The Irish language, also known as Gaeilge, has seen a steady decline for centuries. The lack of daily use of the language and an increasing number of Irish citizens moving abroad have created an uncertain future for it. Many question if it’s even worth saving since English continues to be the predominant language on the Emerald Isle.
Irish Language Facts and Figures
Looking at facts and figures alone, the downward trend of Irish is clear. According to The Republic of Ireland’s 2016 census, 1,761,420 people (or 39.8% of the population) identified as being able to speak Irish. This was sadly a decrease of 13,017 people from the previous census. Another telling number is how often Irish is used in daily life. Only 73,803 people said they spoke Irish daily outside of the education system. This is less than 2% of the total population.
And while Irish language education requirements in certain schools have been in place for many years, people still don’t really speak it – at least not well. Outside of the education system, only 174,000 people, or 3.7% of the population, use Irish daily or weekly. Many people who learned Irish just don’t feel comfortable speaking it, and only 28% of people agreed with the statement that they have confidence in their spoken Irish.
While this data paints a grim picture, the human element shows another side of the story. The general opinion about the Irish language in Ireland is that it’s worth saving, and there is a great interest in expanding the language’s reach. A 2022 survey conducted in the city of Dublin found that only 5% of respondents were fluent in the language. However, among the 95% with lower levels of Irish, close to 60% were interested in learning or improving their Irish language skills.
The large majority of all respondents agreed that they would like more opportunities to learn Irish and have greater access to Irish language services. They also disagreed with the idea that promoting Irish was a waste of time and resources.
The Irish government has made clear steps in an attempt to promote the Irish language. In 2021, the Official Languages (Amendment) Act was passed. It will require 20% of new public service employees to be competent in the Irish language by the year 2030. The idea behind this is that “it will make a significant contribution to the quality of services in Irish provided to the public by State bodies.” This will create a demand for the younger generation to learn the language if they want to land a government job someday.
This comes along with the news that Irish was finally declared an official language of the European Union in 2022. Irish now shares the same status as the 23 other official EU languages such as Spanish, French, Italian, and German. It also means that all published EU documents must now be translated into Irish.
Looking Toward the Future
In addition to government action, the younger generations are also contributing to preserving the language by creating accessible content in the Irish language on social media. They use apps like TikTok and Instagram to arrange meetups and social events where Irish will be spoken. This has given a “cool factor” to the language. It can also be seen in the flourishing Irish art and music scene, including music festivals like Féile na Gealaí and the increase of music and movies in the Irish language.
The recent launch of the GaelGoer app allows users to connect with other Irish speakers nearby too, both in Ireland and abroad. This is a clear indication that Irish speakers are actively seeking opportunities to use the language, especially in social and artistic spaces.
We can also look at the popularity of Irish in Northern Ireland as a positive sign of the language’s rise. Unlike their neighbors south of the border, the number of people that spoke Irish in Northern Ireland rose from the last census, from 10.65% to 12.45%. The Irish language was traditionally associated with Catholic communities, but proponents of the language are advocating that it can be a unifier, not only between Catholic and Protestant communities in the north, but it can also create a stronger link with the Republic of Ireland.
Between government initiatives and social and cultural trends, people want to preserve the language. The data from the 2022 census will soon be released and can give a glimpse if any of these initiatives are working, although it might be too early to tell. Ultimately, it’s the younger generation that holds the fate of the language in their hands. We’ll soon see if they can turn the situation around.