Languages of the Republic of Ireland

There are a number of languages used in Ireland. Irish is the main language to have originated from within the island, while others have been introduced through foreign settlements. Since the late nineteenth century, English has been the predominant first language. A large minority claims some ability to use Irish, but it is the first language for a small percentage of the population. Within the Republic of Ireland, under the Constitution of Ireland, both languages have official status, with Irish being the national and first official language.


Prehistoric languages

Life in Ireland

The earliest linguistic records in Ireland are of Primitive Irish, from about the 5th century AD. Languages spoken in Iron Age Ireland before then are now irretrievable, although there are some claims of traces in Irish toponymy.[1]

Modern languages


The original Primitive Irish was introduced by celtic-speakers. Primitive Irish gradually evolved into Old Irish, spoken between the 5th and the 10th centuries, and then into Middle Irish. Middle Irish was spoken in Ireland, Scotland, and the Isle of Man through the 12th century, when it began to evolve into modern Irish in Ireland, Scottish Gaelic in Scotland, and the Manx language in the Isle of Man. Today, Irish is recognised as the first official language of the Republic of Ireland and is officially recognised in Northern Ireland and in the European Union. Communities that speak Irish as their first language, generally in sporadic regions on the island's west coast, are collectively called the Gaeltacht. According to more detailed census data, in 2011, there has been an increase of 5,000 in the number of daily Irish speakers since the previous census. There are 77,185 daily speakers, a third of which are located in the Gaeltacht and the remaining 55,554 are located in the rest of the country as well as another estimated 109,663 weekly speakers.

In the over 80 years since the independence of the South, efforts to revive Irish as an Active daily vernacular of most of the nation have relied on compulsion and have generally failed thus far however in trying to achieve this, more and more people are becoming passive speakers of Irish (who watch Irish-language TV, listen to Irish-language radio, read Irish-language newspapers and magazines) with an estimated 10% (400,000+) of the population of the Republic who would be classified as fluent, near fluent or reasonably good passive speakers.

Although the use of Irish in educational and broadcasting contexts has soared with the 600 plus Irish-language primary/secondary schools and creches, English is still overwhelmingly dominant in almost all social, economic and cultural contexts. In the media, there is an Irish-language TV station TG4, Cúla 4 a children's channel on satellite, 5 radio stations such as the national station RTÉ Raidió na Gaeltachta, Raidió na Life in Dublin, Raidió Fáilte in Belfast as well as youth radio stations Raidió Rí-Rá and Anocht FM and four newspapers, Lá Nua a Belfast daily, Foinse a weekly, Gaelscéal a weekly, and Saol a monthly. There are also occasional columns written in Irish in English-language newspapers, including The Irish Times, The Irish News, The Irish Examiner, Metro Eireann, Irish Echo, Evening Echo and Andersonstown News. All of the 40 or so radio stations in the Republic have to have some weekly Irish-language programming to obtain their broadcasting license.[2] Similarly, RTÉ runs Nuacht, a news show, in Irish and Léargas, a documentary show, in Irish with English subtitles. The Official Languages Act 2003 gave many new rights to Irish citizens with respect to the Irish language, including the use of Irish in court proceedings.[3] All Dáil debates are to be recorded in Irish also. In 2007, Irish became the 21st official language of the European Union.


Main articles: English language, Hiberno-English and Mid Ulster English

Middle English was first introduced by the Cambro-Norman settlers in the 12th century. It did not initially take hold as a widely-spoken language, as the Norman élite spoke Anglo-Norman. In time, many Norman settlers intermarried and assimilated to the Irish cultures and some even became "more Irish than the Irish themselves". Following the Tudor conquest of Ireland and the 1610–15 Ulster Plantation, particularly in the old Pale, Elizabethan English became the language of court, justice, administration, business, trade and of the landed gentry. Unilingual Irish speakers were generally of the poorer and less educated classes with no land. Irish was accepted as a vernacular language, but then as now, fluency in English was an essential element for those who wanted social mobility and personal advancement. After the legislative Union of Great Britain and Ireland's succession of Irish Education Acts that sponsored the Irish national schools and provided free public primary education, Hiberno-English replaced the Irish language, as it did in Wales and Scotland. Since the 1850s, English medium education was promoted by both the UK administration and the Roman Catholic Church. This greatly assisted the waves of immigrants forced to seek new lives in the US and throughout the Empire after the Famine. Since then the various local Hiberno-English dialects comprise the vernacular language throughout the island.

