Irish language

In Ireland, ambivalence towards the Irish language is very marked. On the one hand, Irish is a hallmark of national identity, the language of saints and scholars, and is declared by the constitution to be the first official language of the state. On the other hand, Irish is a minority language which in most parts of the country is marginal to public life; indeed, it was recently suggested (unverifiably, but plausibly) that Ireland now has more fluent speakers of Polish than of Irish. The general ambivalence also extends to the main measures taken to arrest the decline of the language, namely the preservation of Irish-speaking areas (the Gaeltachtaí), compulsory secondary education in Irish, and rules on the language of official documents. It is evident that Irish has been in decline over the entire 20th century – though recent signs of revival, while modest, seem genuine enough. (See “The Present Status of the Irish Language”.)

If anything, this ambivalence is all the more intense in universities. The universities have an important cultural role: the Universities Act, 1997, s 12 requires them to have “special regard to the preservation, promotion and use of the Irish language and the preservation and promotion of the distinctive cultures of Ireland”; and the Official Languages Act, 2003, ss 10-12 imposes detailed obligations as to the use of Irish in official documents, and measures to be taken to promote the language. Yet, simultaneously, Irish universities are required to be outward-looking and internationally-minded in their approach to teaching and scholarship. The tension is obvious: if foreign students are to be encouraged to come to Ireland in even greater numbers, and foreign academics are to be queuing up to hear what the Irish have to say, then the language of communication cannot be Irish. Promotion of Irish is therefore an important university function, but one that is in constant conflict with other important functions.

The balance is a delicate one, and is struck differently in different institutions. Obviously, the balance at (say) NUI Galway (still under a legal obligation to appoint Irish-speaking staff where possible) must be very different from that in the Dublin institutions. For Irish language in each of the universities, see the following:

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