Why is the Irish language dying

Irish - Ireland's true language

Since I left Ireland I have had many conversations about my home country - Ireland. I'm not sure why, but Germans are curious and very interested in Ireland. One thing that surprises many people is that Irish is a real language and one of Ireland's official languages.

These conversations usually go like this: “Irish language? You mean the way you speak English? ’" "No, Irish or Gaelic is a completely different language than English. In fact, it's a much older language than English. ”“ Do you speak Irish? ”“ Yes, but not fluently. In my family, only my mother speaks fluent Irish. Nowadays only a minority on the island speaks fluent Irish. ”“ Why? ”“ It's a long, sad story ... ”

Ireland - a bilingual country in theory only

There are officially two official languages ​​in Ireland today: Irish / Gaelic and English. For example, there is an Irish TV station and a couple of radio stations. And when you get the Irish high school diploma, the three compulsory subjects are Irish, English and math. Street signs are bilingual, just like the Irish passport. Irish is also one of the 24 official EU languages.

In reality, however, Irish is a minority language in Ireland. Language is not dead, but it suffers. 6.6 million people live on the whole island. According to a recent survey, of those 500,000 can converse in Irish and another 150,000 speak Irish at a native speaker level. There are a few small villages - the so called “Gaeltacht” villages - where Irish is still the main language. But in general, English is the dominant language. Today most Irish, as we say in Ireland, have a “Cúpla focal as Gaeilge” - a few chunks of Gaelic - far from fluent, but good enough to confuse a foreigner.

Irish in everyday life

In 2009 I spent an Erasmus semester in Munich. One thing I've noticed is that Germans take great pride in their foreign language skills - unlike the French who only want to speak French! To protect ourselves from curious listeners, I talked to an Irish friend on the subway, mostly in Gaelic. It was always funny to look into questioning faces when we found ourselves speaking Irish. And what was even more important: We were able to exchange ideas about everything and everyone undisturbed. Others weren't so lucky, however.

During my time in Munich I was talking to an Irish woman (let's call her Maria) about the virtues of the Irish language when she told me the following story: When Maria and an Irish friend were sitting on the subway, they noticed a very good-looking one Man. During the next ten minutes the two exchanged frankly about the merits and possible qualities of the beautiful stranger. Safe fun - until the man got out. As he stepped out the door, he said in Irish "Go raibh maith agat!" - "Thank you very much" and smiled. “My face was redder than my hair!” Maria said to me later. And the moral of the story is: Irish are everywhere! And Irish is not always a useful secret language, even if there are now only a few people who speak the language fluently. But how was the Irish language lost?

Hidden references to the Irish language

Today Ireland appears like a typically English-speaking country - like America or Australia. But under the surface there are references to the former mother tongue everywhere: in the names of cities, people and also in the way we speak English (In Hiberno-English / Irish-English, there are expressions that are direct translations from the Irish Language and which only exist in Ireland).
I'm sure that almost every German at some point had problems pronouncing an Irish name like “Siobhán” or “Eoghan”! What many don't know is that none of the famous Irish city and place names make sense. Neither in English nor in Irish. Names like Dublin, Belfast, Galway, Kerry, etc. mean nothing. The reason: When Ireland was under British rule, the language was suppressed. Page one in the imperialist handbook: To control a people, destroy their culture.

Today almost all Irish place names are Anglicized versions of their original Irish names. For example, Duibhlinn became “Black Pond” to Dublin, Béal Feirste “Estuary of the Farset (a river)” to Belfast. The town I'm from is called Trim. Trim, as you might have guessed, means nothing. And in my opinion, it doesn't sound very nice either. In Irish, however, the city is called Baile Átha Troim - “City at the ford of the elderflower” (Troim has become Trim). During the summer it becomes clear the Irish name makes sense: elderberries are everywhere. When the English language began to dominate Ireland, a link with our cultural heritage and part of our self-image was shattered.

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The story of Irish

But when did the English language begin to dominate Ireland? If you look at the whole history of Ireland, that was actually not that long ago. To understand how this dominance came about, one has to take a closer look at the long, complex and often bitter relationship between Ireland and England / Great Britain.
England has sought influence over Ireland since the Anglo-Norman conquest of Ireland in the late 12th century. Henry II (King of England) declared himself ruler of Ireland and gave Irish land to Norman warlords in order to maintain their loyalty.

The Anglo-Normans settled in Ireland. In a short period of time, they adopted Irish customs and languages. As historians say today, the Anglo-Norman became more Irish than the Irish themselves. Many Irish surnames are originally Norman surnames. These include “Fitzgerald”, “Fitzsimons” (everything with “Fitz”), “D’Arcy” and “Burke”.

So the Anglo-Norman conquest had little effect on the Irish language, which had been ruling for centuries. Except for the English-controlled area called “Pale” (Dublin and its environs), most of Ireland was ruled by various Irish clans, making Irish the predominant language. This rule ended with the complete conquest of Ireland by the Tudors in 1603. The Gaelic Ireland was thus finally destroyed and the whole country was now under English rule.
Under English rule, various policies were put in place to control the land. Land was confiscated and given to loyal settlers from England, Scotland and Wales at the Crown. Many aspects of Irish culture, including the language, were suppressed, but Irish nonetheless remained the main language until the late 18th century.

The Irish language is banned

While there were many different factors that contributed to the decline of the Irish language, two main reasons can be identified. The first is the great famine which raged in Ireland between 1845-1852 and is undoubtedly the greatest tragedy in Ireland's history.

At least one million people died of starvation (the number is probably many times higher) and between one and two million people had to flee (all of them were Irish speakers). While Irish rural poor starved to death when the potato harvest failed, other foods were exported to the British Empire, often under armed guard. After the great famine, the spread of the Irish language decreased.

The second major reason for the decline of Irish was the introduction of the primary school system in Ireland. Here the Irish language was banned by the British government. One particularly cruel method used at the time to suppress Irish was the so-called "tally stick". This was a wooden stick that each student had to wear on a ribbon around their necks. When a student spoke in Irish, the stick was marked. At the end of the day, the student was hit with a stick. If you spoke in Irish ten times, you got ten blows. The Irish language was literally beaten out of the Irish.
Lost everything?

Irish: the decline of a language

The Irish language has been in decline since the late 18th century. Attempts to revive the language were made both before and after independence (1922). But while the language is not dead today, none of these attempts have been really successful.

It's sad for me, but at the same time I have to admit that I'm also part of the problem. When I was in school I didn't feel like learning Irish. I found it boring and meaningless. And since I finished school I've forgotten a lot of Irish because I don't use it. Ironically, as an adult, I now find it very important that language be kept alive.
Will that be the case? I hope so, but I am not sure. Unless new and creative ways are found to keep the Irish language relevant, it will continue to decline and ultimately die out.