One Hundred Years of Irish Language Policy, 1922-2022

by John Walsh (Author)
©2022 Monographs X, 384 Pages
Series: Reimagining Ireland, Volume 112


Following the significant advance of English in Ireland during the 18th century, the restoration of Irish as the vernacular language formed a key part of a broad cultural Revival movement from the late 19th century. Many of those who fought figuratively or literally for independence learned Irish to varying degrees of success or broadly supported the aims of the Revival movement. Significant policy measures to promote Irish were adopted following independence in 1922, particularly in the fields of education, legal status and public administration. Despite decades of contestation around revitalisation, Irish continues to enjoy institutional supports denied to many other European minority languages but remains weak as a community language.
Published in the centenary year of the foundation of the Irish state, this book reviews one hundred years of government policy on Irish and assesses its relative success or failure. Based on theoretical perspectives on language policy and revitalisation of minority languages, it analyses the development and implementation of Irish language initiatives in five thematic areas: speakers, the Gaeltacht, education, legislation and broadcasting. Each chapter includes an overview of the topic and a detailed case study on an aspect of it, drawing heavily on archival sources related to both the state and civil society organisations.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction
  • CHAPTER 1. Speakers
  • CHAPTER 2. Gaeltacht
  • CHAPTER 3. Education
  • CHAPTER 4. Legislation
  • CHAPTER 5. Broadcasting
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • Index
  • Series Index

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This book would not have been possible without the support of a large number of people in Galway and further afield. I extend my gratitude to the staff of Archives and Special Collections in the James Hardiman Library at Ollscoil na Gaillimhe - University of Galway (formerly NUI Galway) in particular Marie Boran, Geraldine Curtin, Margo Donohue, Kieran Hoare and Barry Houlihan. Other Library staff Trish Finnan, Hugo Kelly and Rioghna Moggan have assisted in various ways. I am grateful to those Galway colleagues who have supported me to develop the Conradh na Gaeilge archive, Librarian John Cox, Deputy Librarian Monica Crump and especially archivist Niamh Ní Charra, who also helped with sourcing material for this book. Other former and current colleagues Professor Dan Carey, Professor Nollaig Mac Congáil, Séamus Mac Mathúna, Professor Laura McLoughlin, Professor Donncha O’Connell, Tom O’Malley and Dr Jackie Uí Chionna offered support generously.

Further afield, I am deeply indebted to friends and colleagues in other universities who supported me in various ways: Dr Ciara Breathnach (University of Limerick), Dr Rosemary Day (University of Limerick), Professor Rob Dunbar (University of Edinburgh), Professor Michael Hornsby (Adam Mickiewicz University, Poznan), Dr Huw Lewis (Aberystwyth University), Dr Seán Mac Risteaird (Dublin City University), Professor Wilson McLeod (University of Edinburgh), Professor Máirín Nic Eoin (Dublin City University), Professor Bernie O’Rourke (University of Glasgow) and Professor Colin Williams (Cardiff University).

The assistance of the staff of the National Archives of Ireland and of Special Collections in the Boole Library, University College Cork is gratefully acknowledged. I also extend gratitude to Emer Ní Bhrádaigh, Mary Noonan and Cuan Ó Seireadáin who gave me access to quiet workspaces in Clare and Galway in which to complete this book. Gabhaim buíochas chomh maith le Maolsheachlainn Ó Caollaí agus le hÓrla de Búrca (Oifig ← | viii→an Choimisinéara Teanga). I was delighted to return to Peter Lang to publish this volume and I thank the Senior Commissioning Editor for Ireland, Tony Mason and the editor of the Reimagining Ireland series, Eamon Maher for their efficiency and professionalism.

Tá mo mhórbhuíochas tuillte ag na cairde seo a chuir comhairle mo leasa orm go minic, a chabhraigh liom cruacheisteanna a réiteach agus a thug misneach dom in am an ghátair: An Dr Dorothy Ní Uigín agus Dónall Ó Braonáin (Acadamh na hOllscolaíochta Gaeilge) agus an Coimisinéir Teanga, Rónán Ó Domhnaill. My father Peter and my family Clare, Micheál, Jack, Aoife, Jamie and Sharon encouraged me along the way. My husband Declan Coogan has earned my deepest gratitude for his unstinting support and belief in me throughout this project. I dedicate this book to the memory of my late mother Anne, who passed on her respect for Irish to me and re-learned it as an adult.

