St. Patrick’s Day Spotlight: Gaelige, Irish Gaelic

St. Patrick’s Day Spotlight: Gaelige, Irish Gaelic

Lá fhéile Pádraig sona dhuit!

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

Although they were several generations removed from their ancestors who left the Irish sod for the promise of the American dream, my grandparents, proud O’Briens that they were, always went all out for St. Patrick’s Day. Their house would be all decorated in green, and Mommom O’Brien would prepare corned beef, cabbage, and potatoes. She would also make Irish potato candy, a delicacy made of lots of sugar and butter rolled in cinnamon. It was a day for them to celebrate their heritage, and the idyllic image of the unseen green hills of Eire that evoked such profound feelings for them.

Irish Potato Candy

In college I preferred the more traditional American, libation-centered version of the day. I would go with friends to the riotous parade in Boston, and drink Guinness and Baileys with other proud Irish Americans, and those who were Irish for the day! There are those who protest that the American version of St. Patrick’s Day with drinking and leprechauns is not in the spirit of the religious holiday, which perhaps is fair criticism. But still at the heart of many Americans’ embrace of this day is a longing, passed down from generation to generation like a gene. A nostalgia so keen that it can affect those who have never even been to Ireland. As a child I saw it in my grandparents, and as an adult it inspired me to fly to this beautiful place I’d never been, yet somehow considered home.

I loved every wonderful trip I’ve taken to Ireland, but a few years ago I went for the first time with my husband, and we landed on, you guessed it, St. Patrick’s Day. Bypassing the parade in Dublin, we headed to a small town in the middle of the country called Offaly, where his Irish family still lived. Everyone in the town walked together up Croghan Hill. At the top they held a mass for the feast day, and then had a community celebration afterwards. The experience for me somewhat defies description, but I think it is best described simply by the Irish phrase, “lovely and grand.”

My husband and I in Killarney with our new friend, Susie!

In celebration of this special feast day, we at Tribalingual want to highlight a beloved endangered language: Irish!

Irish, or Gaelige, is an endangered (specifically classified as definitely endangered) Celtic language that is spoken as a first language by some 20-40,000 speakers in Ireland and Northern Ireland, and by many more as a second language (figures vary). Irish Gaelic speakers predominantly live in concentrated areas on the west coast of the country, called Gaeltacht regions or Gaeltachtaí because of the presence of the language.

Like many endangered languages, Irish declined due to external forces, namely the influence of British rule, especially in the early 19th century. The British government dictated that English only was taught in the National School system, which resulted in younger generations slowly losing the language of their grandparents, a common occurrence in occupied countries referred to as transitional bilingualism. The oppression of the Irish people also resulted in diglossia: a situation in which the upper classes and lower classes in a society speak two different languages.

As time passed, although many Irish people insisted on continuing to speak Irish, they also encouraged their children to learn English because of the social and professional advantages it brought. Irish speakers were also disproportionately affected by the Great Famine, An Gorta Mór. The Penal Laws and other policies set up by the British to disenfranchise the Irish people created an overwhelming dependency on the potato crops, which certainly contributed to the massive death toll. From 1845 to 1849 over a million Irish people died, and a over million more left the country, mostly for the United States and Canada. During this time the population of the country dropped somewhere between 20-25%.


Is fearr Gaeilge briste, ná Béarla clíste.

Broken Irish is better than clever English.


Today the story of Irish is one of national pride and resurgence, not one of loss. When the Republic of Ireland was established in 1922, Irish was adopted as an official language, along with English. This coincided with a renewed movement to use, teach, and celebrate Irish. According to the Department of the Taoiseach (Irish for Prime Minister), all government documents must be published in English and Irish. Also, many government officials must pass a proficiency test in Irish as part of their jobs. These efforts toward language preservation are also made visible on most Irish signs, which feature both languages:

Now rather than being prohibited from teaching the language, public schools must offer it, and a growing number of Gaelscoileanna schools offer immersive instruction in Irish. The government also created a 20-year Strategy for the Irish Language in 2010, which has a mission to increase the number of daily speakers, and provide linguistic support in the Gaeltacht regions.

Shore on the west coast of Ireland


Many newspapers, radio stations, and other community organizations are working hard to support the preservation and development of Irish. So more than wishing everyone Éirinn go Brách (Ireland forever!) on March 17th, why not contribute to one of the many groups that are participating in the resurgence of Irish. Or, join Tribalingual’s growing community of language learners who are preserving endangered languages and cultures all over the world!


Close Menu