Ireland – Language Revivals and Language Policies

Aus dem Proseminar: Politics and Society in Ireland im Sommersemester 2005 an der Technischen Universität Chemnitz. Von Heiko Schmieder.


  1. Introduction / What is language ?
  2. History of Irish Language
  3. Qualitative Results: Society and Politics
  4. Quantitative Results: Census
  5. Conclusion
  6. Bibliography

1. Introduction / What is language ?

Joshua A. Fishman wrote in his book “Can threatened language be saved?” that language has a distinctive function: to keep social life going. (2001: 2) He compares a tongue with competitors, each one fighting for the best and most effective way of communication. The more efficient and stronger a language is, the more it will succeed and more the weaker will disappear. This thesis has a kind of an evolutionary key note, which is likely to be criticised. In the case of the Irish language and even in other cultures, tongue represents the core of national identity. Therefore, (Crowley 2005: 184) is there a way for supporting identity combined with effectiveness in communication?

This paper deals with the question of decline and revival of language, more specifically in the case of Irish[1], and in which ways policy, society and environment had and has influence on a tongues development. In order To understand contemporary Irish reality, history has to be examined: the trajectory from a dominant European tongue, coequal to Latin, over its decline through British colonialism, and finally its renaissance[2] in the 1990’s. Following this, current studies of cultural attitudes towards language on the one side and results of census on the other side shall be investigated.[3]  As a conclusion I will discuss the fact that Irish is an official national language, which is spoken by a minority of the population within the country.

History of Irish Language

From the earliest stages towards Irish Independence in 1922

Contemporary Irish language has its roots in the Celtic languages. First documentations about the Irish branch are to find about 300 BC, when Celtic speaking people settled down on the isle of Ireland. In the Roman age the tongue became the dominant language on the isle and represented a counterpart of the omnipresent Latin. For this reason it differs a lot from other modern European languages; its autonomous development created a unique tongue. (Duwe 2005)

With the 16th century, the situation and development of language should change significantly. The English (Protestant) King Henry the VIII wanted to reform the isle and to abolish the threatening Catholicism. The age of colonialism was about to rise in Ireland: Settlers were sent to build up plantations in the middle of Irish speaking land and catholic areas. The consequences were ethnic conflicts and an increasing demand for English language.

Between 1800 and 1901 Irish society experienced the most tremendous decline of their mother tongue in history. The main reasons were the Great Famine (1845-1847) and the institutionalizing of English in the education sector. Diarmuid Ó Néill (2005: 285) cites even more motives for its decline: Firstly, the political status of the language became less important; secondly, the refusal of Catholic Church to use Irish and, finally, the increasing importance of English in institutions and organizations. All these facts together built up a distinguished association to each one of the two languages. Since English was the tongue of modernizing, progress and power, on the other side Irish the language of backwardness, poorness and weakness. Irish nearly became an unspoken and dead tongue.

The First signs for a revival appeared with the birth of Irish Nationalism in the second half of the 19th century, when the first movements and organizations to support the mother tongue were founded. To name only one out of a bunch of associations, there was the Gaelic League with its founder Douglas Hyde, author and later the first president of Irish Republic, and this organization still plays an important role in contemporary Ireland.

Language Policies after the Irish Independence

The Irish Free State was founded in 1922 which marked the beginning of new and far reaching language policies. According to the ideas of the former mentioned first Irish president Douglas Hyde the tongue should be reconstructed towards the colloquial language of the isle, combined with a “de-anglicising” of the Republic. “The new Free State Government set about redefining the place of Irish in the life of the nation.” (O’Neil 2005: 291).

The first intention of policies was the preservation and support of still existing Irish-speaking communities, especially in the Gaeltacht areas[4]. Besides the government’s attention towards the tongue, a strong economic and social support should be followed up by this. Due to the keeping of existing language capacities there had to be also a strengthening of Irish in mostly English speaking areas. Keeping and reinforcement were the pillars of the new Republic. To create a structure for these policies, a whole new infrastructure for the language had to be built up. The first step was to (re)call Irish into a constitutional and legal status in the Republic; so it became the first official language. The second relevant tool for revival and maintenance was the reorganization of the educational system. This aim was seen as a key function of development. The reason for its’ importance was to go back in history, when British colonization changed the whole order of the Irish system; this should be now recharged. (O’Riagain 1992: 3) But there had been problems in the field of the education system. As Crowley (2005: 167) reminds: only a few teachers were able to speak Irish to a capable degree for educational subjects. Therefore, a contradiction between the ideas of laws and policies towards their realization in daily life emerged.

Government’s language policies changed in the 1960’s and 1970’s because of new conditions within the Irish society. The language was no more the primal goal to reach as in the beginning of their independence; even antipathies against the mother tongue arouse. Crowley (2005: 185) describes the developments as a reorganisation from a harmonic, cultural based society towards an effect oriented and productive community. Hence, those who did not succeed in the labour market because of their non-English tongue changed their attitude on Irish and realized it was more a problem than a chance.

