Why Don’t The Irish Speak Irish?

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.

Places where Irish is spoken on a daily basis according to the 2011 Census

Places where Irish is spoken on a daily basis according to the 2011 Census

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 state of the Irish language in 1871

The state of the Irish language in 1871

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.


Filed under Politics

66 responses to “Why Don’t The Irish Speak Irish?

  1. Really interesting post, I didn’t realise Irish was taught in schools. One thing you haven’t mentioned that I’m curious about, is there not a kind of artsy subculture making it fashionable? We have this with Gaelic in Scotland – lots of funding being poured into keeping it alive.

  2. As a bilingual person, I’d say it takes some effort to learn another language, but it’s absolutely doable.
    However, people would usually learn a second or third language only because they expect to (or already have to) use it a lot, and it doesn’t really make sense to study a language people barely use.

    • Language also functions as a mark of identity and gives you a way of communicating with a particular group of people. In this way a shared outlook and culture is established and maintained.

      • That’s a good point, and I’d want my children to learn both of my languages. However, according to Robert’s post, for too many Irish the outlook and culture is established and maintained solely using the English language.

        • Which makes them part of the near-universal Anglo-American culture, a culture which on the whole they have little chance of influencing. It’s like living in someone else’s space where most of the time they call the shots and set the agenda.

  3. I noticed you wrote ‘thought’ instead of ‘taught’, this shows that your spoken English is heavily influenced by the sounds of Irish.

    Watching Scandinavian TV series a while back, it was striking that although normally everyone spoke their own language, they would switch to English when they needed to communicate with a foreigner, any foreigner not just UK/USA etc., and also be shown sometimes watching English language videos etc. This was not a plot point, it was just treated as perfectly normal for anyone with a basic education to understand English. Yet this didn’t stop them using their own languages amongst themselves.

    So what’s wrong with the Irish? Most Europeans who are multilingual must find you pathetic, and after all those years of schooling, I was actually shocked when I learned how much time is devoted to Irish, you’d expect everyone to be fluent. Are your schools really that awful?

    BTW have you seen that recent report (your government sat on it for a year) that gives the Gaeltachtaí ten more years at most?

    • It’s not necessarily the schools fault, more that so few people speak the language that most people don’t see any point in learning or using it.

      • Going to school in the UK I had compulsory ‘School French’ and most of the time I could see little point in learning it, except as a requirement for most UK universities in those days, although in my case they decided I wasn’t even good enough to sit the exam. Nevertheless, even though I had far far fewer French lessons than you would have had Irish (less than 5 years of study), I can still read French if I have to, and could at least manage a basic conversation if the need ever arouse. Some things you simply don’t forget. And remember I had no love for French and no particular aptitude for languages (I was a science type).

        Consequently, if you and most other Irish people have had years and years and years of Irish lessons, beginning at a much earlier age, and yet still can’t express yourselves in your national language, then I can only conclude that this part of your education system is really really effing crap! I don’t usually swear, but how else can one respond to such an incredibly dire situation.

        Apart from anything else there’s little point in taking a language course if you don’t come out at the end speaking that language. Why don’t they either do a ‘proper job’ or simply give up and accept that your main claim to a separate national identity has long since gone down the tubes?

        • constantjoe

          Most Irish people are able to manage a basic conversation, and a decent proportion are able read Irish to some degree. In just this article it quotes a survey that states that 41% of Irish people believe they can speak Irish. It’s just a fact that nowadays to live and survive in Ireland you don’t have to speak Irish – and so the vast majority don’t on a day-to-day basis. My own father is basically fluent yet likely hasn’t had a real conversation in Irish in about ten years.

          I’d also disagree that the Irish language is our main claim to a separate national identity – there’s a lot more to being Irish than speaking Irish. Why not tell the same thing to an English-speaking Australian, New Zealander, Scot, or American and see how far it gets you.

          • Joe,
            The English identity of Aus, NZ, Canada and the US are all (post-)colonial identities. The native peoples of these regions, to the extent that they still survive, have their own identities. So do the Irish now identify with their former English colonial masters, or with the ‘natives’ they colonised?

