History of the Irish Language

Stages of the Irish language

The earliest form of the language, Primitive Irish, is found in ogham inscriptions up to about the 4th century. After the conversion to Christianity, Old Irish begins to appear as glosses in the margins of Latin manuscripts, beginning in the 6th century, until it gives way in the 10th century to Middle Irish. Modern Irish dates from about the 16th century.

The Irish Language Movement

The Irish language was the most widely spoken language on the island of Ireland until the 19th century. The first Bible in Irish was translated by William Bedell, Church of Ireland Bishop of Kilmore in the 17th century.

A combination of the introduction of a primary education system (the ‘National Schools’), in which Irish was prohibited and only English taught by order of the British Government in Ireland, and the Great Famine (An Drochshaol) which hit a disportionately high number of Irish language speakers (who lived in the poorer areas heavily hit by famine deaths and emigration), hastened its rapid decline. Irish political leaders, such as Daniel O’Connell (Dónall Ó Conaill), too were critical of the language, seeing it as ‘backward’, with English the language of the future. Contemporary reports spoke of Irish-speaking parents actively discouraging their children from speaking the language, and encouraging the use of English instead. This practice continued long after independence, as the stigma of speaking Irish remained very strong.

Some, however, thought differently. The initial moves to save the language were championed by Irish Protestants, such as the linguist and clergyman William Neilson, in the end of the eighteenth century; the major push occurred with the foundation by Douglas Hyde, the son of a Church of Ireland rector, of the Gaelic League (known in Irish as Conradh na Gaeilge) which started the Gaelic Revival. Leading supporters of Conradh included Pádraig Mac Piarais and Éamon de Valera. The revival of interest in the language coincided with other cultural revivals, such as the foundation of the Gaelic Athletic Association and the growth in the performance of plays about Ireland in English, by such luminaries as William Butler Yeats, J.M. Synge, Sean O’Casey and Lady Gregory, with their launch of the Abbey Theatre.

Even though the Abbey Theatre playwrights wrote in English (and indeed some disliked Irish) the Irish language affected them, as it did all Irish English speakers. The version of English spoken in Ireland, known as Hiberno-English bears striking similarities in some grammatical idioms with Irish. Some have speculated that even after the vast majority of Irish people stopped speaking Irish, they perhaps subconsciously used its grammatical flair in the manner in which they spoke English. This fluency is reflected in the writings of Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde and more recently in the writings of Seamus Heaney, Paul Durkan, Dermot Bolger and many others. (It may also in part explain the appeal in Britain of Irish-born broadcasters like Terry Wogan, Eamonn Andrews, Graham Norton, Desmond Lynam, etc.)

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Independent Ireland & the language

The independent Irish state from 1922 (The Irish Free State 1922-37; Éire from 1937, also known since 1949 as the Republic of Ireland) launched a major push to promote the Irish language, with some of its leaders hoping that the state would become predominantly Irish-speaking within a generation. In fact, many of these initiatives, notably compulsory Irish at school and the requirement that one must know Irish to be employed in the civil service, proved counter-productive with generations of school-children alienated by what was often heavily-handed attempts at indoctrination, which created a cultural backlash. Demands that children learn seventeenth century Irish poetry, or study the life of Peig Sayers (a Gaelic speaker from the Blasket Islands) whose accounts of her life, as recounted in Irish language books, though fascinating, were taught in a poor manner, left a cultural legacy of negative reactions among generations, all too many of whom deliberately refused to use the language once they left school.

The emergence of a new, more pragmatic and technocratic leadership in the beginning of the sixties, with Seán Lemass as Taoiseach, marked the shift in the attitude of Ireland’s dominant élites towards the language. Whereas the first three presidents of Ireland (Douglas Hyde/Dubhghlas de hÍde, Sean T. O’Kelly/Seán T. Ó Ceallaigh and Eamon de Valera) and the fifth (Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh) were all so fluent in Irish that it became the working language in their official residence, later presidents struggled with any degree of fluency, its use declining to such an extent that it is only used now (if at all) in occasional speeches. Similarly, where earlier generations of Irish government leaders were highly fluent, recent Prime ministers (Albert Reynolds/Ailbhe Mag Raghnaill, John Bruton, Bertie Ahern) had little fluency, struggling to pronounce passages of their speeches in Irish to their Ard-Fheiseanna (party conference(s), pronounced ‘Ord Esh-ana’).

It is, though, disputed to what extent such professed language revivalists as de Valera genuinely tried to Gaelicise political life. Ernest Blythe did little during his time as Minister of Finance to assist Irish language projects beyond the vested interests of already established organisations. Even in the first Dáil Éireann, few speeches were delivered as Gaeilge (in Irish), with the exception of formal proceedings. None of the recent taoisigh (plural of ‘Taoiseach’, meaning ‘prime minister’) have been fluent in Irish; of the recent Presidents only Mary McAleese (Máire Mhac Ghiolla Íosa) and Mary Robinson/Máire Mhic Róíbín are fluent, though the latter studied the language to improve her fluency while in office. Presidents of Ireland do take their inauguration ‘Declaration of Office’ in the language, but that too is optional.

Even modern parliamentary legislation, through supposed to be issued in both Irish and English, is frequently only available in English. Much of publicly displayed Irish is ungrammatical, thus irritating both language activists and enemies of the language and contributing to the public image of the revival as pony and bogus.

Many public bodies have Irish language or bilingual names, but some have downgraded the language. For example, Eircom (formerly Telecom Eireann) effectively dropped Irish from its telephone directories in 1999. A Post, the Republic’s postal service, continues to have place names in the language on its postmarks, as well as recognising addresses.

