Gaelic Revivals (Ireland and Scotland)

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Although it is uncertain when speakers of the Gaelic language first came to Ireland, by the fifth century c.e. it was well established as the dominant language. By the end of the first millennium, it also became the main language spoken in Scotland. Thereafter, the Gaelic-speaking community was fragmented, initially by Norse incursions and later by the expansion northward and westward of English kingdoms. Differences subsequently developed between the language as spoken in Ireland (Irish) and the variant spoken in Scotland (Scots-Gaelic). There are still substantial similarities between the northern dialects of Irish and the southern dialects of Scots-Gaelic.

In demographic and spatial terms, the contraction of Scots-Gaelic in the face of the spread of English began in the eleventh century, and its retreat into the Highlands and Islands of Scotland was complete by the late fourteenth century. In Ireland, by contrast, Irish was still the dominant spoken language on the island until the end of the sixteenth century. But in the seventeenth century the Irish aristocratic families were overpowered and dispossessed by English forces and relatively large numbers of native-born English were introduced to form a new landlord class. Over the eighteenth century the shift to English spread through the urban network, diffusing into the rural hinterland along a general east-west axis. Census data would suggest that about 25 percent of the population, about 1.5 million people, were Irish-speaking by 1851. At this time, only about 11 percent of the population of Scotland (three hundred thousand people) spoke Gaelic.


Beginning in the late eighteenth century a succession of learned societies in Ireland showed an academic interest in the Irish language. The most influential language organization in the nineteenth century—Conradh na Gaeilge (The Gaelic League , established in 1893)—set itself objectives that far exceeded the limited ambitions of these earlier organizations. Its goals were the revival of Irish in areas where it had ceased to be spoken and the creation of a new modern literature in Irish. Within fifteen years after its foundation some 950 branches (with an estimated membership of one hundred thousand) had been established. Nonetheless, its political achievements before 1900 were limited.

In the same period, and for much the same reasons, there was a surge of interest and concern with the decline of Scots-Gaelic. An Comunn Gàidhealach (The Gaelic Society) was founded in 1891 to seek the preservation and development of the Scots-Gaelic language. Within the framework of the 1872 Education Act, it encouraged the teaching, learning, and use of the Gaelic language and the study and cultivation of Gaelic literature, history, music, and art. The Association also established an annual Gaelic Festival ("The Mod") modeled on the Welsh Eisteddfod.


In the early decades of the twentieth century, the political independence movement in Ireland incorporated the objectives of Conradh na Gaeilge into its program. However, only the southern part of the island became independent in 1922, first as the Irish Free State, later as the Republic of Ireland, but six counties in the northeast remained within the United Kingdom, forming the semiautonomous region of Northern Ireland. At that time, there were significant differences in the ethno-religious composition of the respective populations. The Republic of Ireland was predominantly (93 percent) Catholic and Nationalist, while Northern Ireland, by contrast was predominantly (62 percent) Protestant and unionist. As a result, the objectives and shape of language policy in subsequent years sharply diverged in the two jurisdictions.

In the Republic of Ireland the new native government adopted a broad strategy to enhance the social and legal status of Irish, to maintain its use in areas where it was still spoken, and to promote and revive its use elsewhere. A central element of the strategy was a new education policy designed to ensure, to the fullest extent possible, competence in Irish through appropriate school programs. For most of the twentieth century Irish was a compulsory subject on the curriculum in primary and secondary schools.

Traditional Irish-speaking areas were scattered along the western and southern coasts (in Ireland and Scotland, these areas were collectively referred to as the Gaeltacht and Gaidhealtachd). As these areas were among the most impoverished and remote areas in the state, this dimension of the strategy took on the character of a regional economic-development program.

A third element of the language strategy concerned the use of Irish within the public service. Establishing the Irish language among state employees was considered critical, not only to ensure the provision of state services in Irish but also to create a section within middle-class occupations where Irish would be the norm. Finally, the language policy of the state required the use of Irish in public administration, in law, in education, and in the media. These were domains in which Irish had not been used for centuries. Therefore, a fourth element of the strategy focused on measures to standardize and modernize the language itself.

Although performance was by no means uniform either between or within different language-policy elements, this revival strategy was implemented with a good deal of determination and commitment and had some limited success between 1925 and about 1950. Since the mid-1960s, some key elements of the strategy have been scaled back, while at the same time the state has tried to develop other policy initiatives in, for example, television and radio services.

