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Irish in Ireland

Language designations:

  • In the language itself: Gaeilge
  • ISO 639-3 standard: gle

Language vitality according to:

Linguistic apects:

  • Classification: Indo-European → Celtic. For more information, see iris1253 at Glottolog
  • Script: Latin

Language standardization:

Irish has a standardized orthography: by the 6th century the Gaelic alphabet containing 17 letters was developed from Latin. This remained in use until the 1960s when the Latin script was introduced into the school system. A new spelling norm has been set down from 1945 and a new grammar norm in the 1950s.


Language Area

Irish, or Gaeilge, is an autochthonous language spoken in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. The majority of primary Irish speakers using the language on a daily basis are located in the regions known as Gaeltacht areas (to which the language receded during the languages shift that occurred).

Map shows percentage of the Irish, stating they speak Irish daily outside the education system. Based on the 2011 census.

The Gaeltacht areas are known as:

  • Donegal Gaeltacht/ Gaeltacht Dhún na nGall/ Gaeltacht Thír Chonaill
  • Mayo Gaeltacht/ Gaeltacht Mhaigh Eo
  • Galway Gaeltacht/ Gaelteacht na Gaillimhe
  • Kerry Gaeltacht/ Gaeltacht Chiarraí
  • Cork Gaeltacht/ Gaeltacht Chorcaí
  • Meath Gaelacht/ Gaeltacht na Mí
  • Waterford Gaeltacht/ Gaeltacht Phort Láirge

Map made by SkateTier (Own work), GFDL or CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Speaker numbers

The 2016 Census across the State overall, some 1,761,420 persons, 39.8% of the total population, speak Irish, respondents indicated that:

  • 73,803 speak Irish daily;
  • 111,473 speak Irish weekly;
  • 586,535 speak Irish less often than weekly;
  • 558,608 only speaks Irish within the education system;
  • 418,420 never speaks Irish 1)

This includes

  • 9,445 speaking Irish on a daily basis in the Galway county Gaeltacht areas;
  • 5,929 speaking Irish on a daily basis in the Donegal Gaeltacht areas 2).

Language and education legislation

History of language education:

Inscriptions in Ogham from the 4th and 5th centuries are the earliest known forms of the Irish language, pre-dating Old Irish. The period between the 6th and 9th century saw the flourishing of Ireland’s Golden Age. This early period also provided a variety of literature in Old Irish which is considered the earliest vernacular example in Europe. The cumulative effect of colonisation, plantation and suppression, particularly from the 16th century onwards, led to the elimination of the Irish-speaking aristocracy and their institutions. Additionally, catastrophic famine, emigration and epidemics decimated the Irish-speaking rural indigenous population during the 19th century, all factors which led to a language shift to English. Language restoration efforts by voluntary organisations began in the early 20th century 3). With the emergence of the free state in 1921, Irish was made the national language, and outside the Gaeltacht, or traditional heartland of the language, education was seen as the main tool in language revival. In the 1980's 3% of secondary students were receiving Irish-medium education. 4)

European legislation:

Irish is an official language in the European Union.

Ireland has not signed or ratified the European Charter for Regional or Minorty Languages. Moreover, the Charter does not cover official state languages, so Irish would not be included.

National legislation:

The Irish constitution, in The State, Art. 8, states that:

  • The Irish language as the national language is the first official language.
  • The English language is recognised as a second official language.

The Irish language is mentioned in over a hundred acts. Of great importance is The Official Languages Act (2003), which deals with, among other things:

  • the promotion of the Irish language for official purposes;
  • the establishment and duties of public bodies with respect to the official languages of the state (Irish and English);
  • the establishment of an official language commissioner.

The Gaeltacht areas also fall under Language Plans set by the Gaeltacht Areas Order and later the Gaeltacht Act 2012. In the Act of 2012, areas outside of the original Gaeltachts can be adopted as Líonraí Gaeilge (Irish Language Networks) or Bailte Seirbhísí Gaeltachta (Gaeltacht Service Towns).

Educational legislation:

Premises and Government Statements

The Constitution proclaims that Irish as the national language is the first official language. In a judgment delivered in the High Court on 16th April 1999, Ms Justice Laffoy interpreted this to mean that “an obligation to provide for the education of the children of the State at their first stage of formal teaching and instruction must involve an obligation to provide for education in the constitutionally recognized first official language of the State. It follows that the requirement of the rules that teachers teaching in recognized primary schools should have proficiency in Irish is a valid provision under the constitution… also a valid requirement under European Community law…it is neither disproportionate nor discriminatory”5)

Matters of school location, entry policy and curriculum are subject to ministerial regulation.

