Irish 101

Republic of Ireland

The number of native Irish-speakers in the Republic of Ireland today is a smaller fraction of the population than it was at independence. The main reason for the decline was, according to some, the pressure the state put upon Irish-speakers to use English. Also, many Irish speaking families encouraged their children to speak English as it was the language of education and employment. The Official Languages Act of 2003 gave people the right to interact with state bodies in Irish. It is too early to assess how well this is working in practice. Other factors were outward migration of Irish speakers from the Gaeltacht (see related issues at Irish diaspora) and inward migration of English-speakers. The Planning and Development Act (2000) attempted to address the latter issue, with varied levels of success. Planning controls now require new housing in Gaeltacht areas to be allocated to English-speakers and Irish-speakers in the same ratio as the existing population of the area. This will prevent new houses allocated to Irish-speakers being immediately sold on to English-speakers. However, the restriction only lasts for a few years. Also, people are not required to reach native speaker standards of fluency to qualify as Irish-speakers.

On 19 December 2006 the government announced a 20-year strategy to help Ireland become a fully bilingual country. This involved a 13 point plan and encouraging the use of language in all aspects of life.

Daily Life

Several computer software products have the option of an Irish-language interface. Prominent examples include KDE, Mozilla Firefox, Mozilla Thunderbird,, and Microsoft Windows XP.

Many English-speaking Irish people use small and simple phrases (known as cúpla focal , "a few words") in their everyday speech, e.g. Slán ("goodbye"), Slán abhaile ("get home safely"), Sláinte ("good health"; used when drinking like "bottoms up" or "cheers"), Go raibh maith agat ("thank you"), Céad míle fáilte ("a hundred thousand welcomes", a tourist board saying), Conas atá tú? ("How are you?"). There are many more small sayings that have crept into Hiberno-English. The term craic has been popularised outside Ireland in this made-up Gaelicized spelling: "How's the craic? " or "What's the craic'?" ("how's the fun?"/"how is it going?"), though the word is not Irish in origin, and the expression "How's the crack?" was widely used in Ireland since at least the 1960s before the Irish-language spelling "craic" became the common journalistic style.

Many public bodies have Irish language or bilingual names, but some have downgraded the language. An Post, the Republic's postal service, continues to have place names in the language on its postmarks, as well as recognising addresses (as does the Royal Mail in Northern Ireland). Traditionally, the private sector has been less supportive, although support for the language has come from some private companies. For example, Irish supermarket chain Superquinn introduced bilingual signs in its stores in the 1980s, a move which was followed more recently by the British chain Tesco for its stores in the Republic. Woodies DIY now also have bilingual signs in their chain of stores.

In an effort to increase the use of the Irish language by the State, the Official Languages Act was passed in 2003. This act ensures that most publications made by a governmental body must be published in both official languages, Irish and English. In addition, the office of Language Commissioner has been set up to act as an ombudsman with regard to equal treatment for both languages. Effectively this is to protect Irish as a minority language.

A major factor in the decline of natively-spoken Irish has been the movement of English speakers into the Gaeltacht (predominantly Irish speaking areas) and the return of native Irish-speakers who have returned with English-speaking partners. This has been stimulated by government grants and infrastructure projects "only about half Gaeltacht children learn Irish in the home... this is related to the high level of in-migration and return migration which has accompanied the economic restructuring of the Gaeltacht in recent decades". Many see this as a deliberate attempt by anti-nationalist politicians to wipe out the language. "That economic development of the kind undertaken was likely to have such consequences was readily predictable a decade ago". In a last-ditch effort to stop the demise of Irish-speaking in Connemara in Galway, planning controls have been introduced on the building of new homes in Irish speaking areas.

