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About Gaelic (Irish) Language

Irish (Gaeilge) is a Goidelic language of the Indo-European language family, originating in Ireland and historically spoken by the Irish people. Irish is now spoken as a first language only by a small minority of the Irish population but is also used as a second language by a larger and expanding minority. It also plays an important symbolic role in the life of the Irish state and is used across the country in a variety of media, personal contexts and social situations. It enjoys constitutional status as the national and first official language of the Republic of Ireland, and it is an official language of the European Union. Irish is also an officially recognised minority language in Northern Ireland.

Irish is the main community and household language of 3% of the Republic's population (which was estimated at 4,422,100 in 2008). Estimates of fully native speakers range from 40,000 up to 80,000 people. Areas in which the language remains a vernacular are referred to as Gaeltacht areas.

Irish speakers may, in general, be divided into two groups: traditional native speakers in the Gaeltacht and urban speakers of varying fluency. The second group includes many second-language speakers, but also a certain number of urban native speakers — people raised and educated through Irish and using it outside the home. Recent research suggests that urban Irish is developing in a direction of its own, the result being that Irish speakers from urban and Gaeltacht areas may understand each other only with difficulty. This is related to an urban tendency to simplify the phonetic and grammatical structure of the language. The written standard remains the same for both groups, and urban Irish speakers have played a large part in the production of an extensive modern literature.

The Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs estimated in 2007 that, outside the cities, about 17,000 people lived in strongly Irish-speaking communities, about 10,000 people lived in areas where there was substantial use of the language, and 17,000 people lived in "weak" Gaeltacht communities; Irish was no longer the main community language in the remaining parts of the official Gaeltacht.[10] Complete or functional monolingualism of Irish is now restricted to a handful of elderly within more isolated Gaeltacht regions as well as among many mother-tongue speakers of Irish under school age.

Gaeltacht families with school-age children may if they wish apply for a scheme which involves the payment of grants if the children demonstrate native-level competency in Irish. In the 2006-07 school year, 2,216 families received the full grant of €260 p.a., 937 families received a reduced grant and 225 families did not meet the criteria. This payment scheme is called Scéim Labhairt na Gaeilge, the first example in Europe where citizens are paid to speak their first official language.

Since Irish is an obligatory subject in English-medium schools, it would be reasonable to expect that many people are reasonably fluent second-language speakers. There is, however, no objective evidence for this, though many regard themselves as competent in the language to some degree: 1,656,790 (41.9% of the total population aged three years and over) regard themselves as competent Irish speakers.[12] Of these, 538,283 (32.5%) speak Irish on a daily basis (taking into account both native speakers and those inside the education system), 97,089 (5.9%) weekly, 581,574 (35.1%) less often, and 412,846 (24.9%) never. 26,998 (1.6%) respondents did not state how often they spoke Irish. Any increase in the number of fluent speakers is likely to be due to the extraordinary growth in the number of Irish-medium schools at both primary and secondary level, chiefly in urban areas.

The number of inhabitants of the official-designated Gaeltacht regions of Ireland is 91,862, as of the 2006 census. Of these, 70.8% aged three and over speak Irish and approximately 60% speak Irish on a daily basis. But even as the number of Irish speakers outside the Gaeltacht rises, the use of Irish within the Gaeltacht has decreased. A comprehensive 2007 study found that, despite their largely positive views of the language, Irish is less used among young people than among older generations: even in areas where the language was strongest only 60% of young people used Irish as the main language of communication with family and neigbbours, and many preferred English when dealing with the wider world. It concluded that, on current trends, the long-term survival of Irish as the main community language in those areas cannot be guaranteed. This suggests that future of the language lies in an urban environment.

Another study has suggested that urban Irish speakers tend to be more highly educated than monolingual English speakers and may enjoy the benefits of language-based networking, leading to better employment and higher social status. Though this study has been criticised for certain unsupported assumptions, the statistical evidence supports the view that urban Irish speakers may, in general, enjoy certain educational advantages.

The Irish government has adopted a twenty year strategy designed to strengthen the language in all areas and greatly increase the number of habitual speakers. This includes the encouragement of urban Irish-speaking districts.

The 2001 census in Northern Ireland showed that 167,487 (10.4%) people "had some knowledge of Irish" (see Irish language in Northern Ireland). Combined, this means that at least one in three people (~1.8 million) on the island of Ireland can understand Irish to some extent. On 13 June 2005, EU foreign ministers unanimously decided to make Irish an official language of the European Union. The new arrangements came into effect on 1 January 2007, and Irish was first used at a meeting of the EU Council of Ministers, by Minister Noel Treacy, T.D., on 22 January 2007.


In the Caighdeán Oifigiúil (the official written standard) the name of the language is Gaeilge (Irish pronunciation: [ˈɡeːlʲɟə]).

Before the spelling reform of 1948, this form was spelled Gaedhilge; originally this was the genitive of Gaedhealg, the form used in classical Modern Irish.[17] Older spellings of this include Gaoidhealg in Middle Irish [ge:ʝəlg] and Goídelc [goiðelg] in Old Irish. The modern spelling results from the deletion of the silent dh in the middle of Gaedhilge.

Other forms of the name found in the various modern Irish dialects, in addition to south Connacht Gaeilge mentioned above, include Gaedhilic/Gaeilic/Gaeilig ([ˈɡeːlʲɪc]) or Gaedhlag ([ˈɡeːl̪ˠəɡ]) in Ulster Irish and northern Connacht Irish and Gaedhealaing/Gaoluinn/Gaelainn ([ˈɡˠeːl̪ˠɪŋ/ˈɡˠeːl̪ˠɪn])[18][19] in Munster Irish.


