The Irish Language and its Literature
Eireaball Spideoige Seán Ó Ríordáin

Until the nineteenth century, Irish (Gaelic) was spoken by most of the population of Ireland. The population reached over eight million by the time of the great famine of the 1840s. After the mid-nineteenth century, however, English rapidly replaced Irish as the language of the people.

With the advent of autonomy in the 1920s, the Irish government adopted a policy of language-revival. This policy had as its objective to reverse the language-change which occurred in Ireland during the nineteenth century. Today, however, fewer than 100,000 people speak Irish every day, as few as 35,000 according to some estimations. On the other hand, almost a million people claimed in a recent census to have a knowledge of Irish. This claim is due to most people having learned some Irish at school.

During the medieval period (circa 600-1600), a rich and voluminous body of literature was produced in the Irish language. Then followed a period of desolation from 1600 until about 1900. By the twentieth century, the language had become the estate of the rural poor in certain areas along the western seaboard. Here, there existed a sophisticated oral tradition. By 1900, however, and before, written literature no longer formed a significant part of the culture of the language.

The twentieth century saw valiant efforts to create a modern literature in the Gaelic language. Irish remains the first official language of the Republic of Ireland (Éire). Publishing of Irish-language books and magazines is heavily subsidised. However, the fact that the majority of native-speakers of the language were, and are, semi-literate, has remained a major obstacle to the development of a modern literature.

Seán Ó Ríordáin is without doubt the most enduring and the most rewarding Irish-language poet of the 20th century. Transcript presents in translation a selection of poems by Seán Ó Ríordáin (see left column).

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