Attempts have been made to offer support for the language through the media, notably with the launch of Raidió na Gaeltachta (Gaeltacht radio) and Teilifís na Gaeilge (Irish language television, initially abbreviated to 'TnaG', now renamed TG4). Both have been relatively successful. 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 . Most of TG4's viewership, however, tends to come from showing Gaelic football, hurling and rugby union matches and also films in English, and English pop music programmes, although some of its Irish language programmes attract large audiences. In 2007 TG4 reported that overall it "has a share of 3% of the national television market". This market share is up from about 1.5% in the late 1990s. TG4 delivers 16 hours a day of television from an annual budget of €30 million, which is widely judged to be relatively efficient. The budget has the full support of all political parties in parliament. TG4 is the most successful and high-profile government initiative for the Irish language for the past fifty years.

The Irish language daily newspaper Lá Nua publishes five days a week and has circulation of several thousand as well as a website. There is also a weekly paper, Foinse . These require government sponsorship. The Irish News has two pages in Irish every day. The Irish Times had up until recently one article in Irish every week. Now it has several articles with some articles appended with short lists giving the meaning of some of the words used in English. Another paper, Saol , and about 5 magazines are also published in the language, as well as internet-only publications such as "Beo!". The immigrants magazine Metro Éireann also has articles in Irish every issue, as do many local papers throughout the country, including university publications such as Trinity News . The BBC offers a website for beginners called Blas ("a taste").

Thanks in large part to Gael-Taca and Gaillimh Le Gaeilge and two local groups a large number of residential developments are named in Irish today in most of the Republic of Ireland.

The Placenames Order (Gaeltacht Districts)/ An tOrdú Logainmneacha (Ceanntair Gaeltachta) (2004) requires the original Irish placenames to be used in the Gaeltacht on all official documents, maps and roadsigns. This has removed the legal status of those placenames in the Gaeltacht in English. Opposition to these measures comes from several quarters including some people within popular tourist destinations located within the Gaeltacht (namely in Dingle/An Daingean) who claim that tourists may not recognise the Irish forms of the placenames.

However following a campaign in the 1960s and early 1970s, most roadsigns in Gaeltacht regions have been in Irish only. Maps and government documents did not change, though. Previously Ordnance Survey (government) maps showed placenames bilingually in the Gaeltacht (and generally in English only elsewhere). Unfortunately, most other map companies wrote only the English placenames, leading to significant confusion in the Gaeltacht. The act therefore updates government documents and maps in line with what has been reality in the Gaeltacht for the past 30 years. Private map companies are expected to follow suit. Beyond the Gaeltacht only English placenames were officially recognised (pre 2004). However, further placenames orders have been passed to enable both the English and the Irish placenames to be used. The village of Straffan is still marked variously as An Srafáin , An Cluainíní and Teach Strafáin , even though Irish has not been the spoken widely there for two centuries.

Irish vehicle registration plates are bilingual: the county of registration is shown in Irish above the plate number as a kind of surtitle, and is encoded from English within the plate number. For example, a Dublin plate is surtitled Baile Átha Cliath and the plate number includes "-D-".

From 1964 The Bible was translated at Maynooth for Roman Catholics for the first time under the supervision of Professor Pádraig Ó Fiannachta and was finally published in 1981. The Church of Ireland Book of Common Prayer of 2004 is published in both English and Irish.


The Irish language is a compulsory subject in government funded schools in the Republic of Ireland and has been so since the early days of the state. It is taught as a second language at second level (L2) even to native (L1) speakers. English is offered as a first (L1) language only even to those who speak it as a second language. The curriculum was once arranged in the 1930s by Father Timothy Corcoran SJ of UCD, who could not speak the language himself. The Irish Government has endeavoured to address the unpopularity of the language by revamping the curriculum at primary school level to focus on spoken Irish. However, at secondary school level, students must analyse literature and poetry, and write lengthy essays, debates and stories in Irish for the (L2) Leaving Certificate examination. The exemption from learning Irish on the grounds of time spent abroad, or learning disability, is subject to Circular 12/96 (primary education) and Circular M10/94 (secondary education) issued by the Department of Education and Science.