The language is usually referred to in English as Irish. The term Irish Gaelic is often used when English speakers discuss the relationship between the three Goidelic languages (Irish, Scottish Gaelic, and Manx) or when discussion of Irish is confused to mean Hiberno-English, the form of English as spoken in Ireland. Scottish Gaelic is often referred to in English as simply Gaelic. Outside Ireland and often among native-speakers themselves, the term Gaelic is still frequently used for the language. The archaic term Erse (from Erische), originally a Scots form of the word Irish applied in Scotland (by Lowlanders) to all of the Goidelic languages, is no longer used for any Goidelic language, and in most current contexts is considered derogatory.


Written Irish is first attested in Ogham inscriptions from the fourth century AD; this stage of the language is known as Primitive Irish. These writings have been found throughout Ireland and the west coast of Great Britain. Primitive Irish transitioned into Old Irish through the 5th century. Old Irish, dating from the sixth century, used the Latin alphabet and is attested primarily in marginalia to Latin manuscripts. By the 10th century Old Irish evolved into Middle Irish, which was spoken throughout Ireland and in Scotland and the Isle of Man. It is the language of a large corpus of literature, including the famous Ulster Cycle. From the 12th century Middle Irish began to evolve into modern Irish in Ireland, into Scottish Gaelic in Scotland, and into the Manx language in the Isle of Man. Early Modern Irish, dating from the thirteenth century, was the literary language of both Ireland and Gaelic-speaking Scotland, and is attested by such writers as Geoffrey Keating. Modern Irish emerged from the literary language known as Early Modern Irish in Ireland and as Classical Gaelic in Scotland; this was used through the 18th century.

From the eighteenth century the language went into a decline, rapidly losing ground to English due in part to restrictions dictated by British rule - a conspicuous example of the process known by linguists as language shift. In the mid-nineteenth century it lost a large portion of its speakers to death and emigration resulting from poverty, particularly in the wake of the Great Famine (1845–1849).

At the end of the nineteenth century, members of the Gaelic Revival movement made efforts to encourage the learning and use of Irish in Ireland. Particular emphasis was placed at that point on the folk tradition, which in Irish is particularly rich, but efforts were also made to develop journalism and a modern literature.

Official status

Irish is given recognition by the Constitution of Ireland as the national and first official language of the Republic of Ireland (with English being a second official language). Since the foundation of the Irish Free State in 1922 (see also History of the Republic of Ireland), the Irish Government required a degree of proficiency in Irish for all those who became newly appointed to civil service positions (including postal workers, tax officials, agricultural inspectors, etc.). Proficiency in just one official language for entrance to the public service was introduced in 1974, in part through the actions of protest organizations like the Language Freedom Movement.

While the First Official Language requirement was also dropped for wider public service jobs, Irish remains a required subject of study in all schools within the Republic which receive public money (see also Education in the Republic of Ireland). Those wishing to teach in primary schools in the State must also pass a compulsory examination called "Scrúdú Cáilíochta sa Ghaeilge". The need for a pass in Leaving Certificate Irish or English for entry to the Gardaí (police) was introduced in September 2005, although applicants are given lessons in the language during the two years of training. All official documents of the Irish Government must be published in both Irish and English or Irish alone (this is according to the official languages act 2003, which is enforced by "an comisinéir teanga", the language ombudsman).

Even though modern parliamentary legislation is supposed to be issued in both Irish and English, in practice it is frequently only available in English. This is notwithstanding that Article 25.4 of the Constitution of Ireland requires that an "official translation" of any law in one official language be provided immediately in the other official language—if not already passed in both official languages.

European Union

Irish became an official language of the EU on 1 January 2007 meaning that MEP's with Irish fluency can now speak the language in the EU Parliament in Europe and at committees although in the case of the latter they have to give prior notice to a simultaneous interpreter in order to ensure that what they say can be interpreted into other languages. While an official language of the European Union, only co-decision regulations must be available in Irish for the moment, due to a renewable five-year derogation on what has to be translated, requested by the Irish Government when negotiating the language's new official status. Any expansion in the range of documents to be translated will depend on the results of the first five-year review and on whether the Irish authorities decide to seek an extension. The Irish government has committed itself to train the necessary number of translators and interpreters and to bear the related costs.

Before Irish became an official language it was afforded the status of treaty language and only the highest-level documents of the EU had been made available in Irish.

Current status - Republic of Ireland

Bilingual sign in English and Irish at Dublin AirportThe number of native Irish-speakers in the Republic of Ireland today is a smaller fraction of the population than it was at independence. Many Irish speaking families encouraged their children to speak English as it was the language of education and employment; the Irish-speaking areas today were always relatively poor and remote, and this remoteness caused the survival of the language as a vernacular. The Official Languages Act of 2003 gave people the right to interact with state bodies in Irish. It is too early to assess how well this is working in practice. Other factors were outward migration of Irish speakers from the Gaeltacht (see related issues at Irish diaspora) and inward migration of English-speakers. The Planning and Development Act (2000) attempted to address the latter issue, with varied levels of success. Planning controls now require new housing in Gaeltacht areas to be allocated to English-speakers and Irish-speakers in the same ratio as the existing population of the area. This is intended to prevent new houses allocated to Irish-speakers being immediately sold on to English-speakers.[citation needed] However, the restriction only lasts for a few years. Also, people are not required to reach native speaker standards of fluency to qualify as Irish-speakers.

On 19 December 2006 the government announced a 20-year strategy to help Ireland become a fully bilingual country. This involved a 13 point plan and encouraging the use of language in all aspects of life.


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