In addition to all the usual phonology, grammar, and vocabulary one has to learn for a new language there is the social situation, among many things when is it appropriate to speak in one register or another. And every language/variety has its own particular social situation to deal with.

Irish Gaelic in Ireland has an interesting past. It was once a classic learned language during the Middle Ages, but declined in use during English colonization and was literally marginalized (to the western edges of the island) by the early 20th century.

There seems to be nowadays two versions of the prevalence of Irish Gaelic in Ireland. One is that the daily users of Irish are still only in this Gaeltacht area (on the western coast). There has been nominal teaching of the subject in school since independence, but few (10%) use it in the home, and even fewer (1%) use it regularly outside the home. Almost everyone speaks English natively in Ireland (even the Gaeltacht Irish speakers), but few speak Irish natively. The default is English.

The other impression is that school teaching over the last hundred years has revived the language, not to the extent of Hebrew in Israel, but to a useful language that many people use. Roads and signs over the country are bilingual, there are newspapers, radio, and television produced in Irish, and what's more telling is that the radio and TV interview national leaders and people on the street in Irish.

These aren't necessarily facts, just a compilation of what I think I've read.

As an outsider, it's hard to judge what's real. Are the TV people selecting the extremely small minority of Irish speakers to interview, are they all using dysfluent grade-school Irish, or are there lots and lots of fluent professionals and everyday people? Are the maps with Gaelic speakers only on the west coast out of date or labeled wrongly?

Is there a better source to justify any a judgement than the wikipedia article on the Irish language?

  • 4
    I've of course never been to Ireland and it would take someone from there to accurately judge, but the literature on language endangerment (well, the literature I've read, anyway - I haven't read that much) seems to support the first version. I've asked a prominent linguist working on language documentation and revitalisation about the Irish case, and he seemed to agree with the judgement that Irish wasn't revived very successfully. Do you remember any references that support the second? Cos I'd be curious to read those... – WavesWashSands Jan 26 '17 at 16:59
  • I'm not sure, but it is possible that you don't find linguists who can answer this question. Have you considered asking it at Politics.SE or even History.SE? – bytebuster Jan 26 '17 at 17:12
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    @WavesWashSands re "references that support the 2nd" - these are my own 'off-the-web' observances of radio and TV that are conducted entirely in Irish. I find it hard to imagine that a small country (~5M) could support such media (both presenters and the people they interview, both government and non-government) to speak fluent Irish without widespread adoption of the language. What I read seems to say #1 but what I see leads me to believe #2. Therefore the question. – Mitch Jan 26 '17 at 18:56
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    Key in the case of Hebrew, Romani, Armenian, Kurdish etc (all of which have nearly nil monolingual speakers) is that even when the speakers became more fluent in other languages they still had only this one language with which to use with each other. Irish lacks this advantage. – A. M. Bittlingmayer Jan 26 '17 at 20:05
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    I grew up on the east coast and was required to learn Gaelic in school, I was not particularly good at it and neither were my classmates. Many people had rudimentary skills in the language and I knew people who spoke it fluently, a few that considered it their first language. – Alternative Transport Jan 27 '17 at 13:13
up vote 1 down vote accepted

There's an easy answer which is to check out the wikipedia page on the status of the Irish language. But the following is what I found with and outside the wikipedia article.

Linguistic maps of Ireland show only the areas in the extreme west of the Gaeltaecht as having native Irish speakers. From Quora. Yes, I realize that the nominal definition of 'the Gaeltaecht' is 'where people speak Irish all day', but that is vague and is changing but I take it to mean 'the far (including the extreme) west of Ireland where you're more likely to hear Irish in the streets. I know, still vague.

Decline of native Irish speakers

The proportion who say they can speak Irish (as first or second language not specified). Note that the color range may be misleading; the second darkest shade of green is 40-70%. Self reporting has many social biases involved (desire to say yes out of pride, tendency to say no out of disparagement, etc)

from wikipedia: Proportion of respondents who said they could speak Irish in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland censuses of 2011.

There's a very similar map showing the percentage of those who do speak Irish (outside of the education system, presumably day to day). Unfortunately leaving out the counties of Northern Ireland.

from wikipedia: The percentage of respondents who said they spoke Irish daily outside the education system in the 2011 census in the Republic of Ireland.

With respect to consuming mass media, there is the national Irish language radio station RTE. I could not find its listenership numbers

The national Irish language TV is TG4:

In 2015 TG4 reported that overall it has an average share of 2% (650,000 daily viewers) of the national television market in the Republic of Ireland.

I could not find the viewership numbers for the other stations to compare.


My understanding of all this data (and commentary around it) is that native (family learned) Irish speaking is near or at least heading to extinction in the Gaeltaecht and rural areas, but that the language policies (secondary schooling) has been very successful in reviving and keeping fluency alive in the more educated bigger cities. In Ireland. Because of political issues and much less secondary education, Irish in Northern Ireland will be limited to an academic subject (similar to Provencal in southern France).

There is still the practical motivation of all this. How likely is it that someone from Mars who learns Irish from books and tapes will run into someone on the street in Ireland with whom they can converse fluently in Irish? Ballparking it, I'd say 100% in the extreme west, but dropping off to 20% until you get to a big city (Dublin, Limerick, Cork), where it'll go back up to 50%. My reasoning? TG4 seems to have no problem finding fluent Irish speakers at random to interview at car accidents.

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