62. One Hundred Years of Irish Language Policy, 1922-2022

John Walsh

National University of Ireland, Galway

In this article, Dr John Walsh gives an overview of his new book on a century of Irish language policy, to be published in 2022.

By the late 19th Century when the Irish cultural and literary revival was at its peak, the Irish language was in a marginal position in society and spoken by less than one in five people, mostly in impoverished mostly coastal districts known as the Gaeltacht. The revitalisation of Irish became a central plank in the movement for greater independence from Britain and many nationalists learned Irish or championed its cause. The establishment of the Gaelic League (Conradh na Gaeilge) in 1893 was a milestone event, because the organisation dedicated itself to promoting Irish as the vernacular and attracted widespread interest throughout Ireland and abroad. While only a small percentage of those who attended its classes became fluent speakers, the League played a key role in raising public awareness of Irish and mustered support for the idea that its promotion was a key part of the broad nationalist movement. With the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty on December 6th 1921, the path was cleared for the creation of an independent Irish state following a tumultuous decade of political change in Ireland. The Irish Free State, a dominion within the British Commonwealth, came into being one year later on December 6th 1922 and declared in its constitution that Irish was both the national and an official language, alongside English. Inspired by the ideals of the Gaelic League, some of whose members held ministerial positions, the new state announced a raft of policy measures to support Irish in education, legal status, public administration and the Gaeltacht.

The remaining Irish-speaking districts were located mostly along the western and southern coasts and had been decimated by economic problems and emigration by the time of the foundation of the Irish Free State. Given the centrality of language to the independence question, it was unsurprising that one of the state’s first big-ticket initiatives in relation to Irish was to set up a Gaeltacht Commission in 1925. The Commission was composed of representatives of the middle-class male Catholic elite that had backed the Anglo-Irish Treaty and was loyal to the new state. Some of the Commission’s 82 proposals were unrealistic in policy terms, but many useful recommendations were rejected by the Department of Finance on the grounds of expense, despite its claim to be supportive of the language. This was the beginning of a pattern that persisted throughout the subsequent century: proposals to strengthen Irish being rejected by governments that were ostensibly committed to its promotion. Despite a recommendation by the Commission that a permanent governance structure be set up for the Gaeltacht, responsibility was transferred to the marginal Department of Fisheries, later Lands. A dedicated central government department was not established under 1956, and this has remained relatively weak in political terms with the current arrangement combining Gaeltacht with five other portfolios. An industrial development agency was formed in 1957 and, following a rights-based campaign in the 1960s and 1970s, was replaced by an ostensibly more democratic body, Údarás na Gaeltachta, in 1980. While Gaeltacht development was successful in creating employment, it was also criticised for undermining the position of Irish by attracting English-speakers into the Gaeltacht to work in industries managed by non-Irish speakers. Since the industrialisation of the 1960s, the Gaeltacht has witnessed both socioeconomic and sociolinguistic change, and a major study of 2007 confirmed that Irish is under increasing pressure as a community language in its historical districts. The most recent census returns (2016) recorded falls in key Irish language statistics, particularly in the Gaeltacht. Almost two thirds of the Gaeltacht population (c. 64,000 people) report the ability to speak Irish, but less than 21,000 (21.4 percent) use the language daily outside the education system, a significant drop on the previous census. These figures mask considerable regional differences, with some parts of the Gaeltacht still significantly Irish-speaking. As part of a broader 20-Year Strategy for the Irish Language launched in 2010, a ‘language planning process’ was launched as a result of the Gaeltacht Act 2012, followed by a Gaeltacht Education Policy in 2016. The Gaeltacht is now divided into 26 ‘language planning districts’, each of which has its own plan and Irish language officer, but the process remains underfunded and lacks political clout.

