The changing Irish language demographic

In 2010 the Irish government proposed a strategy to increase the number of daily speakers of Irish from the current 90,000 to 250,000 by 2030. This initially seemed like a bold proposal, particularly with the language obviously losing ground in its traditional rural territories on the coast of Western Ireland, but there is some evidence that a reverse language shift is occurring in the towns and cities.

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. This new community, while fragmented, is highly educated, and if we include highly-fluent nonnatives is now bigger than the traditional Gaeltacht community, and its speakers wield considerable power.


Irish-speaking areas over time

The government’s 1926 decision to legally recognize Irish-speaking communities had several unwanted consequences. The first was that people outside these areas, by binary logic, then considered themselves to be living in English-speaking areas. While many English speakers admired the language revival movement, they saw the existence of the Gaeltacht as a reason to opt out of the revival, and instead consolidated the status of English in their own communities.

The second consequence was that the Gaeltacht ended up physically defining the language. By 1922, when the Irish Free State was founded, most remaining pockets of native speakers were to be found in highly remote rural areas with poor infrastructure. It was their physical locations that led to the continuation of the language as a community idiom there, since their access to English was as limited as the outside community’s access to Irish. The language thus became associated with poverty, rurality, traditionalism and premodernity, features that many urban romanticists confused with Irishness. The language, over several generations, took on a heavy cultural load, with its speakers often being expected by outsiders to have premodern lifestyles. Industrial development in the Gaeltacht since the 1970s has changed the region’s self-image somewhat, but English speakers’ association of the language with the traditional and rural remains common. The third (and devastating) consequence of a legally defined area was that the government, while officially recognizing the Gaeltacht in several parliamentary acts, never created a mechanism whereby the Gaeltacht could expand. Furthermore, several areas in the Gaeltacht were legally recognized as such despite having very few native speakers, many of whom were elderly. This led to ongoing surveys of the Gaeltacht giving the impression of an inexorable decline in geographical area and number of speakers, a development that played into a postcolonial script portraying the Irish language as the noble, declining relic of an ancient, once-great Gaelic world — and English, therefore, as the expanding, lively, urban heir that was inevitably, and tragically, supplanting the country’s original native idiom.

The Gaeltacht is, of course, much more complicated than this. Any Gaeltacht decline in the first four decades of the Irish state’s existence was mostly due to emigration, but changes occurred rapidly soon after, as the country’s infrastructure improved and urban English speakers bought up Gaeltacht land for suburban development. As economic conditions improved, many Gaeltacht emigrants returned from Britain and North America to reclaim family land, but with English-speaking children. By now, particularly as the English-language media proliferated, Gaeltacht residents began to buy into the postcolonial image of themselves and, preferring to shed the baggage of provincialism and old-fashionedness, transferred their allegiances to English.

Gaeltacht communities remain comparatively strong, however. In the 1960s, certainly inspired by civil rights movements in North America and elsewhere, Gaeltacht organizations began to demand cultural recognition from the government. The clearest development out of this was the establishment of a locally directed radio service in 1972 that was also available on the national broadcasting system. This was perhaps the first step in nationalizing the language. The Gaeltacht civil rights movement also radicalized the next generation of Gaeltacht dwellers, and gave them a national voice that made it more difficult for authorities to casually discriminate against them.

