I’ve just been at the wedding of a good friend and in her honor as an American speaker of Irish, I thought I’d take a look at the Irish language worldwide. This ended up being an enormous subject, so I’ll just give a snapshot of what came up while researching.
125 years ago, in 1891, only about 14% of the population of Ireland spoke Irish. The Gaelic Revival in the late nineteenth century, led by Douglas Hyde, Eoin MacNeill, and others, steered the resurgent interest in the Irish language and connected the language to the strong nationalist politics of the era. When the Irish state was founded in 1922, the Irish language became compulsory at schools. Today, Irish is the first official language of Ireland and an official language of the European Union. The language throughout Ireland has been granted substantial investment by the state including Gaeltacht areas specifically designated by the government as primarily Irish-speaking regions.
Despite high levels of investment by the Irish government and interest in the language by people in Ireland (not necessarily translating to actually speaking the language), use of Irish in the home has declined substantially. This is the case even in the strongest Gaeltacht areas in Co. Donegal, Co. Galway, and Co. Kerry. Irish is endangered as a community and family language, even as numbers of people who have Irish as a second language stay steady or expand in other regions.
Out of a population of about 4.6m, about 77,000 people speak Irish on a daily basis outside of the education system (as of 2011). Does Irish constitute a living language? Can and should it compete with English in Irish-speaking areas? How should the Irish government approach the language? How closely tied are the Irish language and the state of the economy? The language faces many questions moving forward, especially as it is listed as “definitely endangered” by UNESCO.
In Northern Ireland, Irish is considered extinct as a first language, although as many as 10% speak Irish as a second language. It is listed under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages for Northern Ireland.
The Irish government and other organizations (such as the Fulbright Commission, Ireland Canada University Foundation, Glór na nGael, and Daltaí na Gaeilge) have substantially invested in Irish language use worldwide. The government grants funds to university programs supporting Irish language learning mainly in Europe and North America. In 2015-2016, Ireland is supporting programs in Britain, Austria, Germany, the Czech Republic, Poland, Sweden, France, the United States, and Canada. The grants are not restricted to places where there are significant numbers of Irish-born people. The Irish language also has a presence in Australia, where it is taught at the University of Sydney, in New Zealand, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Russia, and China.
While there are fewer than 1,000 native Irish speakers in Canada, a vibrant community of Irish language learners has led to the purchase of land in Ontario in the Tamworth/Erinsville area to create a Permanent North American Gaeltacht. This was established in 2007, and is the only officially sanctioned Gaeltacht outside of Ireland. The area is set aside for events and gatherings in which Irish is spoken as a community language and the living culture and traditions of the language are celebrated. No one lives there permanently.
In the United States, one of the oldest Irish language programs is at Catholic University in Washington, DC. The program was funded in 1896 with a gift of $50,000 by the Ancient Order of Hibernians. Irish is most vibrant in the New York City metro area, as exemplified by this fun character study of an Irish-speaking garbage truck driver. And there are several universities and community colleges in the New York/New Jersey region with Irish language programs. According to the MLA, about 350 people currently study Irish at the university level in the United States (as of 2013), with the number limited due to programs lasting a maximum of 4 semesters. There are more people (like my friend) who study Irish in less formal settings, not for university credit, in cities like New York, Washington, DC, and Chicago. In 2011, there were at least 87 academic and non-academic institutions teaching Irish in the United States. Even more difficult to track, other Irish learners get a taste of the language through online study. As of 2009, about 24,000 speakers of Irish lived in the United States, although this was self-reported and does not indicate level of fluency.
UNESCO estimates that about half of the world’s 6,000 languages spoken today will disappear by the end of the 21st century if nothing is done to preserve them. Will most languages really be extinct within the next hundred years? We will have to see how people’s interests, parents’ dedication to passing the language on to their children, and government policies make a difference for the path of the Irish language. After all, its status now is much different than a century ago.