The language planning process covers Irish speakers outside the Gaeltacht also, who have been recognised on a statutory basis in the 2012 act for the first time in micro-level initiatives aimed at specified communities. Such projects are often sites for ‘new speakers’, regular users of Irish who were not socialised in the language in early childhood or are not from the Gaeltacht. New spatial categories of Gaeltacht Service Towns and Irish Language Networks are to be developed through this process, although progress has been much slower than in the Gaeltacht. The all-Ireland language planning agency, Foras na Gaeilge, supports additional local language schemes. Despite widespread knowledge of Irish in the population, use of the language in community settings is stubbornly low after a century of policy support. Census data from the Republic of Ireland reveal that about 40 percent of the population (c. 1.7 million people) claim competence in Irish, but that only about two percent speak the language daily outside the education system. More than two-thirds of these are outside the Gaeltacht and in loosely scattered networks rather than areas of geographical density. In Northern Ireland, where Irish remains far more marginal in public life, about 11 percent of the population (c. 185,000 people) claim some knowledge, with about four percent (c. 65,000 people) reporting the key skills of understanding, speaking, writing and reading Irish. Relatively high levels of knowledge and use are recorded in nationalist areas such as West Belfast.

Despite the undermining of the Gaeltacht Commission in 1928, other early policy measures were significant, particularly in the realm of education. On St. Patrick’s Day 1922, Irish was made a core school subject and later became a requirement to pass state examinations. Despite the challenges posed by lack of competence among teachers, the absence of a written standard and poor supply of textbooks, significant progress was made with immersion education in the following decades. By the 1930s, most primary schools were operating fully or partially in Irish with about one third of secondary schools doing so. Standardisation of the spelling and grammar of Irish from the 1940s and terminology creation consolidated the place of the language in education in addition to boosting wider consumption of published material. While the requirement to pass Irish in order to obtain the Leaving Certificate examination was abolished in the 1970s, the language has maintained its core status and is still studied by the great majority of pupils throughout their schooling. This has ensured widespread knowledge of it, albeit at more passive levels of competence, and has contributed to general goodwill towards Irish among the population, a majority of whom favour maintaining its core status. However, repeated studies have tracked declining competence among students and teachers and a discredited system of exemptions is being exploited by a minority in order to avoid studying Irish entirely. An Irish-language requirement for many leading universities in the Republic of Ireland is an additional policy prop, but with the exception of the academic subject of Irish itself, opportunities to study through the medium of Irish at third level are few and far between. Another weakness relates to Irish-medium education, with only 8 percent of pupils (approximately 45,000 people) in the Republic attending all-Irish schools (Gaelscoileanna), a percentage far lower than equivalent figures in Wales and the Basque Country.

Partition in 1920 left Northern Ireland outside the southern state, and decades of systematic repression of the nationalist community led to the total marginalisation of Irish from public life in the North. A radical ideology of resistance to the British state was often the basis for community Irish language projects since the 1960s, in particular a micro ‘Gaeltacht’ community in West Belfast. Further progress has been made since the adoption of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, especially in the establishment of Foras na Gaeilge as an all-Ireland agency with responsibility for promoting Irish on both sides of the border. The Agreement also obliged the British government to develop Irish-medium education and media and there have been significant advances in both areas in recent years. However, Irish remains a bone of contention between nationalists and unionists and was at the heart of the collapse of the power-sharing institutions in 2017. An agreement in 2020 to restore Northern Ireland’s government contained a commitment to enhance the legal status of Irish but fell short of the demands of campaigners for a standalone Irish language act. Progress has been slow, due to tensions over Brexit as much as cultural identity, and pressure has mounted on the British government to introduce Irish language legislation through Westminster, bypassing Stormont entirely.

