The Importance of Gaeilge

Is it time to rebrand the Irish language?

In popular culture, Ireland is colloquially synonymous with its saints and scholars, resplendent landscapes, and magnificent language. The first of these may now confidently be labelled a mere historical adage. The second will undoubtedly forever remain. The third, however, is treading a perilously fine line between anachrony and truth. 

According to the most recent Central Statistics Office account, the number of global Irish speakers was 1,761,420 in April of 2016. This number effectively represents a decrease vis-à-vis the most recent account. Furthermore, the enthusiasm to actually speak the language, it would seem, is equally, gradually dissipating: only 4% speak it daily. Whilst the connection may be hard to fathom, matters are made clearer upon understanding that a great proportion of those speakers restrict their practice purely to the education system and the tedious repetition of popular expressions akin to póg mo thóin.

“The 19th-century wave of migration of Irish speakers met the same stonewall as the survivors who remained in Ireland, forever buttressed as a poor underclass.”


To understand this decline, historical context is imperative. As usual, the 19th-century famine had a role to play: the population fell by approximately 23%, a demographic catastrophe that most severely affected poor Gaelic-speaking communities in the West and South. Then, the 19th-century wave of migration of Irish speakers met the same stonewall as the survivors who remained in Ireland, forever buttressed as a poor underclass. Before then, the prominence of the language had already hit a hard turn when the British government’s education policies, established in 1831, stipulated that all classes had to be taught in English. One may even go as far back as 1607, wherein the two Earls Hugh O’Neill and Rory O’Donnell were permanently exiled from the island in order to pinpoint the genesis of its decline. Anyhow, thereafter, Ireland’s ruling class was expected to be English-speaking Protestants.

It won’t surprise anyone that the majority of fluent speakers today are concentrated along the west coast. One may go as far as to establish a connection between the West as an area subjected to lesser British control. Indeed, those who sat the Leaving Certificate will have fond memories of classics like Yu Ming Is Ainm Dom, itself proof of the very fact that the language is still thriving. Otherwise, however, it is unfortunately falling into disuse. As one of the sacrosanct pillars upon which the country is built, this may be interpreted as a loss of cultural identity and strength. Given those implications, it seems almost imperative that the language should come back to the fore.

 There are purported multiple ways that one could go about doing so. Recognising the intrinsic value of the language may be one. Whether the language still bears this external allure that may indicate its intrinsic value (e.g. school teaching and attachment to nationalism) could easily be debated. Brenda Power, for one, believes the way the language is currently taught to be a pedagogical failure. Accordingly, it may be that the language must be seen in a new light, as promoted through the medium of the popular arts. Some may be surprised to learn that this idea is rather old, finding its most expressive roots in Oscar Wilde’s 1891 essay The Critic as Artist, wherein the notorious playwright expressed the desire to unite the world through, inter alia, the use of the Irish language. 

Recently, a swarm of Irish films have been receiving critical acclaim at international film festivals. This has not only allowed for the proselytization of the Irish language through a popular medium, but equally for discussion around the subject, inspiring individuals to promote the language online. In effect, Paul Mescal recently did just that. Renowned for his laudable performance in Normal People, Mescal has become a trademark of Irish stardom. In a recent interview with TG4 at the 2023 BAFTA Awards, he somewhat uneasily, though with perseverance held a lengthy, Irish conversation with the interviewee. Discussing the success of The Banshees of Inisherin and An Cailín Ciúin, the international film star went on to say that if the opportunity ever arose, he would consider filming a film as Gaeilge. 

“We need to make the Irish language appealing again; we need to see it as worthy of learning, speaking daily, and sharing with the world.”

Given the recent international success surrounding Irish film production, the idea to produce a film in Irish with Paul Mescal seems, in this author’s opinion, like a pertinent first step so that the language may be rebranded in vogue. Celebrated actors in his position have a duty to ensure that our country’s language remains prominent. We need not restrict promotion to the cinematic medium, however. By promoting the language thereby, we should aim to mould a judicious relationship between young people and the Irish language. As previously mentioned, the educational system has largely failed to do so. Its techniques are outdated and inefficient. We need to make the Irish language appealing again; we need to see it as worthy of learning, speaking daily, and sharing with the world. Clearly, there are many methods to achieve such an end. Whichever we may choose, the end goal must never leave our sights.

Sébastien Laymond

Sébastien Laymond is the Editor of the 'SciTech' column for Trinity News, and is currently in his Junior Sophister Year reading law.