            Scotland btw is a much more complex case, the nation was formed by the coming together of Scots, Picts, Angles, and Britons, with a later contribution from the Norse, and indeed many others. Gàidhlig had it’s high point but was never the dominant language everywhere, the way Irish was in Ireland or Welsh in Wales.

        • Helena

          To quote above “main claim to a separate identity has long since gone down the tubes!! ” What an arrogant conclusion because Irish identity is far more than the language it is music literature art and much more. Also I am Irish and I speak french and Italian better because I have a chance to speak them -because they are spoken languages. The main reason why Irish is not spoken so much is because Irish people have also flourished speaking English…it’s sad to lose it but it’s still there for many . Speaking Irish is not essential to being and being bilingual is ideal.

    • littleowljrn

      Yes it really is that bad. About a third of everyday in primary school is spent on Irish and it is the second most taught subject in secondary school. I am one of the best people at it in my school, but I could not for the life of me hold a conversation.

      • This has made me think back to my experiences of ´school French´, and although I became bored to tears with it later when it got all grammatical, I remember now that in the first year, aged 11-ish, the teacher was a bit eccentric to be honest and so the classes were quite playful, the way I imagine languages must be taught in primaries. And actually I must confess it was mostly fun and more to the point a lot of the language stuck, became internalised. So that yes, I could within the limits of my vocabulary etc., hold a conversation.

        A third of every day, really? You ought to be dreaming in the effing language by the end of a mouth or two. Don´t Irish teachers ever go on exchanges to other countries and see how the teach second languages to young kids there? Or simply take the boat across to Wales.

        Of course it always helps if you start young, sin an dòigh a´s fheàrr … enjoy🙂

      • Paul Ó Duḃṫaiġ

        “Third of school day” — that’s bollocks, Department of Education own circulars mandate a minimum of 2 and half hours per week of Irish classes in an English medium primary school.

        That works out at 30 minutes/day. Even if the school was to dedicate 5 hours a week (twice the minimum) it wouldn’t come near a third of school day (9-2:30).

        The average Irish person gets about 1,200 hours of language exposure in school system to Irish, in comparison those who go to Gaelscoil ⁊ Gaelcholáiste rack up about 10,000 hours of language exposure.

    • Borek Lupoměský

      > Are your schools really that awful?

      That’s not about how good or bad the schools are, it’s the attitude. Nobody can force you to learn language that you don’t want to learn. I have years and years of school Russian, yet I can’t hold a conversation in it, because it was something that was imposed on me and widely reviled.

  4. Pingback: Why Don’t The Irish Speak Irish? | lingvo-vojo

  5. DM

    Well in comparison with the dying out of Irish, you could cite the reemergence of Hebrew.
    After the Jewish exile to Babylon in 500 bc, the daily use of Hebrew died out and was replaced with Aramaic and Jidisch.
    Hebrew was then on only used for religious rituals, by 1934 with the emergence of zionistic ideals came the need to redefine jewish identity, and Hebrew was taught again and many people in Israel now talk a language that was deemed extinct.
    So it is remarkable that Gaelic wasn’t reintroduced as reforging of Irish identity after indepence!

    • constantjoe

      In Hebrew’s case those moving to Israel needed a common language to speak to each other – Jews came from across the globe to Israel and spoke many different languages. The reintroduction of Hebrew was a fantastic achievement, but in that case a new common tongue had to emerge anyway – it could have been English, or Arabic, or something else – but it became Hebrew.

      In Ireland’s case the vast majority of the people already had a common language – English. Though those who wished Irish to reemerge as the first language of the nation did hold a lot of sway in the country (the first President, Douglas Hyde, was the founder of the Gaelic League), when the people all already have a common tongue its difficult to convince them to swap to something else, no matter how romantic the idea may be.

      • Around the time the Irish Republic/Free State became independent, a number of other ‘new’ European countries emerged as a result of the Great War, and the subsequent dismantling of empires. Several of these nations had suffered considerable attrition of their traditional languages (e.g. the dominance of Swedish in Finland, or German in Czechoslovakia, without even beginning to think about the Balkans!) yet all seem to have been able to establish stable standard national languages in a relatively short time, even though in many cases the result was somewhat artificial.

        So once again we have to ask, what went wrong in Ireland.