Galway, January 2022

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1. Introduction

This book was completed around the centenary of the Anglo-Irish Treaty on the 6th of December 1921 that paved the way for the creation of the Irish Free State. The plenipotentiaries in London signed their names in Irish, and many had been involved in the Gaelic League (Conradh na Gaeilge) since the period of the cultural Revival in the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Indeed, many of those who fought for independence, both literally and metaphorically, supported the revival of Irish, and language policy took an ostensibly important place once the new state came into being formally on the 6th of December 1922. The aim of this book is to explore a centenary of policy towards the Irish language since independence in a series of thematic chapters covering speakers, the Gaeltacht (Irish-speaking districts), education, legislation and the broadcast media. Guiding the analysis is the broad framework of language policy, a branch of sociolinguistics that also has links with other social sciences such as political economy, sociology and anthropology. Later in this chapter, I outline some of the key conceptual foundations of language policy as a discipline, but I first present three inter-related anecdotes from the news cycle in late 2021 that shine light between them on many of the key themes in this book.

On the 15th of December 2021, the Official Languages (Amendment) Bill passed its final stage in the Dáil (lower house of parliament) and was sent to the President for his signature (Tuairisc.ie, 2021a). The headline measure in the new legislation was a target of 20 per cent of recruits to public bodies to be competent in Irish by 2030. On the same day, schoolchildren from five gaelscoileanna (primary level immersion schools) in south ←1 | 2→Dublin protested outside the Dáil against the failure of the Department of Education to provide a second level Irish-medium school in their area (Nuacht RTÉ, 2021). The following day, the Minister for Justice diminished further the already weak status of Irish in the recruitment policy of the Garda Síochána (police), with the stated aim of attracting immigrants to the force (Tuairisc.ie, 2021f).

Taken together, these three events illustrate some of the ideologies and contradictions in relation to policy on the Irish language, a century after the Irish state was founded. The enactment of the revised Official Languages Bill was a key turning point as it strengthened existing legislation and contained the potential to increase substantially the provision of public services in Irish. It came about due to the doggedness and persistence of activists and the support of a handful of politicians who are committed to promoting Irish as a living, spoken language and to improving public services for Irish speakers. They were aided by a more favourable political climate due to the presence in government of two parties that are relatively supportive of Irish, the centre-right Fianna Fáil and the Green Party. Although there are weaknesses in the new legislation, not least the absence of a date by which all services would have to be provided in Irish in the Gaeltacht, it represents the best political outcome in the current circumstances. However, the fact that it took ten years and three changes of government to achieve illustrates the low priority given to Irish by the other centre-right party, Fine Gael, which held power for much of the decade that the legislation was under review. Furthermore, the passing of almost a century between the foundation of the state and strengthened legislation to provide services in Irish is a telling illustration of the marginalised place of language in the policy arena, despite its exalted constitutional status.

Like its predecessor, the new Act is limited mostly to services provided by public bodies and does not function as a wide-ranging law to promote Irish throughout society. It has nothing to say about educational provision, for instance, and therefore offers no comfort to the gaelscoil students and teachers demanding secondary provision in Irish. Compared to similar minority language contexts in Western Europe, Ireland lags behind considerably in its provision of immersion education, with only c. 8 per cent of students in gaelscoileanna compared to c. 25 per cent in Wales and c. ←2 | 3→75 per cent in the Basque Country (see Chapter 3). This low figure also contrasts starkly with the new target of 20 per cent of recruits to public bodies and highlights the absence of joined-up thinking about Irish even after a century of promotional policies. Without developing significantly the position of Irish in education, in particular immersion schooling, there is no chance that the government can meet the targets of its own 20-Year Strategy for the Irish Language (Government of Ireland, 2010) to increase significantly the numbers of speakers. Due to the weak sociolinguistic base of the Gaeltacht, many new speakers will have to come from the education system, particularly gaelscoileanna. By failing to consolidate the position of Irish in education, the Irish state is undermining one of the central planks of its language policy.

