The Irish language resurgence

What connects prisoners and schoolchildren in Northern Ireland? Surprisingly, it’s the move to increase the number of speakers of the Irish language.

The official language of Northern Ireland is English, with Irish and Ulster Scots also spoken by a far smaller proportion of citizens. As of 2011, just 11% of the Northern Irish population said that they had ‘some knowledge of Irish’, behind the 19% of Welsh citizens claiming some knowledge of Welsh, prompting calls from pro-Irish language groups to raise national proficiency of this native language.

In 1970, the first Irish-speaking school, Bunscoil Phobal Feirste, opened in Northern Ireland in an attempt to preserve the language in the local area and to encourage more children to learn Irish amid fears that it may die out under pressures from the far more prevalent English language. To date, there are close to 100 Irish-medium schools in Northern Ireland, and while exam entries remain low, figures have increased slightly in recent years. With post-primary Irish-medium schools receiving state funding, it is clear that this is a cause important to many Irish citizens.

Learning Irish has long been popular among prisoners in Northern Ireland. Learning Irish as a second language allowed inmates to challenge the authority of prison staff by enabling them to hold conversations between themselves without being understood by guards. This meant they could speak about anything without being challenged, forcing guards to learn the language themselves or be left in the dark about inmates’ conversations.

An Irish language pop group, Seo Linn, released a series of tracks covering popular chart hits in the Irish language. Recently they released their first original song in an attempt to fuel interest in the Irish language to connect with younger generations. Exposure to languages in popular culture is a common way to make these languages feel more relevant and up-to-date for teenagers, which can then spark an interest in learning the language.

Do you speak Irish? Would you be interested in learning the heritage language of your country? We’d love to hear your thoughts.

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