Statistics on the Gaeltacht and the Irish Language
Facts about the Origin(s) of Irish
The Irish language, also known as Irish Gaelic, or simply “Irish” in Ireland, is a member of the Goidelic group of the Celtic subfamily of the Indo-European family of languages. The history of Irish as a literary language falls into three periods: Old Irish (7th–9th century A.D.), Middle Irish (10th–16th century), and Modern Irish (since the 16th century). (Lehman, An Introduction to Old Irish, 1975)
Irish and her sister languages, Welsh and Breton, are among the oldest living languages in Europe. Written records go back to the early Christian period.
The Celtic language we now know as Irish came to Ireland before 300 BC. The first evidence of writing in Irish can be found in the markings on commemorative stones known as Ogham. Ogham was a way of writing names using notches or strokes. Only when Christianity was well established in the 5th Century did true literacy in Irish begin. Using Roman lettering, Irish monks wrote little poems or phrases in the margins of manuscripts. Many of those manuscripts, such as the Book of Kells, still exist today. The coming of Christianity and, with it, Latin brought many new terms to Irish, especially those concerning literacy and religious life. (BBC Website)
The Life of the Language
Around the 6th century AD the Irish people strengthened their political, military and economic position. It was therefore not surprising that the Irish language also gained strength and was spreading eastwards and northwards across Scotland. Three centuries later the language conquered most of Scotland, Northern Britain and the Isle of Man. When the Vikings (mainly from the modern-day areas of Denmark and Norway) started invading the area where Irish had been spoken they hit a cultural obstacle more powerful than the swords. It’s also a fact that they weren’t very kind to the native inhabitants (including the monks with their sought-after possessions). And it should not be overlooked that the Normans were the people who played a major political, military and cultural role in the northern and Mediterranean parts of medieval Europe for centuries and whose origins were in Scandinavia.
By the time of the Norman invasion of England, most Normans derived from the indigenous populations of eastern Brittany and western Flanders, but their lords retained a memory of their own Viking origins. The Hiberno-Normanswere the Norman lords who settled in Ireland. They weren’t very loyal to the Normans in England. They spoke Norman-French or English, but were small in numbers and had friendly relations with the Irish natives. In fact, it should be noted that the Normans of Ireland quickly assimilated into the Irish-speaking world and left a notable mark on Irish language, culture and everyday life. Many modern-day words in Irish originate from Norman influence. The integration of Normans also influenced the development of different dialects.
From the time of the Norman invasion in Ireland, the English language was spoken only in the area around Dublin. Outside this area, which was known as The Pale, the native culture and society blossomed until the Tudor period.
The Sore Point
The history of relations between Ireland and England is complex and mostly biased, like the history of every nation, to be honest. However it has to be mentioned that the Irish language never had the status it deserved. Like most of the peoples of Europe, who throughout the history didn’t get the chance to create their own nation states, the Irish lived under the rule of a sovereign who did not share the same traditions, norms, religion, culture or language. To make the empires more stable, the sovereigns tried to unify them. What better way to do that than prohibit the far most crucial factor of ethnical identity – the language.
The use of the Irish language was prohibited until 1871, while the English language was being enforced. It’s a long time of repression that even the languages of stronger nations wouldn’t survive. Ireland was also struck by several natural and, consequently, economic misfortunes that led to social collapse and extensive migration. Of most note is the Great Famine of 1845-1848.
However, the past is in the past and one should not dwell on it. The fact is that the Irish held their faith in their own hands, but somehow, they let the language slipthrough their fingers. But not completely.
The Irish Language Today – Facts and Figures
Today, Irish is the first official language in the Republic of Ireland. Since 1 January 2007 it is also an official language of the European Union. Notably, it’s the only official language of the EU that is not the most widely spoken language in any member state.
According to census figures from 2002, released by Central Statistics Office of Ireland (CSO, cso.ie), on the night of Sunday, 28 April 2002, there was 1,570,894 Irish speakers in the country as opposed to 2,180,101 Non-Irish speakers. An Irish speaker is defined as a person who claims that they can speak Irish, but who do not necessarily use it in their daily life. The largest number of Irish speakers live in Leinster (511,639), followed by Munster (352,177), Connacht (162,680) and the three counties of Ulster which are in the Republic (69,334). However the percentage of Irish speakers is the lowest in Leinster (38.2%), the highest in Connacht and Munster (48.5% and 46.8% respectively).
Surprisingly the largest percentage of people with ability to speak Irish is in the age groups between 10 and 24 years of age (10-14 years: 68.7%; 15- 19 years: 66.3%; 20-24 years: 51.2%), probably because of the obligatory teaching of Irish in schools.
Number of Irish Speakers in the Gaeltacht
More interesting are percentages of Irish speakers in the Gaeltacht regions. In all Gaeltachtaí 72.6% are fluent in Irish (62,157 people).
County Cork’s Gaeltacht represents 2,809 people with ability to speak Irish, is 83.1% of population there.
16,964 Irish speakers live in the Gaeltacht of County Donegal (74.9% of people living the official Irish-speaking areas).
County Galway’s Gaeltacht (mainly Conamara) gives home to 21,171 Irish speakers, 78.3% of the total Gaeltacht population.
County Kerry’s rugged weather hasn’t swept away 6,243 people in the Gaeltacht, who insist on speaking Irish, 76.7% of all of Kerry Gaeltacht weather warriors.
7,050 Irish speakers have settled in the Gaeltacht of County Mayo and live in peace with 32.9% of population that doesn’t have the ability to speak Irish.
There’s only 906 people able to speak Irish in the Gaeltacht of County Meath, still a share of 60.6% of An Ghaeltacht population.
County Waterford has only 100 more Irish speakers (1006) in the Gaeltacht, which is 77.7% of the population of the Irish speaking area.
Will Gaeltachtaí rescue the Irish language and bring it back from oblivion? If we compare the figures to those of Limerick City, where only 42.1% of the population over 3 years of age is able to speak Irish, or look at disgraceful figures of Dublin City (34.6%). Realistically one would say it’s too late. But not everybody has given up on the language and not everybody prefers English, because (like) everybody in the world (like) understands you (like).
The future of the language may in fact rely on the urban communities of Irish speakers in the larger cities. The past decade has brought a new vibrancy to the Irish speaking community. Of special note is Belfast in Northern Ireland, where there are strong efforts to create Irish-speaking communities there.
Even our attempt here to grasp the history of the Irish language is unfortunately written in a language officially subordinate to Irish in Ireland. However, it is also an attempt to reach further and, facing facts, English has the ability to do so, if you have read this far.
Irish has an advantage that it is popular abroad, however it has a major disadvantage: it’s not very popular on its native soil. It still lives, despite the fact that it has a status of endangered language in the Republic of Ireland, and officially extinct in Northern Ireland.