        Some, I know, argue that many Irish politicians and other people with influence were Anglophiles who at most paid lip-service to Ireland’s cultural aspirations. How far, I wonder, is this true, or simply a way of passing off the blame onto others?

    • noddy

      Israel is actually called Palestine and is land stolen from the Palestinian people murdered and tortured for half a century with hundreds of children in prison. Jewish is fine, Israel exists due to genocide of the native inhabitants

  6. Very good post! Thank you.
    I’m in Mayo, and early 40’s – while I’m a Yank, I’m the only one I know around here so most of the people I meet have Irish or another second language already. Me, not so much! Irish is HARD for someone who is very good with English. I’ve learned very little in 10 years, but I would say that I hear it nearly every day. Maybe just a word here and there, maybe a night out in the pub when someone takes it into their head to start speaking Irish. That I love – because it seems everyone enjoys it while it lasts! This isn’t just people my age, or the auld wans in the flat caps, but people in their 20’s and 30’s. So perhaps something is lacking in conversational Irish, when taught?

    My favourite Irish word is gra, by the way – it means so much more to me than love.

    • So how do you explain that? You clearly have no hostility to the language, you’ve been around speakers for 10 years you say, yet you barely know more than ‘grá’.

      Don’t take that as personal criticism, but 10 years FFS! Some people are very quick on the uptake with languages, for others the process is much more gradual, but 10 years ought to be enough for anyone to at least make everyday small-talk.

      So what exactly is going on here? Are you somehow excluded as a foreigner, or feel excluded? Do you or they have some sort of mental block or inhibition?

      Forgive me for asking, but I think it’s a very serious issue. The future of Irish and many more small languages in a similar situation may depend on understanding the answer.

      ‘S mise le meas.

  7. ganno

    I’m a 1st year in college and I try use small bits of Irish every day but the problem is I did ordinary level in both junior and leaving cert. I did quite well in both exams at that level but until i got my junior cert results and seen the Lurgan videos I had a complete dislike for Irish which I’d say is the same for most people, and that is the fault of the school curriculum. We aren’t taught it as a living language but as a grammatical exercise so when confronted with it in everyday we’re not used to having a conversation as gaeilge.
    Go raibh maith as do am.

  8. I just happened to watch this item from Wales earlier today. “Possibly of interest” as they say, it certainly raises a number of questions …

  9. Suidpunt

    I like your post.

    I also like to compare Irish with the situation of Afrikaans, and a few other languages. There are quite similarities, some not. Such as war. Wealth used to be a factor, sometimes much more so than any political view. But three factors bringing the downfall of Irish, more so than French in Quebec: linguistic isolation, nowhere to go, and complexity.

    Let’s start with complexity.

    English has a much more simplified grammar than any European language. If English would be considered the national language of say, the Netherlands, France, Germany, and Denmark; those languages are too much complex to compete with English. They just won’t last. That was one of the reasons why the Afrikaner/Boers “stepped down”, saying goodbye to the traditional Dutch, a language filled with a treasure chest of resources, and started from scratch, instead. And that was a risk: No resources! A clean slate. Tabula rasa. But then, do you know a place where German or Dutch actually SURVIVED English? [Forget Namibia, those peoples are too isolated on farms]. You see, in 1822, English and Latin were the only languages taught in Cape schools in South Africa. English, in the Cape, were only restricted to the Cape Town area. So, “plaasskooltjies” (little farm private schools) were opened, raising children in basic Dutch. More wealthy parents sent their offspring to the Netherlands to study. But then, one smart British guy thought of actually welcoming the “Dutch” pupils to public schools, now established in rural areas. Being unable to write Dutch, they would automatically switch to English, which is much easier. And it worked, for a while. In the mean time, Transvaal [as product of the Great Trek] were Dutch, with Dutch teachers (imported), Dutch used to be the government language, the legal language were written in Dutch, etc. And then came the Anglo-Boer War. Not forgiven for 100 years onward [even an Afrikaner-Jew (or, Boerejood) wrote: “And I thought the Jews were unforgiving!”].

    In short: Migration more “inland” to preserve Irish might prove difficult for the Irish, “living on a island” (no offence!).