Irish has benefitted from legislation in the Republic since 2003, when the Official Languages Act introduced obligations on public bodies to increase incrementally their offer of Irish language services. The Act followed decades of campaigning by Irish speakers for language rights, following the failure of the state to ensure the delivery of Irish language services, even in the Gaeltacht. Although Irish was designated the national and first official language in the 1937 Constitution, no legislation was enacted to give effect to the provisions, with a result that some Irish speakers had to use the courts to confirm their rights. The patchy case law that built up over decades was no substitute for legislative provisions and following the decision in 1973 to remove the Irish language civil service entry requirement, civil society groups turned their attention to a campaign for a bill of rights. The drive was also influenced by a growing discourse around minority rights and pressure for language legislation in countries such as Wales, Scotland, the Basque Country and Catalonia. The 2003 Act fell short of demands for rights-based legislation based on equality between Irish and English, on the basis that the Constitution gave precedence to Irish. Nonetheless, it established the first legal framework for the provision of Irish language services, albeit from a very low level in most public bodies. Based on the Canadian model, the office of Irish language commissioner was established to raise awareness of the Act and to monitor its implementation by public bodies. With the passage of time, deficiencies in the framework became apparent, particularly in the discredited system of ‘language schemes’ by which public bodies were supposed to enhance Irish language services on a cumulative basis. The Act was under review for almost a decade, reflecting its low political priority, but the failure to provide public health information and services in Irish during the pandemic threw the need for change into stark relief. The Official Languages Act (Amendment), enacted at the end of 2021, contains strengthened provisions about the provision of Irish language services and commits to deal with the recruitment of bilingual staff, a major weakness in the original legislation. 2022 also saw Irish gain full official working status in the European Union, giving a significant status boost to the language in an international forum and providing high-quality employment opportunities for Irish speaking graduates.

The past century has also witnessed significant changes in broadcasting provision in Irish. The country’s first radio station, 2RN (later Radio Éireann), was opened in Irish in 1926 by the Gaelic League’s co-founder, Douglas Hyde, but broadcast in English for the most part. Repeated promises of a Gaeltacht radio service over the decades were not realised until 1972, following the establishment of a pirate station in Connemara as part of a local civil rights movement. Raidió na Gaeltachta has grown from a local to a national radio service under the auspices of the state broadcaster RTÉ and has deepened connections between disparate Gaeltacht communities and Irish speakers at home and abroad. Ireland’s first television channel established at the end of 1961 largely ignored Irish and was criticised for its over-reliance on Anglo-American cultural imports. Pressure grew for additional programmes in Irish and eventually a dedicated Irish language channel, although campaigners differed over whether this should be a community service for the Gaeltacht or a national channel for all Irish speakers. A pirate television broadcast from Connemara in 1987 attracted further attention to the issue and a vigorous campaign for a separate channel culminated in 1996 with the establishment of Teilifís na Gaeilge (TnaG), based in the Gaeltacht but available nationally. TnaG was rebranded as TG4 in 1999 as the fourth national channel and despite a limited budget has developed a foothold in the national consciousness through its imaginative content. However, its core audience remains very small and the channel faces major challenges in the context of increased media fragmentation and the emergence of digital competition. The past thirty years have also seen the emergence of Irish language community radio in Dublin and Belfast and both stations provide spaces to often young and experimental broadcasters who fit the ‘new speaker’ profile and speak more hybridised forms of Irish. Given the exponential growth of digital media, there are opportunities for developing these stations further as community media hubs. However, since the emergence of dedicated Irish language channels, the language has been almost entirely marginalised in mainstream media, particularly the commercial sector.

Irish language policy has waxed and waned over the past century in line with changes of government and shifts in Irish political culture and international trends in governance. The rhetoric of Gaelicisation and revivalism that characterised the early decades has given way to a softer policy of bilingualism since the 1960s, although there is no evidence that any Irish government ever contemplated anything other than a bilingual state. Key individuals from politics and public administration, including figures such as former Taoiseach and President Éamon de Valera, his grandson Minister Éamon Ó Cuív and senior civil servant TK Whitaker, have shaped the policy in important ways at different times in history. Language policy has been professionalised and internationalised, with greater attention paid by both the state and civil society groups to relevant contexts abroad. Although some of the more robust policy measures have been diluted, Irish retains significant institutional supports that can only be dreamed of by many other minority languages: core status in education, its own broadcast media, state-supported publishing and arts initiatives, standardisation, official status in Ireland and at EU level, a commissioner to monitor legislation, an all-Ireland language planning agency and various voluntary bodies. However, the weak position of Irish as a spoken language by communities and networks, in the Gaeltacht and elsewhere, remains the language’s greatest challenge. As the state begins its second century, it is time to refocus political efforts on supporting all Irish speakers, regardless of origin, and encouraging others to adopt and relearn the language through a much more vigorous community programme than witnessed previously. Given the increasing mediatisation of society, this programme also requires major investment in an enhanced digital and multimedia presence for Irish.

