I spoke to a number of people from Northern Ireland about how the Irish language is treated and viewed in the ‘six counties’.
The country of Ireland — despite, for the most part, speaking English as a first language — has its own language, called ‘Irish’ in English and, in Irish, “Gaeilge”. Irish is a Goidelic or Gaelic language, one of the two groups of insular Celtic languages that originated in Britain and Ireland.
Irish is the “first official language” of Ireland and the “national language” of the Republic of Ireland, according to Article 8 of the Irish Constitution. English is constitutionally recognised only as a “second official language”. Irish was granted the status of an official European language by the European Union in 2005, some 32 years after the country joined the EU.
In Northern Ireland, Irish is recognised as a ‘minority language’, protected by the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, which was ratified by the British Government in 2001. The language was first recognised in 1998 under the Good Friday Agreement, and a cross-border body (Foras Na Gaeilge) was set up to promote and protect the language across the country of Ireland as a whole.
In the video below, I spoke to a number of people hailing from Northern Ireland about the modern representation and treatment of the language in Northern Ireland.
English is primarily spoken as a first language in the Republic of Ireland, save for parts of the country known as “Gaeltacht” areas; mostly concentrated in Galway, Mayo, Kerry and Donegal, with smaller areas in Cork and Meath. According to the Irish Census 2015, the population of these Gaeltacht areas was 91,862, 2.1% of the total population of Ireland, with a 4.5% rise to 96,090 in the 2016 Irish Census.
In Northern Ireland, Irish-speaking areas include West Belfast’s Gaeltacht Quarter and southern County Londonderry. According to the 2011 UK census, 4,130 people (0.2% of the population) in Northern Ireland reported using Irish as their primary language at home, while 104,943 reported being able to speak the language. In 2013, there were 2,078 applications in Northern Ireland for GCSE Exams in Irish, and 309 entries for A-Level exams in Irish.
In the late 1960s, the first Gaeltacht area was established in Belfast, with the first Irish-language primary school, Bunscoil Phobal Feirste, opening in 1970. The second ‘Gaelscoil’ in the area, Gaelscoil na bhFál, was opened on the Falls Road in 1984, due to the demand for student spaces in the area exceeding one school.
Irish is learned in ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ school in the Republic of Ireland (ie. Junior, middle and high school) and is a compulsory subject in the State’s ‘Leaving Certificate’ examinations held at the end of secondary Level. Third-level courses and modules across the Republic and Northern Ireland exist as an option to continue the language, similar to French and German, and a majority of third-level colleges have active Irish-language societies, which students from all subject disciplines can get involved in as an extra-curricular activity.
Irish is the first of three modern Goidelic languages, giving rise to the other two languages, Scottish Gaelic and Manx. Irish has the oldest vernacular literature in Western Europe.
Previously, in 2013, I took to the streets of Dublin, (in the Republic of Ireland) to ask a random selection of passers-by if they spoke Irish. This video was viewed by over 1.5M people. Press ‘play’ below to see the results.