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An Irish Language Renaissance

May 2015

Language ,


Irish is often lumped into a group of dying European languages. However, while other minority language are slowly sliding towards a seemingly inevitable extinction, Irish is bucking the trend: its usage growing and its speakers multiplying.

The official Irish statistics also shows a steady increase in speakers. Between 1971 and 2006, speakers of the language have almost doubled from 789,429 to 1,656,790. For a language that is often reported to be clinging to the cliff edge by its fingernails, this is healthy growth, indeed.

However, it’s worth pausing for a moment to unpick these figures.

Ireland’s official statistics are drawn from the country’s self-assessed censuses. Respondents are asked “Can you speak Irish?” and may respond either yes or no. This leads to horrendous overreporting and unreliable figures.

The 2006 census helpfully expanded on the question, asking respondents to clarify how often they speak Irish. The clarification asked: “If ‘Yes’, do you speak Irish?”

    1. Daily, within the education system
    2. Daily, outwith the education system
    3. Weekly
    4. Less often
    5. Never

Of the 1,650,982 people who claimed to be able to speak, only 97,716 said they spoke the language on a weekly basis.

A less exciting figure but probably a more accurate one

On a more definitively positive note, the Higher Education Authority, which guides the strategic development of the Irish education and research system, has recorded increasing numbers of students studying through Irish at tertiary level.

That means more people engaging with journalism, computing, physics, biology and literature in Irish. It’s making the language an important part of their life and it’s this that will keep Irish alive.


Structural Encouragement

Change rarely comes without gentle – or in some cases abrasive – encouragement and Irish is no different. Numerous higher education bodies have implemented policies promoting the usage of Irish and, in some cases, blocking access to those without Irish language skills.

The National University of Ireland, for example, requires all students to have passed either the Irish component of the Leaving Certificate or GCE/GCSE Examinations in the language. The only exceptions are for those educated outside of the Republic of Ireland or students diagnosed with dyslexia.

The Irish civil service had required all applicants to demonstrate a certain level of competency in the Irish language. This requirement was scrapped in 1974 and the level of Irish within the Civil Service – quite unsurprisingly – dropped off a cliff edge.

Perhaps most important was the Official Language Act, signed into law on 14th June 2003. The primary objective of the Act was to ensure better access to and a higher standard of public services in the Irish language. At its core, the Act placed a statutory obligation upon public bodies to deliver key services in the Irish language. That means important communications must be given in English and Irish.

Then there’s Fiontar, an interdisciplinary school at the heart of the language fight. Fiontar has been central to the development of online databases such as, which provides an explanation of every single placename in Ireland., and, a contemporary language dictionary.

Fiontar, like Manx’s Culture Vannin, understands the value of investing in new digital technologies and they are reaping the benefits of it.

There is much to learn from the buoyant success of Irish and we hope language institutes of other minority languages adopt the things that are proven to work well.

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