Despite being the official first language of Ireland, Irish (also called Gaelic) has continuously struggled against English, now the nation’s second official language, since the beginning of English occupation in the 16th century. English has been the lingua franca in Ireland since the 18th century, and is now the dominant language in all but the Gaeltacht (Irish-speaking districts) on the country’s western coast. According to the 2011 census, some 82,600 people (1.8% of the population) speak Irish outside of the mandatory school context, while up to 1.77 million people say they are able to speak the language.
The large number of second-language Irish speakers has helped revive the language, especially since a revival movement gained strength in the early 1900s. The number of native speakers has also been bolstered by the option of Irish-medium education and the increasing appreciation of the language as an important part of Irish culture and heritage. Although the language had seen a sharp decline in the 1800s, by 1915 about half of the schools in the Gaeltacht (Irish-speaking districts) were teaching Irish with the support of the government. The language is also a mandatory subject to be taught in public schools, although the effectiveness of this approach has been questioned by many.
Originating in and spoken in Ireland, Irish is a Goidelic language from the Celtic family, traditionally divided into three dialects, Munster-Linster (Southern Irish), Connacht (Western Irish), and Donegal (Northern Irish or Ulster). At one time, there may have a Goedelic dialect continuum stretching from Ireland through the Isle of Man to Scotland. In comparison to the other Goidelic languages, Manx and Scottish Gaelic, Irish has more speakers and is more widely used — however, it is not spoken as prevalently as Welsh or (relatively, though not numerically) Breton.
Irish had seen a steady decline in prestige and prevalence of usage, particularly in urban centers and in the west of the country from the 17th century, due to the imposed dominance of the English language. However, the mid to late-19th century saw a shockingly steep drop in the number of speakers as a result of the Famine, massive waves of emigration, and increasingly systematic suppression by the British government.
Revival efforts began in the late 19th century (e.g. the foundation of Conradh na Gaeilge – the Gaelic League – in 1893) and really began to gain momentum in the early 20th century. Following the official recognition of the Republic of Ireland in 1922, Irish was declared the “national and first official” language of the country. The past century, and the past few decades in particular, have seen a steady increase in the number of both native and second-language speakers, although monolingual Irish speakers are now non-existent even in the most traditional of the Gaeltachtaí, excluding young children in Irish speaking homes who may not yet have had exposure to English.
As with its sister Celtic languages, revival in number of speakers and daily usage has been helped considerably by the option of immersive education, available in Irish (in some regions) from primary through tertiary levels. It remains to be seen whether the language will be able to reclaim even a fraction of its prior usage in daily public life, although it is not uncommon to see local businesses openly advertise that they are able and willing to use Irish with their customers.
Though the school system has been the focus of revitalization efforts, especially the Gaelscoileanna (Irish-medium schools), particularly enthusiastic speakers have integrated the language more deeply into their lives: speaking it at home, watching or reading the news in Irish, and so on. Through pop culture, the internet, and other means, Irish is gaining new spheres of use and, in some cases, a new popularity.
Due to its long history as a written language and its status as an official language of Ireland, Irish has been fairly well documented and studied. Literature in Irish is extensive, though most modern Irish writers have written in English. There has also been a considerable amount of work done on the influence of Irish on the varieties of English spoken in Ireland (sometimes termed “Hiberno-English”).
Borsley, R., Roberts, I. “The Syntax of the Celtic Languages: A Comparative Perspective”. Cambridge. 2005.
de Bhaldraithe, Tomás. “English-Irish Dictionary”. 1959. (also available online at www.focloir.ie)
Flippula, Markku. “The Grammar of Irish English: Language in Hibernian Style”. Routledge. 2002.
Filppula, Markku. “Irish English: morphology and syntax.” A handbook of varieties of English 2 (2004): 73-101.
Hindley, Reg. “The Death of the Irish Language”. 2012. Routledge.
Huallacháin, Colmán Ó., and Mícheál Ó. Murchú. Irish grammar. Irish Studies, New University of Ulster, 1981.
Hyde, Douglas. Beside the fire: a collection of Irish Gaelic folk stories. Vol. 1. Library of Alexandria, 1890.
Kessler, Brett. “Computational dialectology in Irish Gaelic.” Proceedings of the seventh conference on European chapter of the Association for Computational Linguistics. Morgan Kaufmann Publishers Inc., 1995.
MacBain, Alexander. An etymological dictionary of the Gaelic language. E. Mackay, 1911.
Mac an Ghoill, M.H. “Graiméar Gaeilge na mBráithre Críostaí”. 1999 (orig. 1960, one of the most standard grammars of the language, albeit not in English, translations might be available, available online as a PDF)
O’Donovan, John. “A Grammar of the Irish Language”. 1845.
O’Donaill, Eamon. “Essential Irish Grammar: A Teach Yourself Guide”. 2010.
Ó Domhnalláin, Tomas. “Buntús Cainte”. 2002. (orig. 1967)
Ó Dónaill, Niall. “Foclóir Gaeilge-Béarla”. 1977. (definitive Irish-English dictionary, also available online at www.focloir.ie)
Although the Irish-American experience has been studied and recorded extensively, the life and trajectory of the Irish language in America is comparatively less known. ELA has made connections with Irish speakers in the New York area (the census counted over 1,000) at events like Irish Language Day (at the IAC) and a public event devoted to the music and poetry of the Celtic languages.
Whether you are a speaker yourself, a partial speaker, or know someone who might be, we are always looking for more resources on Celtic languages. Please get in touch!
Irish immigration to New York began early in the history of the city, accelerating dramatically during the mid-19th century in the wake of the Famine, and there is evidence that a significant percentage of those arriving then came from Gaeltacht (Irish-speaking) areas in western Ireland. (Irish is sometimes also called “Gaelic”.) Many significant figures and events in modern Irish history have New York connections, from Eamon de Valera (born in Manhattan) to John Kilgallon (the “Rockaway Rebel” who joined the Easter Rising).
According to census data, there are at least 18,815 Irish speakers in the U.S., with one of the largest concentrations being in the New York area. Irish immigration to New York began early in the history of the city, accelerating dramatically during the mid-19th century in the wake of the Famine. Many significant figures and events in modern Irish culture have New York connections, from Eamon de Valera (born in Manhattan) to John Kilgallon (the “Rockaway Rebel” who joined the Easter Rising.) The first newspaper ever printed in Irish, An Gaodhal, was launched in Brooklyn in 1881. Historic Irish neighborhoods include Hell’s Kitchen (and much of Manhattan’s West Side); Sunnyside, Rockaway, and Breezy Point in Queens; large sections of Brooklyn (Park Slope, Windsor Terrace) and the Bronx (Woodlawn), among many other neighborhoods. Today there is a large population of Irish descent in the New York suburbs, including Long Island and New Jersey.