Urban Irish

by Colin Ryan

scamall-focailUrban Irish is in the news, and with good reason. It is the second or even the first language of a growing minority in Irish cities and even further afield. It is going in a direction of its own, and has far more speakers than the traditional Irish of the Gaeltacht. It is the clearest evidence that the Irish language is not dying but expanding, and is now a language associated with social and cultural success. Fifty years ago no one could have imagined this.

The phrase ‘urban Irish’ actually implies the existence of another kind of Irish – the kind used in the remote farming and fishing communities of the Gaeltacht. But the idea of the Gaeltacht itself is very modern. It implies two things – that traditional Irish speakers are now a minority and that they represent an historical link to a culturally authentic past. The officially sanctioned boundaries of the Gaeltacht reinforce its character as a sacred space. In the words of the great Irish scholar Brian Ó Cuív back in 1969:

It has always been accepted that the Gaeltacht is essential. It is not only the sole surviving body of people among whom Irish has never ceased to be the traditional language, but also it is the source from which learners can acquire the ability to speak Irish naturally.

UnknownThe problem is that the Gaeltacht, by and large, is vanishing. In 2007 there appeared a report called ‘A Comprehensive Linguistic Study of the Use of Irish in the Gaeltacht’ (Staidéar Cuimsitheach Teangeolaíoch ar Úsáid na Gaeilge sa Ghaeltacht). It said that Irish had no more than twenty years left as a community language.

In 2015 a new report came out as a supplement to the previous one. It gave the language no more than ten years. Anecdotal evidence supports this conclusion.

This really represents the death of a cultural construct, one born of cultural ideology. Its purpose was to maintain a sense of historical continuity. It was even expected that the number of traditional speakers would increase. The opposite occurred, but even now there is a remarkable reluctance by politicians to change the boundaries of the Gaeltacht in a way that reflects linguistic reality. The death of the construct is the death of a dream. It also represents an embarrassing failure of government policy.

Language policy has had another side to it – the teaching of Irish as a compulsory subject in mainstream schools. This might have had more success if it had been taught in an enjoyable way by teachers who were fluent and enthusiastic. By and large, the opposite has been true. Despite some reforms, the emphasis is still on grammar and rote-learning, not fluency. Irish is essentially taught as a dead language, and this has been particularly disastrous at primary level. Most people retain more Irish than they realise, but they have little incentive to use it. And there is a severe lack of teachers with a real command of Irish. Students can still emerge with reasonable competence, but not much in the system helps them. Add to this the negative attitude that students inherit and bring into the classroom.

gaelscoil-lgThis mainstream failure provoked something completely new in Irish education – the creation of a network of Irish-speaking preschools, primary schools (Gaelscoileanna) and secondary schools. It was not the State which created this but local activists and parents’ committees.

Those schools guarantee fluency, and they get excellent academic results. They are sometimes accused of being elitist. The fact is that you find them in both wealthy and disadvantaged areas, and they reflect their local environment. It’s more and more common to find students of many cultural backgrounds. The real problem is that the demand for education through Irish is far greater than the supply. Hence many applicants miss out.

These Irish-speaking schools do help ensure that urban Irish now has a critical mass of speakers. Urban speakers and traditional speakers together number around 300,000 in the Republic, about 6% of the population. The majority are urban – perhaps two thirds. They include daily and weekly speakers, and others who speak it less often but are reasonably fluent. The latest census figures showed no increase in the number of core speakers, but we can expect this to change in the next few decades.

23_p_26_f.39r_book_of_fenagh_-_copyIrish, indeed, always has had an urban setting. It was commonly spoken in Irish towns and cities down to the 17th century and beyond. It was the language of merchants, shop-keepers, artisans and clergy.


Galway city had become so Gaelicised by the reign of Henry VIII that the English government passed legislation in response. Elizabethan administrators observed that the Pale itself was Irish-speaking, and that English-speaking Anglo-Irish, including urban dwellers, preferred to speak Irish among themselves. In 1657, at the height of the Cromwellian period, English colonists in Dublin officially complained about the amount of Irish that was spoken there. Urban speakers wrote letters and manuscripts in Irish. Dublin itself was a centre of Gaelic literature in the early 18th century. The census of 1851, which was the first to seek information on the Irish language, shows that there were still many Irish speakers in County Dublin, with traditional Irish speakers still living in the Liberties. Irish was still commonly spoken in the towns of Munster in the first part of the 19th century.

The Irish of the towns and cities was that of the countryside around them. The three main dialect areas were represented by the Irish of Munster, the Irish of Ulster, and the great central dialect stretching from Connacht to Dublin and southwards to Wexford. Nothing remains of that central dialect but the Irish of Conamara and the western islands. The central area had a couple of dialect intrusions from Ulster and Munster. In the north of County Dublin there was a southwards extension of East Ulster Irish, and Dublin Irish most likely consisted of a mixture of Ulster Irish and the central dialect.

images By 1900 traditional Irish had practically disappeared from urban areas. The urban Irish of today represents, on the whole, a new start, though we shouldn’t underestimate the influence of the Gaeltacht. There was recently an interview on Raidió na Gaeltachta with two Irish-speaking academics, Máirín Nic Eoin and Deirdre Nic Mhathúna, about the Irish language in Dublin. Nic Eoin argued that the Irish-speaking networks in Dublin depended heavily on young people from the Gaeltacht who came there to work or attend university. She emphasised unity rather than division. But this source of speakers is likely to dry up, and those on the program agreed there were still too few opportunities for urban Irish speakers to meet and socialise.

