Irish language in Northern Ireland

The proportion of respondents in the 2011 census aged 3 and above who stated that they can speak Irish.

The Irish language (also known as Irish Gaelic) (Irish: Gaeilge) is a recognised minority language in Northern Ireland. The dialect spoken there is known as Ulster Irish. Protection for the Irish language in Northern Ireland stems largely from the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages.[1]

According to the 2011 UK Census, in Northern Ireland 184,898 (10.65%) claim to have some knowledge of Irish, of whom 104,943 (6.05%) can speak the language to varying degrees. Some 4,130 people (0.002%) use Irish as their main home language.


As in other parts of Celtic Europe, Irish was the main language in the region of present-day Northern Ireland for most of its recorded history. The historic influence of the Irish language in Northern Ireland can be seen in many place names, for example the name of Belfast first appears in the year 668, and the Lagan even earlier. The Plantation of Ulster led to a decline in Gaelic culture, of which Irish was part – while some Scottish settlers were Gaelic speakers, English was made widespread by the plantation. Despite the plantation Gaelic continued to be spoken in non-planted areas until the mass migration in the 19th century caused by economic factors (see below for further).

Intellectuals in Belfast took an antiquarian interest in Irish-language culture towards the end of the 18th century, and an Irish-language magazine Bolg an tSolair was published in 1795. The Ulster Gaelic Society was founded in 1830. Attitudes among the Presbyterian middle class, however, tended to change in the second half of the 19th century as the Gaelic Revival became associated with Irish nationalism. A branch of the Gaelic League was founded in Belfast in 1895 with a non-sectarian and widely-based membership, but the decline in Irish as a first language continued.[2]

Irish was in sharp decline throughout the whole of Ireland from the mid-1800s. From the late 1600s and early 1700s, the Church of Ireland made some attempts to revive the declining Gaelic language. The church printed Bibles and Prayer Books in Gaelic, and some churches, and some Protestant clergymen like William King of Dublin, held services in the language. However, the English language had been the language of learning and the Roman Catholic Church continued to use Latin and English in its services. English was the language of the industrial east of the island, and Gaelic started to become confined to the more rural west.[3]

By the 1860s, of all the Roman Catholic seminaries, only St Jarlath's in Tuam was teaching in Irish. The Roman Catholic Church had, at that time, desired to "stamp out any lingering, semi-pagan remnants", which included Gaelic language. Sir William Wilde in 1852 blamed the Catholic Church for the quick decline and was "shocked" by the decline of the language and Gaelic customs since the Famine.[3]

The power of the English language, in business and learning throughout much of the world also influenced the decline of Gaelic in Ireland. A letter from Dennis Heraghty of Letterkenny in 1886 to the Society for the Preservation of the Irish Language complained that the parents in his area all wanted their children to learn English. Bishop MacCormac of Achonry, also in 1886, suggested that "People are apathetic about the preservation of our ancient language" and, "They see that Shakespeare's tongue is the one in use in America and the Colonies."[3]

Although there had been attempts and societies formed to reverse the declining trend for the language, it was not until the rise of the Gaelic League, founded in 1893, that any measure of success was achieved. By the 1851 census, only 23% of the population of Ireland still spoke Gaelic as a first language. Douglas Hyde, in New York in 1905, said, "The Irish language, thank God, is neither Protestant nor Catholic, it is neither a Unionist nor a Separatist."[3] By then, however, the language had begun to be politicised. The Roman Catholic Church in Ireland began to believe in the worth of the language and had begun to take steps to ensure its survival. Ironically, however, both the state and Church interference became something that Irish people began to resent. Protestants and Unionists alike began to back away from a Gaelic revival as, besides the dominant role of the Roman Catholic Church by then, Gaelic was starting to be described as a "race" and as a divisive element politically and culturally.[3] Even so, in 1905 the Irish Unionist Party had a Gaelic slogan, which it proudly displayed at a convention.

Since 1921, the Irish language has been regarded with suspicion by many unionists in Northern Ireland, who have associated it with the Republic of Ireland and with Irish republicanism.[4]

The Irish-language movement in Northern Ireland after 1921 responded to a lack of establishment support by pursuing a self-help social and recreational movement aimed at preserving Ulster Irish (an issue which had split the Belfast Gaelic League in 1911). By 1923, only one branch of the Gaelic League was left in operation in Northern Ireland, but from a handful of branches in 1926 the number of branches peaked at 182 in 1946. In contrast to the perception of the Irish Free State's policy of preserving areas of Irish-speaking countryside, activists in Northern Ireland concentrated on ensuring Irish could survive in urban contexts, organising trips to Irish-speaking areas to bolster urban enthusiasm. A co-operative housing scheme in Belfast aimed at creating an urban Gaeltacht opened in 1969 in Shaw's Road.[2]