In March 2007, the Minister for Education, Mary Hanafin, announced that more focus would be devoted to the spoken language, and that from 2012, the percentage of marks available in the Leaving Certificate Irish exam would increase from 25% to 40% for the oral component. This increased emphasis on the oral component of the Irish examinations is likely to change the way Irish is examined.

Recently the abolition of compulsory Irish has been discussed. In 2005 Enda Kenny, leader of Ireland's main opposition party, Fine Gael, called for the language to be made an optional subject in the last two years of secondary school. Mr Kenny, despite being a fluent speaker himself (and a teacher), stated that he believed that compulsory Irish has done the language more harm than good.


A relatively recent development is the proliferation of gaelscoileanna (schools) in which Irish is the medium of education. By September 2005 there were 168 gaelscoileanna at primary level and 43 at secondary level in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland together (excluding the Gaeltacht, whose schools are not considered gaelscoileanna), which amounted to approximately 31,000 students. This has grown from a total of less than 20 in the early 1970s and there are 15 more being planned at present. With the opening of Gaelscoil Liatroma in County Leitrim in 2005 there is now at least one gaelscoil in each of the 32 traditional counties of Ireland. In Gaeltacht areas, the medium of education has been traditionally through Irish, ever since the foundation of the State. The majority of Gaeltacht students tend to be L1 Irish Gaelic speakers, but even in the Gaeltacht areas the language is taught as an L2 language whilst English is taught as an L1 language.

The Irish Equality Authority recently questioned the official State practice of awarding 5-10% extra marks to students who take some of their examinations through Irish.

The Royal Irish Academy's 2006 conference on "Language Policy and Language Planning in Ireland" found that the study of Irish and other languages is declining in Ireland. The number of schoolchildren studying "higher level" Irish for the Leaving Certificate dropped from 15,719 in 2001 to 14,358 in 2005. To reverse this decline, it was recommended that training and living for a time in a Gaeltacht area should be "compulsory" for teachers of Irish.

Although the Gaeltacht is defined as an entirely Irish-language speaking area, the Irish government also pays families living in the Gaeltacht areas with school-age children to speak Irish. These are inspected and graded according to ability. In the 2006-07 school year, 2,216 families received the full grant of €260 p.a., 937 families received a reduced grant and 225 families did not meet the criteria. This payment scheme is called Sceim Labhairt na Gaeilge , the first example in Europe where citizens are paid to speak their first official language.

Irish Colleges

Supplementing the formal curriculum, and after the end of the primary (usually from 4th class onwards) and secondary school years, some pupils attend an "Irish college". These programmes are residential Irish language summer courses, and give students the opportunity to be immersed in the language, usually for periods of three weeks over the summer months. Some courses are college based while others are based with host families in Gaeltacht areas under the guidance of Bean an tí. Students attend classes, participate in sports, art, drama, music, go to céilithe and other summer camp activities through the medium of Irish. As with the conventional school set-up The Department of Education establishes the boundaries for class size and qualifications required by teachers.

Northern Ireland

As in the Republic, the Irish language is a minority language in Northern Ireland, known in Irish as Tuaisceart Éireann .

Attitudes towards the 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 the Roman Catholic-majority Republic, and more recently, with the republican movement in Northern Ireland itself. Erection of public street signs in Irish were effectively banned under laws by the Parliament of Northern Ireland, which stated that only English could be used. These laws were not repealed by the British government until the early 1990s.Many republicans in Northern Ireland, including Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams, learnt Irish while in prison, a development known as the jailtacht. Although the language was taught in Catholic secondary schools (especially by the Christian Brothers), it was not taught at all in the Maintained School Sector which is mostly attended by Protestant pupils. However, Irish-medium schools, known as gaelscoileanna , had already been founded in Belfast and Derry, and an Irish-language newspaper called Lá Nua ("New 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 hardline DUP politicians like Sammy Wilson ridiculed it as a "leprechaun language". Ulster Scots, promoted by many loyalists, was, in turn, ridiculed by nationalists (and even some Unionists) as "a DIY language for Orangemen". According to recent statistics, there is no significant difference between the number of Catholic and Protestant speakers of Ulster Scots in Ulster (see Ulster Scots language), although those involved in promoting Ulster-Scots as a language are almost always unionist. Ulster-Scots is defined in legislation (The North/South Co-operation (Implementation Bodies) Northern Ireland Order 1999) as: the variety of the Scots language which has traditionally been used in parts of Northern Ireland and in Donegal in Ireland.

