The basic form of Irish language dates back to the 4th century. It wasn’t exactly the same language as it’s used today, but it was the first form of the language. In the 17th century, William Bedell translated the Bible into Irish. Until the 19th century, Irish was the most commonly spoken language on the island of Ireland.
For a long period of time, Irish was actually prohibited in Ireland’s schools. The government viewed the language as “too backwards”, and English was being taught instead. To make matters worse, most of the native speakers were actually swept away by the great famine. Part of this is because a lot of them lived in poorer areas of the country, where the plague hit the hardest.
Even parenting was geared towards teaching English, favouring it as the language of choice. The parents wanted their kids to have the highest chances to succeed in that time’s society, which means that the Irish language was being pushed to the side even more.
There was a lot of stigma surrounding the use of Irish language, even after the country declared its independence. However, that wasn’t the mentality of all, and the Irish Protestants were partly responsible for defending the language in the 18th century, and the nation started to see some changes in order to preserve the language, as it was deemed worthy of cherishing.
Indeed, people can hardly deny the roots of their culture, and even after English became the official language, Irish still influenced many poets and songwriters. Most notably, poets like Yeats, Oscar Wilde, and many others would not be what they were if it wasn’t for the influence of Irish language.
In 1922, the independent Irish state was born. Those were the times when the Irish language actually got some promotion by the government, as it set a goal that the majority of its residents would favour the Irish language as the language of their choice within a couple of decades. The changes were reflected in many laws, and one of them forced primary schools to teach Irish. As a matter of fact, if one wanted to be employed in the civil service, the fluid knowledge of Irish was one of the necessary requirements.
However, not all went well, and because people got used to English being the primary language, the events slowly led to a cultural backlash of sorts. Even after finishing school, those generations refused to use Irish later on in their lives.
Some of the government’s visions proved overly enthusiastic, and certain companies today have effectively stopped using the Irish language in their products. A notable example being Eircom, the Irish telecommunication company, removing Irish from their telephone directories. Then again, the Post still heavily employs it, which can be seen from the street addresses and postmarks.
A dramatical change happened in 2003 when the government really tried to equalize Irish and English as equivalent languages. From that point on, every publication released by a governmental body needed to be done in both of these languages, with additional efforts being made to promote the usage of both languages as equals.
One notable exception, of course, were the traffic signs. As it turned out, there is often not enough space on them to feature both of the languages, so only English can be found on these. That was partially due to the fact that having English-only signs was more friendly to tourists from abroad, and that the motorists could better see the signs from a large distance.
Objectively speaking, the overly-enthusiastic approach to promoting the language in the twenties did more harm than good, and the effect was the exact opposite from what the government expected. Because people felt forced to speak Irish, the majority of them actually decided to do the exact opposite, and each passing decade was marked by a steady decline of the Irish language.
Today, even in the most culturally-marked areas, people tend to not speak Irish any more. In order to preserve the language as a cultural heritage, the government made a really drastic attempt to save it, declaring that only the Irish speaking residents would be granted the permission to build homes in the areas deemed to be Irish-speaking. However, due to the fact that the vast majority of Irish people tend to speak English as their primary language, such an attempt to resurrect the language could very well be in vain once more.
Irish is still being taught in schools, and most politicians don’t want to remove that because of the fear of being marked as unpatriotic. Recently, there were additional attempts made by the government, all of them aiming to at least preserve the language, if complete resurrection proved to be unsuccessful.
Examples of this would be the Irish language television, the Irish newspaper, and the Irish radio, among others. However, not a single such attempt had any lasting results.
So what does the time have in store for the Irish language in the Republic of Ireland? Modern statistics show that only about 25% of households have any kind of fluency in Irish. But the popular surveys indicate the actual percentage may be even lower, ranging from 1% in the Galway suburbs and all the way to 8% in the areas west of Donegal. To say the least, those statistics are more than a bit concerning for the future of the language.
Some analysts have proclaimed that the Irish language could see a total decline in as little as one generation. Cultural heritage like books, plays, and poetry will still hold the language alive, but probably only the people who tend to be multi-lingual will be able to speak it fluently. To state the obvious, this could spell dire news for the Irish cultural identity and the future generations.
To see the language go through a complete decline would really make a drastic impact on the entire nation. Irish language was such an important component of the nation’s history that things just won’t be the same without it if matters take a turn for the worse. Can the government come up with a plan that will heighten the chances of its survival? And will the people be willing to preserve it? All of this will undoubtedly influence the manner in which future is going to play out.