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North-South differences in use of Irish language revealed

Published 07/08/2015

A public consultation on the Irish language was launched in Northern Ireland but new research suggests different motivations for its use south of the border
A public consultation on the Irish language was launched in Northern Ireland but new research suggests different motivations for its use south of the border

People in the Republic learn Irish "to pass exams" but in Northern Ireland they are motivated by the love of it, an official study has found.

The Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) said the stark cross border differences also showed that people who are passionate about their native tongue for reasons of identity are more likely to use it.

The state think-tank warned Irish will not flourish unless ways are found to encourage people to learn it and use it in everyday life.

Using data from a number of studies the ESRI reported that in the Republic 30% of people who learned the language for "its own sake" used it every week, compared to 19% who learned it for another reason.

ESRI author Dr Merike Darmody said research suggested that activists need to be encouraged in order to bring Irish into everyday mainstream use.

"People in the Republic seem to have a much more pragmatic attitude. They say we need it to pass exams," she said.

"Many people who are positive about the language don't actively speak it - that's similar to the experience seen in Wales.

"Particularly in Northern Ireland, considering that it was much more prevalent - you learn the language for it's own sake so it shows that issues around identity and national identity are more prevalent."

The ESRI said about half of those who learned Irish in school in the Republic did so to pass exams while almost nine out of 10 people surveyed in Northern Ireland said they wanted to know and have Irish and were drawn to it for reasons of identity.

It said that while school children in the Republic often have a bad attitude towards the language their parents feel more positive about it but it does not translate into significant use.

Fluency is considerably higher in the Republic - 11% of people could conduct most conversations in Irish, compared to 2% in Northern Ireland.

But the ESRI said in the Republic 37% of people think the Government does not do enough to promote the language compared to 29% in the north.

Ferdie Mac an Fhailigh, chief executive of Foras na Gaeilge which commissioned the research, said: "The very positive attitudes throughout the general population confirm our own experience and the very real desire for Irish-medium education cannot be ignored."

The study looked at people's views on how to sustain and promote the Irish language with the vast majority urging a focus on teaching for school children.

Dr Darmody added: "Despite the language policy development in recent decades, without the active engagement from people with regard to learning the language and using it in a variety of social contexts, it is hard to see how the Irish language can flourish in future."

The ESRI research follows a report published in May that warned that Irish is unlikely to be the majority spoken language in the Gaeltacht in 10 years time unless drastic action is taken.

Census figures from 2011 recorded 41% of the population in the Republic are able to speak Irish compared to 11% of people in Northern Ireland claiming to have some knowledge of the language.

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