According to some of the people I met in Ireland last week, Irish might become a mainly urban language in the future. At the moment the majority of regular Irish speakers live in remote, rural areas, the Gaeltachtaí. These areas are suffering from depopulation because there are few opportunities for young people, who tend to move elsewhere to study and work. Some return, but many don’t. In some of the rural Gaeltachtaí the language remains strong, however in others the numbers of people using Irish as their main language is shrinking.
Not all Gaeltachtaí are in rural areas though – in West Belfast there is a thriving and growing community of Irish speakers, which was established in the late 1960s by six Irish-speaking families. In 1970 the first Irish medium primary school in Northern Ireland, Bunscoil Phobal Feirste, opened its doors, and the first Irish medium nursery school, Naíscoil, was set up in 1978. Since then numerous Irish medium nursery and primary schools have opened, and there are three secondary schools as well. There is also a daily Irish language newspaper – Lá Nua – and an Irish language community radio station – Raidió Fáilte. One of the people I met in Glencolmcille works for this radio station and he did a number of short interviews with people attending the summer school, including myself.
According to Wikipedia, the varieties of Irish native to Northern Ireland became extinct as spoken languages when the last native speaker of Rathlin Irish died in 1985. However over 10% of the population now have some knowledge of Irish – mainly the Donegal dialect of Ulster Irish. The Irish speakers in Belfast and Northern Ireland in general seem determined to keep the language alive there whatever obstacles are put in their way, and there is no shortage of obstacles.