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FactFind: Less than 2% speak Irish daily. How does that compare with other EU minority languages?

Ireland is not the only country in Europe where the indigenous language has hit a ceiling.

AT THE LAST census, almost 1.8 million people reported being able to speak Irish – that’s 40% of the population.

But when asked how often they actually use Irish, 980,000 of those people said never or only in school. That leaves 600,000 who use it less than weekly, 100,000 who use it weekly, and 74,000 who speak Irish daily (less than 2% of the population).

In only five towns in Ireland was the percentage of daily Irish speakers above 50%: Mín Lárach, Rann na Feirste, Bun na Leaca and Bun Beag-Doirí Beaga in Donegal, and An Cheathrú Rua in Galway.

A survey commissioned by Conradh na Gaeilge shows just over 28% of people aged 16+ “have confidence in my spoken Irish ability”. 

How does that compare with minority languages elsewhere in Europe? Ireland is one of 79 minority languages used across the EU, according to the most recent European charter for regional or minority languages 

One point of comparison is the Swedish language in Finland. As with Irish in Ireland, it has joint billing in the constitution alongside the country’s dominant language, and is compulsory in school. Finnish citizens also have the right to speak Swedish in court and in other interactions with the state. 

As a result, around 45% of the Finnish population of 5.5 million say they speak decent Swedish, even though it’s only the mother tongue of 5%. Put another way, three-quarters of Finns have at least some Swedish, while the remaining quarter reported speaking none at all.

Matti Räsänen, a senior expert at the Institute for the Languages of Finland, estimates that around one million Finns speak good, excellent or fluent Swedish. That’s in a country only a little bigger than Ireland – in which most people also speak a third language (guess which).

In other ways, though, the comparison is unfair. Finland was part of the Swedish empire for centuries, making Swedish the “prestige language” of the elite and many ordinary settlers along the southern coast. Plus there’s the fact that Swedish speakers aren’t culturally isolated – they can always watch TV from Sweden itself, which Irish speakers tired of TG4 can’t.

“If you’re Swedish living in Finland, yes you’re part of a minority, but you’re part of a minority of a strong and powerful country next door – which used to rule Finland anyway”, says retired Trinity linguistics professor Jeffrey L Kallen. “There isn’t that same feeling of needing to give up Swedish in favour of Finnish because there’s a literary tradition, a political tradition and a powerful neighbour”.

Elsewhere in the EU, Malta and Luxembourg have a similar vibe to Ireland in having a small pool of people speaking the indigenous language. This “puts their state language in a situation similar to that of a minority language”, as the European Parliament’s research service puts it. 

Luxembourgish is the Grand Duchy’s national language by law, but only the fourth most spoken. 98% of the population speak French, followed by English and German. 


But while French and English dominate workplaces, Luxembourgish remains the language most spoken at home. Language activists would take your arm off for Irish to be the preferred kitchen table language of 53% of the population.

Malta is a former British colony where the proportion of the population who speak at least some English or better rose from 88% in 2005 to 92% in 2011, according to its census returns. But the native Maltese is under no obvious threat, with 94% of the population fluent in the Arabic-derived language. 

The historical difference in countries like that, Kallen says, is that they successfully moved from using a high-status language outside the home while retaining their native one for everyday spoken use.

“When literacy became widespread, people learned other languages for reading and writing without giving up the spoken language of Luxembourgish or Maltese or whatever”, Kallen says. Ireland never pulled that off – in part because the influence of English started so far back.

“People think it was the Famine and the national school system [in the 19th century] that were so bad for Irish”, Kallen says. “The shift didn’t start there” – it began as long ago as the 1500s, when the Irish parliament made Henry VIII King of Ireland, with proceedings mostly in English. “The word was already out at the top that English was going to be the language of prestige and power, right back to the 16th century”.

Mass emigration and English-medium education then turbo-charged existing trends. “There was no mass exodus of native speakers from Malta or Luxembourg” comparable to the Famine, he points out. 

Comparison with Welsh 

Much closer to home is Wales. In the last census there, only 20% of the population reported being able to speak Welsh, compared to 40% for Irish in Ireland. But around 10% of adults aged 25+ say they use it every day, compared to less than 2% of Irish people who go as Gaeilge outside the education system. 

That figure is probably inflated: it comes from a face-to-face survey which consistently rates Welsh language ability above what census results show. (“The presence of an interviewer”, says the Welsh government’s chief statistician, “may lead a respondent to provide a more socially desirable response”.) But it still suggests that Welsh has a stronger place in daily life than Irish.

Julian de Spáinn of Conradh na Gaeilge says there’s plenty to learn from Welsh language policy, including its target of having 40% of pupils taught through Welsh. Here in Ireland, the number of pupils taught through Irish is about 6%, and “there’s no plan there to increase that significantly”.

Current government policy emphasises Irish-language streams in English-medium schools rather than full-on Gaelscoils, de Spáinn says, which is “going the wrong way about it. That’s not what they’re doing in Wales. If you’re going to have Irish-medium teaching, they should be fully immersed in the language”.

The future of Welsh may be different from Irish, but so are the two nations’ histories. While both experienced English-language rule, they went different ways religiously. Catholicism, Kallen says, wasn’t as friendly to Irish as Protestant preachers who were happy to translate the Bible into Welsh.

“There were incentives for Welsh speakers, depending on the religion, to learn to read because there were prayer books in Welsh. There was an association between the two, which never existed for Irish”.

The veteran linguist says that while other countries faced some of the same historic pressures on their native language that Ireland did – low status, emigration, religion, education - none experienced them all together, as a perfect socio-linguistic storm.

“People are fond of saying ‘Irish hasn’t done very well, look how few people speak it’. I don’t think that’s true. Considering all those factors, I think Irish has done very well.

“150 or 160 years ago, people would quite reasonably have predicted the death of the Irish language within a generation or two. There were all kinds of factors against it”.

What happens next

The results of next month’s census will see whether the language can, as it were, defy its critics. De Spáinn says it may be too soon for some recent policies – such as having 20% of civil service recruits required to be competent in Irish – to show up in the figures this year.

"While there’s been a lot going on in the last few years in terms of language planning, it’s going to take a few years to see the results of that," he tells The Journal. There are also some missing pieces of the puzzle, such as providing state services through Irish and – critically - building more homes in the Gaeltacht.

“If people from the Gaeltacht can’t live in the Gaeltacht, can’t build on their own land in the Gaeltacht, what future does the Gaeltacht have?”

“The prices of the houses that are available are way out of reach of a lot of young people who would like to settle down in the Gaeltacht. We have to have the housing and we have to have state services through Irish”.

Whatever the census results show, de Spáinn thinks there’s “no way” the government’s target of having 250,000 daily speakers by 2030 will be met.

Kallen, with his long historical view, is more sanguine. Many of the 60% of people who said “no” to the blunt census question “can you speak Irish?” actually do, he reckons – up to a point.

"They don’t ask questions like, ‘do you know a little bit of Irish?’, ‘do you know some stock phrases?’, ‘could you understand some questions in Irish?’. All of that counts for something, because it does make Irish people distinctive."

The 2022 census may well show a further widening of the gap between the number of people who say they can speak Irish and the number who actually do. Unless the Gaeltacht’s fortunes start to turn soon, the cúpla focail could be the future of the language.

 This work is co-funded by Journal Media and a grant programme from the European Parliament. Any opinions or conclusions expressed in this work are the author’s own. The European Parliament has no involvement in nor responsibility for the editorial content published by the project. For more information, see here.

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