Languages of Ireland: Wikis


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Languages of Ireland
Official language(s) Irish (42%)
English (94%)
(Hiberno-English, Mid Ulster English)
Minority language(s) Scots
Main immigrant language(s) Polish
Main foreign language(s) French (20%)
Sign language(s) Irish Sign Language
Northern Ireland Sign Language
Common keyboard layout(s)
KB Windows Ireland.svg
Source ebs_243_en.pdf (

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 settlement. Since the later nineteenth century, English has been the predominant first language: a large minority claim some ability to use Irish, although it is the first language only of a small percentage of the population. Under Bunreacht na hÉireann, the Irish constitution, both languages have official status, with Irish being the national and first official language.




Prehistorical 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 the arrival of the Celts or Gaels are now irretrievable, although there are some claims of pre-Celtic traces in Irish toponymy.[1]

Modern languages


The ancestor of Primitive Irish was introduced by the Celts. 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 recognized as the first official language of the Republic of Ireland and is officially recognized in Northern Ireland and in the European Union. 60,000 people speak Irish on a daily basis in the Gaeltacht. 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 over 600 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 three newspapers, Lá Nua a Belfast daily, Foinse a weekly, 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 and Evening Echo. All of the 40 or so radio stations in the Republic have weekly Irish language programming. Similarly, RTÉ run 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. All Dáil debates are to be recorded in Irish also. In 2007, Irish became the 21st official language of the European Union.


English was first introduced by the settlers in the 12th century. It did not initially take hold as a widely-spoken language as the settlers assimilated into the Irish culture and became 'more Irish than the Irish themselves'. In later plantations, such as the Ulster Plantation of the 17th century, settlers were forbidden to mingle with the natives. Through English rule, the language became that of power and that of the landed classes and since Irish speakers were generally poor and lived on the worst land, Irish was seen as a backward language, suited to agriculture but not useful for those who wanted to engage in a modern career. Consequently most Irish people have spoken English as a native language since 1850 and English medium education was promoted by the British Authorities and the Roman Catholic Church.

The two main dialects of English in Ireland are Hiberno-English (mainly found in the provinces of Connacht, Leinster and Munster) and Mid Ulster English (mainly found in Ulster).

Ulster Scots

Ulster Scots 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 recognized language as opposed to a dialect of Scots is still debated.


Shelta is a cant, based upon both Irish and English, generally spoken by the Irish traveler 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 French Sign Language than to 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 was spoken by a majority of the population, but are of historical interest, giving loan words to Irish and Hiberno-English.


Latin was the first written language in Ireland, 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. The language continued to be used for certain legal purposes long after it had died out among the populace.


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


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

Language education

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."[2]. 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.[3] 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).[4]

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.


  1. ^ D. Ó Corrain, 'A future for Irish placenames', in: A. Ó Maolfabhail, The placenames of Ireland in the third millennium, Ordnance Survey for the Placenames Commission, Dublin (1992), p. 44.
  2. ^ Language in the Post-Primary Curriculum, a Discussion Document/TEANGACHA SA CHURACLAM IAR-BHUNOIDEACHAIS plécháipéis [1]
  3. ^ Irish language opt-outs soar
  4. ^ Results of Exams in 2007 Using mathematics as comparison, as its examination is near-universal at some level and had the largest number of candidates in 2007.


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