The Danes have Danish, the French speak French, the Slovakians talk in Slovak yet the Irish don’t speak Irish, but rather English. Almost all nations and people have their own language yet the Irish are one of the few nations who have a language that very few of its people can speak. Ireland is one of the only countries in Europe whose primary language is that of a foreign country. In fact, more people in Ireland speak Polish on a daily basis than Irish (and French is close behind). When I’m abroad I’m often asked if there even is an Irish language or if anyone still speaks it. Someone who only spoke Irish would have a very difficult time getting around in Ireland. But why is this the case?
Before I begin there are two small notes I should clarify. Firstly, pedants like to argue over the name of the language. Essentially, Irish people call it Irish, whereas foreigners call it Gaelic or Irish Gaelic. Some Irish people dislike the name Gaelic, but it’s not incorrect, it just marks you as an outsider. Secondly, the Irish word for the language Gaeilge is completely different from the word for the people Éireannach. This is an interesting difference from English as separates the language from the nationality and doesn’t imply that to be Irish you must speak Irish, as the English language implicitly does. This is also the case for the word for the English language Béarla and the English people Sasanach.
Now that’s out of the way, what is the state of the Irish language? According to the 2011 census, 1.77 million people in Ireland claimed they could speak Irish, which is 41% of the population. While this looks impressive on paper, it says nothing about the level of Irish people have or if they ever use it. More revealing is the number of people who claim to speak it on a daily basis, only 77,000 people, less than 2% of the population. These people mostly live on the West coast (in areas known as the Gaelthacht), in some of the most remote parts of the country. Worst still, there are no people who only speak Irish (monoglots) left, even native Irish speakers are also fluent in English.
In theory, Irish is the official language of the Republic of Ireland and people have the right to deal with government bodies through Irish. Signs are in both languages and if the Irish translation of the Constitution conflicts with the English, the Irish takes precedence. Irish is mandatory subject for all students born in Ireland and you must pass it in order to go to college. In school, there are three core subjects of English, Irish and Maths to which most resources are devoted. The government subsidies the language in many ways such as through the Irish language radio and TV station.
However, in practice, English dominates. Everyone born in Ireland grows up fluent in English. It is the language of TV, radio, newspapers, work and shops. Almost all jobs are done through English as well as almost all business. Politicians occasionally make symbolic gestures like using Irish for the first line of their speech, but quickly switch to English because otherwise they won’t be understood. Unless you live in the small Gaelthacht region, speaking Irish would be considered odd when you can use English. Speaking Irish can sometimes been seen as a sign of contrariness or just being difficult, as why would you do that we you can just speak English? In most of the country, the only place Irish is spoken is in classrooms. I myself, have only a basic grasp of the language and have never used it outside school.
How did this happen? Like many aspects of Irish society, the English can be blamed. For most of Irish history, the English ruled Ireland, but the language only really began to decline after 1600, when the last of the Gaelic chieftains were defeated. While the Irish language was never banned or persecuted (despite what Republicans may claim), it was discouraged. English was the official language of rule and business, and there was no one to support the Irish language and culture. It was the language English slowly spread, especially in the East and in Dublin, the capital, while Irish remained strong in the West. By 1800, Ireland was roughly balanced between the two languages.
There were two major events that destroyed Irish. The first was the Great Famine (1845-50) which hit the Irish speaking West hardest of all. Out of a population of 8 million, roughly 1 million people died and another million emigrated. From then on emigration became a common part of Irish society as huge numbers of Irish left the country every year, primarily to English speaking countries like Britain and America. This meant that most Irish people needed to speak English in the likely event that they would leave home. Irish would be no good to them in America, English was a necessity. English was the language of the future and of economic opportunity; Irish was the past and the language of a poverty stricken island that couldn’t support them.
The second major event was the advent of education. Starting in the 1830s national schools were created across Ireland to educate people through English and Irish was strictly forbidden. While nothing could be done to prevent Irish from being spoken in the home, it was strongly discouraged and shamed. Irish was depicted as an ignorant peasant’s language, whereas English was the language of sophistication and wealth. Poor potato farmers spoke Irish, while rich and successful businessmen spoke English. Other organisations too promoted English, such as the Catholic Church and even Nationalist politicians like Daniel O’Connell. English become the language of the cities while Irish retreated to the most remote and underdeveloped parts of the country.
The language declined to such an extent that there were fears that it would die out altogether by the end of the 19th century. However, at this time the Gaelic Revival began, when writers and educated people generally began to promote and use the language more. Poems, stories and plays were written in the language and groups were set up to support and use the language. When Ireland became independent in 1922, the state officially encouraged the language and made knowledge of it mandatory for state jobs. However, the newly independent state was very poor and recovering from a bitter civil war and didn’t have the resources or the national will for a full revival. It couldn’t change the fundamental fact that people needed English, not Irish, to find work and make a living.
