The Irish Language Today

The Irish language has continued to defy the odds and survive into the twenty-first century, despite its often-prophesied demise. Though contradictory indicators abound - the continued decline of Irish as a community language in its traditional Gaeltacht heartlands, side by side with the phenomenal growth in Irish-medium education in urban centres - Irish continues to refuse to lie down and play dead. Indeed, the current state of the language gives grounds for a cautious optimism. According to the latest linguistic research, Irish is astonishingly among the 10% of world languages deemed safe from extinction in the foreseeable future. Irish qualifies as 'safe' under both the criteria identified by linguists specialising in language endangerment:

(i) it has a community of 100,000 speakers
(ii) it has the support of a nation state.

For a language so close to extinction as Irish was at the end of the nineteenth century, this is little short of miraculous. Irish today has roughly 30,000 native speakers living in Gaeltacht areas, with a further 100,000 speakers who can be said to be regular users of the language.

Every census has recorded an increase in the number of people who claim some fluency in Irish and the overwhelming majority of Irish people value the language as a marker of national identity and support its teaching in schools.

Irish also has the backing of the state, no matter how grudging this may appear at times. Article 8.1 of the Irish Constitution avows that "the Irish language as the national language is the first national language" although the situation remains that Irish is spoken in Ireland as a minority language. A new Language Act aims at giving more legislative rights to Irish speakers.

Demographically, most native speakers are concentrated in officially designated Gaeltacht or Irish-speaking areas. The main Gaeltacht regions are in Munster - West Kerry, North West Cork, and Ring, Co. Waterford; Connacht - Connemara and Mayo; and Ulster - Donegal. A small Gaeltacht also exits in Leinster, in Rath Cairn, County Meath. Increasingly, a large number of people who claim to use Irish on a regular or daily basis live in urban areas, in particular Dublin and Belfast.

In 1991 over 140,000 people, some 10% of the population of Northern Ireland, claimed some competency in Irish. The status of Irish in Northern Ireland has improved further since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998: aA cross-border body Foras na Gaeilge was established with statutory responsibility for the development of the language on both sides of the Border.

The only Irish language daily newspaper is published in Belfast. The other main Irish language national newspaper Foinse is published in the Connemara Gaeltacht.

Recent developments and modern technologies have promoted the use of the Irish language. In particular the establishment of TG4, the Irish language television station, has contributed to a rejuvenation of the image of the language, particularly among young people. Over 270,000 people, for example, watch Ros na Rún, TG4's popular soap opera, on any given week. The Irish language also has a highly visible presence on the internet.  More and more people, at home and abroad, are availing of these technologies as well as an increasing number of specialist adult language courses to learn a language that a little over one hundred years ago was being consigned to oblivion.

Go maire sí beo!

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