The changing Irish language demographic

Brian Ó Broin
MultiLingual April/May 2013
Region Focus

While most definitely a minority language in Ireland, Irish has an unusual status in comparison to most other minority languages in that it is constitutionally considered the country's “first official language." This is far from the truth, with probably a maximum of 2.5%, about 150,000, of the island's population having anything close to native-speaker ability, and the legal status of the language remains a source of annoyance to speakers of both English and Irish in the country.

The language's constitutional status stems from the cultural nationalism aspirations of the country's founders in the early years of the twentieth century, whereby it was believed that the country might be “de-anglicized" and the Irish language revived through constitutional and legislative action. An aggressive, but mostly unsuccessful, policy ensued of requiring demonstrable Irish-language skills from every Irish schoolgoer and legally recognizing the primacy of Irish in districts where the language was still the community's preferred tongue. . .

While schools in these areas — known collectively, and legally recognized, as the Gaeltacht — transitioned to Irish with relative ease despite the paucity of Irish-language textbooks, it was not a success in other areas, where the absence of qualified teachers and fluent speakers led to the development of a schoolroom pidgin that neither teachers nor students were fully conversant in. Government reluctance to support the language outside the education system meant that learner access to native speakers, who were mostly confined to the Gaeltacht, was negligible until the foundation of a nationally-available radio station in the 1970s.

Irish-medium education (school taught in Irish) outside the Gaeltacht all but died out by the 1960s, but the language remained a required school subject. This has led to hostility in certain English-speaking quarters where the language (while accepted as an authentic badge of Irishness) is still often seen as rural, retrograde and useless.

The promotion of the language as a national entity, however, did lead to the development of small urban communities of speakers, most of them created by the conversion of English speakers to Irish. This has caused the classroom pidgin, first created in a language-revival environment for want of native speakers, to recently move toward Creole status in the cities as select members elect to raise their children in Irish. . .

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