However, while government support slowed the decline (compare Northern Ireland for example where the language is practically dead even among Irish Catholics) too much damage had already been done. The vast majority of people already spoke English, so what did you need Irish for? There was still massive emigration (until the 90s) so English was still the language that would get you a job, whereas Irish was the language your grandfather spoke. The base of Irish speakers was small and remote and the output in the language was tiny compared to that in English, especially with the advent of radio and TV.
Languages are strongly subject to economies of scale. Parents taught their children English because that was the language that most people spoke, which caused more people to learn it and so every generation English grew stronger and stronger. Likewise, Irish weakened as less people spoke it because few people spoke it which caused fewer still to speak it. It became more and more confined to elderly speakers which discouraged young people and continued the vicious circle. As less people spoke it, less people used it for art and literature, which gave people less of a reason to learn it. In short, Irish was/is trapped in a vicious downward spiral.
Another major reason for the decline in Irish is people’s not entirely accurate view of languages. One major feature of the English speaking world is that speaking another language is considered a rarity or an unusual skill. Most Irish people (and English speakers generally) don’t believe that they can learn a second language, as if they had some genetic fault. Many people have simply shrugged their shoulders and said “The Irish just aren’t good at learning languages”. Even when parents know Irish, they would often fear to teach it to their children for fear it would confuse the child or learn them slower than their classmates. Linguists have pointed out that bilingualism is possible and achievable, but most people don’t know this. Most people believe that only one language can be used as it would be too messy to have two for work, TV and life etc. This mindset is not as strong nowadays but for a long time it was why parents didn’t teach Irish to their children.
It is a cliché when discussing the Irish language to blame the education system. In fact I’ve never read an article about Irish that didn’t. To an extent this is true, in schools far too much emphasis is put on grammar and written skills and very little on actually speaking. So most students could write a two page essay, but would struggle to hold a conversation. However, it is far too easy to blame the schools. The real problem isn’t the schools; it’s the fact that Irish isn’t used outside of the classroom. Irish people love to pay tribute to the language but are not willing to put an effort into keeping it alive. We almost treat it like an antique vase; we admire and value it, but keep it locked away except on special occasions. Surprisingly many people are afraid of speaking Irish for fear that they’ll speak it badly.
Irish is seen by many as an old man’s language, as a relic from the past that your grandparents used, but doesn’t have much use today. Many see it as belonging in a museum. A lot of Irish people think that Irish should be spoken by old men in flat caps and old women shawls sitting beside the turf heath in their cottage, chewing on spuds while it rains outside and the pipes can be heard. It takes a lot to convince them that it can be used in a city by people wearing jeans and using the internet. Debates about the language can be bitter with people passionate about the language being suspected of being nationalists and IRA supporters, while their opponents are labelled West Brits and unIrish. Many people don’t mind the language but object to it “being forced down own throats”.
Now a lot of non-Irish people might think it a pity that we Irish would lose such an important part of our heritage (in fact it often seems that Americans like Irish culture more than the Irish themselves do). But while to a foreigner Irish might sound exotic and mysterious, to an Irish person it’s mundane and ordinary. It would be like if someone went to America and got excited to see a McDonalds or was enamoured with hillbilly culture. People take familiar things for granted and most Irish people take Irish and its current state for granted and as normal. To many, it’s always been this way so the thought of changing it never crosses their mind. With English you can speak with hundreds of millions of people around the world, who can you speak Irish with?
Could the language be revived? In theory, yes and there are certainly groups of people who take it up and learn it even if they’re not native speakers and don’t use it every day. There are schools where all subjects are thought through the medium of Irish. We could revive it if we wanted. Most Irish people have some Irish, even if it is very rusty and it takes surprisingly little words to hold a basic conversation. You’d be surprised how much comes back after even a brief refresher course.
So why don’t we? The same reason most political change doesn’t happen. People are aphetic, they have other more important things to worry about, it’s always been this way so how can it change and what difference can only one person make? Honestly, unless some seismic shift occurs that suddenly makes everyone far more nationalist (it would probably have to be on the scale of a war) I don’t see any future for Irish other than to fade away.
Irish people’s attitude to the Irish language is a muddle of contradictions. On the one hand, almost everyone pays lip service to it as a part of our culture and heritage. On the other hand, few people are willing to put any effort in using and maintaining the language. We hate the idea of losing the language but are unwilling to put any effort into saving it. We cling to our Irish identity and resent being confused with the English, but are reluctant to put the effort into actually having a separate culture. Speaking another language takes effort and for most people it’s easier to just speak English, read English books and newspapers and watch English TV. So Irish will continue to fade away without anyone making a conscious decision as it has for the last 200 years.