The Gaeltacht: Heartland of the Irish Language

Is Irish a Language?

Introducing the Irish Language & Ireland’s Gaeltacht Regions

“Language is the road map of a culture. It tells you where its people come from and where they are going,” remarked American writer, Rita Mae Brown.  What better way to experience the vibrancy of Irish culture than visiting the Irish language heartland, known as the Gaeltacht? The Gaeltacht comprises several pockets of land where Irish is the mother tongue. To protect and foster the Irish language, the government officially recognized the Gaeltacht regions in 1926, a few years after Ireland had become an independent Free State. Since then, Gaeltacht regions have special status as places where traditional arts and the Irish language are kept alive. Irish is spoken on a daily basis by inhabitants, who are referred to as Gaeltachtai.

One of the first things you may notice about Irish is that it’s not phonetic! The word Gaeltacht is pronounced “gayle-taakt” (emphasis on the “a” in “tacht”). There’s much to see, do and experience in Ireland’s Irish speaking regions, which you won’t find elsewhere. Whether it’s experiencing the magic of exploring a fairy fort on a Dingle Way self guided hike, an exploration of the rocky and rugged, enchanting 1,000-km Donegal coastline, or delving into the stunning landscape between county Galway’s Gaeltacht villages, towns and islands whilst using our personalised GPS Hiking App, there are many worlds to discover in the Gaeltacht regions! 

Origins of the Irish Language

Irish belongs to the Celtic branch of Indo-European languages. It’s thought that the first Irish speakers arrived on the island’s shores around 2,500 years ago. The group of Celts who landed in Ireland were referred to as Gaelic/Godelic. Some later travelled further northward to Scotland and the Isle of Man, which is why these geographies share a sister tongue. Inspired by the Irish landscape, the Celtic Gaels developed their mythology. The stories were passed down in spoken Irish until the Christianization period, when monks began to keep written anthologies. However, granting divinity to the many Gods of the Celtic tradition tended to conflict with their message. Subsequently, many Irish mythologies were reduced to tales of fairies and folklore. Records introduced by monks date back to the 6th century, making Irish one of the oldest written vernaculars in Europe.

History of the Gaeltacht

Looking on a map, you might notice Ireland’s main Irish language regions follow a pattern. Irish Gaelic speaking regions tend to be located closer to coastal areas of the country. The reasons for this are many and historical. Irish was the main language in Ireland until the 18th century. This corresponds with the growing Anglicisation of the country, in the wake of becoming a British colony. The use of Irish declined most quickly in the more affluent, Anglicised and eastern parts of the country. Historically, the west was seen as poorer, as the land was harder to farm. Separately, there was a growing trend towards bilingualism, which was advantageous for those planning to emigrate to English-speaking countries. 

Irish Language Today: A Snapshot of Gaeilge

Today, over 1.7 million people throughout Ireland report being able to speak Irish, or “Gaeilge” (gayle-ga).  However, the number of people who speak Irish regularly is just over 73,000. Counties with the highest number of Irish speakers include Galway, Clare, Cork and Mayo. Connemara in County Galway, particularly from Bearna to Carna is one of the remaining strongholds of the Irish language and is the largest Gaeltacht region in Ireland.

The Gaeltacht covers large areas of counties Donegal, Mayo, Galway and Kerry, as well as smaller sections of counties Cork, Meath and Waterford. Of Ireland’s inhabited islands, six are in the Gaeltacht – the three Aran Islands, Achill Island, Cape Clear and Tory Island. Map: Wikimedia Commons

The Decline and Revival of Gaeilge

The Irish language went into serious decline following the Famine, or An Gorta Mór in Irish (meaning the Great Hunger). As millions of Irish people died or emigrated, the process of slow decline of the language accelerated. Around the same time, an organised movement to preserve the language, and Irish culture more generally, emerged. This is referred to as the Gaelic Revival. Once Ireland became an independent Free State in 1922, successive governments introduced policies to preserve the language. Irish is the official first language of the country, as per the Constitution (ratified in 1937), whereas English is second. The education system was earmarked as central to the re-Gaelicisation of the country.

