Irish, a new future for an old language

Ó Riagáin, Dónall

Independent Consultant, Ireland (Republic of)

WS162: Language Policies in Social Practice: Constructing Identity, (Re)Claiming Language Rights

Irish is one of Europe’s oldest living tongues. A Q-Celtic language, it has been spoken in Ireland for over two millennia and has been written since the 6th century AD. Because its users were politically, religiously, and economically oppressed for many centuries, its position became undermined and it went into rapid and almost terminal decline during the 19th century. A language revival movement developed toward the end of that century and when an independent Irish state was established in 1922, Irish was accorded recognition as an official language. English was also accepted as another official language. The revival of the language as the national vernacular became an objective of the new state.

Despite the high official status accorded the language, its promotion was largely unplanned. However, the education system did achieve a considerable degree of success and Irish is probably unique among Europe’s lesser used languages in that in has a large pool of L2 users and a comparatively small pool of L1 users. Census data shows that c. 1.75 m. people in Ireland [Republic and Northern Ireland] claim to be able to speak Irish whereas only 453,000 of these [in the Republic] use Irish on a daily basis. Despite the enormous disparity between ability and regular usage, attitudinal support is high, especially among the younger generation.

There has been a national Irish language radio service, Raidió na Gaeltachta, since 1971 and there has been a dedicated Irish language TV channel, TG4, since 1996. Two other radio services, Raidió na Life and the Belfast-based Raidió Fáilte broadcast exclusively in Irish. There is one small Irish language daily newspaper and a more substantial weekly as well as monthly and quarterly magazines. About 150 books are published in Irish every year.

Although Irish has been an official state language in the Republic since 1922 it was only in 2003 that legislation, the Official Languages Act 2003 was enacted to regulate the use of both official languages. Efforts are currently being made to have an Irish language act adopted in Northern Ireland. Irish became an official and working language of the European Union on 1 January 2007, the only Celtic language to achieve this degree of recognition.

From being the language of a marginalized and aging peasantry in an ‘internal colony’ of the UK at the end of the 19th century, Irish has become the national language of a prosperous independent state. This paper examines these processes in the domains of education, media, and print literacy, juxtaposed to official policies to regulate the use of Irish and English. The paper argues that these practices are both constituted by and have concretely transformed Irish national identity.

Session: Themed Panel (part 1)
Language Policies in Social Practice: Constructing Identity, (Re)Claiming Language Rights
Friday, April 4, 2008, 13:45-15:15
room: 06