The policy change in relation to the Garda Síochána is relatively inconsequential as an Irish language entry requirement was abolished in 2005. Since then, entrants were required to know two languages, one of which had to be English or Irish. Now, with the ostensible aim of attracting more diverse recruits, only one language is mandatory because, according to the Minister for Justice, the requirement to know two is an obstacle to recruitment and disadvantages those who were not born in Ireland and do not know Irish. Although the change is minimal, the statement speaks volumes about what we can call the ‘real’ language policy, what is actually going on when the bluster about promoting Irish is stripped away. Firstly, it ignores the fact that many immigrants are already bi- or multilingual and therefore were not disadvantaged by the previous policy. Presenting Irish as an obstacle to their participation when it was not an absolute requirement anyway is disingenuous, and one is tempted to conclude that pressure for change came from Irish-born applicants who did not know enough Irish or any additional language to English. Framing the requirement for two languages as a problem is reflective of a de facto monolingual English-only policy in the public service and society more generally. Secondly, the statement stands in stark contrast with the ambitious recruitment target of the new Act, which includes the Garda Síochána among the public bodies covered. The new policy does nothing to deal with the issue of recruitment of Irish speakers to the force, a clear requirement under the new legislation. The timing and optics of the Department of Justice statement could ←3 | 4→not have been worse, coming on the same day that the Minister for the Gaeltacht heralded the new Official Languages Act as an historic breakthrough for the Irish language (Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Sport, Gaeltacht and Media, 2021).

A final point relates to media coverage of these stories. Irish language radio, television and online media covered all three items in detail, but they were marginal in English-language media, although one outlet pounced on the apparent contradiction between the new 20 per cent requirement for public bodies and the downgrading of Irish in the Garda Síochána. There was an absence of even a basic understanding of the language policy and the familiar negative commentary claiming a discrepancy between the new Act and a supposedly non-existent Irish-speaking community (e.g. Newstalk, 2021). When it comes to language matters, Irish- and English-language media often inhabit parallel universes.

2. Context and aims

All of the issues touched on in these anecdotes – education, public administration, legislation, media, the Gaeltacht and speakers – are discussed in the chapters that follow. Using the framework of language policy, the book highlights the contradictions between the stated policy aims and their execution, examining how ideological clashes between civil society and the state, or between different arms of the state itself, can impede or retard implementation.

The overall aim is to provide a comprehensive analysis of the policy of the Irish government in relation to the Irish language, on the occasion in 1922 of the centenary of the foundation of the Irish state. In the course of the last century, Irish has shifted from being a marginalised language within the larger British state, lacking a standardised written variety and institutional support, to a minoritised language within its own nation-state albeit with considerable legal and administrative backing. Throughout this period, its demography has been transformed: the traditional Gaeltacht districts of the native language in the western half of the country have continued ←4 | 5→to atrophy but numbers claiming competence in Irish have risen consistently elsewhere and there are active networks of speakers throughout the country. Both trends are largely a result of the language policy measures adopted by successive Irish administrations since independence. At various critical junctures throughout the twentieth century, key institutional supports were provided for Irish in policy domains such as the law, education, media, public administration and the Gaeltacht itself. Constitutionally, Irish became the ‘national’ and ‘first official’ language, but without attendant policy measures that could have made greater progress towards turning those legal aims into a sociolinguistic reality. While the measures were significant in themselves, most of them were developed in an era preceding the academic disciplines of applied sociolinguistics and language planning and were less ambitious than policies that would be adopted in later decades in other minority language regions such as the Basque Country, Wales and Catalonia.

Following the rhetoric of poorly defined ‘gaelicisation’ in the early decades of the state, the policy trajectory has shown slippage towards a vague ‘bilingualism’ since the 1960s, on the back of broader socioeconomic transformation of Irish society. A discourse of minority rights has emerged since the 1980s, and Irish language policy has since found itself caught between the remnants of the historical rhetoric of the ‘national’ language on the one hand and on the other by the notion of Irish as a minority language spoken actively only by a small core group. Although the focus of this book is on the Irish state as the main driver of Irish language policy over the past 100 years, I will also examine the impact of Irish language activism in Northern Ireland and consider the role of Irish speakers in the North in the future development of the language. No account of Irish language policy would be complete without an analysis of the situation north of the border, particularly since the late 1960s when the roots of many current initiatives began to crystallise in the context of the Troubles.

