History of the Irish Language
Irish is a Celtic language and, as such, is a member of the Indo-European family of languages.
Within the Celtic group, it belongs to the Goidelic branch of insular Celtic. Irish has evolved from a
form of Celtic which was introduced into Ireland at some period during the great Celtic migrations
of antiquity between the end of the second millennium and the fourth century BC. Old Irish,
Ireland’s vernacular when the historical period begins in the sixth century of our era, is the earliest
variant of the Celtic languages, and indeed the earliest of European vernaculars north of the Alps,
in which extensive writings are extant.
The Norse settlements (AD 800 onwards) and the Anglo-Norman colonization (AD 1169
onwards) introduced periods of new language diversity into Ireland, but Irish remained dominant
and other speech communities were gradually assimilated. In the early sixteenth century, almost all
of the population was Irish-speaking. The main towns, however, prescribed English for the formal
conduct of administrative and legal business.
The events of the later sixteenth century and of the seventeenth century for the first time
undermined the status of Irish as a major language. The Tudor and Stuart conquests and
plantations (1534-1610), the Cromwellian settlement (1654), and the Williamite war (1689-91)
followed by the enactment of the Penal Laws (1695), had the cumulative effect of eliminating the
Irish-speaking ruling classes and of destroying their cultural institutions. They were replaced by a
new ruling class, or Ascendancy, whose language was English, and thereafter English was the sole
language of government and public institutions. Irish continued as the language of the greater part
of the rural population and, for a time, of the servant classes in towns.
From the middle of the eighteenth century, as the Penal Laws were relaxed and a greater social
and economic mobility became possible for the native Irish, the more prosperous of the Irish-
speaking community began to conform to the prevailing middle-class ethos by adopting English.
Irish thus began to be associated with poverty and economic deprivation. This tendency increased
after the Act of Union in 1800.
Yet because of the rapid growth of the rural population, the actual number of Irish speakers
increased substantially during the first decades of the nineteenth century. In 1835 their number
was estimated at four million. This number consisted almost entirely of an impoverished rural
population which was decimated by the Great Famine and by resultant mass emigration. By 1891,
the number of Irish speakers had been reduced to 680,000 and, according to that year’s census of
population, Irish speakers under the age of ten represented no more than 3.5% of their age-
When the position began to stabilize early in the twentieth century, Irish remained as a
community language only in small discontinuous regions, mainly around the western seaboard.
These regions are collectively called the Gaeltacht. In the 1991 census, the population of the
officially-defined Gaeltacht aged three years and over was 79,563, of whom 56,469 or 71% were
returned as Irish-speaking. The number of Irish speakers is a decreasing proportion of the total
because, for a variety of complex reasons, some of the indigenous population of the Gaeltacht
continue to shift to English, and because new English-speaking households are settling there.
On the other hand, there are many Irish-speaking individuals and families throughout the rest of
the country, particularly in Dublin. In 1991 just under 1.1 million people or 32.5% of the total
population aged three years or over, were returned as Irish-speaking, but this figure does not
distinguish differing degrees of competence and use.
Towards the end of the eighteenth century the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy had begun to develop an
academic interest in the Irish language and its literature. Academic interest later merged with a
concern for the survival of spoken Irish as its decline became increasingly evident. Language-
related activity grew throughout the nineteenth century and, following the establishment in 1893 of
the Gaelic League, or in Irish Conradh na Gaeilge, the objective of maintaining and extending
the use of Irish as a vernacular fused with the renewed separatist movement which culminated in
the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1922.
The State has made various provisions for the maintenance and promotion of the language. Irish
is an obligatory subject at primary and second level schools. The Department of Arts, Culture and
the Gaeltacht has responsibility for promoting the cultural, social, and economic welfare of the
Gaeltacht, and more generally for encouraging the use of Irish as a vernacular. The Department
has two statutory boards under its aegis: Údarás na Gaeltachta ‘Gaeltacht Authority’, some of
whose members are elected by the people of the Gaeltacht, is a development authority for
Gaeltacht areas; Bord na Gaeilge ‘Irish-language board’ has responsibility for the promotion of
Irish as a vernacular throughout the country.