It was once the dominant and only language of Ireland. Even today, Irish is taught in schools. After that, it is hardly used anymore, but there is a turnaround.
“It was once the predominant and only language in Ireland,” says Rónán Ó Domhnaill. He is chairman of An Coimisinéir Teanga, an organisation dedicated to protecting and promoting the language rights of Irish and English-speaking people in Ireland.
But in the 19th century, a rapid decline occurred and the language was replaced by English. A factor in this was the Great Famine of 1845 to 1849, which caused about one million Irish to die and another one to two million to emigrate – almost all of whom were Irish speakers. At the same time, the British government introduced new laws that replaced Irish with English education.
Over recent centuries, the Irish language was geographically as well as socio-politically marginalised and Irish-speaking populations endured in the northwest, west, and southwest of the island – far from Dublin, the centre of British power. These are the regions where the so-called Gaeltacht communities are located today. Primarily, they are in the counties of Donegal, Galway, Mayo, Kerry, and Cork; with others reviving in Meath and Waterford, closer to Dublin. “Gaeltacht” is the name given to places where Gaelic is still the predominant language. “Here, people speak Irish in everyday life, for example, when shopping,” says Ó Domhnaill.
According to this Irishman, there was a resurgence of the Irish language after the Easter Rising of 1916, an attempt by militant Irish republicans to force Irish independence from Britain. “After that, Irish was recognised by the state and in the constitution.” That led to an increase in the use of the language in education.
But once you leave school, it’s difficult to still use the language regularly. According to the Central Statistics Office, Ireland’s national statistics agency, about 1.7m, or just under 49% of the population, could speak Irish in 2016. That was a decrease of 13,000 people compared to 2011 figures. Of the people who said they could speak Irish, 418,000 said they never use it; 560,000 use the language only at school; and 74,000 speak Gaelic daily.
However, the figures also show that Irish is not only spoken in rural areas. Especially in the capital Dublin, the number of Gaeilgeoirí, which means people who speak Gaelic, is actually increasing. According to Ó Domhnaill, it is also clear that many young people are interested in the language, even though it is no longer used in everyday life.
Although all street signs, and bus and train announcements are in both English and Irish, the dominant language is English. Terms like “Gardaí” for police or “Taoiseach” (pronounced “tee-shok”) for prime minister are used mixed with English in everyday life. But everyone who doesn’t know Irish knows them.
An Irish speaker consulted for this article, Andrew Debarra, is currently brushing up on his Irish anyway. This is mainly for cultural reasons. “I think that, particularly in the west, we are becoming far too homogenous,” says the Irishman. “A link to your own indigenous culture is an invaluable thing and once you have it, nobody can take it away from you.” For him, his own culture is a nice anchor, a vantage point from which he likes to learn about other cultures.
Even with Ireland’s history in mind, Debarra believes it’s important to keep the language alive. “The means by which we came to speak English on the island of Ireland were brutal tactics of colonisation.” According to him, preserving the language and culture is a testament to resistance to tyranny.
Debarra learned the Celtic language because he went to Irish-language primary and secondary schools. He used to be able to converse fluently with his father. But since graduating from high school, he has had little opportunity to practice further. “My brother, father, and I had essentially forgotten to speak Irish together when we weren’t around my mother, not that that was ever the norm,” the 27-year-old says.
“We simply became aware one evening having a pint that we ought to be speaking in Irish.” That then happened off and on over the years. Last summer, the Irishman decided to take a ten-week review course on Irish grammar. Meanwhile, Debarra lives in Manchester and calls his father a few times a week to converse in Irish.
Imogen Cotter has a similar experience. This Irish professional cyclist has been living in Belgium for several years. Still, she’s currently taking online Irish courses and listening to Irish-language radio stations. “I felt a bit sad that my Irish was getting rusty,” she says. “It seemed a shame to let it go to waste.”
Cotter also learned the language in her childhood. Her father spoke only Irish to her and her sisters since they were babies. At age 11, Cotter attended an Irish secondary school and really began to learn the language. But since graduating, even the 27-year-old doesn’t use Irish very often. She still understands everything, though, and when she’s back home, she often hears her sisters and father speaking in Gaelic.
For Cotter, it gives the impression that it is becoming “cooler” to speak Irish again, that the Irish language is back in vogue. For her personally, it’s mostly pride in her homeland and the island’s culture and history that keeps her brushing up on her skills. “It’s also a beautiful language,” she says. “It would be so awful to let it die out when people fought so much to have the right to speak it.”
In some ways, Debarra feels the language is dying out, too. On the other hand, he says, there are more and more people creating art and documentaries in Irish. Non-Irish nationals and naturalised Irish citizens are learning the language from scratch. This is despite the fact that the Gaelic language has virtually no similarities to English and is difficult to learn. “Along with the Gaeltachts and inhabitants that come from uninterrupted generations of speaking the language I cannot imagine the language being snuffed out,” he says. For him and his girlfriend, it’s clear that their children will be fluent in Irish.
For that to work, it has to be easier for islanders to use the language, Ó Domhnaill says. The focus needs to be on the Gealtacht areas, in particular, he says, because, unlike urban areas, there is a decrease in Irish speakers here. The challenge, he said, is to support the language and its users so that it survives as a community language. “Work should be done to normalise the language again,” Ó Domhnaill says. Then Irish will continue to coexist with English on the island and not just be highlighted on national holidays, such as St. Patrick’s Day, he adds.