Do Irish People Speak Gaelic?

Learning a couple of words in local languages is one of the more fun parts of traveling. When it comes to Ireland, that means learning to say something in Gaelic.

However, some people might wonder whether they need to, because most of the communication in Ireland happens in English. Plus, some locals might dislike the term Gaelic.

So, do Irish people speak Gaelic? They do, kind of, but also — they don’t. People will sometimes call the native language in Ireland Gaelic or Irish Gaelic. Others would, however, insist that the Irish don’t speak Gaelic — they speak Irish. But if you would ask them how many people speak the language, you’d soon realize that it doesn’t matter how you call the language because people are not using it too much.

The name of the native Irish language and the prevalence of its usage are difficult topics. Every topic would be with so much linguistics, history, and politics involved. If you want to know how to approach the locals regarding their native language the next time you’re over in Ireland, keep reading.

What Is the Name of Ireland’s Native Language? 

The very fact that you are here means that you understand that English is not the original language the Irish used to speak. The name for the native language that’s least likely to offend anyone in Ireland is, simply, Irish. But the people who call it Gaelic and Irish Gaelic have a reason to do so.

The best way to understand how languages developed over time is by thinking of them as a part of a tree. The trunk is what gives birth to the branches. In this case, Proto-Indo-European, the posited common ancestor of Indo-European languages, serves as the trunk.

The first branch that’s interesting to us is the one with Celtic languages because Irish is a Celtic language. Celtic branched in two distinct branches. The Continental branch contained Celtic languages they spoke on the mainland. Gaulish, the language Asterix would have used if he was a real person, was a Continental Celtic language.

The other branch is the Insular branch, and that’s the one we need to follow to get to the Irish language. There are two types of Insular Celtic languages: the Brythonic languages and the Goidelic languages. The Brythonic ones are Breton, Cornish, and Welsh. The Goidelic languages are Irish, Scottish Gaelic, and Manx.

Irish is a Goidelic language and the sister language of Scottish Gaelic and Manx. The Goidelic language family is sometimes referred to as the Gaelic languages, which is one reason why people might say that Irish is Gaelic. And there’s also the fact that, in Irish, the language is called Gaeilge, and that’s pronounced almost the same as Gaelic in the Ulster Irish dialect.

So Irish is a Gaelic language. But why would anyone say that the Irish don’t speak Gaelic? Well, the Scottish Gaelic is also often referred to as Gaelic, so the Irish might want to avoid mix-ups. And there are probably those who believe that calling the language simply Irish might be better for its reestablishment as the national language.

Is the Irish Language Endangered?

The Irish language is the first of two official languages of Ireland. The other one is English. It would be hard to imagine that an official language of a country is endangered even when that country isn’t, right? Well, the unimaginable has a way of becoming true in Ireland — according to UNESCO, Irish is a definitely endangered language in Ireland, with 44,000 speakers.

The other possible answer to the question whether the Irish people speak Gaelic is a hard ‘no’ because, for the most part, they speak English. Even though there have been efforts to bring Irish back into use, and even with a revival underway, the future of Irish still doesn’t look good.

Ireland has these areas called the Gaeltacht, or areas where the Irish language is currently, or was until recently, the main spoken language. Most of the Gaeltacht is in the western parts of the country, but it doesn’t make up for a whole lot of territory. Still, it might be just what the Irish language needs to stay alive, even if it doesn’t push out the English language.

How Old Is the Irish Language?

It’s never easy to say how old a language is, for several reasons. One is that we often don’t know when a language came to be. The other is that languages change a lot over time. The better question would be, for example, which language has been around for more — English or Irish?

That’s a question with an answer. The earliest known ‘version’ of Irish language which the scientists call ‘Primitive Irish’ or ‘Archaic Irish,’ was in use in today’s Ireland and Britain at least as early as the 4th century AD. We know this because of the Ogham signs the Irish used to write that survived to this day.

The English language was first used sometime during the middle of the 5th century AD when the Anglo-Saxon settlers came with their Anglo-Frisian dialects. So at the very least, we can say that we know who were the first peoples with a developed language in the islands.

The Irish language people use today is not as old as the Archaic Irish. Linguists place the starting point of use of Modern Irish, the type of Irish that’s in use today, during the 18th century. That’s also the time when the Irish language so its steepest declines in usage.

Why and When Did the Irish Stop Speaking Irish?

Even though the first arrival of Germanic peoples into the islands of Ireland and Britain saw the Irish language lose some ground, it continued to flourish in Ireland and Scotland. It was the majority language in Ireland for a long time, possibly as late as the beginning of the 19th century.

In the 17th century, after much effort, the British Empire was able to include Ireland as its part. Irish began losing ground in the parts of the county that were closer to Britain, but it wasn’t until the 18th century when it the British administration, as well as the Catholic Church, started pushing for more usage of English.

Still, it was the 19th century that was the worse for the Irish language. The British introduced a primary education system in which Irish was forbidden until much later in the century. But it was the Great Famine that really gave the Irish language its final blow.

The people who were most likely to die during the famine — the poor — were also the people who spoke the Irish language. And those who didn’t die fled the country. By the end of the famine, Ireland lost around two million people, half of them to hunger, and the other half to immigration.

The Great Famine is one of the darker chapters of Irish history, and it’s not a part of history the British are proud of, either. The famine was not the first or the last one that happened in that century, but it was the one that left the deepest consequences, and the loss of the Irish language was one of them.

Additional Questions 

Is Irish Hard to Learn?

Well, if you already speak fluent Scottish Gaelic, then no, Irish is not a hard language the learn. However, most English speakers will have some troubles learning Irish. It’s not a Germanic language and it doesn’t have the same connection to English as the Romance languages have.

Even though it doesn’t share the same branch with them, Irish might be as hard for English speakers to learn as Slavic languages are. Or maybe even Finno-Ugric languages. Definitely, something you can’t pick up in a couple dozens of hours of learning.

Are There Irish People Who Cannot Speak English?

It’s highly unlikely that you’ll be able to find people in Ireland who speak only Irish. Even if you wander into the Gaeltacht, the best you can do is find people who speak Irish better than they do English.

It might be worth your while to visit some areas where Irish has stronger roots than English. Connemara is such an area, and it’s widely known for its beauty. The Aran Islands are worth at least a day trip of your time, if not more.

What Does ‘Hiberno-English’ Mean?

Hiberno-English is another way of saying Irish English. The phrase refers to all the dialects of the English language people use in Ireland.

The ‘Hiberno’ part of the phrase comes from Hibernia, which is how they used to call the island of Ireland in ancient times using the Latin language. The modern Irish word for Ireland is Éire.


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