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    Who speaks Irish?

Census 2006
Use of Irish and the Gaeltacht
Shifts in language use
How many native speakers are there?
Commissioned study of Irish in the Gaeltacht
20 Year Strategy for the Irish language

Note: A census was carried out in Ireland on 10 April 2011. There are some preliminary results available on the website of the Central Statistics Office but these are not connected with the Irish language.

Who speaks Irish? This is not an easy question to answer given that official figures in Ireland have been unrealistically optimistic throughout the entire 20th century, a period of major decline in native speakers of Irish. Successive governments in Ireland have been content to publish figures which bore little or no relation to reality. These figures derive from censuses which were carried out roughly every decade (since 1981 the intervals between censuses have been about halved). The problematic nature of census figures can be illustrated by looking at the returns for the ability to speak Irish during the past century and a half.

Year of census Irish speakers Non-Irish speakers
All ages
1861 1,077,087 3,325,024
1871 804,547 3,248,640
1881 924,781 2,945,239
1891 664,387 2,804,307
1901 619,710 2,602,113
1911 553,717 2,585,971
1926 543,511 2,428,481
3 years and over
1926 540,802 2,261,650
1936 666,601 2,140,324
1946 588,725 2,182,932
1961 716,420 1,919,398
1971 789,429 1,998,019
1981 1,018,413 2,208,054
1986 1,042,701 2,310,931
1991 1,095,830 2,271,176
1996 1,430,205 2,049,443
2002 1,570,894 2,180,101
2006 1,656,790 2,400,856

The above statistics imply that between 1926 and 2006 the number of Irish speakers in Ireland more than trebled. This is plainly absurd. Consider that the census returns were formerly based on self-assessment: individuals were asked if they could speak “Irish only”, “Irish and English”, “Read but cannot speak Irish” and the responses formed the basis of the statistics produced later. In the 2006 census the language data were collected by asking a single question: ‘Can you speak Irish’; below is the relevant part of the census questionnaire.

Because there was no checking on the veracity of the claims individuals made, over-reporting became the norm after Irish independence (post 1922) and by the end of the 20th century had reached very considerable proportions.

Census 2006 – Irish Language

The most recent census in Ireland was carried out in spring 2006 (Census Night was Sunday, April 23, 2006; the previous census was on Sunday, 28 April 2002). The returns have been processed by the Central Statistics Office Ireland, An Phríomh Oifig Staidrimh na hÉireann and all figures used here were obtained from its official website.

On 4 October 2007 Volume 9 of the 2006 census – Irish Language – was published by the Central Statistics Office. Over some 150 pages, consisting mainly of tables, it attempts to document all aspects of the Irish language in contemporary Ireland. This census, however, still claims that over 40% of the population of Ireland have an ability to speak Irish (without any attempt at specifying just what this means):

Total population Ability to speak Irish Non-Irish speakers Not stated % of total
3,990,863 1,650,982 2,242,554 97,327 42.4

Persons aged 3 years and over usually resident and present in the State on Census Night, classified by ability to speak Irish.

However, in one crucial respect the 2006 census provides information on language use which gives the returns a flavour of reality. For the first time, the census registers the use of Irish by the census respondents and, importantly, distinguishes between the use of the language in the educational system and outside. It has long been assumed by observers of census figures that the claim of respondents to speak Irish rests largely on their exposure to the language in school (where the language is compulsory). Needless to say, the level of proficiency attained with a compulsory subject in school can and does vary greatly.

The use of the language on a daily basis outside the education system, which is a good yardstick for any living community language, presents a very different picture. Consider in this respect the following returns.

  Daily within education system Outside education system
Ability to speak Irish Speaks Irish within education system only Speaks Irish also outside education Daily Weekly Less often Never Not stated
1,650,982 452,925 31,567 53,130 96,716 578,779 411,043 26,822

These figures show that of the 1.6 million individuals who claim the ability to speak Irish, only 3.22% (53,130) actually use it on a daily basis outside the education system. Additionally, the fact that the figure for a weekly use outside the education system is nearly twice as large as for a daily use would imply that this use is very brief, that is there may not be a chance to use the language daily, but one might be able to use it once a week, assuming one can find other individuals one can talk to. Even a reference to using Irish daily outside the education system does not mean that Irish in this case is the language of choice, i.e. preferred over English for all levels of public and private exchange. In sum, the figure of 3.22% for individuals with a daily use of the language outside the education system should not be taken to imply that there is this number of native speakers of Irish in present-day Ireland.

An interesting result of these statistics is that 70.65% of those who reported an ability to speak Irish never use the language at all. Those who neither speak Irish within or outside the education system total 1,166,490, i.e. just over 70% of the 1,650,982 who claim the ability to speak Irish. So what does the ability to speak Irish mean for this 70.65%? The only answer is that they once learned the language (in school), have not used it since, but view the remnants of their knowledge of Irish as an ability to speak the language. In the census collection situation, where there was no checking of language ability and where the census collector was highly unlikely to have any particular knowledge of the language anyway, this type of claim could be made with impunity.