From the early years of the Northern Ireland government, education in Irish was marginalised. The number of primary schools teaching Irish was halved between 1924 and 1927, and numbers studying Irish as an extra subject fell from 5531 to 1290 between 1923 and 1926. The subsidy for Irish as an extra subject was abolished in 1934.[5]

The Troubles exacerbated the politicisation of the Irish language in Northern Ireland. Many republicans in Northern Ireland, including Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams, learned Irish while in prison.[6]

The last speakers of varieties of Irish native to what is now Northern Ireland died in the 20th century. Irish as spoken in Counties Down[7] and Fermanagh were the first to die out, but native speakers of varieties spoken in the Glens of Antrim[8] and the Sperrin Mountains of County Tyrone[9] and County Londonderry survived into the 1950s and 1970s respectively, whilst the Armagh dialect survived until the 1930s or '40s.[10] Varieties of Irish indigenous to the territory of Northern Ireland finally became extinct as spoken languages when the last native speaker of Rathlin Irish died in 1985.[11] Séamus Bhriain Mac Amhlaigh, who died in 1983, was reportedly the last native-speaker of Antrim Irish.[12] A wealth of recordings and stories told by Mac Amhlaigh were recorded by researchers from Queen's University in Belfast.


Official administrative identity in English, Irish and Ulster Scots

Most Irish speakers in Ulster today speak the Donegal dialect of Ulster Irish.

Irish received official recognition in Northern Ireland for the first time in 1998 under the Good Friday Agreement. A cross-border body known as Foras na Gaeilge was established to promote the language in both Northern Ireland and the Republic, taking over the functions of Bord na Gaeilge.

The British government in 2001 ratified the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. Irish (in respect only of Northern Ireland) was specified under Part III of the Charter, thus giving it a degree of protection and status comparable to the Welsh language in Wales and Scottish Gaelic in Scotland. This included a range of specific undertakings in relation to education, translation of statutes, interaction with public authorities, the use of placenames, media access, support for cultural activities and other matters. (A lower level of recognition was accorded to the Ulster variant of Scots, under Part II of the Charter.) Compliance with the state's obligations is assessed periodically by a Committee of Experts of the Council of Europe.[13]

Bilingual welcome sign Newry

The Education (Northern Ireland) Order 1998 states: "It shall be the duty of the Department (of Education) to encourage and facilitate the development of Irish-medium education."

According to the 2001 Census, 658,103 people (36% of the population) had "some knowledge of Irish" – of whom 559,670 were Catholics and 48,509 were Protestants and "other Christians".

Knowledge of Irish by persons over the age of 3 (2001 Census):

  1. Speaks, reads, writes and understands Irish: 223,678
  2. Speaks and reads but does not write Irish: 160,183
  3. Speaks but does not read or write Irish: 108,596
  4. Understands spoken Irish but cannot read, write or speak Irish: 87,479
  5. Has other combination of skills: 78,167
  6. No knowledge of Irish: 1,152,760

The ULTACH Trust (Iontaobhas ULTACH) was established in 1989 by Irish language enthusiasts to attract funding from the British Government for language projects and to broaden the appeal of the language on a cross-community basis (among both Protestants and Catholics[14])

The Shaw's Road Gaeltacht was joined in 2002 by the Gaeltacht Quarter in west Belfast.[15]


Sign of an Irish medium school in Newry

Six families in Belfast established a Gaeltacht area in Belfast in the late 1960s and opened Bunscoil Phobal Feirste in 1970 as the first Irish-medium school in Northern Ireland, and in 1984 was granted the status of a voluntary maintained primary school. The first Naíscoil (Irish-medium nursery school) opened in 1978.

Comhairle na Gaelscolaíochta (CnaG) is the representative body for Irish-medium Education. It was set up in 2000 by the Department of Education to promote, facilitate and encourage Irish-medium Education. One of CnaG's central objectives is to seek to extend the availability of Irish-medium Education to parents who wish to avail of it for their children. Irish language pre-schools and primary schools are now thriving and there are official Irish language streams in secondary schools in Maghera, Donaghmore, Castlewellan and Armagh. Coláiste Feirste in Belfast is the only full second-level gaelscoil (Gaelcholáiste) in Northern Ireland.

In December 2014 Minister for Education for Northern Ireland John O'Dowd announced that the Department of Education were going to set up Northern Ireland's second gaelcholáiste in Dungiven in County Londonderry.[16]

In the academic year 2011/12, 4691 children were enrolled in Irish-medium education:

The British Council administers a scheme to recruit Irish language assistants for English-medium schools in Northern Ireland.[17]

In 2013, there were 309 entries for A-Level examinations in Irish and 2,078 for GCSE.[18]


Areas in Northern Ireland in which more than one third of the local population can speak Irish, according to the 2001 Census.

