Why Do Many Irish People
Prefer To Use English?

Despite centuries of attempts to suppress it, Irish was the majority language in Ireland right up through the 19th century. How could a language that was spoken by most of the people all but disappear, to the point where many people outside of Ireland don’t even realize that there is such a thing as an Irish language?

Not a legal matter

It would be easy to point to laws restricting the use of Irish, such as the infamous Statutes of Kilkenny, as culprits in the disappearance of Irish. “Easy,” but not really valid.

These laws were aimed primarily at the Norman population, which the English government thought was becoming “too Irish” (and were, for the most part, unenforceable in any case). They had no effect on the Gaelic majority.

Educational issues

One institution that is credited with doing a great deal of harm, if not to the language as a whole, at least to individual Irish speakers, was the national school system.

Established in 1830, the national schools offered the only chance for most Irish children to receive an education. Unfortunately, they were also rabidly “anti-Irish.”

Children were not only forbidden from speaking Irish at school (and brutally beaten or humiliated — or both — for doing so), the teachers often enlisted the aid of the parents in suppressing a child’s use of Irish at home.

A child who persisted in speaking Irish at school might be sent home with a tally board around his neck, with instructions for the parents to make a mark on the board whenever the child said something in Irish. Each mark meant an additional blow from the schoolmaster the following day.

If it seems odd that parents would cooperate with such a system, bear in mind that the national schools were the only route to an education.

The prime culprit: An Gorta Mór

Sadly, what law really couldn’t touch, hunger came very close to destroying. For seven years, from 1845 to 1852, the potato crop, on which 1/3 of the Irish population depended entirely for sustenance, failed utterly.

Among those who were left, many, forced off the land by eviction, relocated to the cities, where English was essential.

For the first time in its history, Irish was a minority language in its own country.

Flash forward to the 21st century

Despite the best efforts of promoters of the language, Irish has never really recovered from the Famine. In the latest Republic of Ireland census, only 77,185 people indicated that they speak Irish daily outside of the school system. You can dig deeper at Ireland’s Central Statistics Office in their census figures.

The Gaeltacht (a collective term for traditional Irish-speaking areas) has come under a lot of pressure in the 21st century, as old people die, young people emigrate (if not to other countries, at least to the cities, where the job prospects are better), and new people, most of whom who don’t speak Irish, move in.

There’s a very conflicted attitude toward the language throughout Ireland. Although it does have many enthusiastic supporters, a fair number of Irish people are, at best, ambivalent about the language, and, at worst, want nothing to do with it.

The reasons for this are varied. Older people often cite unpleasant experiences with studying the language in school (a situation that seems to have improved). On the positive side, however, evening Irish classes are often full of adults who regret not having put as much effort as they might have into learning Irish while at school.

Younger people may say that they don’t see the need for it. English is the language of technology and commerce, and Irish isn’t useful to them for travel, so why bother?

On the positive side

On the other hand, there is a real movement, especially in the cities, of parents (not themselves native Irish speakers) raising their children through Irish. This, combined with the growing demand for Gaelscoileanna (Irish-medium public schools) may well be one of the best things that could happen for the language.

There have also been positive developments regarding the Irish language in Northern Ireland, with a growing number of people on both sides of the political table learning, and taking pleasure in, the language.

Growth outside of Ireland

Perhaps the greatest growth in interest in the language, however, has been outside of Ireland. The internet has made it possible for people from all over the world, many of them descendants of Irish speakers driven from home by the Famine, to learn and promote the language.

In fact, 2007 saw the official opening of the very first designated Gaeltacht outside of Ireland in Ontario, Canada. Situated about 250 kilometers northeast of Toronto Gaeltacht Thuisceart an Oileáin Úir serves as a center for Irish language and culture and will eventually have housing for 100 Irish-speaking people.