The Education Act

The Education Act (1998) gives the Irish language a prominent role in education.

Article 2 of the Education Act (1998), states, among other things, the following goals:

  • to contribute to the realization of national policy and objectives in relation to the extension of bi-lingualism in Irish society and in particular the achievement of a greater use of the Irish language at school and in the community;
  • to contribute to the maintenance of Irish as the primary community language in Gaeltacht areas;
  • to promote the language and cultural needs of students having regard to the choices of their parents;

Article 9 lists, among other things, the following functions of a school:

  • promote the development of the Irish language and traditions, Irish literature, the arts and other cultural matters;
  • in the case of schools located in a Gaeltacht area, contribute to the maintenance of Irish as the primary community language,

Article 31 describes the establishment of “a body of persons” that, among other things:

  • plans and co-ordinates the provision of textbooks and aids to learning and teaching through Irish;
  • advises the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment on matters relating the teaching of and through Irish, in and outside of the Gaeltacht areas.

The law differentiates between Gaeltacht areas and other areas in Ireland. Traditionally the Gaeltacht Areas were geographically determined locations, but since the Gaeltacht Act (2012), they are defined as areas where Irish is frequently spoken.

20 Year Language Strategy for the Irish Language 2010-2030

The 20 Year Language Strategy for the Irish Language 2010-2030 is national language policy to increase the number of daily speakers of Irish, ensure visibility of the Irish language and promote the qual standing of both official languages. For Education, the strategy aims to:

  • enhance and extend ability in Irish more deeply and among larger numbers of people;
  • reverse negative attitudes towards Irish language usage and foster positive attitudes in their place;
  • expand the available opportunities for use of Irish within the education system by extending Irish as a medium of instruction, as well as a subject, and by linking school language learning to the informal use of Irish in recreational, cultural and other out-of-school activities.

Education in practice

Preschool education

Since pre-primary provision is largely privately funded, the introduction of Irish depends entirely on the provider, whether pre-school, Montessori or other. No stipulation on Irish is attached to the recently introduced Department of Children and Youth Affairs free pre-school year. However, some English-medium preschool services will introduce incidental use of Irish, particularly in playschool contexts for children from age 3. Irish is listed on the curriculum of Montessori provision. The Irish medium and Gaeltacht sectors of Naíonraí (Irish-medium playgroups, usually age 3+) or any other provision for younger children provided by these sectors will generally be conducted through Irish as medium.

Ongoing projects

  • Comhar na Naíonraí Gaeltachta (Partnership of Gaeltacht Naíonraí) provides early years services (for naíonraí, crèches, breakfast clubs, afterschool services and parent and toddler groups in the Gaeltacht areas as well as administration, support and training) through the medium of Irish.
    In collaboration with the Dublin Institute of Technology, CNNG developed a specific curriculum for language enrichment and development with Gaeltacht children, entitled Loinnir (Radiance/Brightness), and has published a number of books and CDs featuring rhymes and songs from local traditions.
  • The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment developed AISTEAR (Journey) in 2009, the Early Childhood Curriculum Framework, for children from birth to six years of age. It is based on four themes and is directed at practitioners and parents.

Primary education

All recognised (funded) schools follow the national curriculum, including Irish, unless individual exemption is granted on specific grounds. In IM schools, Irish is the medium of instruction.Overall, within the primary system, the IM immersion sector is very successful on a continuing upward growth pattern with good results in language and mathematics according to independent research (see Section 8). Use of Irish in Gaeltacht education varies in response to the linguistic profile of the students and the local context. Research by An Chomhairle um Oideachas Gaeltachta is Gaelscolaíochta (statutory support body for Irish-medium education)published in 2011 showed that just 1,000 (10.5%) of 9,500 primary pupils were native speakers.

Secondary education

While Irish is one of the core subjects in the majority of schools and must be included among the subjects chosen for the Leaving Certificate, two problems remain. One is the variable quality of teaching as DES surveys show. The second is the increasing trend towards seeking exemptions from Irish. This sometimes begins in primary school so that the exemption will remain for second level if it is granted. Exemption is granted on specific grounds: education for a certain period outside Ireland for Irish nationals or for foreign incomers, or for students with attested learning difficulties (M10/94 post-primary; M12/96 primary). Examination results in Irish continue to show success for many. For students, the crux often is the lack of opportunity to use the language in contexts other than school, although many teachers show great initiative in creating such social contexts.

