Contrary to popular belief, English is not Ireland’s first official language. For centuries the Irish have spoken an ancestral language known as Gaelic (also known as Irish Gaelic or “Irish”), a Celtic language still used in Ireland today.
Irish Gaelic is an Indo-European Celtic language spoken exclusively in Ireland. It is the first official language of the Republic of Ireland (which predominates over English), and has also been decreed as a regional language in Northern Ireland. It also gained the status of official working language of the European Union in 2005, making Irish Gaelic the leading language in Ireland.
Today, over 70,000 Irish people are said to speak Gaelic in their daily lives in Gaeltacht, a group of areas in Ireland where the population refuses to speak English in favour of Irish Gaelic.
It is estimated, however, that 1.8 million Irish people have some approximate knowledge of it, taught in their youth in school (Irish being a compulsory subject in all schools in the Republic of Ireland).
The Old Irishman was born around 350 B.C. and took off as early as the 5th century, on the occasion of the Christianisation of Ireland by Saint Patrick. It is in the monasteries that the language is taught, developed and even given an official grammar. This “theorization” of Old Irish then made it possible to disseminate Old Irish more widely but also to simplify it to make it more accessible. From evolution to evolution, was born what is called “Modern Irish”, a language derived from Old Irish, and which appeared around 1200.
Modern Irish has been practiced for many centuries by the Irish without notorious cultural conflict. But the situation becomes more complicated when England intends to colonize Ireland, and wishes to bring about the fall of the Irish cultural heritage.
The blame goes to Henry VIII, then King of England, who, after colonizing Ireland, drove the entire Irish population from its farmland, abolished all rights to disseminate Gaelic culture, and formally prohibited the use of the Irish language, ordering the population to adopt English, the language of their colonizers.
Despite protests, the Irish eventually learn English, but intend to keep Irish Gaelic as their first language, and practice it discreetly despite the British ban.
Unfortunately, the Great Famine of 1845 further depopulated the areas where Gaelic was most widely spoken. The loss of life, estimated at over 1 million dead, and the flight of Irish people to the United States contributed to a significant reduction in the number of Gaelic speakers in Ireland.
Far beyond its mere status as a Celtic language, Irish Gaelic alone is a symbol of the Irish entity. A symbol that the dangers of anglicisation and the imperialist desire of the English had to be safeguarded at all costs.
That is why the Irish government – then under British trusteeship – began in the 20th century to develop a policy of support to preserve and rehabilitate the Gaelic language. This particular attachment to the language made it possible, as early as 1937, to declare Gaelic as the first official language (Constitution of 1937), and to introduce a compulsory Gaelic teaching programme in schools.
Since then, Irish has become the first official language of the Republic of Ireland. Its status in Northern Ireland is confined to the status of a regional language.
In spite of this recognition of Gaelic, the Irish language is nevertheless threatened, due to the progressive disinterest of the Irish people in this language. Faced with this reality, the State also insists on facilitating access to the Gaelic language for the Irish.
Thus, efforts can be observed in the following areas: