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Linking Our Lives



Language in Northern Ireland: Who has lost, gained or retained knowledge of Irish?

By Chris A Garrington, on 1 September 2022

In 2020, the New Decade New Approach (NDNA) deal for Northern Ireland outlined  a strategy for the Irish language. Then in May 2022 the Identity and Language Bill was introduced in Westminster, providing for the strategy to be granted official status. But who knows Irish, and what changes have occurred? Dr Ian Shuttleworth discusses findings from a research project using Census data to look at changes between 2001 and 2011. 

There is considerable political, media and policy interest in the use of both the Irish and Ulster-Scots languages in Northern Ireland. And because Census data from the Northern Ireland Longitudinal Study (NILS) tracks a large sample of the population – 28 per cent – over time, it can provide us with valuable insights above and beyond what official statistics offer.

We set out to answer a series of questions, aimed at adding new evidence on key socio-demographic, household, and health factors:

  • Is Irish language knowledge associated with socio-economic status, type of household or health?
  • How did self-reported Irish language knowledge change between the 2001 and 2011 Censuses?
  • What changes could be observed among young people over the 10-year period in the knowledge of Irish language?

We found the main factors linked to having Irish language knowledge were being aged 11-15 years, being born in the Republic of Ireland, being Catholic, having no religion of upbringing (compared to Protestants), having Irish national identity, having degree-level education and living with others who had Irish language knowledge. However, about 8% of those who knew Irish in either 2001 or 2011 were Protestant.  

We also found people living in the 20 per cent most deprived areas and those living in the West and South of Northern Ireland were more likely to have Irish language knowledge. 

When we looked at change between 2001 and 2011, we found the highest proportion of people learning Irish were aged 3-19 years (13.6 per cent) in 2001, while the highest proportion of those losing Irish were those aged 11-15 years in 2001 (13.3 per cent).

Change was strongly connected with changes in religious affiliation: 45.7 per cent of those who said they were Catholic in 2001 but not in 2011 lost Irish over the same period, while 43.5 per cent of those who were not Catholic in 2001 but were Catholic in 2011 gained the language. 

Over a 10-year period, around a third of Irish-speakers retained their knowledge, around a third lost it and a further similar number gained knowledge despite not having had it at the start. 

For both Censuses – and for the previous one in 1991 – the peak age for Irish language knowledge was 13. In each Census year, between 20 and 30 per cent of 13-year-olds had that knowledge. But in each year, the proportion of those in their mid-20s who had it was much lower, at between 10 and 13 per cent.

Why would this be? The Census can’t tell us, but we can offer some insight – those with Irish language, like those with Ulster Scots, tended to have a higher level of education than the general population. Those who spoke Irish at age 13 or less would have been likely, over the next 10 years, to have moved on to university and possibly to be living in student accommodation or not in Northern Ireland at all. So the Census will have been unable to pick up some of them. We might also speculate, of course, that their parents may have marked them down on the Census as Irish speakers, whereas they may not have felt strongly as adults that they had that ability.

Given the policy context, our work has offered a useful picture of the socio-demographic, household and health associations of those who have knowledge of the Irish language, and we hope it will inform further Government initiatives in the future.

The research on profiling the Irish language in Northern Ireland was led by Dr Ian Shuttleworth from the School of Natural and Built Environment at Queen’s University, Belfast, supported by researchers in the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA) and endorsed by the Department for Communities. Dr Shuttleworth will be presenting the work at the British Society for Population Studies conference in Winchester on September 7.

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