The Irish Gaelic Language

The Irish Gaelic language has been in decline since the 1840's but progress in recent decades has ensured that it will continue as a living language for many years to come

The Irish language is one of several Celtic languages which were once widely spoken across Western and Northern Europe. In later years, the Celtic languages died out in most areas. However, they survived up to the present in Ireland, Scotland, Wales and France.

Most visitors to Ireland will see street signs written in two languages. They may even realise that one of them is Irish (sometimes called Gaelic by people outside of Ireland). They are less likely to hear Irish spoken, unless they visit the extreme West and North-West of the country. As a result, many feel that Irish is no longer spoken anywhere. Even the few who are aware of its continued existence in the West of the country assume that it is a relic of the past that is only kept alive for tourism purposes.

There are no longer any people who speak only Irish. However, Irish is still spoken by several thousands of people in preference to English in some parts of Ireland. The 1996 census of population found that over 30 % of the entire population used Irish on a regular basis. That's well over a million people.

Languages can be stubborn entities. They form an intrinsic part of the culture of a group. Governments can fall because or their approach to this topic It would be wrong to underestimate the staying power of a language. There has been talk of the death of Irish for well over a century. Ever since the huge potato famine in the 1840's, there has been a massive decline in the number of native speakers. Irish was associated with poverty and children were severely beaten for speaking it right through the 19th century.

In 1893 an organisation called "Conradh na Gaeilge" (the Irish League) was formed to try to reverse the decline. The founders believed that they might already be too late but they wanted to preserve the rich literary culture that had been passed down through the centuries. The didn't succeed in stemming the tide but they managed to instil a sense of ownership in the emerging revolutionaries of the period. Within twenty years the Irish language was inextricably linked to the question of Irish independence. "Ni tír gan teanga" (without a language you have no country) was the new battle-cry of the idealists who fought for independence in 1916. When freedom finally came, the Irish language was designated the first official language of the new nation.

Of course, having official status does not mean that everyone changed overnight to become Irish speakers. In fact, once the battle for independence was one, the language question was largely ignored by most people. However, Irish was now taught in all primary schools. It was also compulsory for anyone entering the civil service. While this was seen as an imposition by many, it did ensure that everyone had a basic knowledge of the language.

The number of native speakers has continued to decline. By the end of the millennium there were only a few thousand people left in isolated pockets of Western Ireland that still used Irish every day. Despite this the number of speakers and the appreciation of the language has increased enormously. In the 1970's a radio station was set up to cater for Irish speakers which has received consistent support throughout Ireland over the years. More recently an Irish language television station was established. Irish is therefore available throughout the country every day through modern media.

Like many other languages there is a constant struggle to provide new words for modern concepts such as the Internet or software, but Irish is not unique in this respect. France even has an official agency established to ensure that English doesn't encroach on the purity of their national language. There is an optimism among Irish speakers that the language will not be lost in the new millennium of consensus and conformity. Partial independence in Scotland and Wales underpin a resurgence in Celtic languages, with Scots Gaelic and Welsh also boasting their own television debuts. People are less reluctant now about using Irish, particularly when they are abroad. It is pretty certain that Irish will never again become the principal language of Ireland. It is equally clear that it will survive as a living language for centuries to come.

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