Dr John Walsh is an Associate Professor of Irish in the School of Languages, Literatures and Cultures at the National University of Ireland, Galway. He is also Vice-Dean for Equality, Diversity, Inclusion and People in the College of Arts, Social Sciences and Celtic Studies. His monograph, 100 Hundred Years of Irish Language Policy, 1922-2022, will be published by Peter Lang in spring 2022 in the series ‘Reimagining Ireland’:

61. Linguistic Intolerance: The (e)Spanglish Debates

Ana Celia Zentella
Universitat de California San Diego

“Spanglish” is a hotly debated and widely misunderstood term, even more than 70 years after the word first appeared in a Puerto Rican newspaper article, “Teoría del Espanglish,” by Salvador Tió on October 28, 1948. What does it refer to—a mish-mash of two languages, or a third language, or a style of speaking? Who uses it—proficient or deficient bilinguals? Is it a positive or negative label– are we harming speakers by using the term? These questions become more relevant as the 62 million Latinus (the universal u is my preferred inclusive gender marker) in the USA are en route to becoming the largest ethnic group in the country by 2045, when there will be no racial majority. But U.S. Latinus are very diverse: although 62% are of Mexican background, a total of eight countries each have over one million representatives, and another eleven countries have more than 75, 000 each. Latinus also differ in their views:  a 2019 Pew Foundation study found the majority (54%) did not prefer the Hispanic or Latino label; 47% identified with their country of heritage (76% had not heard of Latinx and only 3% used it). And although all generations believed speaking Spanish was the most important part of their identity, that was true for a slight majority of the foreign born (54%); only 44% of the second generation and 20% of the third generation and beyond chose Spanish as most important.

Although the centrality of Spanish was highlighted by all generations, the fact is that the share of all Latinus who speak Spanish at home declined from 78% to 70% between 2000 -2019; among the U.S. born, the number declined from 66% to 57%. It seems likely that Spanish will continue to be lost in future generations because of growing linguistic intolerance in the US, including increased verbal and physical attacks against Spanish speakers. The Republican congressman who was a candidate for the US Presidency in 2012, Newt Gingrich, argued against Spanish-English bilingual education “because English is the language of prosperity, not the language of living in a ghetto”, and when fellow Republican Donald Trump campaigned for the presidency in 2015, he insisted “We speak English, not Spanish”, and insulted Mexicans: “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”  Fueled by Donald Trump’s comments, anti-Latino hate crime increased 176 % in major U.S. cities in the three weeks after his 2016 election. In 2019, the assassin of 22 Wallmart shoppers in El Paso, TX —almost all Mexicans–spouted anti-immigrant hate.

For decades there has been a nationwide push to insist on English-only in the workplace, government dealings, and public education.  Latinus have long been criticized for speaking Spanish, but our English is also disparaged, even by national policies; beginning in 1990 the Census Bureau insisted on labeling all those who did not speak English “very well” at home as “linguistically isolated”, even if they spoke it “well”. (By 2010 we convinced the Bureau to drop that insulting label, although their replacement– “limited English proficient” –remains unfair.)  Our English and Spanish are belittled, and bilingualism itself has become an ideologically charged term; Potowski noted that “bilingual” was a “dirty word” in the 1990s unless it referred to middle class Anglo students. We find ourselves entre la espada y la pared, with no way out. Above all, our ability to speak in a way that reveals our bilingual dexterity is severely maligned.

So, what is Spanglish?  Decades of rigorous research across the USA have documented that Spanglish is a rule governed, in-group and informal style of speaking that honors the grammars of both English and Spanish. It consists of adapted and un-adapted English loan words inserted in Spanish, as well as calques and switches between Spanish and English that can be both intra- and inter sentential. Even the 6 to11 year old children I studied in New York’s Puerto Rican barrio honored both Spanish and English grammatical rules in 95% of 1,685 code switches to accomplish over twenty discourse strategies, including topic and role shifting, quoting, translation, mitigation and aggravation of requests, often by switching complete sentences, e.g., when an 8 year old reported, “We speak both. Hablamos los dos”.

