Preserving the Irish Language: A Cultural Revival or a Lost Cause

Kelsey Wetherbee Published on March 17, 2023

On March 17, people all over the world will dress in green, maybe watch a parade, and hope for the luck of the Irish. For many, St. Patrick’s Day is a fun excuse to go to a pub and wear a t-shirt that says “Kiss me, I’m Irish.” But there’s a lot more history and tradition behind this day.

St. Patrick’s Day has been celebrated in Ireland for more than a thousand years. It commemorates the death of the patron saint of Ireland in the fifth century. The date falls during the season of Lent, so families typically attended church in the morning and celebrated (without Lenten restrictions) in the evening.

So why do people in the United States and worldwide celebrate this holiday? The short answer is that the Irish diaspora sent millions of migrants abroad. It’s estimated that since 1800, more than 10 million Irish citizens have moved to other countries. Wanting to retain their cultural identity, these Irish immigrants started St. Patrick’s Day celebrations in their new communities. In the latter half of the 20th century, these celebrations started to become popular with people of non-Irish descent. Because, hey, who doesn’t like a good party.

It’s currently estimated that 70 million people worldwide claim Irish heritage. In the United States alone, almost 35 million people are of Irish descent. There’s no question that being Irish means more than living in the country of Ireland. People proudly claim this ancestry, but very few know the language of their homeland.

Irish Language: What is it and who speaks it?

Let’s start with the basics. Irish is a fully-developed language that’s part of the Celtic branch of the Indo-European language family. It’s referred to as Irish in the English language, or as Gaeilge. Gaelic is not used to define the Irish language; it’s an adjective that describes the people and culture of Ireland. However, the dialect spoken in Scotland is referred to as Scottish Gaelic.

According to the 2016 census, 1,761,420 people, or 39.8% of the population identify as being able to speak Irish. But this is sadly a decrease of 13,017 people from the previous census. Another telling number is how often Irish is used in daily life. Of the 1,761,420 people who can speak Irish, 558,608 indicated they only speak Irish within the education system. This number is largely made up of students attending schools where learning the Irish language is a requirement. However, only 73,803 people spoke Irish daily outside of the education system. This is less than 2% of the total population.

Irish Language: Will there be a comeback?

Between the Irish diaspora and the lack of daily use, the future of the Irish language remains uncertain. While it’s one of the oldest languages that’s still in existence, many question if it’s worth saving if English continues to be the predominant language on the Emerald Isle.

The general consensus of the population seems to be that it is 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. But amongst the 95% with lesser levels of Irish, close to 60% were interested in learning or improving their Irish.

Amongst all respondents, the large majority agreed that they would like more opportunities to learn Irish and have greater access to Irish language services while disagreeing with statements that promoting Irish was a waste of time and resources. See the visualization below to learn more about the results of the survey.

Irish language proficiency and interest in Dublin

The Irish government also believes the language should be saved. It 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. And while this is a big step forward for elevating the language, it also means that 200 of the best translators have moved to the European Union headquarters in Brussels, draining the country of even more people that are fluent in the language.

But it’s clear that the President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins, is excited about the development saying, “I say throw off all the inhibitions, the excuses, the laziness and as the language of our ancestors becomes at every level in daily usage in the European Union, let us go and make a resolution to give it a place in our daily lives at home.”

But not everyone agrees that Irish is worth saving. The biggest argument of opponents is that, at this point, reviving the Irish language will be costly and unnecessary. While it was once a predominant language, it has been replaced by English so completely that it’s barely used in day-to-day life.

Irish is one of 79 minority languages in Europe but it doesn’t have the popularity or use as many of the others. In Luxembourg, the most common language is French, but 77% of the population is proficient in Luxembourgish. Or we can look at a closer neighbor like Wales, where 10% of the population uses Welch daily, much higher than the 2% that use Irish daily in Ireland.

And while Irish language education requirements in certain schools have been in place for many years, people still do not speak it, or 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. Only 28% of people agreed with the statement that they have confidence in their spoken Irish.

