Tourist season was in full swing when I arrived in Ireland in late June for a six-week study-abroad program through New York University, where I’m working on my master’s degree in Irish Studies. International tourists clustered outside the Trinity College gates while language schools passed out advertisements on Dame Street—for English classes. I met a few students relaxing on the Trinity lawn, and we joked about my interest in the Irish language, since I’m neither Irish nor of Irish heritage. They asked me how I was. Conas atá tú? I said I was fine. Tá mé go maith. Then the students began to say random words, and it was clear we’d nearly exhausted their knowledge of Irish.
Paradoxically, even though I probably heard more Spanish than Irish on the Dublin streets, I felt surrounded by written Irish wherever I went. Museums provided bilingual descriptions of their exhibits, and road signs in Dublin were in both Irish and English. Later, when I visited the West, many road signs were Irish-only. Although English is spoken all over Ireland, Irish is the Republic of Ireland’s first official language and a recognized minority language in Northern Ireland. In 2007, it became one of the 23 official languages used for European Union business, and it’s promoted in the Irish education system, through the legislative framework, and through the media. If it’s not clear yet that the Irish language is highly valued in the Republic of Ireland, consider this: a recent survey found that 92 percent of the Irish population ranked Irish as important either to themselves personally or to Ireland as a nation.
Yet there are still causes for concern. UNESCO lists Irish as “endangered” in the Republic of Ireland, and technically “extinct” as a first language in Northern Ireland. Like other endangered languages, Irish faces a multitude of challenges, including English dominance, varying levels of language proficiency among speakers, and a wide geographic dispersion of speakers. According to the most recent Census on the Irish language, as of 2006, almost 1.7 million people in Ireland—around 42 percent of the population aged three and over—reported that they could speak Irish. But more than a million of those people admitted that they either never speak it or speak it less than once a week. Only around 72,000 speak the language daily outside of the education system; that’s only about 4 percent of the people who say they can speak Irish. In 2006, the government formed a 20-year strategy to raise that number to at least 250,000 daily speakers of the language by 2028.
Although I didn’t personally hear much Irish in Dublin, urban speakers are a sizable and growing contingent of those who speak the language. My most authentic Irish-speaking moment happened far from the bustling city, however, during my last weekend trip to western Ireland. When I arrived on Inis Mór in the Aran Islands, I rented a bicycle, and I interacted with several people in the process—in English. After I returned my bike at the end of my trip, two of the people who had helped me suddenly broke into Irish while discussing something with each other. Lurking just beneath the surface, Irish is alive and well on Inis Mór. I wonder how many other opportunities to interact in Irish I overlooked. On my next trip to Ireland, I’ll be ready to take advantage of them.