Article 8 of the Constitution makes the following affirmation: 1. The Irish
language as the national language is the first official language. 2. The
English language is recognised as a second official language.
Irish is a Celtic language and, as such, is a member of the Indo-European
family of languages. Within the Celtic group, it belongs to the Goidelic branch
of insular Celtic. Irish has evolved from a form of Celtic which was introduced
into Ireland at some period during the great Celtic migrations of antiquity
between the end of the second millennium and the fourth century BC.
Old Irish, Ireland's vernacular when the historical period begins in the sixth
century of our era, is the earliest variant of the Celtic languages, and indeed
the earliest of European vernaculars north of the Alps, in which extensive
writings are extant.
The Norse settlements (AD 800 onwards) and the Anglo-Norman colonisation (AD
1169 onwards) introduced periods of new language diversity into Ireland, but
Irish remained dominant and other speech communities were gradually
assimilated. In the early sixteenth century, almost all of the population was
Irish-speaking. The main towns, however, prescribed English for the formal
conduct of administrative and legal business.
The events of the later sixteenth century and of the seventeenth century for
the first time undermined the status of Irish as a major language. The Tudor
and Stuart conquests and plantations (1534-1610), the Cromwellian settlement
(1654), and the Williamite war (1689-91) followed by the enactment of the Penal
Laws (1695), had the cumulative effect of eliminating the Irish-speaking ruling
classes and of destroying their cultural institutions. They were replaced by a
new ruling class, or Ascendancy, whose language was English, and thereafter
English was the sole language of government and public institutions.
Irish continued as the language of the greater part of the rural population
and, for a time, of the servant classes in towns. From the middle of the
eighteenth century, as the Penal Laws were relaxed and a greater social and
economic mobility became possible for the native Irish, the more prosperous of
the Irish-speaking community began to conform to the prevailing middle-class
ethos by adopting English. Irish thus began to be associated with poverty and
economic deprivation. This tendency increased after the Act of Union in 1800.
Because of the rapid growth of the rural population, the actual number of Irish
speakers increased substantially during the first decades of the nineteenth
century. In 1835 their number was estimated at four million. This number
consisted almost entirely of an impoverished rural population which was
decimated by the Great Famine and by resultant mass emigration.
By 1891, the number of Irish speakers had been reduced to 680,000 and,
according to that year's census of population, Irish speakers under the age of
ten represented no more than 3.5% of their age-group. When the position began
to stabilise early in the twentieth century, Irish remained as a community
language only in small discontinuous regions, mainly around the western
seaboard. These regions are collectively called the Gaeltacht. In the 1991
census, the population of the officially-defined Gaeltacht aged three years and
over was 79,563, of whom 56,469 or 71% were returned as Irish-speaking. The
number of Irish speakers is a decreasing proportion of the total because, for a
variety of complex reasons, some of the population of the Gaeltacht continue to
shift to English, and because new English-speaking households are settling
there. On the other hand, there are many Irish-speaking individuals and
families throughout the rest of the country, particularly in Dublin. The latest
figures available show that 35% of adults claim to have a knowledge of the
Towards the end of the eighteenth century the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy had begun
to develop an academic interest in the Irish language and its literature.
Academic interest later merged with a concern for the survival of spoken Irish
as its decline became increasingly evident. Language-related activity grew
throughout the nineteenth century and, following the establishment in 1893 of
the Gaelic League, or in Irish Conradh na Gaeilge, the objective of maintaining
and extending the use of Irish as a vernacular fused with the renewed
separatist movement which culminated in the establishment of the Irish Free
State in 1922.
The State has made various provisions for the maintenance and promotion of the
language. Irish is an obligatory subject at primary and second level schools.
The Department of Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht has responsibility for
promoting the cultural, social, and economic welfare of the Gaeltacht, and more
generally for encouraging the use of Irish as a vernacular. The Department has
two statutory boards under its aegis: �dar�s na Gaeltachta 'Gaeltacht
Authority', some of whose members are elected by the people of the Gaeltacht,
is a development authority for Gaeltacht areas; Bord na Gaeilge 'Irish-language
board' has responsibility for the promotion of Irish as a vernacular throughout
the country. An increasing number of new schools offer tuition exclusively
through the medium of the Irish language. These schools are called
Gaelscoileanna (or all-Irish schools). There is a national radio service
(Raidio na Gaeltachta) and a new Irish language television service (Telifis na
Gaeilge) came on air in October 1996.
Main source of information:
Department of Foreign Affairs