As the phrase goes, it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it. In Ireland, how something is said generally boils down to English or the centuries-old Irish language. Where does Irish get its roots from? Why is its popularity steadily decreasing? And in what regions might you find it still spoken today? Quite like its people, the Irish language has witnessed history, change and adaptation.
While it’s officially recognized as the national and first official language of the Republic of Ireland, only around 77,000 reportedly speak it daily outside of a classroom. This is saying something for a country with an estimated 4.6 million inhabitants. So, what happened to influence this once thriving form of communication? Well, a few things:
•English rule: Rulers from England who wanted to conquer Ireland saw Irish culture as a threat and language was a big factor.
•The Great Famine: During this horrific time in Ireland’s history, approximately one million people died. Their deaths not only signified a great loss due to disaster but also a loss of Ireland’s culture and those who spoke the language. Another million emigrated to escape the poor conditions of that time. Why weren’t they able to keep their language alive in these other countries? It came down to relevance and overall survival. The Irish language wasn’t remotely popular outside of Ireland. To find work, it was essential for Irish immigrants to learn whatever language was most commonly spoken in their new country of residence. In most cases this was English.
•Diglossia: As the times changed, families consisted of a generation who spoke only Irish or very little English. That generation had children who were bilingual, speaking both Irish and English. And then their children would go one to speak only English.
There were several attempts throughout history to bring back the language’s popularity and instill a strong sense of pride for Irish culture. The Gaelic League launched a Gaelic Revival to encourage Irish people to learn the language and speak it more often. Unfortunately, this didn’t have as strong as an impact as they’d desired.
Today, however, Irish is a required subject of study of all of Ireland’s schools. While it isn’t spoken much outside of the classroom, you can still hear it in various parts of the island to this day. These regions are referred to as Gaeltachts. They are places where the Irish language is spoken on a daily basis. Mostly found within rural areas, Gaeltacht regions are a great way to experience “old Ireland” and celebrate the country’s culture. The seven counties you’ll find Irish spoken in today are Donegal, Galway, Mayo, Kerry, Cork, Meath and Waterford.