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An Bhfuil Gaeilge Agat? (Do You speak Irish?)

Ireland has two official languages, Irish Gaelic and English. Today English is still the first and most commonly spoken language for the vast majority of the Irish people. But there was at time when that wasn't the case. In 1835 the Irish-speaking population of Ireland was reckoned at four million. The British suppressed the language -- forbidding its use and teaching -- so thoroughly that soon few could remember it. When the 2002 census was taken, just under 60,000 Irish residents said they spoke Gaelic.

There is a huge and emotional pro-Irish-language movement underway in Ireland right now -- one that is disproportionate to the actual number of Irish speakers (although the popularity of the language is growing, particularly among the young, as all Irish children now learn Gaelic in school). All Irish citizens are now entitled by law to conduct any official business with the state (legal proceedings, university interviews, and filing taxes, for example) in Gaelic. Increasingly, street signs are in both Gaelic and English, and many towns are reverting to their Gaelic names (which often bear no resemblance to their old English names).

Areas of the country (counties Kerry, Galway, and Donegal in particular) where Gaelic is widely spoken are Gaelic protection zones called Gaeltacht, and in those areas all English words have been removed from road signs, warning signs, and street signs. This has cartographers moving as rapidly as possible (which, unfortunately, isn't that fast) to rewrite maps in order to keep up, but the simple fact is you're likely to have a map that still calls the Dingle "Dingle," rather than the name that all the street signs now call it: "An Daingean." And even the cartographers won't tell you the Gaelic word for "Caution."

The growing Gaeltacht movement in Ireland is increasingly aggressive, with a bit of a nationalistic bent, and its proponents want to make no exceptions to the strict anti-English rules on signage for the millions of tourists who visit the island every year. This means that visitors are more likely to find themselves utterly lost -- clutching a map in which the town's names are all in English, and standing in a town in which all street names are in Gaelic. Should this happen to you, don't hesitate to ask for help -- all Irish residents who speak Gaelic also speak English, and most are very sympathetic to the plight of nonresidents who do not know this complex, ancient language.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.