Having studied both Old and Modern Irish (the later with the amazing Micheal O’Siadhail, poet and scholar) and visited the Gaeltacht of Connemara, I am very interested in the fate of the language, and was glad to see a brief but authoritative report in Language Log by Jim McCloskey of UC Santa Cruz, “one of the foremost experts in the world on the modern Irish language,” courtesy of Geoff Pullum:
I think that talk of a ‘rebound’ for the language is misplaced, but I do not equate that position with pessimism. The situation is a complex and fluid one, but largely it seems to me that things are on the same trajectory that they have been on for several decades (with a couple of interesting changes). By which I mean that the traditional Irish-using communities (the Gaeltachtai/) continue to shrink and the language continues to retreat in those communities. Nobody that I know who is involved in those communities is optimistic about their future as Irish-speaking communities (though lots of other good things are happening to them and in them).
The observers I trust most (friends and colleagues engaged in intense fieldwork in Gaeltacht communities) maintain that the process of normal acquisition (for Irish) ceased in most areas in the middle 70’s, and it is now increasingly difficult to find people younger than about 30 who control traditional Gaeltacht Irish. If you walk along a road in a Gaeltacht area and try to listen for the language being used by groups of teenagers and children by themselves, it is always (in my recent experience) English. Someone I know who is the principal of a primary school in the Donegal Gaeltacht reported that of the 22 children who entered his school at the beginning of the current year, only two had, in his judgment, sufficient Irish.
So traditional Gaeltacht Irish will almost certainly cease to exist in the next 30 years or so.
But what is unique in the Irish situation, I think, has been the creation of a second language community now many times larger than the traditional Gaeltacht communities (I think that 100,000 is a reasonable estimate for the size of this community). And being a part of that community is a lively and engaging business…
There is a great range of varieties called `Irish’ in use in this community. People like me speak a close approximation of traditional Gaeltacht Irish and there are people who speak new urban calques, heavily influenced by English in every way. For the communities of children growing up around Irish-medium schools in urban centres it may be right to speak of pidginization and creolization (along with a lot of clever inter-language play like the recent ‘cad-ever’). Many teenagers are thoroughly bidialectal, switching easily from the version of Gaeltacht Irish they have from their parents to the new urban varieties in use among their peers.
It will be interesting to see what happens to these varieties when the model of Gaeltacht Irish becomes a memory, but one thing that is clear is that this community is not going to fade away just because the Gaeltacht fades away.
It will be sad to return to the Aran Islands (if I ever do) and no longer hear the easy chatter in Irish all around me, with never a word of English, but I’m glad to learn the language is unlikely to die out.