    Then, the Boers / Afrikaners also had (or, always had) a Dutch and German uncle on speed dial. The German language has an enormously high, almost GODLY prestige among the Afrikaner, because, “as everyone speaks easy-peasy lemon-squeezy English” (or, “speak worse English than I do or care”), a more sophisticated and exclusive language looks damn good on a CV. In fact, German used to be the No. 1 trading country with South Africa until 5 years ago or so. Today it is China. But German could be bloody difficult for some: only the best will pass the C2-Zertifikat. Only the best would study German or French. Not satisfied with the English language or product? Import a Dutch or German book, if you please. Or French [which doesn’t come naturally!]. Afrikaans may not have all the academic resources, but it still has access to Dutch and German – giving us an advantage over the English-only monoglot (or students only knowing English as a second language). Four languages at our disposal: Afrikaans (for local academic works and peer-reviewed articles), Dutch, English and German for reading and academic purposes. What a good start! It is an unwritten rule that the Afrikaans speakers would be able to at least read Dutch; if they are not good at it, they just will never admit it. The rest will pose that they know German. Some of the Afrikaners also came from the rural areas with background knowledge of an African language: yet another advantage. If the Dutch and Germans could survive without English in their own “mother country”, why shouldn’t I? The French in Quebec felt the same – the French in France are doing just fine without English, “why shouldn’t we”?
    But the problem is, of course, that people have a way of only looking at the local “here and now”, more than looking at the international picture.

    What now follows is the way many South Africans think. So, dear citizens of Ireland and the United Kingdom, don’t feel offended.

    So let’s see – your language would qualify for the following if it is not the English language:

    1. When spoken in a country in which English is used as a lingua franca, it is considered inferior automatically. E.g. Swahili, which is not considered good enough for secondary or tertiary education, even though the colonial Germans actually were the first to develop Swahili dictionaries, for they knew it would be senseless to impose German. Why impose German if there is an established lingua franca already? And let’s not forget Spanish in America…

    2. If none of the above applies, if your language is spoken in a country where heterogeneous peoples are found, and English is the lingua franca [if your language is not considered racist, yet], then it would be classified “exclusive”, shutting others out. Meaning, it is inherently racist. But tough luck if you don’t know English sufficiently.

    An absolutely twisted dichotomic way of thinking: Good / Bad. Loyal / disloyal. Inclusive = multicultural = English = good / Exclusive = racism = any other language = bad. No in-betweens. No continuum. No deviations. Is this subtle psychological warfare?

    ‘Many people don’t mind the language but object to it “being forced down own throats”’: Oh yes! That sounds too familiar! In fact, you copied it verbatim from an Afrikaans textbook printed in 1981! The same modus operandi. This was exactly the way in the 1970s when Afrikaans and English were the only two official languages in South Africa. Always the complaints. Always the “inferior” / “useless” language “being forced down own throats”. But the Afrikaans peoples’ money is still good enough! How about “the customer is always right”?

    Another thing: the raison d’être of any language isn’t the entertainment. It is the scientific contribution to society. You have the government on your side. Use it! Milk the government! Let the money pour in your personal bank accounts. Live it! If someone would ask me: What is the use of Afrikaans? I would refer them to our university and public libraries as well as our academic journals. I might as well publish in English, but I don’t. Why should I? If someone finds it so perfect, they might as well translate it. But I won’t.

    So – the Irish has a little problem. They are somewhat homogeneous, which makes a “we should think the same” almost a given. It’s a Celtic language, has few powerful lookalike languages (though, if you look at French and Latin, the roots are quite strikingly similar). The Irish mostly associate English with the better and superior. They are only (mostly) used to English media. They have no Germans or French tourists that deliberately leave 1 000 page novels behind at their bedside [hint! hint! hint!]. And now, how much money do the Gaelthacht peoples need, you say? Shucks, bad idea – that won’t help: the English speakers will just invade the Gaelthacht regions. Or, maybe not.

    In the 2011 national census of South Africa, the number of Afrikaans speakers increased slightly, the number of the English a lot more. But Zulu and Xhosa declined. Why? The perception that English will bring wealth in the urban environment.