Adult education

With regard to courses that are taught through the medium of Irish, many of the extracurricular courses (offered by Acadamh na hOllscolaíochta Gaeilge National University of Ireland, Galway in particular) can be defined as adult education. Additionally, people attending the Back to Education Initiative or Community Education courses may request Irish language courses towards State examinations certification. Other providers of Irish language courses are self-funded evening adult programmes in second-level schools, Education Training Board centres, Irish medium institutions and other locations which offer Irish classes for adults. Some are general, others are for specific purposes, for parents or for club leaders or for those interested in aspects of Irish culture, e.g. literature, folklore and music. The best-known residential Irish summer courses for adults are operated by Oideas Gael.

Some higher education institutes have established an internal support body called Bord na Gaeilge (Board for Irish), which conducts courses and events that are open to all staff and students. At National University of Ireland, Cork, Ionad na Gaeilge Labhartha (Centre for Spoken Irish) runs a suite of flexible courses and successful results in one specific course counts for the first year of the university’s degree course in Irish. Many higher education institutes conduct flexible diploma courses in Irish language skills.

The Language Centre at National University of Ireland, Maynooth has developed a Teastas Eorpach na Gaeilge (European Certificate in Irish), a progressive structured graded course that is specifically designed for adults and based on the Common European Framework for Languages: Learning, Teaching and Assessment (Council of Europe, 2001). Examinations are offered regularly and recognised by the Association of Language Testers in Europe. Courses are conducted for tutors as well.

Ongoing projects

In the Gaeltacht, the group Breacadh (Dawn), in collaboration with the ETBs, continues (since 2000) to provide services through Irish to adults in literacy in Irish, communication skills, computer skills, family learning. They also produce appropriate resources for the literacy classes in the three main dialects, commission research, and publish vocabulary lists in areas of work integral to Gaeltacht life. They have endowed a doctoral fellowship at Acadamh na hOllscolaíochta Gaeilge on literacy levels among native Irish speakers.

Teacher training

For pre-school teachers, the two IM pre-school providers have ensured the provision of the appropriate training and qualification through Irish, for Level 5 and 6 Certificates in Childcare.

Aspiring Irish language teachers at the primary level, can follow an undergraduate concurrent or a postgraduate consecutive program; the former leading to a BEd degree, the latter to a Professional Master of Education (PME).

At post-primary level, the Initial Teacher Education (ITE) situation tends to change as higher education institutes offer courses to meet professional need. In the concurrent model of teacher training no course exists through the medium of Irish but Irish is offered as subject in conjunction with other disciplines, e.g. home economics, physical education, religious studies and business studies.

The consecutive model of ITE at post-primary level now requires the qualification PME following the possession of a recognised degree.The TC has also issued specific degree criteria for registration of subject teachers at post-primary level including for Irish as curricular subject. Verifiable residential experience in a Gaeltacht area is required in addition to evidence of competence in the language. A programme of appropriate post-primary ITE must also have been completed.

Learning resources and educational institutions

Organisations and istitutes

  • Comhar Naíonraí na Gaeltachta: CNNG, Irish Early Childhood Education
  • Gael Linn operates Coláistí Samhraidh (summer colleges) in addition to school-based initiatives and inter-school debates. These summer colleges are organised by many groups during the summer months in all the Gaeltacht areas, usually for three weeks and with students staying with local Irish-speaking families. For most, it is their first encounter with social inter-personal use of Irish.
  • St. Patrick’s College, Thurles, in affiliation with the University of Limerick, offers Irish and education in combination with either religious or business studies.
  • Coláiste na bhFiann is a youth organisation which runs summer courses but also organises clubs around the country during the year.

Online learning resources

Mercator's Regional Dossier

Read more about Irish language education in Mercator's Regional Dossier (2016).

1) , 2)
Central Statistics Office/an Phríomh-Oifig Staidrimh. (n.d.). Census of Population 2016 – Profile 10 Education, Skills and the Irish Language . Retrieved from
Edwards, Vic, ‘Education and the Development of Early Childhood Bilingualism’, in Voces Diversae: Lesser-Used Language Education in Europe, ed. by Dónall Ó Riagáin, Belfast Studies in Language, Culture and Politics, 15 (Belfast: Cló Ollscoil na Banríona, 2006)
Ó Murchú, H. (2016). The Irish language in education in the Republic of Ireland (2nd ed.) (Sterk, R., & van Dongera, R). Mercator Research Centre. Retrieved from
languages/irish_in_ireland.txt · Last modified: 2020/09/08 10:36 by ydwine

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