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The Irish Language
Today, Yesterday and Tomorrow

  • Popular Irish Export. After detailed analysis of the 2000 US Census returns, The U.S. English Foundation reported that a total of 25,870 Americans speak Irish - not English - in the home.
  • Computers Speak It Too. Microsoft offers Irish spell checker software for Office XP, as well as an Irish Language Interface Pack for Windows XP.

In just the last 150 years, the Irish language has made a dramatic comeback from near-extinction. At that point in time, Irish was in rather dire straits, a casualty of the expansion of British colonialism. As the Irish censuses 1851-1961 demonstrated, the Gaeilge (Irish) language was in a steady decline; only small clusters of native speakers along the west coast of the country were keeping the language alive.

But that was before the Irish cultural renaissance of the twentieth century and Ireland's resurgence in national pride. Today, there are more people fluent in Irish than at any time in the past 150 years, and more words have been published in the Gaeilge language over the past 100 years than in all the centuries preceding it. It has been estimated that more than 250,000 citizens of the Republic of Ireland are fluent speakers of the Irish language fluently, and more than a million people in the Republic of Ireland have some level of fluency in Gaeilge.

Despite some promising statistics, concerns about the future persist. A continuing problem is the uneven geographical distribution of Irish speakers across the country. The concentration remains strong in traditional strongholds along the west coast that make up the Gaeltacht, or Gaeilge-speaking regions of Ireland. The small towns in which Irish is spoken as the community language have been surrounded by English speakers who have recently moved into the Gaeltacht in significant numbers. In the Gaeltacht, the highest concentrations of Irish speakers reside in Connemara, County Galway, and Tyrconnell, County Donegal. The Gaeltacht also includes the Aran Islands, Dingle peninsula, and areas of counties Kerry, Mayo, Waterford, Cork, and Meath. In all, some 80,000 people in the Gaeltacht regard Irish as their primary spoken language.

History: Primitive to Modern
Over the centuries, four distinct forms of the language have evolved. From around the 4th century B.C. to the 4th century A.D., the Primitive Irish alphabet known as Ogham was carved into standing stones throughout Ireland, Scotland, England, Wales, and the Isle of Man. These Ogham stones stand as the earliest examples of the written language. Circa 500-1000 A.D., the next form, Old Irish, adorned the manuscripts of Latin religious texts penned by monks. The heyday for Middle Irish was 900-1150; around 1200, we see the first examples of Early Modern Irish. Early Modern Irish lasted until around 1650, only to be replaced by Modern Irish, the form spoken today.

An Uncertain Future?
The Irish language has millions of ardent supporters throughout the isle and the rest of the world, making it quite safe to say that the language can surely never die. The Irish people have zealously maintained cultural and language preservation societies for centuries, and the status of Irish as the national language of the country and as an official language of the European Union assures its continued survival and dissemination. Still, some Irish authorities are feeling an urgent need to strengthen language-preservation efforts even further. The local officials in County Galway, for example, have imposed restrictions on new home construction in the region around Connemara, which has for decades been held up as the gold standard among Irish-speaking communities. These building restrictions are designed to prevent significant increases in English-only speakers, but may have come too late: More and more people raised in Connemara -- more's the pity -- have taken to speaking English in their daily affairs.

Related: Irish Language Books