What Is A Gaeltacht?

Road sign in English and Irish in Maynooth, Ireland. Editorial credit: CTatiana / Shutterstock.com
Road sign in English and Irish in Maynooth, Ireland. Editorial credit: CTatiana / Shutterstock.com

The term ‘Gaeltacht’ is a collective name that refers to regions in Ireland where the Irish language is or was until recently spoken as the primary language by the local population. The Gaeltacht extends across the counties of Mayo, Donegal, Galway, and Kerry in the western seaboard, and parts of Cork, Meath, and Waterford Counties. Donegal is the preferred destination for those seeking to learn Ulster Irish; an indigenous dialect that was once spoken all over Ulster. The Gaeltacht is seriously threatened by the decline of the Irish language and the introduction of foreign languages such as English and French. Only 21 of the 155 electoral divisions in the Gaeltacht use the Irish language as the primary language.

History of the Gaeltacht

The first official Gaeltacht was designated in 1926 after a government commission “Coimisiún na Gaeltachta” proposed it. Exact boundaries were not defined, but a region required a minimum of 25% of the population to be native Irish speakers to be considered part of the Gaeltacht. In the late 1950s, a second Gaeltacht Commission proposed that the Gaeltacht should be defined by the strength of the Irish speaking population rather than the number of people familiar with the language. The commission also narrowed down the Gaeltacht region by excluding areas where the Irish speaking population had declined.

Gaeltacht in the Republic of Ireland

The Gaeltacht region of the Republic of Ireland has a population of 96,000 representing 2% of the country's population. Major concentrations of Irish speakers are in the counties of Kerry, Galway, Mayo, and Donegal in the west, Waterford and Cork in the south, and Meath County in the east. The Gaeltacht region has historically experienced mass migration due to poor roads and railways, and limited land to farm. Other threats to the areas include non-Irish speaking immigrants, the dominance of English in the society, and the minimal use of Irish in the education system. The largest Irish speaking population is found in Dublin and its suburbs with over 14,300 speakers representing 18% of the fluent Irish speaking population.

Gaeltacht in Northern Ireland

The Irish language is under severe threat in Northern Ireland considering the political and economic relations with England, Wales, and Scotland forming the United Kingdom. Linguists agree that the language continues to exist in Northern Ireland because of the state's proximity to the Republic of Ireland. The Gaeltacht Quarter region of Belfast is among the few places in the country where the Irish language is promoted and spoken regularly. Parts of southern County Londonderry have witnessed a resurgence of the language after local organizations promoted the use of the Irish language in the education system.

Irish Colleges

During the summer, students are offered the opportunity to improve their Irish language in colleges for a period of between 3 to 4 weeks. They attend classes and engage in co-curricular activities while speaking Irish. Some of the summer schools specialize in particular arts such as music or sports.


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