BBC Radio Ulster began broadcasting a nightly half-hour programme, called Blas ('taste'), in Irish in the early 1980s, and there is now an Irish-language programme on the station every day. BBC Northern Ireland broadcast its first television programme in Irish in the early 1990s, SRL ('etc.'). Many areas of Northern Ireland can now tune into TG4, the Irish-language television channel, which is broadcast primarily from the Conamara Gaeltacht in the Republic. In March 2005, TG4 began broadcasting from the Divis transmitter near Belfast, as a result of agreement between the Department of Foreign Affairs and the Northern Ireland Office, although so far this is the only transmitter to carry it.

RTÉ's Irish-language radio station, RTÉ Raidió na Gaeltachta based in the Republic of Ireland is also available in many areas in Northern Ireland. Raidió Fáilte a community radio station based in West Belfast covers the Greater Belfast area and started broadcasting in 2006 and broadcasts 24 hours per day seven days per week. It broadcasts a selection of programmes; music, chat, news, current affairs, sports, arts, literature, environmental and community issues. It is also available worldwide on the internet at RadióFá[19]

Residents of Northern Ireland have access to web based media in Irish such as online newspaper or online lifestyle magazine Nó An Irish-language daily newspaper called Lá Nua ("new day") folded in 2008 due to lack of funding.

The Northern Ireland Film and Television Commission administers an Irish Language Broadcast Fund (announced by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in April 2004) to foster and develop an independent Irish-language television production sector in Northern Ireland. The European Commission authorised public funding for the fund in June 2005 considering that "since the aid aims to promote cultural products and the Irish Language, it can be authorised under EU Treaty rules that allow state aids for the promotion of culture".[20]

Political use

The Irish language in Northern Ireland has long been a matter associated with identity. Prior to the turn of the 20th Century, the Irish language was embraced by both sides of the community, although in decline. But the partition of Ireland in 1921 was a turning point to attitudes towards the language. Nationalists in Northern Ireland who had been abandoned by their southern counterparts felt that the Irish language was a significant marker of identity they now needed as a minority group.[21][22]

During The Troubles the Irish language became increasingly politicised. Its survival is largely due to families in the nationalist Shaw's Road area of west Belfast during the 1960s who tried to make the area Gaeltacht (an Irish speaking area). A second wave of the Irish language revival movement in Northern Ireland during the 1970s occurred on another site – the Maze Prison. For republican prisoners, learning the Irish language in prison (aka 'Jailtacht') became the way in which to set themselves apart from the British authorities.[21]

More widely, this use of the Irish language inspired many nationalists in Northern Ireland to use the language as a form of cultural expression and resistance from the so called British occupation. In particular, the Irish language has been used extensively by the republican party Sinn Féin who have been criticised by unionists for hijacking the Irish language for political gain.[21]

The use of the Irish language by republicans has therefore led to it receiving mixed responses from unionist communities and politicians. In many unionist communities the Irish language is regarded as a foreign language or the language of terrorists and therefore – unlike Catholic communities – in Protestant communities its inclusion in school curriculum and public notices continues to be strongly opposed.[21] On the other hand, some moderate nationalists have been reluctant to use Irish too due to the negative connotations associated with the language's use.[23]

The issue around the use of the Irish language was once again intensified when a unionist MLA was accused of mocking Irish in the Northern Irish Assembly. In November 2014, in response to a question about minority language policy the DUP's Gregory Campbell insultingly stated "Curry my yoghurt can coca coalyer" in what was meant to sound like "Thank you, speaker". [21][24]

In recent years cross-community efforts have been made to make the Irish language more appealing to both sides of the community. Many local councils now use Irish bilingually with English (sometimes with Ulster Scots too) on many of its services in an attempt to neutralise the language. Some former loyalist prisoners such as Robin Stewart have even taken up learning the Irish language in east Belfast in an attempt to reclaim Irish identity and challenge Republicans about their version of Irish history and what it means to be Irish.[21][25][26] The former Red Hand Commando prisoner William Smith learnt the language whilst in jail.[27]The motto of the Red Hand Commando was the Irish phrase Lamh Dhearg Abu which translated means Red Hand to victory. Linda Ervine, the sister in-law of former Ulster Volunteer Force member and politician David Ervine, began learning the language and set up classes in the predominately Unionist East Belfast area for others to learn the language in 2011[28]