Irish received official recognition in Northern Ireland for the first time in 1998 under the Good Friday Agreement. A cross-border body known as Foras na Gaeilge was established to promote the language in both Northern Ireland and the Republic, taking over the functions of the previous Republic-only Bord na Gaeilge .

The British government has ratified the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages in respect to Irish in Northern Ireland.

It has been claimed that Belfast now represents the fastest growing centre of Irish language usage on the island - and the Good Friday Agreement's provisions on 'parity of esteem' have been used to give the language an official status there. In March 2005, the Irish language TV service TG4 began broadcasting from the Divis transmitter near Belfast, as a result of agreement between the Department of Foreign Affairs and the Northern Ireland Office, although so far this is the only transmitter to carry it.

The Belfast city council has designated the Falls Road area (from Milltown Cemetery to Divis street) as The Gaeltacht Quarter of Belfast, one of the four cultural quarters of the city. There is a growing number of Irish-medium schools throughout Northern Ireland (see picture above), and, at English-medium schools, it is becoming more and more common that Irish be taught to children.

Under the St Andrews Agreement, the government has legislated to introduce an Irish Language Act. A consultation period ending on 2 March 2007 could see Irish becoming an official language, having equal validity with English, recognised as an indigenous language, or aspire to become an official language in the future.

Outside Ireland

An interest in the Irish language is maintained throughout the English speaking world among the Irish diaspora and there are active Irish language groups in North American, British, and Australian cities. In Australia, a network of people have established special Irish schools around the country teaching the language and music.

The Irish language emigrated to North America along with the Irish people. Although Irish is one of the smaller European languages spoken in North America, it has cultural importance in the northeast United States and in Newfoundland, and according to the 2000 Census, approximately 26,000 people in the U.S. speak Irish at home.

The Irish language came to Newfoundland in the late 1600s and was commonly spoken among the Newfoundland Irish until the middle of the 20th century. There is direct evidence to suggest that as high as 90% of the Irish in Newfoundland spoke only Irish as their mother tongue. Records from Newfoundland's courts, where defendants often required Irish-speaking interpreters, indicate that the dominant language of the Avalon Peninsula was Irish rather than English. Today it remains the only place outside of Ireland that can claim a unique Irish name ( Talamh an Éisc , meaning Land of the Fish ), and an area where Irish is natively spoken. In 2007 a number of Canadian speakers founded the first "Gaeltacht" outside of Ireland in an area near Kingston, Ontario (see main article Permanent North American Gaeltacht). The site (named Gaeltacht Bhaile na hÉireann ) is located in Tamworth, Ontario and is to be a retreat centre for Irish-speaking Canadians and Americans.

The Irish language reached Australia in 1788, along with English. In the early colonial period, Irish was seen as an opposition language used by convicts and repressed by the colonial authorities. Although the Irish were a greater proportion of the European population than in any other British colony, the use of the language quickly declined. As legal barriers to the integration of the Irish and their descendants into Australian life were progressively removed, English became the language of social advancement. The 2001 census revealed that there are 828 speakers of the language in the country.

In May 2007, the University of Cambridge in England started offering courses in Modern Irish and Medieval Irish.

Many Australian slang words are Irish-derived and there are arguments that Australian English is more influenced by Irish than other varieties of English. There is a small movement to re-establish the language in contemporary Australia. The Special Broadcasting Service transmits Irish language radio and television.

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