A Short Linguistic History
Irish has two names: its official name in English is “Irish”; in Standard Irish the official name of the language is Gaeilge. Irish belongs to the same greater language family as English – the Indo-European. It is, however, more related to the Celts, who lived in England before the Germanic phyla conquered the island and English was developed. To be more precise, it is the Celtic language spoken by the “brothers” of the Celts of England. Together with Scottish Gaelic and Manx (an extinct language under a process of revival spoken on the Isle of Man), Irish forms the Goidelic branch of the Celtic languages; the other branch is the Brythonic, which comprises Welsh, Breton, and Cornish (spoken in Cornwall, also under a process of revival). Breton is spoken in an area in France, across the channel; it was brought there by the Celts of England.
A Short Historical Background
The Celtic polytheistic society left us a rich mythology with gods and goddesses, leprechauns, elves, and fairies. In this religion, the predominant figure was the druid, or the knowledgeable priest. Around 400 AD, St. Patrick, the Patron Saint of Ireland who is celebrated worldwide on March 17th, brought Christianity and the Latin alphabet to the island. He is also said to have banished snakes from the country. A variant of the Latin alphabet, the insular script (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Insular_script -- a majuscule script with rounded unjoined letters), was used in Ireland until quite recently and you can still see it in road signs and public notices everywhere in Ireland.
In the mid-16th to early 17th century, the British decided to colonize the Emerald Isle. They confiscated land, gave it to settlers, banned Catholicism, and most significantly, they banned the Irish language from every aspect of everyday life. Even the Irish, being a poor people, prompted their children to learn English, as they saw in it the only future for their offspring. And thus began the so-called language-shift, the abandonment of one’s own native tongue and the adoption of a foreign language.
After the wars of colonization, 1/3 of the population was either dead or in exile. A famine in 1740-41 hit a disproportionately high number of Irish speakers, and about 400,000 died and 150,000 emigrated. Even worse was the Great Famine, due to a potato disease, in 1845-52 that left its indelible mark on the island and changed it forever. Its death toll is estimated to be between 1,000,000 and 1,500,000 people. An additional 1,000,000 people emigrated. In short, the population of the island, and the number of Irish speakers, was greatly diminished. Irish was prohibited until 1871, but even then the social stigma of speaking Irish hindered people from trying to revive their native tongue.
Nowadays, Irish is spoken mainly in the Gaeltacht area in the west part of the island, and even there it is scattered. The rest of the population speaks a variant of English, called Hiberno-English, which is highly influenced by the grammar of Irish. The variants of Irish are all grouped in three major dialects: the Ulster dialect, spoken in the north, the Munster dialect, spoken in Kerry and Cork, and the Connacht dialect, spoken in Connemara and the Aran Islands (famous for their knitted handicrafts). In an effort to unite these dialects and offer a simplified version of the language, Standard Irish was created, which is now taught at schools. There have been several efforts to make people practice and learn Irish, and the issue is still open.