Following Ireland’s conquest by the English in the 17th century, a strict code of law forbade the use of Irish Gaelic in daily speech or written language, the teaching of Catholicism, Gaelic or Irish history in schools, and the severe economic repression of Irish Catholics through various land codes. By the mid-1800s, decades of repression and economic hardship led to a vulnerable and weak Irish population, riddled with political turmoil, religious rebellion, famine, disease and neglect. With the weeding out of this original Gaelic speaking population, either through emigration or death, the number of Irish-speaking natives dropped drastically to less than 20% of the total population. Towards the end of the 19th century, linguists feared the Irish language was nearing extinction. However, after independence in 1921 and a focused effort from the new Irish government, Ireland began to witness a slow revival of its native language.
Currently, about 300,000 people speak Irish or Irish Gaelic throughout the world and it is now taught in all state-funded schools in Ireland as a requirement for Irish youth. Citizens have access to Gaelic-only television and radio stations, newspapers, government documents and announcements, and bilingual road signs, restaurant menus, etc. There are also a fair amount of rural Irish who use it on a daily basis.
While it remains less used than English, it is nonetheless recognized as the first official language of the Republic of Ireland (with English being the second) in an effort to keep it alive and thriving. It is also spoken throughout the six counties of Northern Ireland, where approximately 142,000 people speak it. The area in Ireland known as Gaeltacht is so-called because such a large proportion of the population speaks Irish there – roads signs in this regions are in Irish only.
Many Irish have taken it upon themselves to become fluent in the language of their ancestors in order to gain access to their past. While it still remains largely unused in a business or economic manner, there are hopes that the continued improvement of the Irish economy, and relations between Northern Ireland and Ireland, will lead to increased use of Irish Gaelic across all sectors of Irish society.