Irish Language Background

Irish is a Goidelic language of the Indo-European language family.  It originated in Ireland and there are some scholars who believe that the history of Irish extends back to between 2600 and 2000 BC, while other more conservative scholars set the date at around 1200 BC.  It is really impossible to establish a date with any certainty. The native languages of both Scotland and the Isle of Man descend from it.

Scholars have agreed based on findings of fragmentary inscriptions carved in stone that what is known as Primitive Irish dates to around the 3rd or 4th Cenury AD.  The evidence exists in the form of inscriptions in a primitive alphabet known as Ogham. Examples of Old Irish are found in the notes in the margins of Latin Manuscripts made by monks as early as the 6th century. Middle Irish dates to the 10th century and Early Modern or Classical Irish developed in the 13th century.  These dates are flexible and meant as a broad outline as living language is constantly changing. As an Example Modern Irish dates to the 17th – 18th Century but the language as spoken then while intelligible differs from what is now spoken.

Statistics regarding the number of speakers are controversial. The following is found in the This is Ireland report on the 2011 census, produced by the Central Statistics Office of Ireland on 29 March 2012 (p. 12),

  • 1.77 million who indicated they could speak Irish,
  • 77,185 said they speak it daily outside the education system. A further
  • 110,642 said they spoke it weekly
  • 613,236 said they spoke it less often.
  • One in four indicated that they never spoke Irish.

The good news is that number of people who speak Irish daily outside the education system has increased since 2006 from 72,148 to 77,185; and the number who speak weekly increased by 7,781 persons. The largest increase (27,139) occurred among those who speak Irish less often.