We do not know how many Latinus speak Spanglish, but it certainly is not true, as the linguist John Lipski claimed in 2007, that the term is “most commonly used by non-Latinos (or by Latinos who are openly critical of nonstandard language usage”.  When Professor Adam Schwartz and I asked our students on opposite coasts to interview 115 Latinus across the US (convenience sample, 2010) whether they favored the “Spanglish” label or not, most interviewees (71%) approved of it, 25% were against, and 4% were indifferent. The most significant background variable was whether the interviewee identified as a Spanglish speaker or not. The great majority (83%) of Spanglish speakers (n = 84) favored the label, whereas only 42% of the non-Spanglish speakers (n = 31) did so. Neither gender, nor level of Spanish proficiency, nor place of birth, nor roots in one of eleven different Latinu groups mattered significantly.  Most important, most interviewees (94%) defined Spanglish in neutral or positive terms.

Some outspoken critics of the label are linguists who acknowledge the bilingual strengths of Spanglish speakers, but insist that the term misrepresents those skills by suggesting a mishmash or hybrid language; Ricardo Otheguy prefers “popular Spanish in the United States”. In my view, that alternative capitulates to the ignorant critics who attack the label AND the way of speaking, playing into the hands of those who privilege uniformity, imposing it via strategies that result in exclusion. And it does not capture our reality.  “Popular Spanish in the US” includes many varieties from throughout the Spanish speaking world, and their speakers may or may not engage in speaking Spanglish. For those of us who speak it with each other, in addition to speaking Spanish with monolingual Spanish speakers and English with monolingual English speakers, “Spanglish“ is a graphic way of saying “we speak both because we are both.” Whitney Chappell attributes the disagreement over the label to distinct poles on an ideological continuum, i.e., those who favor a structuralist and generative grammar approach that isolates language from its social context reject “ Spanglish” in favor of focusing on the linguistic properties of Spanish, whereas those of us who study the life of language in communities go beyond a focus on the structure to include WHY and HOW those structures are culturally employed, as well as speakers’ positive semantic inversion of a negative label. The label itself forces us to confront the way language is used as a smokescreen to impose national and cultural boundaries and to disguise racial and ethnic prejudices; it invites us to discuss the specific socio-historic, cultural, economic, and racial contexts that give rise to Spanglish.

Misconceptions concerning Spanglish contributes to the reproduction of inequality and encourages attacks against those considered speakers of “the tongue of the uneducated” that is “a hodgepodge,” with “barbarisms . . . and is “deformed, perverted”. These insults appear in a book devoted to Spanglish by a Professor of Spanish of Mexican background, Ilan Stavans,. Not only did Stavans fail to cite any of the linguists who have studied Spanglish syntax, his dictionary of 2,073 words (collected because they were overheard three times) includes many lexical items that are either standard Spanish, such as fiesta [‘party’], doña [‘madam’] , Sr., and Sra. (‘Mr. and Mrs.’), or improbable loans, such as loadear < “loiter” and deservear < “deserve.” Only 16% of the dictionary’s items had been heard or used by 80 self-identified Spanglish speakers, yet Stavans was widely cited in the press, including in Spain .

The insistence on maintaining strict borders between English and Spanish, as if bilinguals were two monolinguals joined at the tongue, has encouraged what I refer to as LA MIGRA BILINGUE, i.e., critics who attack bilinguals for crossing language borders, like the Border Patrol that pursues immigrants trying to enter the USA. Latinus are not alone, this complex language practice occurs in other language-contact situations, e.g. Franglais in Montreal, and Portuñol/Portunhol along Portugal’s border with Spain and Uruguay’s border with Brazil. As if the opprobrium of leading academics, educators, politicians, and the general public were not enough to convince young bilinguals that they should join La Migra Bilingüe, the Real Academia Española (RAE), the arbiter of Spanish norms in the world for over 300 years, added fuel to the fire with its definition “espanglish” in its official Diccionario in 2014.

