Language and Literacy: Irish Language since 1922

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Irish Language since 1922

By the end of the nineteenth century the assimilation of the Irish language community into the English-speaking world appeared to have entered its final phase. In the census of 1926, only 18 percent of the population were returned as Irish-speakers, of whom nearly half of were concentrated in scattered bilingual or monolingual areas along the western and southern coasts (collectively referred to as the Gaeltacht). The remaining Irish-speakers, most of whom had learned the language at school, were scattered throughout largely English-speaking communities. Despite the well-established dynamic of language assimilation, the small demographic base, and rural character of Irish language communities, the new native government in 1922 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.

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. In the 1996 census, 1,430,205 were returned as Irish-speakers. This represents 43.5 percent of the national population and compares with 18 percent in 1926. About 50 percent of Irish-speakers now reside in Leinster Province (including Dublin), compared with about 5 percent in 1926. The proportion of Irish-speakers in all regions has moved toward the national average, whereas the average itself is rising.

However, the largest proportion of Irish-speakers is found in the ten- to twenty-year-old age groups (i.e., school-age populations), after which it consistently becomes smaller. Furthermore, national language surveys conducted between 1973 and 1993 suggest that most of those returned as Irish-speakers were speakers of quite limited competence; only 10 percent claimed to be fluent or nearly fluent in Irish. The available evidence on the social use of Irish indicates that fewer than 5 percent of the national population use Irish as their first or main language, while a further 10 percent use Irish regularly but less intensively. Use of the language appears to be most intensive during school years, after which it is discontinued in the case of many individuals. Bilingualism in Ireland is based on a thin distribution of family and social networks, which have a degree of underpinning from a variety of state policies in educational, work place, and media institutions. But these networks are dispersed and weakly established and are very vulnerable to the loss of members over time, as they are not sufficiently large or vibrant enough to easily attract and retain replacements.

Public Attitudes

Support for the Irish language is higher in many respects than the objective position of the Irish language in society would appear to justify. The relationship between the Irish language and ethnic identity on the one hand, and perceptions of its limited value as economic or cultural capital on the other, form two opposing attitudinal predispositions that determine public attitudes toward policy. A majority perceives the Irish language to have an important role in defining and maintaining national cultural distinctiveness. Thus the general population is willing to accept a considerable commitment of state resources to ensure its continuance and even to support a considerable imposition of legal requirements to know or use Irish on certain groups within the society, such as teachers and civil servants. However, where such requirements directly affect respondents' own material opportunities, or those of their children, they are less readily supported. Although a majority of the Irish public would appear to espouse some form of bilingual objective, the evidence would suggest that many of this majority seek at best simply to maintain the low levels of social bilingualism now pertaining. When taken in conjunction with the increase over the last quarter of the twentieth century of those favouring an "English only" objective, it would appear that the proportion holding the revival position as traditionally understood has slipped and may no longer represent the majority viewpoint.

The Gaeltacht

In strictly economic terms, state-sponsored socioeconomic development in the Gaeltacht has had an appreciable measure of success since 1970. After a long period of decline population levels have increased again and nonagricultural employment has grown. However, the progressive shift to English continues. It would appear that only about half of Gaeltacht children learn Irish in the home, and a decline in the proportion of Irish-speakers in other age groups is also occurring. This is in part related to the high level of in-migration and return migration that has accompanied economic restructuring since about 1970. While community use of Irish remains very much higher than the national average, the Gaeltacht now accounts for less than 2 percent of the national population, the communities are very fragmented, and a large minority of the residents in these areas do not use Irish at all.


The maintenance of more or less stable rates of bilingualism over the past forty years is due more to the capacity of the schools to produce competent bilinguals rather than to the capacity of the bilingual community to reproduce itself. Most Irish children learn Irish in both primary and post-primary school as a subject, but despite some thirteen years of experience in the case of the average child, these programs do not generally produce highly competent active users of Irish. When they do, they are usually among those who stay in the system the longest and take the academically most demanding syllabus, or else among the small minority who attend all-Irish schools. Paradoxically, in a period when Irish language policy in the schools generally is experiencing considerable difficulties, the number of Irish-immersion primary schools in English-speaking areas continues to grow. In 1981 there were 28 such schools. In 1991 this figure had risen to 66, and it is now over 100. As a consequence, the proportion of children receiving this type of education has increased from 5 percent to 8 percent. The position in mainstream schools is not so healthy. In these schools Irish is taught as a subject only. Following the decision in 1973 to discontinue the policy of requiring students to pass state examinations in Irish in order to graduate with a certificate, a small but growing minority of students did not take the Irish paper in public examinations, and a consistently upward trend was apparent in the percentages who failed Irish.

Media and Cultural Life

An Irish-language radio station was established in 1972, and an Irish-language television service commenced broadcasting in 1996. There are two weekly newspapers in Irish, and some national and regional newspapers regularly carry Irish-language material. There is a lively literary scene in Irish, and about one hundred books are published annually. There are occasional theatrical productions in Irish in the main cities. Core audiences and readerships reflect the low levels of social use of Irish, but sizeable minorities (about 20 percent) take an infrequent but consistent interest.

Although the effort to reestablish Irish as a national language has not been successful, neither can the impact of Irish-language policy be described as negligible. Irish has not been successfully maintained in the Irish-speaking areas, although there are still residual districts where Irish is habitually used. Elsewhere, only a small minority use Irish in daily social intercourse, but this widely dispersed minority does not command any domain of language use; nor is it in itself a very efficient source of bilingual reproduction. Since 1922 there has indeed been some measure of revival, and the pattern of bilingualism has consequently shifted, but the long-term future of the Irish language is not any more secure now than it was then.

SEE ALSO Arts: Early Modern Literature and the Arts from 1500 to 1800; Gaelic Catholic State, Making of; Hiberno-English; Newspapers; Primary Documents: Letter to John A. Costello, the Taoiseach (5 April 1951)


Bord na Gaeilge. The Irish Language in a Changing Society: Shaping the Future. 1988.

Ó Murchú, Máirtín. The Irish Language. 1985.

Ó Riagáin, Pádraig. Language Policy and Social Reproduction: Ireland, 1893–1993. 1997

Ó Riagáin, Pádraig, ed. "Language Planning in Ireland." International Journal of the Sociology of Language, no. 70. 1988.

Pádraig Ó Riagáin

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Language and Literacy: Irish Language since 1922

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