The relationship between the use of Irish within the education system and outside is more even in the Gaeltacht compared to the urban centres of Ireland. For instance, in Dublin 104,743 persons reported using Irish on a daily basis within the education system while only 6,658 (6%) stated that they also speak Irish daily outside education. In the Co. Galway Gaeltacht, on the other hand, 5,035 persons reported using Irish within the education system on a daily basis with 2,416 (48%) also using the language on a daily basis outside of the education system.

Use of Irish and the Gaeltacht


Total population

Ability to speak Irish

Daily use outside education

Entire state

3,990,863 (100%)

1,650,982 (41.37%)

53,130 (1.33%)

The Gaeltacht

91,862 (100%)

64,265 (69.96%)

17,687 (19.25%)

Population of the Gaeltacht areas 91,862  
Irish speakers 64,265 69.96%
Non-Irish speakers 26,539 28.89%
Not stated 1,058 1.15%

The areas designated as the Gaeltacht have always been generously defined by the Irish government. For instance, the 2006 census still maintains that part of Galway city is within the Gaeltacht and returns 13,737 individuals for this area. It is true that many native speakers of Irish (from the Gaeltacht to the west) work in the city, either commuting from outlying locations or living in Galway, but it is not certain whether a part of Galway city constitutes a living community of native speakers of Irish. The census statistics inadvertently confirm this. Of a supposed group of 6,878 speakers only 474 (7%) reported using Irish daily. Compare this with Galway county where the census returned 22,377 speakers with 7,382 (33%) using the language on a daily basis. In addition, the ‘Galway city Gaeltacht’ shows very few speakers of 65 years and over: 375 with 48 using Irish daily. This indirectly confirms that the speakers here are in-migrants from the Gaeltacht area to the west of the city who came in search of work.

A spin-off of the very broad official definition of Gaeltacht is that the census only returned 64,265 Irish speakers among the total Gaeltacht population of 91,862, i.e. only two thirds of persons in the Gaeltacht speak Irish. A more realistic, i.e. smaller, geographical definition the Gaeltacht would yield a higher percentage of Irish speakers, though it would never reach 100% as there are many English-only speakers living in the various Gaeltacht areas.

Gaeltacht No. of speakers Use Irish daily 15-24 65 years plus
Donegal 16,909 5,851 512 1,562
Mayo 6,853 1,031 80 288
( Galway city 6,878 474 73 48 )
Galway county 22,377 7,382 851 1,266
Kerry 6,170 1,810 179 339
Cork 2,860 622 68 126
Waterford 1,242 304 39 39
Meath 976 213 25 39
All areas 64,265 17,687 1,827 3,707

Use of Irish on a daily basis outside the education system with speakers aged 3 years and over in each Gaeltacht, classified by frequency of speaking Irish and age group (partial).

Shifts in language use

The dynamics of the current language situation can be recognised by comparing two age groups, which are roughly equivalent in terms of size, for daily use of Irish (see above table). In all the Gaeltacht areas the ten-year age group from 15-24 constitutes about 10% of the speakers who use the language daily. At the opposite end, one can see that the group of individuals over 65 constitutes more than 25% in the larger Gaeltacht areas.

In the weak Gaeltacht areas, such as Waterford and Meath, the figures are closer because the group of older speakers has been smaller for some time, whereas in the stronger Gaeltacthaí, notably in Co. Donegal and Co. Galway, the decline in language use has been more recent and so there is still a sizeable community of individuals over 65 years of age who speak Irish amongst each other on a daily basis.

There is also a significant proportion of speakers of Irish in the Gaeltacht areas who claim never to use Irish. The numbers here are greatest for the 25-34 year age bracket. This would confirm the view that some people who acquire Irish in their homes abandon the language as adults during their professional life.

    3-4 5-9 10-14 15-19 20-24 25-34 35-44 45-54 55-64 65+
Daily 7,382 147 211 267 385 466 1,011 1,100 1,377 1,152 1,266
Weekly 1,833 33 69 82 116 150 245 354 299 232 253
Less often 3,964 24 53 78 246 335 721 774 742 494 497
Never 1,185 1 9 19 86 127 264 251 238 104 86

Use of Irish by Irish speakers outside the education system in Co. Galway (total: 14,364).

    3-4 5-9 10-14 15-19 20-24 25-34 35-44 45-54 55-64 65+
Daily 17,687 332 493 566 821 1,006 2,206 2,778 3,086 2,692 3,707
Weekly 6,564 84 190 258 416 520 885 1,127 1,100 905 1,079
Less often 15,150 85 200 293 940 1,493 2,439 2,524 2,607 2,056 2,513
Never 4,313 1 31 79 385 599 954 698 694 394 478

Use of Irish by Irish speakers outside the education system in all Gaeltacht areas (total: 43,714).

How many native speakers of Irish are there?

For the future of the Irish language, this is the most important question. Before tackling the issue it is important to define a native speaker in a linguistic sense. A person is a native speaker of a language if he/she has acquired this language throughout childhood and started not later than 5 or 6. There must be sufficient exposure to the language through continuous input and reinforcement by members of this language’s existing speech community. The situation where individuals are exposed to two languages throughout their childhood to a more or less equal extent is quite common with bilingualism as a result.