The two main dialects of English spoken natively in Ireland are Hiberno-English (mainly found in the provinces of Connacht, Leinster and Munster) and Mid Ulster English or Ullans (mainly found in Ulster). The 2002 census found that 103,000 British citizens were living in the Republic of Ireland, along with 11,300 from the US and 8,900 from Nigeria, all of whom would speak other dialects of English.[4] The 2006 census listed 165,000 people from Britain and 22,000 from the US.[5]

Ulster Scots

Main article: Ulster Scots dialects

Ulster Scots sometimes called Ullans is a dialect of Scots spoken in some parts of County Donegal and Northern Ireland. It is promoted by the Ulster Scots Agency, a cross-border body. Its status as a recognised language as opposed to a dialect of Scots is still under debate.


Main article: Shelta

Shelta is a cant, based upon both Irish and English, generally spoken by the Irish traveller community.

Sign languages

Irish Sign Language is the sign language of most of Ireland. It has little relation to either spoken Irish or English, and is more closely related to the French Sign Language than to the British Sign Language.

Northern Ireland Sign Language is used in Northern Ireland, and is related to both ISL and BSL in various ways. ISL is also used in Northern Ireland.

Immigrant languages

With increased immigration into Ireland, there has been a substantial increase in the number of people speaking languages (the top ten listed) such as Greek, Polish, Lithuanian, Latvian, Spanish, Cantonese, Japanese, Mandarin, Hindi and Arabic.

Extinct languages

None of these languages were spoken by a majority of the population, but are of historical interest, giving loan words to Irish and Hiberno-English.


Latin was introduced by the early Christians by c.500. It remained a church language, but also was the official language after the Norman conquest in 1171. It was used by the Roman Catholic church for services until the Vatican II reforms in 1962–65.

Norman language

Norman settlers introduced the Norman or Anglo-Norman language during the Norman invasion of Ireland of 1169. From it derived "Law French", that continues to be used today for certain legal purposes in both jurisdictions on the island.


Main article: Yola language

Yola was a dialect of Middle English, surviving in County Wexford up to the 19th century.


Main article: Fingalian

Fingalian was similar to Yola but spoken in Fingal up until the mid-19th century.

Language education

Republic of Ireland

In primary schools, most pupils are taught to speak, read and write in Irish and English. The vast majority of schools teach through English, although a growing number of gaelscoileanna teach through Irish and English. Most students at second level choose to study English as an L1 language and Irish and other Continental European languages as L2 languages. Irish is not offered as an L1 language by the Department of Education. Prof. David Little (November 2003) said that there was an urgent need to introduce an L1 Irish Gaelic Curriculum. He quoted from a report by An Bord Curaclaim agus Scrúduithe (The Curriculum and Examinations Board) Report of the Board of Studies for Languages, Dublin 1987: "It must be stressed … that the needs of Irish as L1 at post-primary level have been totally ignored, as at present there is no recognition in terms of curriculum and syllabus of any linguistic differences between learners of Irish as L1 and L2.".[6] The Continental European languages available for the Junior Certificate and the Leaving Certificate include French, German, Italian and Spanish; Leaving Certificate students can also study Arabic, Japanese and Russian. Some schools also offer Ancient Greek, Hebrew Studies and Latin at second level.

Students who did not immigrate to Ireland before the age of ten may receive an exemption from learning Irish. Pupils with learning difficulties can also seek exemption. A recent study has revealed that over half of those pupils who got exemption from studying Irish went on to study a Continental European language.[7] The following is a list of foreign languages taken at Leaving Certificate level in 2007, followed by the number as a percentage of all students taking Mathematics for comparison (mathematics is a mandatory subject).[8]

Language Higher Level Ordinary Level Total candidates  % of Maths
L1 English 31,078 17,277 48,355 98.79%
L2 Irish 13,831 25,662 44,018 89.94%
L2 French 13,770 14,035 27,805 56.695%
L2 German 4,554 2,985 7,539 15.372%
L2 Spanish 1,533 1,127 2,660 5.424%
L2 Italian 140 84 224 0.457%
Latin 111 111 0.226%
L2 Japanese 90 90 0.184%
L2 Arabic 117 13 130 0.265%
L2 Russian 181 181 0.369%
L2 Latvian 32 32 0.065%
L2 Lithuanian 61 61 0.125%
L2 Dutch 16 16 0.033%
L2 Portuguese 27 27 0.055%
L2 Polish 53 53 0.108%
L2 Romanian 25 25 0.051%

Total Mathematics students in 2007 was 49,043.

Northern Ireland

The predominant language in the education system in Northern Ireland is English with the Irish Medium schools teaching exclusively in the Irish language. The ULTACH Trust coordinates the promotion of Irish in English Medium Schools, in the GCSE and A Level qualification it is the 3rd most picked Modern Language in the North of Ireland and in the top ten in the UK. Intakes in GCSE Irish and A Level Irish are increasing, the usage of the language is also increasing.

See also


9 Census 2011-Irish language frequency (p6)

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