If you visit Ireland today, you’ll notice the road signs are in two languages: English and Irish. But walking around Dublin or any other metropolitan area, you’ll hear people speaking almost exclusively in English. You’re far more likely to find people who speak Irish in the more rural areas. How many Irish speakers does that leave us with in Ireland, then, and how do English speakers fit into the equation? Finding the answer to those questions means going back through the history of the Irish language and the Irish people.
What Is Irish?
Irish is a member of the Celtic language family, which is itself part of the larger Indo-European language group. The Celtic languages come from those languages that originally formed on the land masses that are today the United Kingdom and Ireland. Other Celtic languages existed on the European continent, but died out over a thousand years ago. There are six languages left today, which are divided into Brythonic (Welsh, Breton and Cornish) and Goidelic (Irish, Manx and Scots Gaelic) languages. It’s believed all of these languages descend from a single Common Celtic language that existed thousands of years ago.
The Irish language was the first of the Goidelic languages, which later split off into the languages that are still spoken. This brings up an important point on terminology: very often, “Gaelic” is used to refer to the Irish language, but this is not technically correct. “Gaelic” only refers to Scots Gaelic. The confusion is likely because the Irish word for Irish is Gaeilge, which in some dialects sounds a lot like “Gaelic,” but in English it should only be referred to as “Irish.”
A Brief History Of Irish
The history of the Irish language dates back thousands of years. The earliest Irish writing is found on the Ogham stones, which show a form of Irish writing that dates back to perhaps the 4th century CE. This writing is a version of Primitive Irish, the earliest form of the Irish language after it broke off from proto-Indo-European.
During the following centuries, the Irish language slowly evolved in random ways, similar to how all languages change over time. The island of Ireland was constantly fending off invasions from Normans and Vikings, and the Irish speakers spread from Ireland to what are today the Isle of Man and Scotland. While it can be kind of arbitrary to divide a language into developmental stages, linguists usually place Old Irish in the 8th through 12th centuries, which then became Middle Irish from the 12th to 15th centuries (it was around here that Scots Gaelic and Manx broke off into separate languages). Modern Irish covers the Irish language from then to the present.
If everything had continued as it was, Ireland would likely still largely speak Irish today, but the English put a stop to that. England had tried many times to conquer the island, but Ireland was able to fend the invaders off in a series of bloody conflicts throughout the 16th and 17th centuries. But the British were slowly able to get a majority in Irish parliament, and then imposed measures to gain power at the expense of the Irish citizenry.
In 1801, Ireland officially joined with England to form the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. It’s not much of a coincidence that at this same point, Irish transitioned from being the majority language of Ireland to a more minor role. The English forcibly tried to stamp out Irish in the 19th century by imposing English through schools, church and the government. But the country stayed diglossic, meaning there were two languages used in two different situations: English was used by officials and members of the upper class, and Irish was used by the regular people.
Through war and famine, Irish was strongly challenged, but the English hadn’t completely eliminated the language by the time Ireland got its independence in 1922. Over the past decade there have been various attempts to resurrect it, and groups like Conradh na Gaeilge have pushed for the teaching of the language. In 2003, Irish was named an official language of Ireland, though most business continues to be held in English (the other official language).
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How Many People Speak Irish?
In the whole world, there are an estimated 1.2 million speakers of the Irish language. Of this number, only about 170,000 speak it as a first language.
The great majority — about 98 percent — of Irish speakers live in Ireland itself. The 2016 census in Ireland found that only about 10.5 percent of respondents spoke Irish on a daily or weekly basis, and that dropped to 4.2 percent when looking at regular, active speakers. There is a region of Ireland where Irish is spoken as a first language: the Gaeltacht. These are rural parts of the country that are scattered on the various coasts.
While the language isn’t widely spoken outside of Ireland, there are some pockets of Irish speakers elsewhere in the world. The United States has the largest with 20,600, mostly in Boston, Massachusetts, but also scattered in other parts as a legacy of Irish immigration to the country. The United Kingdom also has about 5,700 speakers, almost all of whom live in Northern Ireland (the part of Ireland that stayed part of the United Kingdom after 1922). New Zealand has around 1,000 speakers, again a part of the Irish diaspora of the 19th century. There are likely other small pockets of Irish in the world, but they’ve mostly faded away as the speakers’ descendants learned the local languages.