History of the Irish Language


Irish is a Celtic language which is closely related to Scottish and Manx Gaelic. It is also related to Welsh, Cornish and Breton. The first speakers of Irish probably arrived on these shores from mainland Europe around two thousand years ago.One of the main factors which contributed to the decline of Irish was the potato famine of the mid-nineteenth century. Approximately one million people died in the Famine and another million emigrated. The majority of these were native Irish speakers.


While the last native speakers of Irish in the north, from an historical perspective, died in the 1970s, by then, Irish-speaking families had appeared in different parts of the north.  Irish is being transmitted inter generationally in these families to this day and many people are learning the language at school or in community classes.The Irish language movement in the north, therefore, is essentially revivalist. Irish speakers are spread throughout the north with the largest concentration in the greater Belfast area. A major development has been taking place over the last few years with the launch of Irish classes in the East Belfast Mission on the Newtownards Road. Linda Ervine has taken the Turas initiative forward and in January 2014 new premises were officially opened in the Skainos Centre in East Belfast.

Irish-medium education is among the fastest growing and developing education sectors in Ireland in the past 30 years. Over 45,000 pupils are currently attending Irish-medium schools outside of the Gaeltacht. There are more than 250 schools in the south, as well as 45 Nurseries, 38 primary schools and 4 Irish-Medium secondary schools in the north where pupils receive their education through the medium of Irish. Indeed, over 5,000 pupils are being taught through the medium of Irish in the north at present, and Irish is the third most popular taught language at GCSE level in the north’s schools.

While 1.77 million people in the south said in the 2011 census that they can speak Irish, in the north, 11% of the population claimed to have some knowledge of Irish.

Irish classes which cater for various levels of ability are available across the island (and beyond) and hundreds of young people and adults attend Gaeltacht courses in those regions where the Irish Language still remains a community language. 


While the death of older native speakers of Irish has been a cause for concern for language enthusiasts for many years, there is a renewed confidence in the future of the language. Irish is slowly but surely becoming a shared language for all and Líofa aims to assist in making the Irish Language available to a greater number of people. Líofa recognises that the Irish language does not belong to any particular group or individual, but is a rich, vibrant language to be spoken by anyone who wishes to do so. So please join us and make the Líofa pledge.