O’Neill (2005: 293) portraits the situation in the 1970’s in a little anecdote about the linguistic advisor of Irish government, the famous Joshua Fishman, who is in fact today an identification figure for authors of minority language issues.[5] After four years in a governmental position, Fishman gave up his work; he saw no more effects in language policies, it was all about a standstill of support towards Irish. Maybe due to this in the decades of the 1970’s and 1980’s the language debate declined in some ways. The interest of people was more pointed on other cultural fields like traditional Irish musicians, sport teams and their identification with their own friendliness. As Crowley (2005: 187) summarizes: the term “our language” was not any longer topical, their tongue became a symbol of the “part of what we are”. Besides these social developments new state policies were passed. Their content was liberation of tongue; everybody had his own choice of which language to use and was free to decide as an individual. The progress in social and political development towards supporting bilingualism meant one thing in conclusion: “Irish is second language.” (Crowley 2005: 188)

Current developments since 1990’s

In the 1990’s, a major development of the Irish language took place. This was a rising interest in Irish society, especially under urban youths, towards their mother tongue. As Crowley (2005: 188) describes there were several facts that supported this kind of curiosity. Firstly, people’s identification in a globalising environment was strengthened. Ireland gained both social and economic confidence, with a growing role in an expanding Europe. Additionally, many emigrants returned because of the improving situation on the isle. Finally, the official ending of the war in Northern Ireland influenced the growth of language movements for supporting the mother tongue.

In 2003, the government passed the Official Language Act, which meant a new landmark for Irish. It included for example that every governmental activity had to be published in two languages and members of parliament are free to choose their language. Therefore, liberation of tongue pushed even more forward. But there is also an exception in this development; it is associated to the Gaeltacht areas. One law from spring 2005, which regulates the usage of signs on roads and public buildings in this region, illustrates the differentiation in policies. Parliament decided that it is a duty to print signs only monolingual, so in Irish, and not bilingual as in the other parts of the isle. (BBC) Therefore, contemporary Irish language policies can be summarized as liberal and regional specific.

3. Qualitative Results: Society and Politics

Today, for most people Irish has become a second language. The daily life demand for English has increased a lot. Barbour (2000: 38) notices that there was a steadily decline since the independence of Ireland; just now there is a European revival of minority language that slowed down this development. His thesis is quite controversial in view of statistical figures[6] that show a constant rise in speakers. Nevertheless, a closer view at social and political attitudes towards language will help to analyze it.

Besides the public opinion, current policies appear to support, accompany or cause Barbour’s thesis. So to say, a bilingual country is the preferred solution of Ireland; nobody should have the pressure to choose the one or the other language. However, booth public organizations and the government support the Irish language: a situation that could be described as a careful support, but only to a certain degree, (O’Neill 2005: 293) not spending too much power into Irish, but keeping the balance with English. Therefore, economical factors can be seen as one of the main reasons for these policies and public opinions. O’Neill (2005: 296) goes even further saying that there is a blocking of far-reaching programmes, only to keep the language artificially alive as a cultural heritage.

Various signs carry over those attitudes towards language. One example was the passing of the language act in 2003. As Crowley (2005: 164) reminds, there had been complications in the naming of this document. In first instance it should have been called:  “The Official Languages Equal Bill”. But then the members of parliament had to be reminded of the status of Irish as the first and only official language; English only as the second language. So the outline was renamed into “The Official Languages Bill”; an indication of the problematic status of Irish in the Republic’s society.

Apart from the difficulties with language there are also positive developments. One very obvious topic is the change of the language identity, from the old concepts of poverty, backwardness and old fashioned associations towards the vernacular of middle class, well educated Dubliners. (Crowley 2005: 188) Even more factors confirm the rising popularity in society, such as urban Irish music, broadcasting on TV and Radio or Irish written Newspapers. Nevertheless, it has to be mentioned that the Republic’s government does not cause these factors. “There has been a revival of interest in the language in ways which were simply not conceivable even fifteen years ago.”(Crowley 2005: 189) Consequently the question of the purpose and of the result of language policies arises. Does strong support from institutional organizations fulfil its goals or it is mostly due to the society itself? Therefore, the argumentation of Dairmund O’Neill (2005: 281) seems to reveal some more details about this issue. He says that there are strong demands for a language revival in public, but on the other side people do not want to loose their gained progresses like a successful economy, a growing financial sector or the educational advantages because of the establishment of English language. Additionally, to public’s opinion, government supports or shares these attitudes with its Official Language Act; it has no linguistic legislations towards the public sector, as for companies or organisations. (ONeil 2005: 294) Hence, contemporary Ireland is marked by liberation of economy and society, not only in language issues.

4. Quantitative Results: Census

Furthermore, to qualitative results of contemporary Irish society the numbers of census and statistics can help to get a whole image of the language situation today. Therefore, figure 1 shows the development of inhabitants and the number of Irish speakers since 1841. It should also be said that in some years the statistic of inhabitants and the number of speakers are missing. This is due to historical and political reasons, which should not be part of discussion here. The focus on this section shall be the development in contemporary Ireland since the 1990’s.

