How Many Speak Irish?

When talking about Irish-speakers it is important to distinguish between those who can speak Irish and those do speak it. A further distinction can be made between those whose use of Irish is limited because most of the people they come into contact with aren't fluent, and those who use Irish for most purposes. The following figures are intended to refer to the number of people who use Irish as their normal, every day language.

The 1926 census figure of 540,802 Irish-speakers is accepted as accurate by most academics. Later census figures became inaccurate because people who had low levels of ability and use started to register themselves as Irish-speakers.

The number of people living in the Gaeltacht is an unreliable indicator. When the official boundaries of the Gaeltacht were last defined (in 1956), many English-speaking areas were included so that they would qualify for government grants. Since then, the position of the Irish language has been further seriously eroded.

In 1990 Hindley and Ó hEithir, working separately, both estimated the number using Irish as their main language at perhaps as low as 10,000. In 1993 UNESCO Red Book of Endangered languages was slightly less pessimistic, but still listed Irish as an endangered language, with perhaps less than 20,000 fully competent native speakers.

The 1996 census asked how often people spoke Irish. 71,000 adults said they spoke it every day. Of these, almost 21,000 lived in the Gaeltacht. This must be regarded as the upper limit for the number of people using Irish as their main language, since anyone living outside an Irish-speaking community must use English as their main language, simply in order to communicate with those around them.

In summary, the number using Irish as their main language in the mid-1990s was probably between 10,000 and 21,000.