: 26 Artículo nuevo. Avance de la vigésima tercera edición espanglish. (Del ingl. Spanglish, fusión de Spanish ‘español’ y English ‘inglés’). m. Modalidad del habla de algunos grupos hispanos de los Estados Unidos, en la que se mezclan, deformándolos, elementos léxicos y gramaticales del español y del inglés.


This definition was met with outrage in many circles, and petitions by Professor Jose’ del Valle and myself secured over 400 signatures. My letter to ANLE read , in part:

la definicion va en contra de los resultados obtenidos por los lingüistas que han investigado este estilo de comunicación ….constituye una falta de respeto para los hablantes del español en los Estados Unidos….va en contra de “la visión policéntrica” que tanto predica la RAE, pero que reiteradamente deshonran.”

The international response ultimately forced the RAE to drop the word “deformándolos”, although they refused to re-write the entry.

Such misinformed and misguided attacks are decried by many, including poets who express pride in their communities’ Spanglish. In Los Angeles, Mexican American Olga Angelina García Echeverría’s poem, “ Lengualistic Algo”, declares,:

Qué quieren conmigo los puristas,
all tongue-tied
& sitting proper
behind fat stoic dictionaries?
I’ve already eaten the thin white skeletons
of foreign words
choked on the bones of Inglés Only,
learned the art of speaking in codes
and code switching…

….Aquí se usa lo que sirve,
el rascuache, el mestizaje,
las left-overs y lo yet to be born,
Aquí cada palabra está viva. Respira.

Los académicos me ignoran
los puristas dicen que contamino,
Webster y el Pequeño Larousse
no me conocen y Random House me escupe.
No manchen!….


And from New York City, Tato LaViera provided a Puerto Rican perspective in “español” [sans accents]:

… now we-gente de sangre gorda,
continental travalenguas
enmixturadas cocinandose metiendole miedo a tu real academia….
….we existed before we discovered colon…
…but alas i love you Spanish
half of my lengua
part of my tongue
i’m gonna fight for you siempre
i am your humble son
que tragedia
que contra


These poets express bilingual joy and pain, in the hope that our future children will be proud of their people and their English, Spanish, and Spanglish. As we embrace the languages of our families, we also learn to respect all other languages and cultures. Advocating linguistic tolerance is increasingly urgent, given the sad fact that 50% of the 6,000 languages currently spoken in the world are likely to disappear within the 21st century. We have an excellent opportunity to foreground this issue every February 21st,  declared International Mother Language Day (IMLD) by UNESCO in 1999 to promote awareness of linguistic and cultural diversity and promote multilingualism. This worldwide observance was formally recognized by the United Nations General Assembly in 2002; will you encourage your community to celebrate every IMLD?

Grieving the Loss of my Language

Conference and poetry recitation on the pain of losing one’s language

En col·laboració amb Linguapax Internacional
Data: 4 de novembre de 2021, a les 18:00 CEST
Lloc: Residència Faberllull, Olot

Mariona Miret, Chambra d’Òc, Roccabruna
Yael Peled, Residència Faberllull, Olot

La Càtedra UNESCO de Diversitat Lingüística i Cultural ha presentat dues propostes:

1) El català de l’Alguer, amb la contribució d’un poema de Rafael Caria: “La llengua dels meus avis”, Só tornat a Sant Julià.
Selecció poètica, contextualització, elaboració i edició per Joan A. Argenter.
Versió anglesa: Joan A. Argenter.
Recitador alguerès: Pere Lluís Alvau.

2) El gallec, amb la contribució d’un poema de Celso Emilio Ferreiro: “Deitado frente ao mar”, Longa noite de pedra.
Selecció poètica: Joan A. Argenter.
Contextualització: Anxo Lorenzo.
Versió castellana de l’autor. Versió anglesa: Jack Hill.
Recitadora gallega: Laura Caamaño.
Agraïm la col·laboració de la Fundación Celso Emilio Ferreiro.

D’aquestes dues propostes, solament ha estat seleccionada la primera.