Besides the iconic Irish emblems like Celtic knots and the color green, you’re probably familiar with Ireland’s famous lilting Irish accent, formally known as Hiberno-English. From Sinéad O’Connor to Cillian Murphy, the Irish are widely known to be English speakers.
As it turns out though, English isn’t the only national language of Ireland. The other is, well, Irish. Upwards of one million people can speak at least some Gaeilge (not to be confused with Gaelic, which is an entire language group). But why do most of the Irish speak English? And are there other languages to be found in the Republic of Ireland?
Up until recent history, Irish was the language of Ireland. Celtic cultures and languages, like Irish, initially emerged from waves of prehistoric migration from mainland Europe to the British Isles. The Primitive Irish spoken by these early Celts gradually evolved into contemporary Gaelic Irish, Scottish Gaelic and Manx, a language native to the Isle of Man.
Throughout Ireland’s history and complicated relationship with Great Britain (more on that later), English steadily replaced Irish as the island’s dominant language. In the late 19th century, supporters of the Gaelic Revival movement pushed for a resurgence of public interest in Gaelic cultures and languages. Today only around 10% of the population is fluent in Irish, with 141,000 native speakers.
Unfortunately, modern attempts to revitalize the language haven’t been the most successful. Just like math (sorry, maths), Irish is a mandatory subject in all public schools. That said, many students choose not to continue learning the language outside of school, with a good number pursuing other European languages, like French, instead.
Hope is not yet lost, though. With Irish news and public entertainment readily available, the number of passive Irish speakers might actually be growing. Parents can also send their children to Irish schools called gaelscoileanna, which use full language immersion to foster fluency. And if you’d want to have a conversation with someone in Irish, take a trip to Galway, County Cork or other Gaeltacht regions, where you’ll find the highest concentration of native Irish speakers.
So why is it that 99% of Ireland’s population speaks English natively, and not Irish? Let’s just say the answer lies very close to home. After weathering multiple waves of Viking and Norman invasions, a forced annexation to neighboring England and the Black Death, the Irish saw their native language flourish anew during a short interlude of (relative) sociopolitical peace and autonomy. That is until King Henry VIII of England decided to restore British authority by declaring himself King of Ireland, too. It all went downhill from there.
Fast-forward through many years of fighting harsh British rule to the year 1801, when the United Kingdom of England and Ireland came into existence. This unequal union, along with the devastating mid-century Potato Famine, sounded the first death knell for the Irish language.
A stark lingual divide emerged, with English as the favored language of politics and the upper class, while Irish remained a rural vernacular. In fact, Irish was outright banned in the newly unified schooling system. Learning English soon proved to be lucrative for upward mobility, especially for those looking to join the widespread emigration to North America.
After the Irish War of Independence in the early 20th century, emancipation from Great Britain was finally won with the creation of the Republic of Ireland (well, at least partially — there’s a reason the U.K. is now called the United Kingdom of England and Northern Ireland, but that’s a story for another time). Though Irish was subsequently declared a chief national language of Ireland and is now used for public signage and legislation, English remains the country’s de facto operating language.
Ullans, ISL And Shelta, Oh My!
But wait! Irish and English aren’t the only languages to be found in the Éire. In the northeastern part of the island, you’ll hear Ullans, a Scottish language (or dialect, depending on who you ask) that draws influence from English and Scots. It’s classified as an official minority language and is spoken by roughly 10,000 people. The Irish deaf community also has its own Irish Sign Language (ISL), which is actually more closely related to the French Sign Language than ESL.
You’ve probably also heard of Irish Travellers, or an lucht siúil (literally “the walking people”). They’ve been largely excluded from Irish society and were only recently recognized as a distinct ethnic group in 2017. Around 30,000 people speak their native vernacular, Shelta A.K.A. De Gammon, which is a mixture of Irish, English and a touch of Romani. Apart from these five major languages, some prominent immigrant languages include Polish, Lithuanian, Chinese, Tagalog, French and German.