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Irish or Gaeilge, according to the Irish constitution, is officially the first language of Ireland, it is one of a number of Celtic languages spoken throughout Britain and Ireland.
The Irish language came to Ireland along with the Celtic tribes from around 600 BC. The earliest detailed forms of primitive Irish can be found in Ogham stones dating from around the 4th Century. Following Ireland's conversion to Christianity in the 6th century, early Christian Irish began to be written alongside Latin. From the 10th century a form known as Middle Irish began to appear, which by the 16th Century gave way to Modern Irish. Early forms of Irish literature can be found in ancient texts such as the Book of Kells and the Annals of the Four Masters.
Irish Gaelic has similarities to other Celtic Languages such as the Welsh language and Breton, though is more closely linked with Scots Gaelic. In Ireland there are three main dialects of Irish, Munster Irish, spoken mainly in Co. Kerry and parts of Co. Cork, Connacht Irish, spoken in the western regions of Co. Galway, Connemara and parts of Co. Mayo and Ulster Irish, spoken predominantly on the north western coast of Co. Donegal and parts of Northern Ireland. The Irish language is strongest in Gaeltacht areas within these regions, where Irish is the first language of those that live here and is the predominant language you will hear and see.
According to the 2004 Census, of Ireland's 4.1 million people around 1.6 million speak Irish, though these statistics are often criticised as they account for school pupils, for whom learning Irish is compulsory. A greater bench mark may be the number of people living in the Gaeltacht areas of Ireland, around 100,000 people and there are a further 165,000 Irish speakers in Northern Ireland. Interestingly, results
from the 2000 U.S. census suggest that some 25,000 people speak Irish.
Globally, Irish is enjoying something of a renaissance, in 2005 it was registered as an official language of the European Union and many modern computer software applications offer an Irish Language option. But Irish hasn't always enjoyed such popularity and acceptance.
Despite the steady influx of English from the 16th Century, Irish continued to be the predominant language up until the 18th Century, when Ireland was devastated by the Great Famine. As many of the country's Irish speakers where poor tenant farmers, the language fell into steep decline, when some 1.5 million Irish people died from the famine and a further 1.5 million left the country to the New World during the Irish Diaspora. At the same time parliament in London were intent on eradicating Irish and passed laws to teach English in schools and prohibit the Irish language being used. Irish began to be stigmatised, even by some Irish nationalists, as a backward language, a language of poverty, while English was seen as the language of the future.
But by the 19th century the foundation of the Gaelic League by Douglas Hyde, brought about something of a Gaelic revival. In 1884 the Gaelic Athletics Association was founded and established the sports of Gaelic Football and Hurling, while literary luminaries such as W.B. Yeats, J.M Synge and Sean O'Casey began eulogising about the Irish language.
Since the establishment of the independent Irish state in 1922, the political life and language of Ireland has been increasingly Gaelicised. Many political institutions are named in Irish, such as the Dail Eireann and Oireachtas ( Houses of Parliament), the Taoiseach (Prime Minister) and the Uachtaran (President). In 2003 the Official Languages Act deemed that all official literature be published in Irish as well as English. Street signs throughout Ireland are also bilingual, whereas those in the Gaeltacht are predominantly Irish, creating much confusion for non-Irish speakers reading from English maps!
In the Irish media, Gaeilge is represented in television, radio and newspapers. The heavily state sponsored Teilifis na Gaeilge or TG4 is solely Irish speaking and attracts some 50,000 viewers with popular TV shows such as the soap opera Ros na Run based in the Connemara Gaeltacht, as well as televised Gaelic sports. On air there is Gaeltacht Radio, with localized news and mainly traditional Irish music, while in print there is the daily Irish newspaper La and a weekly title, Foinse, while both mainstream Irish newspapers, Daily Ireland and the Irish Times, print pages in Irish.
From the very early years of the Irish Republic, Gaeilge has been a compulsory lesson in schools. Though this has done little to change the tide of Irish speaking and there are fewer Irish speakers now than there was in 1922, with economic migration from Gaeltacht areas over the last decade being blamed for the decline. A recent development in Irish language teaching has been the growth of Irish speaking schools or gaelscoileanna and now there is at least one such school in each of the 32 counties of Ireland.
For those wanting to learn Irish, there are a number of resources on the Internet as well as plenty of cultural centres throughout Ireland that run Irish Language courses. An excellent way of getting to grips with the Irish language is to experience it first hand with a visit to one of Ireland's Gaeltachts and their rugged rural setting makes for an ideal vacation destination as well.