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Attitudes Towards The Irish Language On The Island of Ireland 2015

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The Economic and Social Research Institute, the well-known independent think-tank, has released a new, one hundred page study titled, “Attitudes towards the Irish Language on the Island of Ireland, August 2015”, edited by Dr. Merike Darmody of the ESRI and Tania Daly of Amárach Research. The document outlines the current status of our indigenous language and its speakers both nationally across Ireland and regionally in the north-east of the country. So far the results seem to have taken more than a few right-wing Anglophone commentators by surprise, with some already contesting their veracity. The analysis shows that 57% of respondents in the 26 Counties have either basic or advanced fluency in Irish, with 13% speaking it weekly and 33% less regularly than that. In contrast 17% in the 6 Counties displayed basic or advanced fluency in Irish, with 2% speaking it weekly and 12% less than that. In both cases language use was dominated by younger participants though 67% of all those surveyed in the 26 Cos. and 45% in the 6 Cos. stated that they had positive feelings towards the Irish language.

One interesting set of statistics thrown up by the research found that 33% of adult respondents in the 26 Cos. and 31% in the 6 Cos. had at least one friend who speaks Irish outside the home. A further 38% of adults nationally had ‘friends who are bringing up their children through Irish at home or who use a lot of Irish with their children’, which is only slightly higher than the regional figure of 31% for the north-east. The survey also found that 37% of respondents in the 26 Cos. and 29% in the 6 Cos. believed that neither the national government in Dublin or the regional administration in Belfast were doing enough to service the needs of the language and its speakers. In contrast 31% and 24% respectively felt they were doing enough.

On the question of Ireland remaining a bilingual island nation with English as the principal speech 43% on a national level and 34% on a regional level were in favour. 26% nationally and 38%  regionally believed that the language should be disregarded. Sadly only 6% in the 26 Cos. and 5% in the 6 Cos. believed that Irish should be restored as the principal or sole language of the country. Which shows how far the language’s status has slipped over the last several decades and how little has been done to promote this solution to our linguistic travails.

You can read the full document here and the questionnaire used here.

16 comments on “Attitudes Towards The Irish Language On The Island of Ireland 2015

  1. Derek Ó H

    The results show strong support for the language in the 26 counties with less usage, though maybe more than would have been expected at 13% weekly users. I would say 57% having some fluency is very unexpected and will be questioned. However, I imagine this support will fall away over the decades. There is an opportunity now to capitalise on this foundation of public support and the growing number of speakers and users outside the Gaeltacht. It is time for authorities, educators, communities and individual speakers to advance the language or the language will be in danger of being finally extinguished, particularly if the forecasted demise of the Gaeltacht comes to pass.
    I was in An Síopa Leabhar recently and was told about plans Conradh na Gaeilge have for developing 6 Harcourt St. and creating a new social space for Dublin Gaelgeoirí. This can’t happen too soon – look at the facilities available for French & Spanish leaners/speakers respectively at Alliance Française and Instituto Cervantes which are only a good catapult shot from Conradh na Gaeilge’s HQ.


  2. ar an sliabh

    I don’t know about the percentages, but since I have been coming back regularly I do find the younger generations having a greater affinity for the language. They sure are more apt to try to communicate in it, even when their skills are rudimentary. This is and has been my biggest hope for the language to finally find true revival. Unless they are from an area that, at least in my time, predominantly spoke Irish, people between 40 and 60 are likely to not want to speak it. I am hoping the continued focus on individual distinction coupled with the uniqueness of the language keeps the momentum going.


  3. The analysis shows that 57% of respondents in the 26 Counties have either basic or advanced fluency in Irish, with 13% speaking it weekly and 33% less regularly than that.
    I don’t think that those numbers are accurate because I’ve been living in Ireland for more than 2 years and I’ve yet to hear a conversation in Irish.

    Far fewer people speak Polish, Spanish or French, but I hear conversations in those languages at least once a week.


    • ar an sliabh

      You just need to get out of your bubble. Take a trip to the west coast.