    But here is another story, from Germany. A flip-side. In 1833 an essay was written: ‘Soll die plattdeutsche Sprache gepflegt oder ausgerottet werden – Gegen Ersteres und für Letzteres’ (Should Low German be nurtured or be eradicated? No to the former and yes to the latter). The “Low Germans” / Saxons considered themselves empoverished, most of them were farmers. They were taught in Standard German at school (while the French farmers could hardly read at that time), but it didn’t seem to “change” them (economically or mentally), for they always “went back” to their “hill-billy” nature. So, this essay had the following idea: ‘If we could let go of our Lower German language for Standard German, we could be much more financially liberated, like the rich and Adel (Nobility)’. Meanwhile, up in the mountains, the wealthy Bavarians COULDN’T CARE ANY LESS about Standard German (I found this extremely ironic! I bursted out in laughter.). The Bavarians had (no, still have) their own local culture and regional dialect as holy language. Oh, by the way, the successful Bavarians are mostly Catholic. Today the Bavarians are still the rich ‘state’, the Low Germans/Saxons still the poor lot, even though the Bavarians live in an absolute disglossia with the Standard German! Has Standard German actually changed the wealth of the Bavarians or Lower Germans? NOT AT ALL.

    If Afrikaans and Bavarian still don’t convince you (the Irish people), then perhaps you should turn to Icelandic and Faroese. They could have let their language pass for Danish, but still, they persisted. Faroese, a language of only, ONLY 50 000+ people, also has 3 genders, just like Icelandic. Danish has two. English has none.

    And just look at Catalan and Spanish. Catalonia is the rich elite part of Spain, if I’m not mistaken. Why should a Catalonian discard his language for Spanish? I wouldn’t!

    Should I recall what happened in Flanders? Perhaps you should Google that. Flanders used to be a poor farming plot in Belgium, dispicable to the French elite riding the gravy train of the French empire. Some Wallonian priests even went so far proclaiming: ‘God made the French to rule, and you, the Flemings, to serve’. These people were all Catholics. Brothers in faith, but not in language. And today? Flanders is the industrial and economic powerhouse of Belgium. Times certainly changed!

    Conclusion: language doesn’t bring wealth. But knowing quite a number of them may.

    • While I might pick holes in some of your arguents, I thnk the contrasts between Ireland and Iceland would be well worth exploring further.

      Iceland is more isolated, colder, and is largely barren, with few resources beyond fish and geothermal energy. Yet the people appear to be well-off and confident, just look at how they dealt with the banks! And they all seem to speak good English, along with their own ‘archaic’ language, and Danish which was their official language for centuries under Danish rule.

      And Ireland … poor? depressed? Still somehow seeming to be ‘servile’ even a century after independence. Somehow you seem to be still wearing England’s cast-off clothing, and speaking a hand-me-down foreign tongue. As though somehow you’re still too ashamed to embrace and take forward your own true native identity.

      Ach ni Eireannach mise, ciod e an fios ata agamsa? (Sorry can’t do fada’s on this keyboard)

      • Suidpunt

        Hello again,

        As I wrote, I really thought the Icelandic/Faroese card would be the weakest one to play to convince anybody! Rest assured: history has a way of repeating itself; no situation is too unique. Now you have some people to help you guys.

        “Ach ni Eireannach mise, ciod e an fios ata agamsa?” – I have a little book called “AM FACLAIR UR GAIDHLIG-BEURLA”. Why? Mostly because one of my great-great-great-great…-grandfathers used to be a Scotsman (then he became a South African). Cairncross. I doubt whether he spoke Scots-Gaelic (but his ancestors might). But still, it is one language on my bucketlist. After German, Latin, Hebrew and French. I used this little dictionary by Robert C. Owen (ISBN 1-871901-29-4) to “decode” your message. It is strange using a “he”, almost like in Zulu (but I think I’m only generalizing). And I’m not used to the syntax! In my language you either have Subject-Verb-Object, or, my favourite, Subject-Object-Verb.

        Irish seems to be: Preverbal particle, Verb, Subject, Direct object or predicate adjective, Indirect object, Location descriptor, Manner descriptor, Time descriptor. (According to Wikipedia…🙂 )

        Afrikaans mostly has STOMPI.: Subject, verb1, Time, Object, Manner, Place, verb2, Infinitive.