By contrast, throughout most of the twentieth century in Northern Ireland Irish had no official status, and it was a marginal and optional subject in the curriculum. With a permanent Protestant majority in the Northern Ireland parliament after 1922, unionist values dominated educational policy. While the teaching of Irish in the schools was not proscribed, its time in the schedule was restricted. Those wishing to learn Irish had to rely on the goodwill of some, but by no means all, Catholic schools and the informal educational activities of Conradh na Gaeilge. However, as the twentieth century moved into its closing decades, the political conflict in Northern Ireland generated a new impetus in the realm of language and cultural policy. In 1989 Irish was recognized as a second language in post-primary schools. There were also some advances in the provision of all-Irish or immersion education. The Good Friday Agreement between Northern Ireland politicians and the Irish and British governments (10 April 1998) consolidated and extended this development. The agreement included a separate and detailed section dealing expressly with Irish-language issues.

By comparison with Irish in the Republic of Ireland, Scots-Gaelic has no official status in Scotland and only very limited legal protection. The revival effort has been more low-key and more inclined to operate within existing frameworks than its Irish counterparts. Nonetheless, there are a number of acts of parliament that make provision for Gaelic in the domains of education, broadcasting, and the arts. At the local level, the Western Isles Council, which includes Gaelic-speaking districts in its area of responsibility, has been implementing a bilingual policy since its establishment in the 1970s. The position of Gaelic in the education system has improved over recent decades. In 1985 the government set up Comunn na Gáidhlig, a representative body to coordinate and promote public and private activities relating to Gaelic.


At the end of the first millennium the Gaelic-speaking area encompassed all of Ireland and much of present-day Scotland. At the end of the second millennium, Irish-speaking communities survived only on the western and northern coasts of the original territories. Elsewhere, Irish and Scots-Gaelic are minority languages spoken among rather diffuse and dispersed networks of speakers in urban areas. Furthermore, these speakers are now located in three different political jurisdictions, and this has given a different character and focus to the language-revival effort in each case.

In census returns for 2001–2002, some 1.6 million persons were labeled as Irish speakers in the Republic of Ireland and 130,000 persons in Northern Ireland. This compares with a combined total of 650,000 Irish-speakers in both areas in the 1901 census. However, survey research suggests that census statistics overestimate the numbers fluent or nearly fluent in Irish—the surveys place this proportion at about 10 percent. They further indicate that less than 5 percent of the national population uses Irish as their first or main language, while a further 10 percent uses Irish regularly but less intensively.

Although the population of the Gaeltacht has declined in both absolute and relative terms, there has been a gradual, but continual, revival in the ratios of Irish speakers in other regions. Most Irish children learn Irish in both primary and secondary school as a subject. However, these improvements are mainly due to the capacity of the schools, rather than the home and community, to produce competent bilinguals.

In Scotland the statistical picture is less reassuring. In 2001 some 58,000 persons speak Scots-Gaelic, but this was down from 65,000 in 1991 and 210,000 in 1901 (5.2 percent). Nonetheless, even in Scotland there has been an increase in the numbers of people who learn Gaelic, and there was a slight increase between 1991 and 2001 in the proportion of Gaelic speakers between the ages of three and twenty-four.

Thus, while there has been no return to the Golden Age of Gaeldom, neither can the impact of the Irish and Scottish revivals be described as negligible. In Ireland, in particular, there was some real measure of maintenance and revival over the twentieth century. But the long-term future of the Irish language is not any more secure now than it was then, and the position of Scots-Gaelic looks quite precarious at the start of the twenty-first century.

See alsoEducation; Ireland; Scotland.


Hutchinson, John. The Dynamics of Cultural Nationalism: The Gaelic Revival and the Creation of the Irish Nation State. London and Boston, 1987.

Mac Póilin, Aodán, ed. The Irish Language in Northern Ireland. Belfast, 1997.

McCoy, Gordon, with Maolcholain Scott, eds. Gaelic Identities: Aithne na nGael. Belfast, 2000.

ó Cuív, Brian Póilin, ed. A View of the Irish Language. Dublin, 1969.

ó Riagáin, Pádraig. Language Policy and Social Reproduction: Ireland 1893–1993. Oxford, U.K., and New York, 1997.

Withers, Charles W. J. Gaelic in Scotland 1698–1981: The Geographical History of a Language. Edinburgh and Atlantic Highlands, N.J., 1984.

PÁdraigÓ RiagÁin

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Gaelic Revivals (Ireland and Scotland)

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