Gaeilge was once the mother tongue of the majority, nowadays its very existence and importance are being questioned is a sad reflection of our painful history, but also brings into question the actions taken in recent years to prevent the further decay of our native language. In addition to this, one must take valid concern from census figures and the downward trend they present. However, in the age of social media and relentless work from organizations, such as Údarás na Gaeilge, Conradh na Gaeilge, TG4, and Cumainn Gaelacha in colleges around the country, perhaps the future of Gaeilge is still yet to be determined.
The decline of Gaeilge began during Ireland’s time spent under British rule from the 12th century, and our period spent as part of the United Kingdom following the Act of Union (1801). Laws and demands were enforced that prohibited the use of Irish in public domains and our education system, and inhumane punishment for those who spoke their mother tongue. However, the 2016 census figures indicate that this tragic decline is continuing in modern Ireland. On the surface, figures appear encouraging; especially when seeing the figure of 1,761,420 people reporting they can speak Irish, but as you break down the figures further the picture becomes more concerning. Of these who reportedly can speak Irish, an alarming 418,420 never speak the language with only 73,803 in the category of daily speakers. This represents a minute percentage of the population and this percentage is shrinking in each census.
One can also see the percentage decline of speakers within the Gaeltacht, with 66.3% of residents reporting they can speak Irish, but with only just over 20,000 using Irish daily within the Gaeltacht. The CSO reported that this figured in 2011 stood at 23,175, which represents an over 11% drop. This has been of major concern to governments past and present, but inaction to deal with the crisis we have in our Gaeltachts has exasperated the problem. The ever-rising number of those who do not speak Irish regularly in Gaeltacht areas has brought the Gaeltacht status of some regions into question due to such low proportions of the population speaking Irish daily outside of the education system. For example, Bearna agus Cnoc na Cathrach (Barna and Knocknacarra), a Limistéir Pleanála Teanga, only recorded 2.9% of its population using Irish daily outside of educational purposes; which when compared to Toraigh’s 74.6% is a major concern.
However, one must look beyond census figures to see the direction Gaeilge is going in. TG4, the only Irish-medium television station in the country has reported a 10% increase in viewing figures during the on-going pandemic. It has now also grown to become the 6th most-watched station in the state in 2019. It reported having more viewers than major British stations such as Channel 4 and BBC Two, an enormous success for the channel. In addition to this, its engagement on social media has skyrocketed in the previous 18 months, with the channel reporting 23 million views across their social media platforms in 2019. When one sees this, it is undoubtedly a beacon of hope for the language and its presence in main-stream media for many years to come. This work is also complemented by the likes of Conradh na Gaeilge and events such as Seachtain na Gaeilge, to help the promotion of the Irish language both at home and abroad.
Seachtain na Gaeilge is a major event for Cumainn Gaelacha in colleges and universities all over Ireland, with the endless promotion of Gaeilge-medium events and beginners’ classes from respective Student’s Union during this festival aiding the revival of Gaeilge in our higher education institutions. From my own experience, I feel as if the promotion of our native tongue ought to be encouraged and promoted more by student bodies outside of the designated two week period for Seachtain na Gaeilge. Some universities are doing great work in trying to increase the level of Irish within our education system, with many new undergraduate and post-graduate courses through the medium of Irish appearing every year. It must be stated that if the hunger and demand from the youth for more Irish-medium courses weren’t present, we would not be seeing the creation of such courses by our 3rd level institutions- an encouraging sign for the future of our language.
If I were asked if the Irish language was in danger of completely dying out, I would say that there is empirical data that shows a steady decline of cainteoirí Gaeilge in many designated Gaeltacht areas. However, on the other hand, I am optimistic and hopeful that our beautiful language will see a resurgence, driven by the youth, student bodies and, Irish-medium media of Ireland, and in time census figures will paint I am confident that census figures will paint a brighter picture. With this being said, Gaeilge finally needs respect and the funding from our new government and new senior Gaeilge minister- Catherine Martin- so to fully ensure its future and resurgence at all levels, something that previous governments have failed to guarantee.