Another critical aspect of Irish language policy is its relationship with the broader social and demographic change in Ireland over the past twenty years, which has undermined historical perceptions about ownership of the language. Due to grassroots community initiatives on both sides of the border, the language is no longer strongly associated with historical ←5 | 6→essentialist ideologies around Irishness. From its inception in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, therefore, Irish language policy has shifted from being a central pillar of a young European state’s identity construct to an optional extra in a hyper-globalised context marked by fluid identities, high levels of immigration and an increasingly neoliberal and weakened state. However, contrary to the predictions of modernisation theory, minority languages such as Irish have not faded away and a small but vigorous community of speakers continues to exist, supported by a larger buffer of what can be called ‘supporters’ of the language, those with limited passive ability but some level of positive ideological engagement.

A key objective of this book is to contribute to a deeper understanding of a well-known minority language revival effort: policy towards Irish since the foundation of the Irish state. There has been no single in-depth wide-ranging analysis of Irish language policy in twenty-five years since Ó Riagáin’s milestone account (1997). In the chapters that follow, I seek to answer the following central questions: how has Irish language policy functioned in the historical arc of this study? How have competing ideologies and broader socioeconomic and socio-political contexts shaped its formulation and implementation? To what extent can Irish language policy be considered a success or failure? The volume will synthesise existing research on the topic, position it in the context of the theoretical fields of sociolinguistics and language policy and provide a thematic analysis, based on rich primary sources, of various strands of Irish language policy over the past century. The time is ripe, after 100 years of independence, to assess critically the considerable efforts of the Irish state and Irish language civil society to bring about their stated aim of the revival of Irish.

3. Theoretical framework

Many terms are in use to describe the study of the use of given languages or language varieties and attempts to modify such behaviour. Used in a global sense in reference to languages in general, these include language planning, language policy, language management, language governance ←6 | 7→and language regimes. When discussing minoritised languages such as Irish, terms like language revitalisation, language revival, language normalisation, language recovery and language reawakening are in use, depending on the extent of minoritisation (i.e. ‘normalisation’ is used by the Catalans but moribund Native American languages prefer ‘reawakening’; see Sallabank, 2013). This terminological richness reflects the complexity and breadth of the field, which is in existence only since the second half of the twentieth century. The title of the field is itself a conundrum and depends on the theoretical framework adopted, but one of its leading scholars, Bernard Spolsky, suggests ‘language policy’ as an umbrella term and that is the title of a landmark handbook about the topic that he edited (Spolsky, 2012). Regardless of the philosophical basis, most of the terms imply some form of deliberate intervention (often but not always by a political authority) in a given language situation, with the aim of influencing use of and/or attitudes towards languages or varieties. In this sense, such intervention has been in existence for time immemorial since emperors and monarchies began promoting certain languages or varieties and marginalising others. Language policy is now a complex and broad interdisciplinary field that encompasses other disciplines such as anthropology, sociology, political science, political economy, geography and economics.

One historical sketch of the field highlights four examples of language policy spanning the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries and representing pre-modern, early modern and modern periods. The first is the establishment of the French Academy (Académie française) in 1635 with the aim of purifying French and rendering it capable of dealing with the arts and sciences. The second relates to the early modern European national movements that emerged in the late nineteenth century in countries or regions that did not have political autonomy, i.e., Finland, the Czech lands, Slovakia, Norway and Ireland. These groups made linguistic and cultural demands, and the influence of Romanticism increased the emphasis on the perceived purity and authenticity of their cultural realms. The third, containing both early modern and modern influences, is the example of the Soviet Union in the 1920s and 1930s, where Russian was not prioritised at the expense of everything else and dozens of other languages were supported ←7 | 8→by the state, particularly in education and standardisation. The final is the modern example of the Prague School, a group of linguists who in the 1920s and 1930s devoted themselves to the ‘cultivation’ of Czech in the newly independent Czechoslovakia. One of the lasting contributions of the Prague School was to distinguish between ‘cultivation’ (development of the language itself) and ‘policy’ (implementation) approaches to language (Jernudd & Nekvapil, 2013: 18–22).

