If you’ve been following this blog, you know that Irish is the first official language of Ireland…that it is taught in schools in the Republic of Ireland, and that it can be seen and heard just about everywhere on the island (especially if you go looking for it).
You may wonder, then, why everyone in Ireland speaks English (even if they also know Irish) and, further, why there often seems to be a great deal of angst there surrounding the Irish language.
Where have all the Gaeilgeoirí gone?
Despite centuries of attempts to suppress it, Irish was the majority language in Ireland right up through the 19th century. How could a language that was spoken by most of the people all but disappear, to the point where many people outside of Ireland don’t even realize that there is such a thing as an Irish language?
Not a legal matter
It would be easy to point to laws restricting the use of Irish, such as the infamous Statutes of Kilkenny, as culprits in the disappearance of Irish. “Easy,” but not really valid.
These laws were aimed primarily at the Norman population, which the English government thought was becoming “too Irish” (and were, for the most part, unenforceable in any case). They had no effect on the Gaelic majority.
One institution that is credited with doing a great deal of harm, if not to the language as a whole, at least to individual Irish speakers, was the national school system.
Established in 1830, the national schools offered the only chance for most Irish children to receive an education. Unfortunately, they were also rabidly “anti-Irish.”
Children were not only forbidden from speaking Irish at school (and brutally beaten or humiliated — or both — for doing so), the teachers often enlisted the aid of the parents in suppressing a child’s use of Irish at home.
A child who persisted in speaking Irish at school might be sent home with a tally board around his neck, with instructions for the parents to make a mark on the board whenever the child said something in Irish. Each mark meant an additional blow from the schoolmaster the following day.
If it seems odd that parents would cooperate with such a system, bear in mind that the national schools were the only route to an education, and perhaps a ticket out of poverty, for their children.
The prime culprit: An Gorta Mór
Sadly, what law really couldn’t touch, hunger came very close to destroying. For seven years, from 1845 to 1852, the potato crop, on which 1/3 of the Irish population depended entirely for sustenance, failed utterly, succumbing to a disease commonly known as “potato blight.”
While outside of Ireland this is often referred to as the “Irish Potato Famine,” in Ireland it’s known as An Gorta Mór: The Great Hunger. During this time, around one million people, most of them Irish speakers, died. Another million emigrated, reducing Ireland’s total population by around 25%.
Among those who were left, many, forced off the land by eviction, relocated to the cities, where English was essential.
For the first time in its history, Irish was a minority language in its own country.
Flash forward to the 21st century
Despite the best efforts of promoters of the language, Irish has never really recovered from the Famine. In the latest Republic of Ireland census, only 77,185 people indicated that they speak Irish daily outside of the school system (source: Wikipedia: Irish Language). You can dig deeper at Ireland’s Central Statistics Office in their census figures.
The Gaeltacht (a collective term for traditional Irish-speaking areas) has come under a lot of pressure in the 21st century, as old people die, young people emigrate (if not to other countries, at least to the cities, where the job prospects are better), and new people, most of whom who don’t speak Irish, move in.
There’s a very conflicted attitude toward the language throughout Ireland. Although it does have many enthusiastic supporters, a fair number of Irish people are, at best, ambivalent about the language, and, at worst, want nothing to do with it.
The reasons for this are varied. Older people often cite unpleasant experiences with studying the language in school (a situation that seems to have improved). On the positive side, however, evening Irish classes are often full of adults who regret not having put as much effort as they might have into learning Irish while at school.
Younger people may say that they don’t see the need for it. English is the language of technology and commerce, and Irish isn’t useful to them for travel, so why bother?
On the positive side
On the other hand, there is a real movement, especially in the cities, of parents (not themselves native Irish speakers) raising their children through Irish. This, combined with the growing demand for Gaelscoileanna (Irish-medium public schools) may well be one of the best things that could happen for the language.
You can meet one such family, Siobhain Grogan and Mick Moriarty and their three children, in this video. Siobhain won the 2012 ELL (European Language Label) Award for, among other things, the children’s books she’s written in Irish.
There have also been positive developments regarding the Irish language in Northern Ireland, with a growing number of people on both sides of the political table learning, and taking pleasure in, the language.
Growth outside of Ireland
Perhaps the greatest growth in interest in the language, however, has been outside of Ireland. The internet has made it possible for people from all over the world, many of them descendants of Irish speakers driven from home by the Famine, to learn and promote the language.
In fact, 2007 saw the official opening of the very first designated Gaeltacht outside of Ireland in Ontario, Canada. Situated about 250 kilometers northeast of Toronto Gaeltacht Thuisceart an Oileáin Úir serves as a center for Irish language and culture and will eventually have housing for 100 Irish-speaking people.
Far from dead
To sum up, while the Famine and the national schools delivered a severe blow to the Irish language — one that might well have killed it — it was not, in fact, a death blow.
Will Irish ever again be the majority language in Ireland? The practical side of me says “probably not,” but the eternal optimist side of me that sees (with great pleasure!) the growth of Irish among young urban families and in Northern Ireland says “well…maybe! Fan go bhfeicfidhmid!”*
Whether or not it achieves pre-eminence in Ireland, however, the fact that I’m writing this and you’re reading this attests to the fact that Irish has a future.
Did you find this article helpful?
Did you already know all this about the history of the Irish language? If you’re currently learning Irish, teaching Irish, or have plans to study Irish, what are your reasons for doing so? Let us know your thoughts below!