For most Irish people, English has become their first language. Only a minority of the country can speak Irish at a native level, despite the fact that learning it is a mandatory requirement within the Irish school system.
The most recent consensus indicates that roughly 4% of the country’s six million inhabitants speak Irish Gaeilge as a first language, a number that has continued to shrink over the long term. Irish Gaeilge’s sister language of Scottish Gaelic is in a similar predicament, and Manx Gaelic is now completely extinct as a first language (the three Goidelic languages).
Thankfully more proactive efforts have been made by the Irish government to shore up the language’s user base over the last several decades. Irish was declared the first official language of Ireland, with English being second.
Entry into Ireland’s universities requires a high proficiency level in Irish, and all government officials and civil servants must speak the language in order to serve the country. The Irish language is also on road signs throughout the island, along with English.
Why is Irish on the decline in Ireland? The answer to this question can be found in history. Ireland was never conquered by the Romans, so it’s unique language was left alone in Ireland without much external influence, which obviously allowed the language to thrive and grow for many centuries.
Then in the twelth century the Normans invaded Ireland, with many of the invaders assimilating with the people of Ireland, which obviously had some sway on the local culture and Gaeilge language. This invasion marked the beginning of a wave of English speakers from Britain that would slowly begin to chip away at Gaeilge’s hold in Ireland.
Centuries later country would continue to slip into harsher British control over, and edicts would be passed in an attempt to outlaw the language altogether. These edicts along with the English language acting as a trade language between Ireland and Britain, would eventually cause large portions of Ireland to begin speaking English as a first language.
Despite declining numbers, there is much to be hopeful for if you’re an Irish speaker or enthusiast, as there are very active Gaeilge revival efforts in place in Ireland. Outside of Ireland, there are actually a record number of Gaeilge language learners, as university and private courses have popped up all across Europe and the United States recently.
The road won’t be easy to firmly securing the language’s future, but with thousands of years of history entangled in the language, it’s certainly worth fighting for.