Gaels (Irish) - Orientation

Identification. The Gaelic language (Gaedhilge) is a primary cultural marker of Gaels living on the Atlantic fringe of Ireland, distinguishing them from the English-speaking Irish of Ulster and the Irish republic in general.

Location. Apart from Iceland, the Gaelic enclaves represent the westernmost culture of the Old World. They are found along the south and west coasts of the republic, and these pockets, called "Gaeltachts," have had a special protected status since 1956. They are located in seven discontinuous areas: western Donegal, western Mayo, western Galway, the Aran Islands, western Kerry, western Cork, and southwestern Waterford. Only in these areas is Gaelic still widely spoken, though English is learned in school and also used. They are completely rural areas, and their economic development is tightly regulated; indeed, the frequency of Atlantic gales and the poor soil make farm improvement especially difficult. The number of primarily Gaelic speakers has steadily declined since the great potato famine of 1845-1848, and since then the boundary of their habitat has correspondingly been retreating westward. Although a century ago they covered the western half of the island of Ireland, today Gaelic enclaves are found discontinuously between 51°40′ and 55°20′ N and 7°30′ and l0°0′ W.

Demography. In 1981 1,018,413 Gaelic speakers were claimed for the Republic of Ireland (including 72,774 in the Gaeltachts), perhaps 20,000 in Northern Ireland, and a few thousand more who had settled in England, Australia, or North America. The number of Gaelic speakers (1,018,413) —which is 31.6 percent of the total population of the republic—does not come close to expressing the reality, since most of the self-identified "Irish speakers" are English speakers who learned some Irish in school. The number of speakers has really been declining for some centuries. Thus for example in the entire island in 1851 there were 319,602 speakers of Gaelic only, plus 1,204,684 bilingual in Gaelic and English. By 1901 these figures had dropped to 20,953 monoglots and 620,189 bilinguals. This trend has continued until recent times. However, the decline in numbers of Gaelic speakers cannot be explained simply by general population decline in the country. The closely related phenomena of population decline, high rates of underemployment, overseas emigration, the rural incidence of anomie, and the creation of the "Congested Districts Board" in 1891 must be considered together, as they apply in particular to what later became categorized as the Gaeltachts. In these areas the government has since 1891 made modest attempts to improve living conditions in what were recognized to be the poorest, least arable, and least developed parts of the country; but despite the board's activities and the creation of Roinn na Gaeltachta in 1956 to promote welfare in the Gaeltachts, the introduction of better housing, cooperative dairies, and certain welfare facilities has done nothing to hold the population in these areas. Typically today they contain an "old" population of widows, widowers, and other elderly people who have never married. While there are, of course, some young people too, many have moved to the Dublin area on the other side of the country or gone overseas. With national unemployment throughout Ireland (and Ulster) at 18 percent in 1989—and higher in the Gaeltachts—no reversal of this demographic trend is in sight.

Linguistic Affiliation. Gaelic, Irish, or Erse is an ancient language of the Indo-European Family. It is not closely related to the neighboring English but instead is one of the Languages forming the small subfamily of modern Celtic, a relic of the ancient Celtic that reached in pre-Roman times from Britain and Iberia as far as Asia Minor. The modern Celtic languages, in addition to Irish, are Scottish Gaelic (also called Erse), Welsh, Breton or Armoric, Cornish (extinct in 1777), and Manx (virtually extinct by 1990). Most of them have an ancient literature. Two other important languages that had disappeared by about the fifth century A.D. were Gaulish and British. All Celtic languages have certain non-Indo-European features, such as positioning of the verb at the beginning of the sentence, which are otherwise known to us from Berber and Ancient Egyptian. Gaelic currently has the status of "first official language" in the Republic of Ireland, and because of urban migration the largest pocket of Gaelic speakers today is in Dublin County.

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