3.1 The rise of language planning

Until the emergence of sociolinguistics in the mid-twentieth century, linguists were focused on structuralism and did not generally enter in discussion about behaviours in relation to languages. The field known as language planning has its origins in the post-Second World War period when economists, social scientists and linguists alike believed that ‘planning’ would provide solutions to social problems. The 1960s and 1970s were the era of ‘classic language planning’ associated with leading scholars in the new discipline of sociolinguistics such as Einar Haugen, Joshua Fishman, Uriel Weinreich and Charles Ferguson. Attention was paid to the language ‘problems’ being experienced by newly independent post-colonial states in Africa and Asia as they decided which language or languages to use in public administration or education. The approach was highly interventionist and top-down, with the emphasis on the political authority of central government:

This classic language planning model is based on the premise that language planning takes place at the level of the nation-state and the plans project onto the development of the entire society. Political processes of the state (or government) determine the goals to be achieved. (Ibid.: 26, emphasis in original)

Issues of language and society moved to the forefront of linguistics and language planning became a sub-branch of sociolinguistics, extending its reach into all language situations, not just those in ‘developing’ countries. There was criticism of the approach, however, and the classic language planning of that era is seen by some as a Western concept that promoted ←8 | 9→modernisation and development and perpetuated structural inequalities in the process:

Western-based academic language-planning approaches in the 1950s and 1960s often subsumed a number of ideologies about (1) the nature of language – that is, as a finite, stable, standardized, rule-governed instrument for communication; (2) monolingualism and cultural homogeneity as necessary requirements for social and economic progress, modernization, and national unity (with stable diglossia as a fall-back, compromise position); and (3) language selection as a matter of ‘rational choice’ in which all options are equally available to everyone, or could be made equally available. These basic assumptions were often consonant with the views of Western-based and Western-trained state planners and policy analysts engaged in national (re)-construction in developing countries during the 1950s and 1960s, and continue to be influential to the present day. (Ricento, 2006: 14–15)

As well as criticism of the functionalism and evolutionism inherent in classic language planning, a ‘one language, one nation’ approach was dominant and there was little tolerance of diversity within a given political entity (for an analysis of the role of nationalism in language policy, see Wright, 2013). Furthermore, there was the problem that a heavily centralised approach would ignore real world complexities:

In practice, the linguists’ plans (like the plans developed by their economic and social colleagues) seldom worked, for they came up against the counter-pressures of actual demographic situations (the complex sociolinguistic ecology as Haugen 1972 noted that made up the ethnography of communication (Hymes 1974) in a given speech community) and the emotionally powerful factors (nationalism, religion, ethnicity, identity, power, communicative strength) that account for the significant values a language variety had for various members of a society’. (Spolsky, 2013: 4)

The ‘planning’ approach became further tainted within sociolinguistics in the late 1980s following the collapse of the Soviet bloc, although as Jernudd and Nekvapil point out, this did not prevent liberal democracies throughout the world from continuing to pursue economic planning as a fundamental basis for public policy (ibid.: 27). The increased popularity of critical theory and greater attention to minority rights also influenced changes in the approach. For instance, Europe in the 1970s and 1980s witnessed the flowering of minority language activism from Catalonia to ←9 | 10→Wales to Ireland. A key contribution at the end of the decade by Robert Cooper moved the field away from problem solving towards the notion of deliberate intervention in a given language situation. Such ‘[l]anguage planning refers to deliberate efforts to influence the behaviour of others with respect to the acquisition, structure, or functional allocation of their language codes’ (1989: 45). Cooper’s ‘accountancy scheme’ outlined a broader approach involving not only the state but a range of actors including speakers themselves: ‘What actors (1) attempt to influence what behaviours (2) of which people (3) for what ends (4) under what conditions (5) by what means (6) through what decision-making process (7) with what effect?’ (ibid.: 8). Another of Cooper’s contributions was to add ‘acquisition planning’ (the teaching and learning of languages) to the existing sub-categories of corpus planning (developing the language itself, for instance, grammar and terminology) and status planning (for instance, giving the language legal or constitutional status) (Jernudd & Nekvapil, 2013: 29).


X, 384
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2022 (June)
Irish language language policy minority languages sociolinguistics One Hundred Years of Irish Language Policy, 1922-2022 John Walsh Language policies Revival of Irish Language Revitalisation of minority languages
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2022. X, 384 pp., 1 fig. b/w.

Biographical notes

John Walsh (Author)

Dr John Walsh is Associate Professor of Irish in the School of Languages, Literatures and Cultures in Ollscoil na Gaillimhe – University of Galway and Vice-Dean (Equality, Diversity, Inclusion and People) in the College of Arts, Social Sciences and Celtic Studies. His numerous publications span Irish language policy, «new speakers» of Irish and other minority languages, minority language media, multilingualism, language and sexuality and language and socioeconomic development.


Title: One Hundred Years of Irish Language Policy, 1922-2022