Ratio of Inhabitants to Number of speakers since 1841
Ratio of Inhabitants to Number of speakers since 1841
Source of data: Census 2002: Principal Demographic Results p. 35 /
Vol. 11 – Irish Language p. 11.

In the year of Irish independence, 1922, Irish speakers were about 540,802. Until today this number has been triplet towards 1,570,894 in 2002. So the percentage of Irish speakers rose from about 18% in the year of independence up to 41.9% today. Regarding the data this can be seen as a huge success of Irish policies, but in view of qualitative results it is more relative.

An important factor in census was the quality in formulating questions. With the expression “Do you speak Irish” and the choice of ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers it is not possible to make a distinction of the quality and competency a person has in the tongue. Because of this, in 1996, the census got more specific questions that made it possible to get more valid and reliable data. (Census 2002, Vol. 11: p 11) For that reason the percentage of 41.9 % gets more relative in view of daily usage. People were also asked about their habits in speaking and only about 330,000 inhabitants (8.4 %) claimed to use it daily. Therefore, the data of the years before 1996 has to be evaluated carefully.

Additionally, local (geographic) factors decide about one’s language abilities. The Gaeltacht areas were always the heart of Irish mother tongue, so the percentage of 72.6 % who use it as a colloquial language is not surprising at all. One more piece of information out of the census of 2002 appeared to be quite unexpected in view of the qualitative results. Actually, a higher percentage of older people would have been likely to speak more Irish, but another age group claims the top position in this field. These are the children and teenagers from about the age of 8 up to about 17 years old. At this stage up to 75 % speak the tongue. The efforts of the education system of the Republic are very much present in this figure.

Ability to speak Irish by age group and sex
Figure 2: Ability to speak Irish by age group and sex, 2002.
Source of Figure: Census 2002, Principal Demographic Results, p. 27.

In conclusion, the quantitative data has to be analyzed carefully. There is a gap between the numbers of census and the reality of Irish speakers.  From the pure numbers, government succeed in their policies: nearly half of inhabitants claimed to speak Irish to a certain degree. Compared to their beginning, with Irish independence, the numbers increased significantly.

5. Conclusion

According to the introductory statement, about the Irish language as the official language spoken by a minority, it still remains controversial. It is questionable if the development of the raising popularity of Irish will go on. As Ó Néill (2005: 300) summarizes in his book “Rebuilding the Celtic Languages” it will be due to the acceptance of mother tongue; can the Irish government and the Irish society accept Irish as a language on par with English and other modern languages? This will be the leading question for Irish.

Furthermore, it has become an ideological question whether to accept it fully or just to a certain degree. Otherwise, there won’t be a real ‘revival’, language will be kept in a part time position, restricted to be present full-time in society. The omnipresent role of English is oppressing, not only in Ireland. As long as success in economic and social terms is associated with the usage of the ‘leading language’ there will be restrictions to any other language.  Finally, Irish is on a good way after the many power struggles in the last centuries. With a growing national pride the role of Irish is strengthening; maybe not so much in the sense of daily usage, but in terms of reputation there has been a huge progress, also because of the efforts of policies.

6.  Bibliography

Barbour, Stephen and Carmichael, Cathie (2000) Language and Nationalism in Europe. Oxford: University Press.

Crowley, Tony (2005) War of Words. The Politics of Language in Ireland 1537 – 2004. Oxford: University Press.

Fishman, Joshua (1991) Reversing language Shift: Theory and Practice of Assistance to Threatened Languages. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

Fishman, Joshua (2000) Can Threatened Languages Be Saved? Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

Ireland. Central Statistics Office.  Census 2002 Principal Demographic Results. June 2003.03 December 2005 <>

Ireland. Central Statistics Office. Census 2002: Vol. 11 Irish Language. 25 March 2004. 03 December 2005 <>.

Irish language law takes effect“ BBC News World Edition Online, 28 March 2005. 03 December 2005 < >.

Ó Néill, Diarmuid (2005) Rebuilding the Celtic Languages. Reversing language shift in the Celtic countries. Talybont: Y Lolfa. 276–321.

Ó Riagáin, Pádraig (1992) Language Maintenance and Language Shift as Strategies of Social Reproduction. Baile Atha Cliath : Institiuid Teangeolaiocht Eireann.


[1] There is also another notion of Irish language that’s called Gaelic. In this paper only the term ‘Irish’ shall be used for reference.

[2] If there was or is a revival/renaissance in Irish language is very controversy. So here it should be understand as the popularity of tongue and not as the recovery of colloquial language.

[3] To clarify the contrast I used terms from social science: qualitative and quantitative (research). The first one is associated to explanation and the second one to measurement of social phenomena.

[4] The Gaeltacht are areas where the majority of inhabitants speak Irish. They are located in the western and rural parts of the isle.

[5] J. Fishman wrote some of the basic literature about minority languages around the world. (Fishman 1991, 2000)

[6] Statistical figures are presented in point 4. Quantitative Results