    • Derek Ó H

      I guess a lot of Irish speakers outside the Gaeltact speak Irish as L2 and will only use it with those they know speak the language so their default language is English. If you are in a pub in Dublin with 200 people, you could have 25-30 fluent Irish speakers present but, depending on the company, they could all be speaking English at that time. I am one of these but would use Irish more if I could.
      Getting Irish out there is important. I read somewhere recently the Basques or Catalans say ‘use the first word in…’ that language (Basque or Catalan). It would be a good idea for Irish language speakers, learners and supporters to always say ‘Dia dhuit/hello’ or ‘Conas atá tú? / How are you?’ so that, at the very least, the present company realises that person is an Irish speaker- and can choose to reply in whichever language suits them. I’m not sure everyone wants to wear a fáinne so this might be more practical.


    • Perhaps because of interpersonal contacts, etc.? Polish-speakers are already aware the person they are speaking to is Polish so its easy to drop into that language? Or they recognise the name, accent with strangers? How does one Irish-speaker recognise another Irish-speaker beyond Irish language surnames? However that still leaves the feeling of awkwardness or embarrassment raised by speaking in Irish amongst predominantly Anglophone listeners. The classic example is Irish people abroad speaking Irish – even pidgin Irish – amongst each other when in the company of non-Irish. It’s a paradox!


  4. I was looking at some report of other recently, can’t remember which there have been a few lately, but I was looking at the numbers. I think it’s fair to say that most Irish adults, say 90%+ have had years and years (I was really surprised to see how much) of ‘school Irish’. Now I was thinking, lets assume that most are bored to tears (like my experience of school French) but say I in a 100 takes ownership of the language and becomes genuinely fluent, that just one kid out of three or four classes. Then the number of potentially fluent speakers would be in the tens of thousands, and that’s ignoring the Gaeltacht.

    So let’s say most Irish adults, or at least 50% could speak Irish if they ever really needed to, but most don’t ‘own’ the language. I mean in exactly the same way that many English people could manage a bit of French if they needed to because they learnt it at school. You learn it at school but you don’t go around speaking it, because it’s a foreign language, just something you do to pass an exam. Something detached from daily life outside in the ‘real world’.

    However of those with the ability, a few have ‘owned’ the language, may even be enthusiastic about it and keen to use it. But then we face the third problem, one that I think is generally overlooked, opportunity. Someone could be perfectly fluent in Irish (or anything else) but will never speak it unless they come up against other speakers in their daily life. Take several thousand fluent Irish speakers and scatter them randomly across the country, and only in a few rare cases will two or three happen to be in regular social contact. The rest will be isolated and reduced to speaking Irish to the cat. They could do this all day long but it wouldn’t really benefit the language if no human was hearing them.

    And much potential opportunity may be lost simply because there’s no obviously way strangers who are Irish speakers can know that, English being the default means of communication. Maybe they need to dye their hair green of something?

    So these are the hurdles or bottlenecks to restoring Irish :
    1. Ability (addressed to some extent by the school system);
    2. Relevance (people need to identify with the language and ‘own’ it);
    3. Opportunity (if there are no other speakers around you’re stuck even given 1 & 2);
    4. Community (speakers have to know and recognise one another).


    • And yet immigrants somehow find other people who speak their language – if not in person then online.

      And nothing prevents Irish speakers from socialising online, generating content in Irish and organising meetups. That’s what other minorities living in Ireland and elsewhere are doing.


  5. eileen healy

    With regard to getting Irish out there, I’ve never had any instruction or suggestions onthe subject but have been practicing the above examples for many years and yes it is a little more difficult( in general) with some older people. With those people one needs to “test the water” carefully because being of mature vintage myself I know that some of that age group would have bad experiences with education in general
    I actually start with the parting shot e.g while. getting my. change and receipt in a shop “Go raibh míle maith agat! Slán go fóill” Most times I get a” go raibh maith agat” or “Slân” Occasionally I get a ‘Tá fáilte romhat’ which indicates to me that next time I have a chance of having a conversation with this person As for the limited means by which we can recognise another person willing to speak in Irish , that’s a difficult in more ways than one. Some surnames in our population just can’t be translated so I would advocate using more traditional first names? In my first permanent post with a health board((while still on a probationary period I was handed a form to fill in my Married Name . Said that I didn’t have one ” You have , didn’t you just get leave to get married Write down your husband s name and don’t be wasting my time”
    I would have nearly always have used my Irish name but to use my married name which was “foisted” on me in English is one thing, but in Irish it would literally mean “the woman of Healy”
    One area for minor reform!


