Jennifer Osei-Mensah discusses the past, present and future of Irish Gaelic.
Before going to Dublin this summer, I had never been to Ireland before. The Republic’s capital had been described to me as ‘just like London, but cooler’, which was promising to say the least. True, the Guinness did taste better and everything was certainly greener, but what struck me the most was how bilingual the city was: the Irish language, also referred to as Irish Gaelic or Gaeilge, is very much alive and well. Street names and ‘mind the gap’ announcements appear in Irish Gaelic as well as English on public transport, although you don’t tend to hear it spoken aloud in the city. This isn’t the case all over Ireland. The term ‘Gaeltacht’ refers to communities in Ireland in which Irish Gaelic is the main spoken language, most of which are rural areas on the west side of the country.
Trying to understand the Irish people’s relationship with their historic language is tricky, especially as I was born in the country that is pretty much responsible for its original decline. The Normans first invaded Ireland in the 12th century, but at least had the courtesy to learn Irish, leaving only a few romance-rooted words in their wake. The English weren’t quite as gracious. Henry VIII was the first to declare himself King of Ireland and for long, complicated centuries, the English language took its place as the political and administrative language of Ireland. Nowadays, the Republic of Ireland states that both Irish and English are national languages, despite only around 10% of the population actually speaking Irish.
So what does this mean in international terms? Preservation efforts of Irish Gaelic are flourishing within Ireland itself, but it is unsurprisingly not widely spoken abroad. At the moment, Irish is an official language of the European Union, but it is the only language out of the 24 that doesn’t require translations, except in very specific cases. This is set to change. In 2022, provided that enough translators and interpreters can be found, Irish is set to become a fully working EU language, meaning Irish speakers will be able to converse directly with EU bodies in their native tongue. This change in the status of Irish Gaelic would empower both the language itself and its speakers, by allowing it to take its place as an internationally recognised, politically engaged language. Its native speakers would be encouraged to use it in a wider range of applications, and, more crucially, foreigners would be motivated to learn it.
Irish Gaelic is a very poetic language, rich in imagery and with an extensive catalogue of literature and culture which could be made accessible to the wider world. Moreover, Ireland is currently in the European spotlight, so the next few years seem the perfect opportunity for Irish Gaelic to take centre stage. We are collectively unsure how Brexit will divide the island and just how this potential British-EU border will function. However, one good thing that may come out of all this uncertainty is the continued prominence of the Irish language.