The Gaeltacht community is currently under unprecedented pressure from outside. A much-improved Irish infrastructure means that Gaeltacht districts are no longer isolated, and property investors, English-speaking retirees and outpriced urban dwellers now routinely buy houses in the Gaeltacht, thus diluting the community. Gaeltacht dwellers are also nowadays in much closer contact with the non-Gaeltacht community, and it is much more likely today that Gaeltacht residents will marry English speakers. Since English is universally understood in Ireland, the resultant family will usually convert to that language. While Irish-speaking networks continue to survive in the Gaeltacht, they are mostly among adults, whose children must go to school with the English-speaking children of migrants and converted families. The next generation will undoubtedly be English-speaking unless extraordinary steps are taken to reverse the language shift. Gaeltacht children are thus being exposed to English much earlier than previous generations. Additionally, most Gaeltacht families now have easy access to satellite and cable television offering scores of English-language channels from all over the world. English is thus seen by Gaeltacht children as a universal idiom, and their proximity to the language makes it much more likely that they will choose the language as their lingua franca. While Irish may remain the language of the household, there is hardly a school left in the Gaeltacht where it is still the language of the playground. Because so many outsiders now live in the Gaeltacht, the default language in community environments such as stores and post offices is now always English.

This may be seen as a linguistic disaster, but if so, it is nevertheless nearly inevitable. The Gaeltacht remains primarily rural, and rural communities, regardless of language, are collapsing all around the western world as agriculture becomes industrialized and people move to the cities.


Urban Irish-speaking community

The collapse of the Gaeltacht is only a disaster in the eyes of those who see its Irish as the only legitimate mode and its culture as the only legitimate expression of Gaelic Irishness. An alternative view can be found in the lively Irish-speaking communities of the towns and cities. Belfast’s is particularly interesting, as the community has grown up in the teeth of official hostility from the British government, which still rules in the six counties of Northern Ireland. While some have seen the Irish-speaking community of Belfast as a protest group which will exist only as long as its imagined nemesis, it is not obviously associated with the nationalist movement — most of whose members use Irish as a cultural badge, but not as their primary mode of communication. Springing from a long-existing second-language community centered around an Irish-speaking club in West Belfast, a group of about five young Irish-speaking families bought property together on the Shaws Road (then on the edge of West Belfast) and created their own mini-Gaeltacht, complete with an Irish-medium school that remained unrecognized by the government for several decades. The community has prospered, and with several dozen families participating, now has a very strong sense of identity centered around the language. An Irish-speaking center, the Cultúrlann, has since been founded in the center of the nationalist community on the Falls Road, and houses an Irish-language radio station, a bookshop, a café, a theater and multipurpose rooms. The Cultúrlann serves as a vibrant hub for Belfast’s Irish-speaking community, and there is evidence that the number of Irish-speaking families in the city is increasing.

Dublin, which is the Republic’s capital, has an even larger community of Irish-speaking families and a vast second-language community who derive their Irish from the education system, but the city still lacks anything like Belfast’s Cultúrlann. There is an Irish-language bookshop and social club on Harcourt Street, but they are rarely frequented except for special events. Irish-speaking events are common in Dublin, but organized on an ad hoc basis in temporary quarters. A Dublin Cultúrlann remains doubtful as long as the several Irish-language organizations there continue to compete for attention and government money. The greatest obstacle to the language community uniting is the city’s size and the cost of property there. It is simply not feasible for young families to identify an area of the city to settle in together, as property prices drive them to buy property wherever it is most affordable. The community nevertheless has its own radio station, Raidió na Life, and its own popular drivetime program on the national Irish-language radio station. This is a growing community, and it seems likely that it will reach some sort of Belfast-like critical mass within a decade or two.

Several other smaller communities are also demonstrating how future non-Gaeltacht (or neo-Gaeltacht) Irish-language communities might work. Rath Cairn in County Meath is one such example. About 35 Irish-speaking families were moved from the Gaeltacht to this small townland in the 1930s, and Irish has remained the dominant local idiom there. In the 1960s the community gained official Gaeltacht status after vigorous lobbying (the only example of Gaeltacht expansion in the history of the state). Many of the townland’s current Irish-speaking residents are newly arrived, and have no association with the original families. There are, nevertheless, a strong sense of community and a prevailing sense of optimism that are not to be found in other Gaeltacht areas. Rath Cairn is one of the few Gaeltacht areas to recently post a rise in the number of its Irish speakers. Carn Tóchair in County Derry is another example of potential language revival in a small rural community. This townland, Irish speaking until a century ago and mostly deserted until the 1990s, has now been targeted by language activists from the Derry City area for resettlement by Irish speakers. Some basic services have already been put in place, such as an Irish-speaking primary school and a general store, but the number of Irish-speaking families in the area is not yet enough to declare the area “Irish-speaking.”

