Irish: a brief history of an endangered language

Grían an Mheithimh in úllghort,
Is síosamach i síoda an trathnona,
Beach mhallaithe ag portaireacht
Mar screadstracadh ar an noinbhrat.

(June sun in an orchard,
And a rustling in the silk of evening,
A cursed bee humming
Is a screamtear in the eveningshroud)

Seán O Riordáin

The above is a stanza from ‘Adhlacadh mo Mháthar’ (‘Burial of my Mother’) written by my great uncle Seán O Riordáin, an Irish poet. There are very few people left in the world who can read or understand his beautiful poetry.

Once, Irish (note: not ‘Gaelic’) was the sole language spoken in Ireland. It is a Gaelic language of the Indo-European language family and evidence of its presence in Ireland dates back to the 4th century CE.

When the Anglo-Normans arrived at the end of the 11th century their language came with them. The vast majority of people continued to speak Irish but it slowly lost its status as the official and legal language of Ireland.

The Tudor conquest of Ireland in the 16th century was the beginning of the end for Irish. The confiscation of land from native Irish people and the forcible plantation of English settlers over the subsequent centuries changed Irish society profoundly. Penal laws prevented Catholics from owning land and holding power, which meant that the Catholic ruling classes were replaced by what became known as the Protestant Ascendancy. Irish was seen as a threat to the power of English settlers and so its use was discouraged in law, education and administration. English was the language of power, and it was in the interest of Irish natives to learn it.

A further blow was dealt to the language by the Great Famine caused by widespread failure of the potato crop due to blight. It lasted from 1845 to 1860 and caused the deaths of approximately one million people. A further million emigrated. By 1911, the population of Ireland had halved to 4.4 million, while the population in England and Wales had doubled to sixteen million. The majority of Irish speaking people had died, emigrated or were living in very poor conditions in a small and struggling country. It was necessary to learn English to survive.

When Ireland began struggling for independence from Britain in the late 19th century, Irish became a focal point for political rhetoric. The so-called Gaelic Revival led to the setting up of organisations such as the Society for the Preservation of the Irish Language in 1877 and the Gaelic League in 1892. The Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA), formed in 1884, was set up to preserve uniquely Irish pastimes such as hurling. Irish is named as the national and first official language of Ireland in the 1937 constitution of the Republic of Ireland and all official documents are available in both Irish and English.

Today, Irish is a compulsory subject for every single child at school, from the start to the end of their school career, meaning that most children have at least twelve years of Irish language lessons. In 1996 an Irish-language television station, originally called Teilifis na Gaeilge, now called TG4, was set up. Over the past twenty years the popularity of gaelscoileanna – schools that teach entirely through Irish – has increased greatly. However, in spite of all of these successes, very few people leave school with any degree of fluency in Irish. Today less than 100,000 people use Irish as their daily tongue. They tend to be concentrated in ‘Gaeltacht’ areas, parts of Ireland such as Connemara where the government recognises that the Irish language is the predominant vernacular.


In future posts I’ll explore my experiences of Irish as a child, the structure of the language itself and the English phrases and expressions that developed from the Irish language.


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