) stations and much Irish is seen and heard in other media. Irish speakers are an active, energetic and musical group and there are a number of highlights in the annual calendar of events, especially Seachtain na Gaeilge (‘Irish language week’) around St Patrick’s Day in March and Oireachtas na Samhna, a cultural festival which is the keynote event for Irish speakers each year.

Life in Ireland is now based on a multilingual and multicultural society and the Irish language is key aspect of this society. Immigrants from across the world are now residing in Ireland, some of whom attend Irish medium schools and Irish language activities to expedite and enhance their appreciation of Irish culture. The progress of the peace process in the north has provided opportunities for non-traditional learners from the PUL (Protestant-Unionist-Loyalist) community to learn Irish and an excellent example of this is the East Belfast Mission and the Turas initiative under the leadership of Linda Ervine.

Irish is a lively living language that is available and open to all!