To this day, Irish language learning is compulsory in schools, beginning in primary school, right up until graduation age. ‘Irish College’ is a right-of-passage for many Irish teenagers. These summer schools are a language immersion, taken in Gaeltacht areas where students must speak Irish around the clock with their peers for 3-4 weeks. While these are optional courses, many students will opt to take them so they can experience what it’s like to use the language in practice. Without Gaeltacht regions, there would be nowhere to speak Irish in practice. It’s hard to imagine a language surviving long-term without them.

What to Expect while Visiting Irish Language Regions

The Irish language is referred to as ‘Irish’ in English, not ‘Gaelic’ – which refers to Scots Gaelic. The word ‘Gaeilge’ is what the Irish language is called in Irish, which might be where the confusion arises! When you come to Ireland, your first encounter with Irish will probably be with road or street signs. Place names are written in both Irish and English. This is also the case on buses and trains, where stops, end destinations and (sometimes) even announcements are made in both languages. Irish words contain a lot of vowels. Seeing destination names in writing while hearing them pronounced, immediately reveals that this is not a phonetic language! It comes with its own unique rules of pronunciation that frequently surprise and astound in equal measure! Here’s a video of our team getting a quick tutorial:

Where to Go: How to Visit Ireland's Irish Speaking Regions

Are you curious to discover this unique region with strong Irish cultural ties? Our tours combine beautiful scenery with the best hiking and cycling routes in Ireland, most of which pass through Gaeltacht regions. For an authentic cultural experience, there are a few places that shouldn’t be missed. Fortunately for visitors, many Gaeltacht regions are located along or near the Wild Atlantic Way and boast the majority of Ireland’s most breathtaking scenery. Overhear locals speaking the Irish language, and it won’t be a struggle to find a traditional music session at a cosy Irish pub! The striking sunsets here have made Ireland’s west coast a popular base for artists and are best experienced in person.

Our North Ireland Self-Drive Adventure takes you into a biodiverse and distinctive, limestone landscape. Narrow, winding roads snake between the mystical The Twelve Bens (sometimes called Twelve Pins), located in the Galway Gaeltacht. On a rare occasion you might even be lucky enough to see the Northern Lights! Feel inspired by the picturesque coastline and untamed beauty of places like Assarancagh Waterfall or the Slieve League Mountain. Pick out gifts from craft shops and stop for a pint at a pub where you might be greeted in Irish with a warm ‘Fáilte’ (welcome). 

See thatched-roof houses interspersed with fields of sheep, dry-stone walls along the route, and the ‘Old Irish’ feel of the unspoiled Aran Islands on our 8-Day Guided Burren, Aran Islands & Connemara Hike

The Dingle Peninsula is full of atmospheric villages and unforgettable scenery, in the heart of County Kerry’s Gaeltacht. Stop for a pint in Ballydavid (Baile na nGall) on your way to the Gallarus Oratory or Kilmalkedar Church; and if you’re lucky, you might catch a traditional music session. In Dingle town, stop to observe the locals at work in the marina and hear Irish in use before enjoying the delicious food available at the town’s restaurants and cafes. In Dunquin, visit the sheep’s highway before taking a ferry from the pier to the nearby uninhabited Blasket Islands. At Cuas, enjoy the tranquility of a hard-to-reach pier and beach, where you can take a rest and listen to the sound of waves lapping on the shore.

Or, why not take to the Dingle Way when it’s festival season? Combine your trip with an event such as Féile Ceoil Bhaile na nGall, an Irish festival based on the traditions of the Dingle Peninsula, where musicians, singers, poets, dancers and Irish speakers convene to share and celebrate their cultural heritage. Here, you can immerse yourself in the artistic, Irish-speaking heritage of the region. 

The Gaeltacht offers wilderness, language and culture, giving visitors a road map to navigate the confluence of Ireland’s rich past and dynamic present.