See also


  2. 1 2 Belfast and the Irish language, ed. Fionntán De Brún, Dublin 2006 ISBN 978-1-85182-939-2
  3. 1 2 3 4 5 Tanner, Marcus (2004). The Last of the Celts. Yale University Press. ISBN 0-300-10464-2.
  4. "Unionist fear of Irish must be overcome"., quoting Irish News. 6 February 2003. Retrieved 19 June 2007.
  5. Irish in Belfast, 1892–1960, Aodán Mac Póilin, in Belfast and the Irish language, ed. Fionntán De Brún, Dublin 2006 ISBN 978-1-85182-939-2
  6. Allen Feldman, Formations of Violence: The Narrative of the Body and Political Terror in Northern Ireland, University of Chicago Press, 1991, chapter 3.
  7. Abraham Hume, whilst compiling a report for the British Association in 1874, said that "as late as 1920... the Irish language was spoken along with English from Ballynahinch to near Newry." Cited in Ó Casaide (1930: 54ff)
  8. "When Swiss-born scholar Heinrich Wagner began his four-volume Linguistic Atlas and Survey of Irish Dialects in the 1950s, most of his Ulster material was collected from Donegal – where Gaeltacht areas still exist – although he did manage to locate native speakers of Irish in counties Cavan, Tyrone and Rathlin Island, Co. Antrim, in addition to Omeath, Co. Louth": A.J. Hughs, Belfast and the Irish Language, Fionntán de Brún (ed.), 2006, ISBN 1-85182-939-3
  9. Historical Sketches of the Native Irish "estimated that around 140,000 of the total 261,867 inhabitants of that county [Tyrone], returned for the 1821 census, spoke Irish": cited in A.J. Hughs Belfast and the Irish Language, Fionntán de Brún (ed.), 2006, ISBN 1-85182-939-3
  10. Coimisiún na Gaeltachta 1926 report and maps based on 1911 census. (This was the last time all of Ireland had a census with the same question regarding language on the same date.)
  11. "Counties Down and Fermanagh were the first counties where Irish died out, but according to the 1911 census, Irish was spoken by the majority of the population over 60 years old in parts of the Sperrin mountains and Rathlin Island. Sound recordings have been made of the Irish of Antrim, Armagh, Londonderry and Tyrone. One of the last speakers of Antrim Irish, Jimmy Stewart of Murlough, died in 1950, and the last speaker of Tyrone Irish, Johnny McAleer, died in 1970. Bella McKenna, the last speaker of Rathlin Irish, was recorded on videotape and died in 1985. With her death came the extinction of the East Ulster dialect of Irish which had been spoken in what is present-day Northern Ireland." Iontaobhas ULTACH,
  13. Council of Europe Charter monitoring report, 2010
  14. "The Trust has a strong cross-community ethos. Since it was established, the Trust has recognised that cross-community activity works on a number of levels: tackling prejudice; stimulating interest in Irish across the community as a whole; researching the tradition of Protestant involvement in the language and raising awareness of that tradition; analysing those factors which inhibit Protestant and unionist interest in Irish; and providing opportunities to people from that community to engage with, acquire and use the language." Iontaobhas ULTACH,
  15. Mac Póilin, Aodán (2007) "Nua-Ghaeltacht Phobal Feirste: Ceachtanna le foghlaim?" In: Wilson McLeod (Ed.) Gàidhealtachdan Ùra; Leasachadh na Gàidhlig agus na Gaeilge sa Bhaile Mhòr. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University, pp. 57–59.
  16. Dept. of Education press release (December 2014)
  17. The British Council
  18. Frequently asked questions about the Irish Language- Ultach (2013)
  19. Radió Fá
  20. "Representation in the United Kingdom: Northern Ireland Press Office – Press Releases: EU approves Irish language broadcast fund for Northern Ireland". European Commission. Archived from the original on 13 January 2006. Retrieved 26 October 2008.
  21. 1 2 3 4 5 6 O'Leary, Jennifer. "Why is Irish Language devise issue in Northern Ireland?". BBC. BBC. Retrieved 25 January 2016.
  22. Pritchard, Professor Rosalind M.O. (2004). Protestants and the Irish Language: Historical Heritage and Current Attitudes in Northern Ireland. Coleraine, Londonderry: CAIN. Retrieved 26 January 2016.
  23. "Speaking Irish in Belfast: In the trenches of a language war". Ecominst. 21 December 2013. Retrieved 28 January 2016.
  24. "'Curry my yoghurt': 'Pure ignorance' NI Assembly clash over Irish language". BBC. BBC Newsline. 3 November 2014. Retrieved 26 January 2016.
  25. Ni Chonchuir, Sharon. "Finding our voice: Looking to Wales to save the Irish language". Irish Examiner. Irish Examiner. Retrieved 26 January 2016.
  26. McCoy, Gordon (1997). The Irish Language in NORTHERN IRELAND: 'Protestant Learners of Irish in Northern Ireland'. Belfast: CAIN. pp. 131–171. Retrieved 28 January 2016.
  27. Martin McGuinness tribute to Ex-Red Hand Commando William 'Plum' Smith following death
  28. "A New Protestant Beginning for the Irish Language in Belfast". PRI. 26 January 2015.

External links

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