Traditional speakers of Irish were in fact migrating to the cities throughout the twentieth century. Some became involved in urban cultural life, especially in Dublin. They included such figures as Máirtín Ó Cadhain, the greatest modern writer in Irish. He began as a writer immersed in the Conamara Gaeltacht and finished as a member of the Dublin literary scene. Until comparatively recently writers from the Gaeltacht dominated Irish-language literature. Non-Ghaeltacht or urbanised writers have now largely taken their place. As early as the sixties one finds two impressive modernist writers, Diarmuid Ó Súilleabháin and Eoghan Ó Tuairisc, both praised by Ó Cadhain. Breandán Ó Doibhlinn brought French literary technique to bear on the literature. Later writers of this sort include Seán Mac Mathúna, Daithí Ó Muirí, and poets like Tomás Mac Síomóin and Louis de Paor. Women are still outnumbered, but they include Eilís Ní Dhuibhne, who writes detective fiction, and a younger generation of poets like Doireann Ní Ghríofa and Ailbhe Ní Ghearbhuigh.

images-1Yet the Gaeltacht seems mostly in irreversible decline (the tiny Gaeltacht of Ring in Waterford being an exception). Some, like the Irish-speaking academic James McCloskey from UC Santa Cruz, have argued that such language change begins in private spaces – the kitchen, the bedroom, the playground. It’s a process in which great power is given to fairly young children.

McCloskey writes that they act as autonomous agents within their own communities, and also as instruments of larger social forces. They reject the traditional language and adopt the new one.

Young people in the Gaeltacht tend not to be hostile to Irish. It’s just that, for the most part, their English is more fluent. In the Gaeltacht the English language is still a dynamic agent of change. In the urban arena, on the other hand, English secured its victory some time ago and is now a neutral element, always there and available. This means, paradoxically, that it presents no barrier to the learning of Irish. And urban speakers take advantage of this to expand the domains of the language.

McCloskey refers to urban speakers as a ‘second language’ community, made up of those attached to Irish for ideological or sentimental or personal reasons. He describes them as a large, disparate, well-educated, and mostly middle-class community. He says:

There are people like me who work hard at speaking some close approximation to traditional Gaeltacht Irish, and there are many people who (fluently and carelessly) speak new urban hybrids, heavily influenced by English in every way.

The Irish-American academic Brian Ó Broin from William Paterson University in New Jersey has made a fascinating short study of the characteristics of urban Irish. He argues that it differs sharply from the Irish of the Gaeltacht. He says:

The two groups, while nominally speaking the same language, have almost no points of contact. They prefer to tune each other out or speak English with each other, rather than use Irish together. This seems to have all the hallmarks of a separation.

Ó Broin compared native-speaking newsreaders on Raidió na Gaeltachta and urban newsreaders from Irish-language community stations. He paid particular attention to the pronunciation of slender consonants (as in ‘teas’ or ‘díol’) and gutterals (as in ‘Connacht’ or ‘an chiseach’). Newsreaders on Raidió na Gaeltachta missed these features only 7% of the time or less. Urban newsreaders missed them between 21 and 66 per cent of the time.

He also looked at sentence structure. Gaeltacht speakers produced sentences which were structurally complicated, with lots of subclauses. Urban speakers rarely did this. But the two groups had much the same vocabulary.

imagesÓ Broin also looked at grammatical differences. Irish has a rather complex grammar, with changes both at the beginning and end of words – initial mutations and case endings. Newsreaders on Raidió na Gaeltachta only missed 2 to 6% of these. Urban newsreaders missed a surprising 40 per cent. Ó Broin describes this as an extraordinary development, with urban Irish not yet having any strategies to deal with it.

But Ó Broin doesn’t think these changes mean the language is dying. On the contrary, Irish is being spoken all over Ireland as well as abroad. Change is not death.

bunscoilWhat we are likely to get in the end is a southern variety of Irish with a fairly neutral pronunciation and a generalised northern variety of Irish. Northern Ireland has a vigorous Irish-speaking network and the only example of an urban Irish-speaking community or Gaeltacht, situated in Shaw’s Road. This arose not by accident but by intent. It owes a lot to the cultural-nationalist movement springing from the political environment of the North. It has Gaelscoileanna, an Irish-language cultural centre, drama companies, a bookshop, a café and clubs. There are also strong groups of Irish speakers elsewhere in the North, in places like Derry, Newry, Armagh and Omagh. Attempts in the south to establish urban Irish-speaking communities have failed. It seems more likely that they will develop organically in areas where you have a strong local network of speakers, the requisite schools and a cultural centre.

If we look abroad, we find an extensive network of Irish speakers, urban almost by definition. They are found in Canada, the States, Britain, Australia, and even countries like Finland. There used to be native Irish-speaking communities abroad – at Koroit in Victoria, New Brunswick and Newfoundland in Canada, Pennsylvania in the States and Montserrat in the West Indies. All these have gone. Irish abroad now has nothing definite to shape it. This can result in a variety of accents, mostly tending to neutrality.

None-Irish speakers of the Irish language tend to be Ireland-centred, but there are some, like myself, who are more interested in the local dimension. That is certainly reflected in my fiction and in that of the Finnish writer Panu Petteri Höglund, a remarkable example of someone with no Irish antecedents who has mastered the Irish language. But we are still part of a wider network – urban, as I said, mostly middle-class, and linked by global technology. Urban Irish is a language with a distinctive past and, one would hope, a distinctive future.

Colin is a Melbourne poet and a second-language speaker of Irish, having taught himself at first. Cló lar-Chonnacht, the Irish language publishing house, has recently brought out a collection of his short stories in the Irish language.

This is a transcript of the talk Colin gave at the Irish History Circle at the Celtic Club Melbourne on the 20/03/2017