Is Irish a Language?

Is Irish a language? In short, yes, yes it is!

Samantha Enslen, Writing for
6-minute read

Irish Came from Celtic

Irish is derived from Celtic, an ancient language spoken by an Indo-European people who flourished in central Europe between the 2nd millennium BC and the 1st century BC. They were said to be intrepid warriors, and by the 1st century BC, they had moved south into Italy; eastward, toward Turkey; and westward, into the British Isles. And when I say “moved,” I mean they sent raiding parties to take over new territory.

In the British Isles, the Celtic language morphed into Old Irish, spoken around AD 600 to 900; Middle Irish, spoken to around AD 1200, and then Modern Irish, spoken from then onward. Modern Irish is also known as “Irish Gaelic.” 

As Irish people moved into Scotland and to the Isle of Man (a tiny island between England and Ireland), they brought Irish with them, and two additional languages developed: Scottish Gaelic and Manx. These three tongues—really considered three variants on the same language—are referred to as the “Goidelic” branch of Celtic.

Manx began to die out in the 19th century, and the last native speaker died in 1974. Irish Gaelic and Scottish Gaelic, however, continue to live on. 

Sort of. Let’s see what that means.

Irish Is the Official Language of Ireland, but English Dominates

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Irish is the first official language of The Republic of Ireland; English is the second. Government documents are published in both languages, and the Irish version of the Constitution takes precedence. Street signs are written in both languages, and in public schools, Irish is a required course for a student’s first 13 of years of school. You even have to pass an exam on Irish to get into college.

However, in practice, English rules the land. It’s spoken by businesspeople, politicians, entertainers, shopkeepers, and regular folk. It’s what you hear on TV, on the radio, and on buses and trains. And although Irish is taught in public schools, school itself is conducted in English. In other words, Irish is essentially taught as a second language.  

In fact, there are only a few areas in Ireland where Irish is spoken as a first, or native language.  These small pockets are known as “Gaeltacht,” and they lie along the western coast of Ireland, in counties Kerry, Galway, and Donegal. 

And, guess what? Even if you visit Gaeltacht, you probably won’t hear people speaking Irish. Just like anywhere else, tourists stand out like a sore thumb. If you’re clearly not from Knocknagoshel or Gaoth Dobhair, you’ll be addressed in English.

Why Did Irish Die Out? 

If you’re wondering why Irish isn’t the dominant language in Ireland, you can chalk it up to the one–two punch of the Irish Potato Famine and English rule. The Famine, also known as the Great Hunger, devastated Ireland in the mid-1800s, leaving one million Irish people dead from starvation and forcing another million to flee the country.

At the same time, the Irish language was being attacked by the English parliament. Intent on establishing a single language across the nation, London passed laws requiring English to be taught in Irish schools—and prohibiting Irish from being spoken at all. Obviously, use of the Irish language began to decline, and it never fully recovered, not even after an independent Irish state was established in 1922.

Is Irish the Same as Gaelic?

You might have noticed me switching between saying “Irish” and “Irish Gaelic.” Here’s what that’s about. 

  • “Gaelic” is a general term for any of the three Goidelic languages spoken in Ireland, Scotland, and the Isle of Man. 
  • To be precise, you can specify “Irish Gaelic” when you’re talking about the language spoken in Ireland.
  • The Irish people themselves, however, they just say that they speak “Irish.”
  • And if they were actually speaking Irish, they’d say they were speaking “Gaeilge.” That’s how you say “Irish” in Irish Gaelic. 

OK, that sounds confusing. But think of it this way. In English-speaking countries, we say that people from Spain speak “Spanish.” But Spanish speakers call their language “Español.” We say people from France speak “French,” but French speakers call their own language “Français.” 

In just the same way, the Irish word for the Irish language is “Gaeilge.” 


About the Author

Samantha Enslen, Writing for Grammar Girl

Samantha Enslen is an award-winning writer who has worked in publishing for more than 20 years. She runs Dragonfly Editorial, an agency that provides copywriting, editing, and design for scientific, medical, technical, and corporate materials. Sam is the vice president of ACES, The Society for Editing, and is the managing editor of Tracking Changes, ACES' quarterly journal.