There has been an extraordinary growth in Irish-medium education over the past 40 years. While Irish-medium schools were common in the early years of the Irish Republic, they had all but died out by the early 1970s, mostly because teachers and students alike never achieved comfortable fluency. The Gaelscoileanna (Gaelic schools) movement began in 1972 with 16 non-Gaeltacht primary and post-primary schools. By 2012 that number had swollen to 216 schools. It must be noted that these schools are all outside the Gaeltacht, where a similar number of traditionally Irish-speaking schools exist. This means that about 8% of Irish schools are Irish-medium. Some parent and family communities appear to be coalescing around these schools, and the presence of new, lively, successful Gaelscoileanna in nearly every town and city in Ireland gives an atmosphere of bilinguality to the country.


Legal status

The Irish language had a very conflicted legal status until recently. While the constitution declared Irish the “first official language” from the beginning, the country’s parliament and Supreme Court repeatedly refused to define what that meant. Without legislation, speakers languished in a no man’s land where language rights were implied but not defined. The Irish Free State inherited intact the entire civil service that had been in place under British rule, and this meant government departments, while nominally Gaelicized, continued with a strong bias against Gaelic culture. The country’s Department of Education was an excellent example, supposedly encouraging Irish-medium education, but mostly refusing to publish up-to-date textbooks or dictionaries for schools. The first state-sponsored English-Irish dictionary was published in 1959, and its Irish-English equivalent languished until publication in 1978. No Irish-Irish dictionary exists. While beforehand Irish-speakers might have had some cause to expect service in Irish from a government official, even that disappeared in 1974, when the language was discontinued as a requirement for civil service entry. 

Legislatively, Ireland’s entry into the European Economic Community was a calamity for the language. The Irish government, to the European Community’s great surprise, requested that the language not be given working status, and this led to the language missing out on multiple opportunities to develop a modernized international vocabulary. This remained the case until 2007, when Ireland formally requested the European Union (EU) to give the language working status. While Irish remains the least used of all the working languages in the EU, its now-international status guarantees a higher profile than most minority languages could expect. For example, while the Irish presidency of the Council of the European Union in 2004 was conducted entirely in English, its 2013 presidency is being conducted bilingually (with additionally strong recognition of French and German).

The 2003 Official Languages Act made modest linguistic requirements of public bodies such as county councils, government departments and public transport utilities, usually with respect to signage, websites and other modes of communication with the public. Announcements on public buses and trains are now bilingual because of the act, and many national and local authorities are now taking steps to present themselves bilingually.


Second-language Irish

The odd role of the Irish language in Ireland has much to do with its status in the country’s education system. The 92% of Irish pupils who are not receiving instruction through the language must nevertheless attend compulsory language classes right up to their final year of secondary education, usually at age 17. This encourages a reasonable passive knowledge of the language among Irish citizens. However, while about 1.5 million Irish people report themselves in censuses as “able to speak Irish,” many of these would be infrequent speakers at highly varying levels of fluency. These speakers nevertheless have a huge effect on the language. National school curricula, for example, are directed entirely at the learner community, thus highly disadvantaging native speakers, who still have no curriculum that recognizes their high linguistic functionality. Imagine, for example, the French-language curriculum in Scottish primary schools being used in France. The much-trumpeted success of Gaelscoileanna also masks the fact that perhaps more than 95% of their pupils actually come from English-speaking households. This, of course, has an influence on extracurricular communication among pupils, and affects the Irish of the schools’ native-speaking students. Where Irish is spoken at all, it is often in a fractured pidgin-like mishmash of English and Irish derisively called Gaelscoilis. That this nascent dialect exists at all, however, is proof positive that Irish is growing as a living first and second language in Ireland’s urban areas.