  6. You note “Sadly only 6% in the 26 Cos. and 5% in the 6 Cos. believed that Irish should be restored as the principal or sole language of the country.”

    If the language of the survey is “principal or sole”, then those answering might well read that as specifically meaning that other languages (not just English) should deliberately be disregarded in a similar way to how Irish was disregarded in the past (that is, that there be attempts to reduce speaking of English, French, Polish, Igbo, et cetera by pressuring those speakers to give up their other language instead of encouraging them to make use of their Irish language).

    Not saying that is the case, but just a thought. It might be an objection to giving any language such a privileged position that caused people to avoid that option. It would be a horrific step to make any language the sole language of a country, even Irish. Just look at America where there are attempts to force immigrants (particularly from South America) to give up their other languages and use only English.


  7. Just to reply to a couple of comments above.

    First, Séamas, you can’t compare Britain’s colonial posture in 1920 with that in the late 1960’s. In 1920 there was still a British Empire with extensive territories all around the world backed up by one of the world’s most powerful navies. But in the decades following WWII almost all of the former empire had been decolonised. Britain still claimed to be a world power (notably a member of the UN Security Council), but that was based on having nukes, in fact at that time probably still a genuinely ‘independent deterrent’. What remained of the empire were odd places either too small to grant self-rule or riven by internal strife. In most of the latter the British sooner or later buggered off and left the locals to fight it out amongst themselves.

    So when very serious intercommunal rioting broke out in NI in 1969, I rather doubt that many of the British public or indeed their politicians saw the situation in the light of colonialism. NI was just a bit of territory that they’d somehow got stuck with. If they thought about it at all it was possibly a bit of an embarrassment and certainly a bloody nuisance. Since the local authorities couldn’t control the situation and indeed appeared to be part of the problem, Westminster really had no choice other than to send in the troops, probably without having much idea of what they were getting into. I really don’t think there was any sinister master-plan involved.

    I don’t have a TV and don’t regularly watch TV news, but it so happened that in the summer of ’69 I was staying in a house with TV. I can remember reporters speaking to the first soldiers taking up positions in Belfast etc. where they established the ‘peace lines’ primarily to protect the Catholic ghettos from the rampaging Protestant mobs who been aided by the B-special paramilitary police force. All this was terribly un-English, so as I said probably no one had a clue, initially at least they seemed to be simply separating the two factions.

    My guess would be that before long, as the situation became more permanent, some of the top-brass went into ‘colonial mode’ and ordered the soldiers to ‘kick arse’ as in Aden, Cyprus and all the other End-of-Empire scenarios, except with NI there was no option to get out once they’d taught the wogs their lesson.

    I’d be interested to understand how the situation passed from one of ostensibly ‘keeping the peace’ and protecting the Catholics (mainly) to effectively a war against that community on behalf of the Protestant ascendancy. Remember for quite a lot of the time Labour (old Labour!) were in power, and they would have had no political sympathy with the near-fascist Ulster Unionists.

    One final thought, had the Irish army crossed the border instead of stopping just inside the Republic, that would surely have internationalised the situation and brought in the UN. What stopped them, given that at the time and for many years thereafter they claimed sovereignty over the whole island of Ireland?


    • Yes, Marconatrix, some fair points but it was the “United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland” and however colonial its nature the British establishment (nebulous thing that it is) was unwilling to give up the “Northern Ireland” bit, for that reason and many others. There is such a thing as British nationalism too, with its own ideological underpinnings over territory and nationhood, etc. Ireland has been an independent nation-state for several decades yet the British press and politicians still regularly – and causally – refer to the Irish as British. Margaret Thatcher when she was arguing with his her cabinet colleagues and advisers over her “Cromwellian” solution to the Irish nationalist minority in the north-east wasn’t doing so out of some confused or muddled sense of English incomprehension when dealing with Ireland. She was quite clear in her determination to make “Northern Ireland” 100% British by the expulsion of anyone who did not self-identify as such, all several hundred thousand men, women and children.

      On the Defence Forces failing to step in, simple cowardice and self-interest by the Irish political establishment. That and the dire capacity of the former to do so.


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