On St. Patrick’s Day four days from today, far more Irish may be spoken from parade floats or podiums than would ever actually be heard on the streets of many Irish cities or towns. That’s because the Celtic tongue used by St. Patrick to Christianize the Emerald Isle during the twilight years of the Roman Empire has been slowly dying out for three centuries. Irish is now among 632 “definitely endangered languages” in the United Nations’ Atlas of World Languages in Danger.
Out of 4.4 million Irishmen, probably no more than one or two per cent are fluent now, so badly beaten down has Irish been by that 800-pound gorilla of world languages, English.
The downward slide for Irish began in earnest in the 1600s when an English army conquered the Island. While English influence spread slowly through imperial policy favoring English and banning Irish in some contexts, a turning point occurred when the Irish Potato Famine hit in 1845. That great hunger halved the island’s population, either through death or emigration. Most of the 1 million who died were Irish speakers.
Irish never recovered. By the time Ireland got its independence from Britain just after World War I, less than 15 per cent of the Irish were speaking their own tongue.
The new Irish government made Irish a mandatory subject in schools. But teaching methods were often so backward, tedious and ineffectual that many Irish students came to hate the language, rather than love it. Large numbers, some writers say most, never achieved competence, even after 14 years of study.
Meanwhile, mixed marriages of English and Irish speakers continued, cross-migration in and out of Irish-speaking enclaves picked up as people followed jobs, and many Irish parents encouraged their kids to abandon the Celtic language for English, perceiving a business and career advantage.
All this caused the “Gaeltacht,” the Irish-speaking areas of Ireland, to shrink further in geography and in their numbers of regular Irish speakers.
All told, from the early 1920s to today, the population of fluent Irish speakers has dropped about 90 % from 250,000 to an estimated 25,000 to 30,000 today out of a total island population of 4.4 million.But, as Newton said, for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Efforts to rescue one of Europe’s most ancient written languages, the tongue of the Celtic story-telling bards and mystic Druid priests, have stepped up.
Activists have recently tried to fix the education problem by replacing the idea of teaching Irish as a single, boring subject in an otherwise English-language school. Instead, so-called “Gaelscoileanna,” (Irish schools) have been established by the hundreds in which the medium of instruction for all academic subjects is Irish.
More students from these Irish-only schools are going on to college than their counterparts in regular schools. Some believe there is already an expanding contingent of Irish speakers in cities that may form the nucleus of a future urban minority of well-educated, middle-class individuals who regularly use Irish among themselves.
Also, 26,000 students annually spend three weeks in 47 Irish-language Gaeltacht area summer schools called coláistí samhraidh for immersion in the Irish language. While surrounded by Irish, they also live with local families to obtain continual language practice.
Perhaps too little, too late, but rescuers will not surrender. As an Irish proverb itself puts it, “Tír gan teanga, tír gan anam” (A country without a language is a country without a soul).