        If I’m reading correctly, you are asking me if I have knowledge of Irish? No? If yes, the answer is no.

        • I was attempting to write Irish (Gaeilge) but I actully know Scots Gaelic (Ga:idhlig) far better so the syntax might be a bit off. In SG I’d say :
          Ach chan eil mi ‘nam E:ireannach, de: am fios a tha agam-sa?
          “But I’m not Irish, what do I know?” [BTW read ‘:’ as an acute or length mark on the vowel it follows. I can’t get them with this keyboad].
          Word for word it goes “But not am/is/are I in-my Irishman, what the knowledge that is at-me+(emphatic 1st person singular marker)”

          The Irish I used before (which may not be entirely correct!!) was :
          “Ach ni: E:ireannach mise, cad e an fios ata: agamsa”
          But ’tis-not (an) Irishman me+(emphatic 1ps), what (is) it the knowledge .that-is … (etc. as before).

          Essentially all the modern Celtic languages are VSO, but with the possibility of fronting an element for emphasis. That is instead of the neutral, “Saw the man the dog”, you could have, “‘Twas the dog that saw the man” and so on.

  10. Noreen

    From when England first invaded Ireland hundreds of years ago, the Irish language was banned and penalties for speaking it included death so do not blame the Irish for not being interested in their own language they live next door to the most evil coloniser on earth The other reasons you give are also valid but not the whole story

  11. jody

    It’s not that we can’t speak it its just that some people don’t want to (not including me its the people who arnt bothered)

  12. You must be an absolute fool. The Irish had their tongues cut by the brit scum for speaking our native language. At least we have one. The natives were all slaughtered and butchered .no native language from modern day yanks these days. Butchers just like the brits and speaking english. Check the irish language next time if u can ever find or heard of a library. Irish native language is over 3000 years old, fool. Wake up

  13. Stan

    Interesting article. I’ve always held an interest in Ireland and it’s path to independence, or shall I say – cultural survival, because I find a number of distinct similarities with the situation in my own native Ukraine. Although the situation is not the same, let me explain… My first real introduction came from one of James Joyce’s “The Dubliners” short stories, there was a scene where upper middle class Dubliners were briefly discussing going west where Irish can still be spoken and others were arguing that there is no reason to cling on to these provincial traditions. My take away from this (which was many years ago) was that the Irish were almost ashamed of their heritage, labeling it as provincial or lacking sophistication. Immediately, I recognized encountering the exact same feelings in my own Ukraine when it concerned Ukrainian language.

    I was born in Kyiv, which is Ukraine’s capital (in case someone didn’t know) and my parents spoke Russian at home, as did my grandparents and all my relatives. To be honest, up until I began to hear Ukrainian on tv, I didn’t realize that what I was speaking wasn’t Ukrainian. Now, I should add that Ukraine gained its independence in 1991, 70 years after Ireland gained its own. When I went to school in 1993, Ukrainian wasn’t taught in schools yet, but the country commenced a slow language revival program, which began with introducing it as a “2 times a week” semi-mandatory class for all public schools. I remember being one of the few who were excited to sit in through our first class of Ukrainian language, because by then I realized that I grew up speaking a language from a neighboring country which had oppressed my people in the past (in a very real sense – my great-grandfather was a victim of russian oppression and as of 2014 we’re at war with them again) but the language in my 2nd grade was taught as if we were expected to just know it, as you’ve mentioned with the case of Irish – it was taught from a grammatical perspective, and not a conversation/vocabulary sense. So for the first few months nothing quite made sense to me. Eventually Russian language was phased out of schools and became a foreign language that you can learn by choice, but was no longer mandatory (as of around the year 2000) – so at this point, as my generation grew up, we were all basically fluent in Ukrainian. Did everyone just switch to speaking it? Not at all.

    The reason being, is that Ukrainian had never fully died as a language, but continued to be spoken in the countryside, which, along with Russian propaganda from earlier decades, cultivated the opinion that speaking Ukrainian meant being an uneducated peasant from rural areas, while people in the cities were expected to speak Russian (not to mention millions of Russians moving into our cities to live) and this complex of inferiority survived and continues to survive until now.