The most encouraging sign of an urban Irish revival is the existence of the Irish-language parenting organization Comhluadar. Founded among several score families in Dublin in 1992, the organization now has over 600 member families all around Ireland and even further afield in England and the United States. Most Comhluadar parents are not traditional Gaeltacht speakers, but city dwellers who grew up speaking English and converted to Irish as adults. Many of them are thus speakers of the derided Gaelscoilis, but nevertheless persist with the language, even to the point of raising children in it.


Irish-language broadcast media

For many years after the foundation of the Irish state, Irish went virtually unspoken in the broadcast media. The single national radio broadcaster rarely went further than offering a two-minute news roundup at odd times of the day, such as 6:53 a.m. This changed in 1972 when, under pressure from civil rights activists, the government founded a national radio station directed principally at the Gaeltacht. While having only limited hours for several decades, the station nevertheless made native-quality Irish available to the whole country. It also brought together speakers from the three principal dialect areas, whose dialects had drifted so far apart that their speakers often preferred to speak with each other in English. The station has always had one or two city-based programs too, and the effect has been to gradually unite speakers on a national basis. While mutual comprehensibility is still a problem, it is far less so nowadays. The station now broadcasts around the clock and is available on the internet.

Television service was virtually non-existent for many years. The national broadcaster again provided no more than two minutes of news headlines once a day, and only in the late 1980s started to provide anything more than that, with a sporadically-appearing current affairs program on their newly founded second channel. This cheaply produced studio-based program was less than enough to satisfy the burgeoning urban Irish-speaking community, and combined pressure from Gaeltacht and city activists led to more programming, including much-needed children’s material. The national broadcaster, however, under pressure from new cable and satellite broadcasters, felt unable to sacrifice its ?primetime slots, and the government moved toward establishing an independent Irish-language television sector. In 1997 it was felt that enough potential staff had been trained to establish a station and Teilifís na Gaeilge (TnaG) was established as a semi-independent entity with its own studios and broadcasting network. Beginning with about four hours of dedicated broadcasting for children and adults, the station, now rebranded as TG4, now broadcasts up to twelve hours of Irish-language programming a day. Viewership figures started below 1%, but TG4 has used its terrestrial broadcasting network to great advantage, and the station is now additionally available on all satellite and cable services in Ireland, as well as internationally over the internet. Their average audience share is now 3% of Irish viewers, but that can rise to 12% for certain programs, which are usually popular sports events or foreign films. Virtually all programs have a mix of speakers from the various dialect areas and outside, and this has done much to coalesce the Irish-speaking community on a national basis. A high production quality also ensures the presentation of the language and its speakers as modern and professional, and the station has done much to change popular opinions about Irish.


The future of Irish

Counting speakers is difficult, as the demographic has changed so radically since Irish independence. While several hundred thousand people reported themselves as speakers of Irish in 1926, soon after the foundation of the Irish state, many of these were impoverished, poorly educated residents of remote rural townlands. Now, 1.8 million people report themselves as able to speak Irish, although it seems likely that no more than 150,000 are native or fluent speakers. Only about 90,000 people report themselves as daily speakers of the language outside the education system, with most of those speakers living outside the Gaeltacht. The main difference between these speakers and those of earlier times, however, is that they have a high level of education and literacy and are not confined to highly threatened rural areas.

While the Irish language is certainly losing ground in its traditional Western Ireland territories, a growing community of urban speakers seems to be partially offsetting this loss. Many of these speakers are not natives, however, and this is leading to an unstable urban variety of Irish that will only stabilize if sufficient numbers begin to speak Irish at home. This large, well-educated language community, with its Gaeltacht partner, has garnered enough influence to bring about real changes in the legal status of Irish in Ireland and the EU, and to demand high-quality and high-profile services.