Languages Spoken in Ireland

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There appears to be a common misconception abroad, that the Irish language is a dialect of English. Some people don’t realise that Ireland has 2 official languages. The principal functional language of most residents is English, though most of the population has the ability to use some Irish. Under the Irish constitution, both languages have official status, with Irish being the national and first official language of the Republic of Ireland. It is recognised as a minority language in Northern Ireland. Irish is also an official language of the European Union.

Here are some examples of Irish and English phrases to show how different the two languages are!

Irish: English:
Conas atá tú? How are you?
Tá mé go maith. I’m doing well.
Nollaig shona duit Happy Christmas
Cén t-am é? What time is it?

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 and Wales.

Nowadays, English is the mother tongue of most Irish people. Irish is a compulsory subject at school and students must study it from the age of 4 when they begin school through until the end of secondary school. Areas where Irish is the vernacular, are called Gaeltacht areas. Major concentrations of Irish speakers are in the western counties of Donegal Mayo, Galway, Kerry and Cork. There are smaller concentrations in the counties of Waterford in the south and Meath in the east. Complete monolingualism of Irish is now restricted to a handful of elderly within more isolated Gaeltacht areas, as well as among mother-tongue speakers of Irish under school age. It is estimated that about 80,000 people (3% of the population) are native speakers of Irish, with many more who are reasonably fluent second-language speakers. An estimated 400,000 people (10% of the population) are classed as fluent speakers of the language.

The Irish language started to decline in the seventeenth century. Its reversal was a complex phenomenon and it is not easy to describe or analyze the processes involved. Irish was the most widely spoken language on the island of Ireland until the 19th century. The influence of the English government played a part in the decline of the language. Ireland and England had an uneasy, conflict-driven relationship starting in 1171 when King Henry II of England invaded Ireland.

The combination of the introduction of a primary education system (the ‘National Schools’) in 1831, in which Irish was prohibited and only English taught by order of the British Government in Ireland, and the Great Famine (1845-1852), which hit an extremely high number of Irish language speakers (who lived in the poorer areas heavily hit by famine deaths and emigration), hastened its rapid decline. Irish political leaders, such as Daniel O’Connell (Dónall Ó Conaill), too were critical of the language, seeing it as ‘backward’, with English the language of the future. Children were not allowed to speak Irish and were severely beaten if they did so, as there was a stigma attached to it. English became the language which was associated with prosperity and employment.

The Irish language began to experience a revival in the late 19th century, when the Gaelic League, or Conradh na Gaeilge, was formed to promote it. This coincided with a revival of Irish Nationalist sentiment and traditional Irish Culture. During this time period William Butler Yeats and others wrote poems and plays in English about traditional Irish heroes and myths.

After the Irish republic gained independence in 1922, Irish was declared the first official language of the Republic. However, the new government still continued to use English as its primary language and the percentage of native Irish speakers continued to fall.

For example, since Ireland gained independence the number of fluent Irish speakers has fallen from 250,000 to 80,000. The government of the Republic of Ireland has made many attempts to preserve the language, including requiring it as a school subject. Some people feel that the way Irish is taught in schools has actually contributed to the decline of the language, as students see it as a difficult and boring subject instead of an exciting part of their heritage.

Although there are not as many fluent speakers of Irish as there was in the past, the language has continued to defy the odds and survive into the twenty-first century, despite its often-prophesied demise. Recent developments and modern technologies have promoted the use of the Irish language. In particular the establishment of TG4, the Irish language television station, has contributed to a rejuvenation of the image of the language, particularly among young people. Over 270,000 people, for example, watch Ros na Rún, TG4′s popular soap opera, on any given week. The Irish language also has a highly visible presence on the internet.

Every effort is being made to promote the Irish language and I am confident that the number of speakers will start to grow. There are many young Irish people, myself included, who understand the importance of keeping our fantastic language alive. As long as we keep speaking it, and encouraging other generations to use it, then it will remain at the core of our diverse cultural heritage. In the words of the Irish proverb Tír gan teanga, tír gan anam (a country without a language, is a country without a soul.)

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