    In my personal case, I admit to using both languages, depending on how the mood may strike me. I may go into one shop speaking Ukrainian and then if I’m frustrated with something, I may go on speaking Russian for the rest of the day (it’s still easier for me to speak Russian, because I’ve learned Ukrainian as a foreign language) but when it comes to speaking to friends and relatives – it’s just awkward to switch to a different language, even when everyone is 90% fluent. The situation is so absurd, is that even as Ukrainian soldiers face Russian mercenaries/soldiers in the east, they continue to speak Russian among themselves (for the most part). The most disgusting legacy of this linguistic oppression is that I see people coming into the city from rural regions and trying to speak Russian to seem less provincial – I just want to scream at them, why are you doing this, have you no pride? I wonder if this was also the case in Ireland.

    In conclusion, I’m rather surprised that Irish has made no progress since independence (it seems that figures are now lower than they were in the 1920s) but I understand the difficulties associated with it. I recommend forming social groups online where people get to speak Irish and get together to use the language, to at least maintain it. Ukrainians often use Ukrainian online, where there’s less social pressure, and then feel that it’s “awkward” to use it in real life, but at least it’s a start. I’m also more than familiar with people giving symbolic lip service to Ukrainian (as, apparently, they do in Ireland to Irish) while not actually using the language. For instance, an official may start by saying “Greetings, fellow citizens” in Ukrainian, and then switch to Russian. I also understand that added difficulty for the Irish, in that English is actually a very useful language to know, as its the global lingua franca, while Russian is basically useless unless you want to speak to the Russians or central asians. However, I think it’s possible to retain fluency in English for business/work purposes, but still use Irish with family/friends or even just for intellectual discourse online. In any case, I wish for you to keep your language alive, as proof that your national identity has been preserved.

  14. robert smith

    I hope the Irish language does survive. At least the internet is providing a good outlet for discussion, which is very important, as the best way to help a threatened minority language such as Irish to survive is to actively talk about it. Of course it would be far better to talk about it in Irish but sadly that cannot be done these days. When it no longer becomes possible for people to talk about their language actually in their own language then you realise just how difficult the task of reviving that language actually is.

  15. Borek Lupoměský

    I would be interested in someone exploring the parallels between Czech and Irish. By 19th century Czech was reduced to the language of uneducated peasants while German was dominating everything. Then small group of people literally brought it back from near death. What was different in that case? How had Irish missed its mark? I find this quite fascinating question.

    • That would be a very interesting comparison to make. How for instance did the language revival fit in with the politics of the time? What about Slovak, weren´t they part of the Hungarian Empire at one time? One might expect that it would be more difficult to maintain a small language in the middle of Europe with so many stronger languages on all sides. Whereas Ireland is isolated by itself at ¨the end of the world¨.

      Please tell us more about how it all happened in your country.

  16. Borek Lupoměský

    I’m not a historian, so I might be quite wrong, but this is my take on it (warning: extreme simplifications ahead!):

    In high and late Middle Ages, the Duchy and later the Kingdom of Bohemia was significant regional power. The high water mark was the rule of Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV (from the House of Luxembourg) when Bohemian Lands reached their greatest territorial extent. Prague was the seat of the king and the largest city in the HRE by quite a margin (even in 1600 it was still twice the population of Vienna!) During this time, there always was significant German-speaking minority present and German language was an important one. But Czech was on the same level and it was language of administration and spoken by kings and nobility alike. Eventually, wave of Reformation swept through the land (the Hussite wars) and as a result, most of the population became protestant — including the native nobility. After the Battle of the White Hill, the protestant army was defeated and the land fell under the reign of Habsburgs. Properties of protestant nobility were confiscated and redistributed among German speaking allies, populace was violently recatholized and Czech language suppressed, replaced by German in every area of public life (of course, this is a great simplification, the process wasn’t this abrupt).

    By the end of 18th century, the use of Czech declined greatly, as even educated Czechs chose to speak primarly German, many of them actually never learning it in the first place. It has became primarly language of uneducated peasants and farmers in the rural areas of the country. It was not used in administration, there was little higher education, no literature. It was on the way out, even if the number of speakers still may have counted in millions.

