Historical Facts of the Irish Language

Gaelic or Irish has come close to extinction, but several campaigns to revive it throughout history have kept it alive and hopes are high for its future.

Language Trauma

Ireland suffered two enormous blows in the 17th – 19th centuries that almost saw the extinction of the Irish language. First came the formal annexation of the country by England. For centuries the two countries had maintained a strained and complicated relationship, but as the 17th century progressed England began to exert all of its influence over Ireland, and the Irish language receded in the wake of English.

Then, in the 19th century, famine afflicted Ireland and nearly 2 million people died in a very short period of time, decimating the remaining native speakers of the language. Irish began to be seen as a primitive language with no literary background or value – which was not true, but which was a perception the English were more than happy to perpetuate. By the last years of the 19th century, Irish was in real danger of simply dying out in favour of English.

The Gaelic League

As a direct response to this situation, the Gaelic League (Conradh na Gaeilge) was founded in 1893 by Douglas Hyde and Eoin Mac Neill. The League sought to re-establish Gaelic in Ireland and support and preserve Irish culture and literature for future generations. They did this by hosting dances and musical performances, publishing traditional and new works of literature in Gaelic, and publishing a Gaelic newspaper. Within twelve years there were 500 branches of the Gaelic League in Ireland, and it seemed as if Gaelic would enjoy a renaissance.

In 1922, the Irish Free State was founded independent of the United Kingdom. The Free State also sought to promote Gaelic as part of a reclamation of Ireland’s culture and unique identity, but the Free State went about it through coercion, forcing Gaelic on its citizens in a heavy-handed way. As a result, attitudes towards Gaelic changed again, with resentment and resistance almost once again sealing the fate of the language.

Irish continues to struggle. About half a million people speak Gaelic fluently, with another million or so capable of speaking it somewhat. Attempts to reinvigorate this language continue, and the future looks bright as people are now allowed to choose to honour their heritage.