The Peril of the Irish Language

Sometimes we should remind ourselves of how much or a marginal language the Irish language is in Ireland. 

This all depends on your perspective. My overall view is highly positive: there’s a huge energy and spirit among Irish language speakers (read more below).

It’s certainly not a “dead” or extinct language. 

By putting things in perspective, I hope to help motivate you to make the Irish language part of your every day (regardless of where you live).

Daily Irish language speakers

According to the Central Statistics Office of Ireland in 2017 (PDF) just 70,000 people in the Republic of Ireland speak the Irish language daily outside of the education system.

(The reason for distinguishing the education system is to see who’s using the language outside of obligatory and optional schooling).

70,000 is a ridiculously small number of speakers. That’s just a large town in Ireland.

Gaeltacht regions: fast changes

Those speakers are not in one place, either. They are spread across different regions on the island of Ireland. There are concentrations in the designated Gaeltacht rural regions, for sure.

According to the 2016 census, only 66% of the population of the Gaeltacht regions are even able to speak the Irish language. (When these regions were designated I would guess that 90% of the population there spoke the language daily).

And of the 70,000 daily speakers, 20,000 of them were in Gaeltacht regions.

So the language’s stronghold regions (Gaeltacht regions) only have 20,000 daily speakers.

Would the Irish language survive without Gaeltacht regions?

I’ve thought about this issue before:

I recorded a full podcast episode on this question.

There is Hope, plenty of it

A language exists on the fact that there are speakers of that language, and that they use it.

There are many positive trends around the Irish language (Irish Gaelic):

  • Today’s connected society makes it all the more likely that Irish speakers are in touch regardless of where they live, allowing for a more distributed population of speakers
  • TG4 TV station has definitely hit the “cool” aspect of the language. It’s a cornerstone of the language. With this post-TV era we’re in, they offer lots of options to watch online.
  • While the language struggles to break past its historically-instilled shame of speaking it, certain youngsters do identify with the language and make it part of their identity. There are fantastic organisations out there like Feachtas playing their part.

The connected society has an direct implication for you: your actions are more important that you might think. Every little bit of interest you share with your friends in the Irish language (and the rest of our culture) has the potential to change those around you.

There is absolute justification for you in learning to speak the Irish language in its own right. You make that decision concrete by not just making it part of your everyday life, but by reaching out and speaking it with others every day.

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4 thoughts on “The Peril of the Irish Language”

  1. Here in the United States, a century or so ago there was a concerted effort made to suppress, subjugate, or assimilate the native peoples who ere here before the various European. One big part of that process was to de-emphasize or even outlaw speaking in their native tongues. I suspect this resonates with the Irish people, how in times past England made great efforts to “Anglicize” the people of your island.

    In America (both U.S and Canada) there are people who are working very hard to preserve, and in some cases to re-create, the knowledge and language of these original inhabitants. (one of the new ways to refer to them is “First Nations People” – instead of Indians or Native Americans). Some of this effort is being led by “whites” – European-Americans – because so few elders are left who know the old ways, the old words. Teachers learn the languages & crafts, and take them to scattered Reservations where many of the natives live. Now it’s something “Cool” for the young people to learn. There is a sense of re-claiming a cultural identity which had been stripped away by invaders.

    It might not be a really good idea to encourage the youth of Ireland to rebel against the Sasanach, but it is possible to promote a surge in desire for separate cultural identity, and to make it “cool” to be Irish separate from English.

    1. Thanks for sharing your context, and I can chime in that this has happened to a *certain* extent in Ireland the past decade or two. Two examples:

      1. TG4 television. It was established 20 years ago. Suddenly there were “cool” Irish language presents, like Hector on his travel shows.

      2. Kneecap https://twitter.com/KNEECAPCEOL An Irish language hip hop band from Belfast.

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