In an effort to address the half-committed attitude of Irish language use by the State, the Official Languages Act was passed in 2003. This act ensures that every publication made by a governmental body must be published in both official languages, Irish and English. In addition, the office of Official Languages Commissioner has been set up to act as an ombudsman with regard to equal treatment in both languages.

Picture of a typical Irish road sign in Mullingar, County Westmeath, with place names in English and Irish. In 2002, at the launch of what was to be a new traffic management system for Dublin, it was revealed that the vast majority of signs would be in English only. The justification offered was that, in making the English lettering large enough to be easily read by motorists from a distance, there was no space to include Irish. The use of the single Irish words left, ‘An Lár’ (meaning city centre) was criticised on the basis that no-one would know what it meant, even though it was a term used widely for decades on street signs. Even the once common method in Ireland of beginning and ending letters – beginning ‘A Chara’ (meaning friend) and ending ‘Is Mise le Meas’ – is becoming rarer.

On balance, the overly enthusiastic promotion of Irish by the political and cultural elite from the 1920s did more harm than good to the language’s long-term prospects. Instead of winning over people to the concept that they could speak Irish, they attempted to follow a process of saying they must speak Irish. That created a backlash that made many people more determined than ever not to. The language went into long-term decline, with Gaeltacht areas (exclusively Irish speaking areas) shrinking as the results of each national census returns were analysed. Today, most people, even in what are officially Gaeltacht areas, no longer speak the language. In a last ditch effort to stop the complete collapse of Irish-speaking in Connemara in Galway, new planning controls have been introduced to ensure that only Irish speakers will be given permission to build homes in Irish speaking areas. But even this may be too little, too late, as many of those areas have a majority of English-speakers, with most Irish speakers being bilingual, using English as their everyday language except among themselves. Compulsory Irish in schools remains a political shibboleth, with most politicians reluctant to raise the subject for fear of appearing unpatriotic.

Attempts have been made to offer some support for the language through the media, notably the launch of Raidió na Gaeltachta (Gaeltacht radio) and Teilifís na Gaeilge (Irish language television, called initially ‘TnaG’, now completely renamed TG4); both have had limited success. TG4 has offered Irish-speaking young people a forum for youth culture as Gaeilge (in Irish) through rock and pop shows, travel shows, dating games, and even a controversial award-winning soap opera in Irish called Ros na Rún (featuring, among other characters, an Irish-speaking gay couple and their child). Most of TG4′s viewership, however, tends to come from showing Gaelic football, hurling and rugby matches, and films in English.

In 1938, the founder of the Conradh na Gaeilge, Douglas Hyde, was inaugurated as the first President of Ireland. The record of his delivering his inauguration ‘Declaration of Office’ in his native Roscommon Irish remains almost the only surviving remnant of anyone speaking in that dialect, which in effect died out with him. Over sixty years later, the majority of the Gaeltacht and Irish-speaking areas in existence as he took that oath, no longer exist.

Northern Ireland

Attitudes towards the Irish language in Northern Ireland have traditionally reflected the political differences between its two divided communities. The language has been regarded with suspicion by Unionists, who have associated it with Catholic dominated Republic in the south, and more recently, with the republican movement in Northern Ireland itself. Many republicans in Northern Ireland, including Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams, learnt Irish while in prison, a development known as the jailtacht. The language was not taught in Protestant schools, and public signs in Irish were effectively banned under laws by the Parliament of Northern Ireland, which stated that only English could be used.

This was not formally lifted by the British Government until the early 1990s. However, Irish-medium schools, known as gaelscoileanna, had been founded in Belfast and Derry, and an Irish-language newspaper called Lá (‘day’) was established in Belfast. BBC Radio Ulster began broadcasting a nightly half-hour programme in Irish in the early 1980s called Blas (‘taste’, ‘accent’), and BBC Northern Ireland also showed its first TV programme in the language in the early 1990s. The Ultach Trust was also established, with a view to broadening the appeal of the language among Protestants, although hard-line Unionists like the Reverend Ian Paisley continued to ridicule it as a ‘leprechaun language’. Ulster Scots, promoted by some loyalists, was, in turn, ridiculed by nationalists as ‘a DIY language for Orangemen’.

The Irish Language Today

In spite of all the efforts since Ireland achieved independence (some critics claim because of those efforts) the Irish language is in rapid and perhaps terminal decline in the Republic of Ireland. According to data compiled by the Irish Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, only one quarter of households in Gaeltacht areas possess a fluency in Irish. The author of a detailed analysis of the survey, Donncha Ó hÉallaithe, described the Irish language policy followed by Irish governments a ‘complete and absolute disaster.’ The Irish Times (January 6, 2002), referring to his analysis, which was initially published in the Irish language newspaper Foinse, quoted him as follows: ‘It is an absolute indictment of successive Irish Governments that at the foundation of the Irish State there were 250,000 fluent Irish speakers living in Irish-speaking or semi Irish-speaking areas, but the number now is between 20,000 and 30,000.’

According to the language survey, levels of fluency among families is ‘very low’, from 1% in Galway suburbs to a maximum of 8% parts of west Donegal. With such sharp decline, particularly among the young, the real danger exists that Irish will largely become extinct within two generations, possibly even one. While the language will continue to exist among English speakers who have learned fluency and are bilingual (though mainly English-speaking in their everyday lives) Gaeltachtaí embody more than just a language, but the cultural context in which it is spoken, through song, stories, social traditions, folklore and dance. The death of the Gaeltachtaí would make a break forever between Ireland’s cultural past and identity, and its future. All sides, irrespective of their view on the methodology used by independent Ireland in its efforts to preserve the language, agree that such a loss would be a cultural tragedy of a monumental scale.


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