    But the late part of 18th century also brought significant changes as the ideas of Enlightenment found their way into the decision making of the ruling class: other religion than catholic was allowed, serfdom was abolished, monasteries shutdown — and also German was made the sole official language. Another influence was then newly emerging concept of nation and nation-state, whose important attribute was a shared language. All these things gave rise to the revival movement, carried mainly by the educated patriots. It started as concerted effort to put the Czech language back into widespread uses, but eventually this evolved into full political movement and struggle for political representation. This political movement eventually culminated in forming independent state (with fellow Slovaks) in the wake of the WWI in 1918.

  17. Ariadne

    That’s so sad! No language should ever die off because of apathy (or for any other reason for that matter). I appreciate the situation as you explain it, and it’s indeed a complex one, but I find it hard to comprehend how a nation has chosen a language other than their own just because the latter one is more useful. If everyone thought like this, then we would all abandon our native tongues and just speak English! It’s inconceivable! How can anyone let go of his tongue? How can you love a car or a tool, however useful it is, more than your parents or your child? Perhaps the Irish people don’t feel that their language is an inherent part of their national identity, that’s why they don’t put up a hard fight for it, unlike the Welsh for example. Or, perhaps, such a close proximity to England and the English language is just overwhelming. Whatever the cause, the day your language dies will be a very, very dark day, and not just for you.

  18. Kelly Howard

    This was beautifully put together and extremely enlightening. It truly made me want to learn even more about my Irish heritage and even look into learning the language and teaching it to my children and my husband who also has deep Irish roots. We are from northern Alabama, and have to say I loved the mention of “hillbilly culture”. It’s truly a sad thing that the Irish language is dying out. I may just speak to my husband about us learning it and teaching our children. Thank you for sharing this information. I feel I just learned so much about a part of myself.

  19. Pingback: Why Don’t The Irish Speak Irish? | Historical Tours Ireland

  20. Paul Hegarty

    I would love to learn the language. It was compulsory when I went to St Columns College in Derry, but I dropped it in 3rd year. I am now 54 living in Southern England so the opportunity is next to zero.

    • I´d say with the internet, YouTube, Skype and so on, the possibilities should be greater than ever, regardless of where you are. The question is are they being utilised to the full extent possible?

  21. Emjay

    Irish taught in schools places too much emphasis on grammar and not enough on spoken Irish. I loved Irish in school and spent 3 weeks each summer in the Gaeltacht, where I achieved fluency. The problem is that there is little opportunity to speak/use Irish in everyday life and like everything, when you don’t use it, you tend to lose it. I have a great pride in the cleverness and complexity of the Irish language and I wish that it was the first language here but I have since gone on to learn French, German and Spanish and my Irish has dwindled over the years, through lack of opportunity to use it. It would take huge national investment will and effort to create a movement sufficiently large as to cause people to begin resuscitating the Irish language and begin using it as an everyday language again. I would love for it to happen.

  22. Proinsias Brinkley

    Ó 1539 ar aghaidh, go dtí go dtáinig mo shean-athair go h-Éireann, is Béarla an dteanga a bhí acu. An bfhéadfá a shamhlú na Sasanaigh ag tréigeadh a dteanga dúchais? Mo náire sibh a cháirde Ghaeil.

  23. David Timpkins

    I went, from London, on holiday to north Wales for a week last Summer. I was astonished by how much Welsh I heard by people of all ages. I heard more Welsh during my first day in Caernarfon than I have heard Irish in twenty odd years visiting the west of Ireland. How can thios possibly be?

  24. déaglán

    A key way to keep the Gaeltacht’s alive is compulsory Irish in the Leaving cert. If compulsory Irish goes than the Irish language will surely follow. slán agus beannacht go léir.

  25. Sorry, but... it's true.

    I’m really, really sorry to say this, but I found the article impossible to read because of the English. There are so many errors in the first few paragraphs. I’m sorry if English is not your native language, although equally so if it is. Sorry.

  26. dave

    Why does the first map not include the six northern counties?

  27. Pingback: inglese post Brexit, lavorare per la Commissione Europea, e di più

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