Virtually all native speakers of Irish are bilingual with English as their other native language. In a bilingual situation the amount of exposure, use and reinforcement may vary and one language may be dominant. The degree of dominance may increase with individuals acquiring a good knowledge of the second language but not reaching native speaker competence. This stage of language shift, here to English, is characteristic today of many persons in the Gaeltacht areas, born into Irish-speaking families but without the same degree of competence in Irish as their parents or grandparents.

There are native speakers outside the Gaeltacht, all of whom are individuals who grew up there and went to live somewhere else in Ireland or abroad. Even if such individuals manage to pass the language onto their children, the families remain scattered and not sufficiently numerous vis a vis English-speaking families which surround them. Hence, such a second generation could not form a living community of native speakers outside the Gaeltacht and so will not be instrumental in the overall survival of the language.

The 2006 census registered some 64,265 individuals1 within the Gaeltacht who were ‘Irish speakers’. Of these about 20,000 stated that they never used Irish now or used it less often than once a week (outside the education system). Even if some of these 20,000 acquired Irish as their first language, their present linguistic behaviour as ‘dormant’ native speakers means that they will not be involved in the transmission of the language to future generations.

Whether all the 64,265 individuals registered by the 2006 census are native speakers of Irish is unsure (there will be some people living in the Gaeltacht but who did not grow up learning Irish, especially in the periphery of the areas designated by the government as Gaeltachtaí). If one substracts about a third, because the government exaggerates the size of Gaeltachtaí and because not everyone even in the core of the Gaeltacht areas grew up speaking Irish as a first language, then one reaches a figure of approximately 45,000, but not more than 50,000, for the native speakers of the Gaeltacht (recall that only 53,130 individuals in the entire country claimed to use Irish on a daily basis outside education). This represents just over 1% of the population of present-day Ireland.

In fact this figure may in itself be too optimistic. If one considers the numbers of persons in the Gaeltacht who use Irish on a daily basis outside of education – 17,687 – and compares it to the population of the entire state – 3,990,863 – then one reaches a percentage figure of 0.44%. Given that the number of active native speakers can scarcely be higher than that of those in the Gaeltacht who use Irish on a daily basis outside education, the percentage of native speakers in present-day Ireland would be between 0.4% and 0.5%, i.e. not more than 20,000 at the most. Given this alarmingly low figure, it is understandable that the statistics office and the government in general does not wish to be more accurate in this matter.

Finally, it should be mentioned that Irish may well be transmitted in future by non-native speakers outside the Gaeltacht who are committed to the language and dedicated to improving its status and use where possible.

1) The government’s figure of 64,265 individuals as users of Irish in the Gaeltacht, from a total of 91,862, must be rounded up somewhat as it covers those 3 years and older, i.e. the under-three year olds are not included.

Commissioned study of Irish in the Gaeltacht

In 2004 the Roinn Gnóthaí Pobail, Tuaithe agus Gaeltachta ‘Department of Community Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs’ (as it was then called, now [2011] it is the An Roinn Ealaíon, Oidhreachta agus Gaeltachta, ‘Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht’) commissioned a comprehensive study of the use of Irish in the Irish-speaking regions (Gaeltacht areas). This linguistic work was carried out by a group of scholars, chiefly Conchúr Ó Giollagáin and Seosamh Mac Donnacha, from the National Univerity of Ireland, Galway in cooperation with the National Univerity of Ireland, Maynooth. The results of this research were published in autumn 2007 as a comphrensive document, Staidéar Chuimsitheach Theangeolaíoch ar Úsáid na Gaeilge sa Ghaeltacht ‘Comprehensive linguistic study of the use of Irish in the Irish-speaking regions’ (552 pages).

The report has a number of far-reaching recommendations, e.g. the division of each Gaeltacht into three categories, A, B and C, depending on the strength of the language there. This division would supersede the outdated one of Fíor-Gaeltacht ‘true Irish-speaking region’ and Breac-Gaeltacht ‘intermittent Irish-speaking region’. The number of people in Category A would be much less than in the present entire Gaeltacht. For instance, in Connemara, which is the most populous Gaeltacht at present, only 16,000 of 45,000 people would fall into Category A.

The report attempts to identify the reasons for language decline and makes suggestions to stem this. Chief among the reasons for the retreat of Irish is that young people – typically teenagers – who are growing up in Irish-speaking households very often do not use Irish amongst themselves, especially if there are English-speaking coevals with them. If this tendency was successfully counteracted then language continuity would be on a firmer footing and the future of the Gaeltacht areas would be more certain.

20 Year Strategy for the Irish Language 2010-2030

This is a strategy announced by the previous Fiann Fáil government in 2012 and is intended to coordinate efforts for the support and maintenance of the Irish language and its attending infrastructure over the next two decades. There is a government website laying out the objectives of the strategy accessible at: 20 Year Strategy for the Irish Language 2010-2030.