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The Irish Language is in Great Danger


Imagine this. The town of Ennis, County Clare in Ireland (where I grew up) has about 30,000 inhabitants. Let’s say each of those inhabitants spoke a peculiar language that nobody else spoke.

Whenever someone from this theoretical Ennis would move away to go get a job, or to go to college, they would have to speak English to interact with others.

Worse yet, for this language of theoretical Ennis, if a new inhabitant moved to town, they just continued to speak English. They wouldn’t have the motivation to learn to speak this local peculiar language. Why would the bother? Everyone in Ennis could speak English anyway.

Not only that, their parents, and their parents’ parents had an emotional hangover from collectively remembering being beaten at school to learn this local language when it used to be more widespread.

Let’s say that only the 30,000 inhabitants of Ennis spoke this language, and nobody else outside of the town across Ireland and across the world spoke the language on a daily basis.

You’d easily think their language is doomed, right?

30,000 people speak the Irish language in Ireland daily today (not counting in school kids and their teachers who otherwise speak English).

That’s a frighteningly small number. They don’t have the critical mass behind them.

Elsewhere, let’s jump over to California. Seals are dying from the oceans being too warm. Bats are dying from fungus on their noses. To greatly oversimplify a seismic shift that’s ahead of us: the world is changing.

For the Irish language, it has great energy behind it. On the one hand, respectable people like you bothering to embrace it, making it part of their identity. It embodies a form of Ireland’s traditional culture. It’s a deeply personal way to connect with your Irish heritage.

On the other hand, it’s easy to say that people across the globe are becoming more alike. Certain languages have a critical mass behind them, and a language change also brings a cultural change.

Should this mean that we all just give up? Not bother speaking a single word of Irish? Is it a depressing state, or a reason to share it even more aggressively wit your friends and family? I’ll leave that up to you. There were lots of comments on this topic on Podcast 039: Three Bold Predictions for the Irish Language.

It’s all about your perspective, as Karen Reshkin said on another episode of our podcast. And I recommend that you choose the more optimistic version of the future:

  • Declare that you are a life-long learner of the Irish language. It doesn’t matter how far you’ll get, that’s not the point.
  • Make a habit of learning in little portions regularly.
  • Share the language with your friends. Share it on Facebook. Wear a t-shirt. Buy an Irish book. Watch Irish language TV online.

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16 thoughts on “The Irish Language is in Great Danger”

  1. I think that it is importent to keep your language for next generation. Children should know how their ancestors were talking in the past. Own language is a part of culture and independent life. Comunication which is happening in own ancient code is some kind of mistick connection between people and past history which happened for them and for their life.

  2. As an Australian, all of whose ancestors were here only a hundred years after the very first Europeans arrived on the first fleet; any specific Irish heritage I may have is not clear. My very elderly father, however, thinks he remembers some great-uncles speaking a form of Gaelic, and I know some ancestors of my late mother came originally from the Isle of Skye, and did so.

    Irish is the closest to my non-English, European ancestral languages. I would like to see it preserved.

    Folk in Europe, India and in Africa are often fluent in several languages. I don’t see why this ought not continue!

    1. Hi Ruth,

      Thank you for commenting. Yes, that is true, some people like to be fluent in several languages. It is something that makes us unique and enriches our personality.

  3. Michael MacFaden

    Rhaeto Romansch is another language that might not make it to the next century. But with internet and resources like bitesize, 107.1 Radio Fáilte and rté and others so who knows but Irish Gaelic like Irish culture will endure. The invading Normans became more Irish than Irish in the years following 1170. The period since 1601 too I think is not yet set in stone. Those who can read and write and make music please keep publishing…

  4. Irish is a language for dreamers. The same thing is happening to Sicilian dialect in my beloved Palermo: only few can speak it (mainly old people) and it’s not even taught at school, but I consider it something precious marking our cultural identity, that’s why I try to preserve it. And Ireland has always seemed to me like a natural twin island to Sicily, so let’s not give up 🙂

  5. Kathleen Ericksen

    I am living in the Chicago area and we have two Gaelic classes that are being taught. One class is being taught in Chicago and the other class is being taught in the south west suburbs. People wanting to learn Gaelic seems to be increasing. I hope it continues. I feel it is important to keep the language, culture, dance, music alive.

  6. No! we should not give up. We must stand strong and keep going even if the world is changing. i am not only of Irish Decent but of Scottish Decent too! I would be speaking both if my Ancestors were not made to speak English. That is why i have said before. Not only is it one of my nationality. I also want to speak it,write,and read it as well. It is only fair to speak her language before going to the land of my ancestors. So with that i learn a little bit every day and i want to thank Eoin for being a wonderful outstanding teacher to those who are learning the Irish Language. In due time i will be able to respond in Irish.

  7. Charles van Niekerk

    Have got interested in Irish Gaelic through Irish music. A hard language to master, but I’m presevering!!! I’m a South African from an Afrikaans background and intend retiring to N Ireland next year.

  8. Carol Hall Baiotto

    I am so happy that I discovered this course. I am in the USA but my heritage is Irish. Learning a little a a time and loving it. Thank you, Carol.

  9. Dont I know it! Visit my new blog, ornyorigins.com which is all about the Gaelic language at the bottom of Europe’s history and Ill advertise the wonderful Eoin bitesize, which Inthink is the most excellent Irish course available.
    We’Ll get Gaelic back on the map!