The invincible Irish
The Republic of Ireland occupies the southern part of the Island (in French only) of Ireland, to the west of the Island of Great Britain. Under English reign for many years, the southern part of the island became independent in 1922.
Irish is the first official language of the Republic of Ireland, a country that is about the size of our New Brunswick. This language is an important national and cultural symbol, but history's ups and downs weakened it, so much so that the country now has to fight to ensure its survival.
A heritage language
The birth of the Irish language dates back over 2000 years, which makes it Europe’s oldest written language still in use.
Since the 5th century, the Irish language established itself in the area as the dominant language before experiencing strong growth from the 6th to the 8th century, thanks in particular to monasteries that became centres for cultural and artistic development. In the centuries that followed, many waves of invasion introduced Ireland to linguistic diversity, bilingualism among the population, without threatening the status of Irish as the dominant language.
The darkest hour
The English colonization in the 16th and 17th centuries completely changed this situation. Gaelic social and cultural institutions were destroyed and English became the language used by the administration and establishment. For a while, however, Irish was still the language used by the majority of the population, at least in the rural regions. At the end of the 18th century, close to half of the population was still speaking Irish only.
Within one century, the situation radically changed. The prohibition of teaching Irish in elementary schools, the deteriorating economic situation and the loss of prestige associated with the language contributed to a significant decline in the use of Irish. Then, the Great Famine and in particular the resulting emigration decimated the rural population, so that by the end of the 19th century, the unilingual Irish-speaking population made up only 1% of the population. Only 15% of the population still spoke Irish. The situation was critical, Anglicization became almost inescapable.
Preserving the language
At the beginning of the 20th century, while a strong sense of nationalism was developing, there was also a renewed awareness about the importance of preserving Irish.
When the Irish Free State was established in 1922, Irish became the national language. In 1937, Ireland’s Constitution proclaimed Irish as "the first official language" and English, as the "second official language". These measures include a State strategy to preserve the small islands where Irish remained the language spoken by the community (the Gaeltacht areas), promote bilingualism among the unilingual English-speaking population and put in place what was needed for Irish to survive in the public arena.
Many Irish-speakers, but few opportunities to speak the language
Today, around 1.66 million people in the country, which is 41% of the population, speak Irish. In the Gaeltacht areas, this proportion rises to 71%. However, according to the most recent census, the linguistic capabilities of the population deteriorate once they are no longer at school, which means that the number of bilingual people decreases with age. Among the 1.66 million Irish-speakers, only 75,000 people (4%) speak Irish every day outside of school. In short, outside of educational institutions, Irish is hardly used in everyday life.
The Official Languages Act
In addition to implementing the official status of the language in the Constitution, the purpose of the Official Languages Act (the Act) that Ireland introduced in 2003 is to make a place for Irish in the public arena.
It's everyone’s business!
'No amount of legislation can save a threatened language;. quite clearly the Official Languages Act of its own cannot save the Irish language;. the Irish Government of its own cannot save the Irish language;. the only group that can save the Irish language is the Irish people themselves. However, the State and state organisations, including local authorities have a central role in the provision of the facilities which can allow the language to survive and flourish.'
Seán Ó Cuirreáin, An Coimisinéir Teanga
Taken from the Commissioner of Official Languages of Ireland's Web site
Ireland set out in its Official Languages Act the creation of the Commissioner of Official Languages position. As in Canada, the Commissioner’s duties are to monitor compliance by public bodies with the provisions of the Official Languages Act, conduct investigations and advise citizens on their language rights.
Under current legislation, Irish and English are the official languages of Parliament, the courts and the public administration. Therefore, everyone has the right to use Irish or English in the two houses of Parliament and in the courts. Laws are not written at the same time in both languages like in Canada, but they have to be published simultaneously in both Irish and English shortly after they are passed.
The public sector’s obligations
The Act applies to all federal agencies, and to those that receive federal funding. Therefore, not only are the departments, bodies (organizations) and crown corporations subject to the Act, but so are the local authorities (the municipal governments), the universities and other post-secondary institutions. To date there are 650 bodies covered by the Act, and others could be added to the list.
These public bodies must respond to correspondence in Irish when they are addressed in that language, ensure that important documents (for example, annual reports) are published simultaneously in both Irish and English, and ensure that the stationery, signage and pre-recorded oral announcements are in Irish, or in both Irish and English.
With regard to service delivery, public bodies must prepare a language scheme with the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs detailing how they intend to provide services in Irish as well as the timeframe for establishing these services. Since these schemes vary from one body to another, it is sometimes difficult for citizens to know which services they are entitled to receive in Irish.
Language of work
It is no longer required to know how to speak Irish in order to work for the public service, but this skill is taken into consideration during the selection process. Public bodies must ensure that they have the personnel required to deliver services in Irish. In offices located in the Gaeltacht areas, gradual measures need to be taken for Irish to become the language of work.
Beyond the Act
The passage of the Official Languages Act is only one part of a larger government strategy to revitalize Irish and promote its usage in all cultural and social spheres. In addition to a Commissioner of Official Languages, Ireland also has a body responsible for promoting the language, Foras na Gaeilge .
Education is the cornerstone of this revitalisation strategy, since passing on the Irish language to children is key to its survival. Across the country, learning Irish is a mandatory subject from elementary and secondary level schools. There are also schools where all of the instruction is done in Irish. Outside of the Gaeltacht areas, there are currently 166 of these elementary schools and 42 secondary schools. This network has greatly developed in recent years, thanks to parents wanting their children to learn Irish.
After conducting comprehensive public consultations, the government will soon release a global strategy, which will extend through 2028, to promote the development of the Irish language.
In Canada, there has been an Irish population since the 17th century. In fact, close to 14% of the Canadian population is of Irish descent. The following exhibitions show the extent of the Irish immigrants’ contribution to our Canadian heritage.
The Irish language finally has a place in the EU!
On January 1, 2007, Irish became one of the European Union's working languages as well as one of its 23 official languages. It is a historic moment for Ireland, which has been a member of the EU since 1973.
Would you like to hear people speaking Irish? Travel to Dublin through the airwaves, thanks to Raidió na Life, which broadcasts its programming on-line.