Irish Language: Looking Toward Younger Generations

While these facts and figures make the situation look bleak, there is a glimmer of hope if we turn toward the younger generations. They’ve taken to social media, creating accessible content in the Irish language. They also 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.

There was also the recent launch of the GaelGoer app which allows users to connect with other Irish speakers nearby, both in Ireland and abroad. Irish speakers are actively seeking opportunities to use the language, especially in social and artistic spaces.

Many young people get their first taste of using Irish socially when they attend gaeltachts, or summer camps where they are immersed in the Irish language. It’s a fun opportunity for them to meet other Irish speakers their own age and use Irish in day-to-day activities.

Aoife from Dublin, frequently went to gaeltachts when she was growing up. Every summer, it was “three weeks of only speaking Irish. Lessons in the morning, sports in the afternoon, ceili [Irish dance] in the evening. You’re sent home if you speak English.” She now has a high level of Irish and credits the gaeltachts for this. “It made the language more alive. I learnt a lot more there than in school. I loved it, and went every summer.”

We can also look at the popularity of Irish in Northern Ireland as a good sign of the rise in the language. Unlike their neighbors south of the border, the number of people that spoke Irish 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 also create a stronger link with the Republic of Ireland.

Rachel from Omagh, grew up in a cross-community but attended a Protestant school. She’s been studying Irish on her own since she wasn’t taught in school. “My reasons [for studying] are deeply connected to the fact that I feel that it’s unfair that I was never taught Irish as it is the mother language of the place that I am from and I love the Irish culture.” She one day hopes to spend a summer at a gaeltacht.

The Irish American Connection

If we want to widen the scope even further, we can look across the pond. According to the latest Census, more than 34.5 million Americans claim Irish heritage. Interestingly, that’s seven times more than the entire population of Ireland.

A 2023 survey conducted by Change Research polled 736 Irish Americans to find out about their connections to Ireland and their Irish-American identity. Even though the large majority of the respondents have ancestors that emigrated more than 3 generations ago, 77% said that they have a meaningful connection with their Irish heritage. They cited their connection through Irish studies and culture, like music, theater, and dance.

When asked what attracted them most to their Irish American heritage, 33% said Irish history, 24% percent said Irish music, 12% said positive perceptions of Irish identity in the US, and 11% said travel in Ireland.“ Only 4% said that the Irish language attracted them most to their Irish heritage.

Colleen, a Dallas resident whose great-parents emigrated from Ireland to the United States, connects with her Irish heritage through Irish language and dance. She competed in Irish dance competitions for 12 years and said that her dancing allowed her to connect with her Irish heritage in more than one way. “My dance teachers were all from Ireland, and my life in the dance community also exposed me to Irish words and traditional Irish music. My performances at big Irish festivals would give me the opportunity to be around other aspects of the culture. Beyond that, Irish dancing is connected to a lot of history, and even the costumes are symbolic of different parts of Irish culture.”

Although she no longer dances, she continues to learn the language. “Despite conversational usage of the Irish language being rare in Ireland, let alone the US, I do feel more connected to my Irish heritage when I take the time to learn new words or speak the language.”

To see how other Americans are learning Irish, watch this video:

Irish Language: Final Thoughts

Irish Revolutionary leader Padraig Pearse said “Tír gan teanga, tír gan an am” – a country without a language is a country without a soul, and the Irish language isn’t going down without a fight. 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. They’re taking to the internet and social media to find new and unique ways to learn Irish. Even if you’re not from Ireland, US President Dwight D. Eisenhower said, “Everybody is Irish on St. Patrick’s Day,” so we all have a reason to celebrate Irish culture and the language that is part of its identity. Sláinte!

Kelsey Wetherbee

Kelsey is the Content Manager and Editor of Langoly. She is a TEFL-certified English teacher with more than eight years of classroom experience in three different countries. She’s an avid language learner with an advanced level of Spanish and is currently studying French. Whenever possible, she loves to travel and enjoys meeting people from all over the world. Connect with Kelsey on LinkedIn.

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