Irish, or Gaeilge, is one of two official languages in the Republic of Ireland, with English being the second. The number of native speakers, however, is relatively small -- approximately 1% of the population, or 30,000 people, speak Irish. Traditionally, the Irish language has been spoken most widely in separate communities along the west coast, clustered around small towns and villages such as Gaoth Dobhair (Co. Donegal), An Spidéal and Rosmuc (Co. Galway), and Dún Chaoin (Co. Kerry). Other centers of Irish speakers are An Rinn (Co. Waterford) and Ráth Cairn, which is a "transplanted Gaeltacht (Irish-speaking community)" in Co. Meath near Dublin, where Irish had died out several centuries ago. In the 1930's, a government initiative encouraged native speakers from the west coast to move east, in hopes that the Irish language would spread outward from its new homeland. The various Gaeltacht regions together are known as Gaeltachtaí (plural) or, as one collective entity, An Ghaeltacht.
For the last 20 years, however, there has been a growth in Irish speaking even in the non-Gaeltacht areas, especially in Dublin. Starting at the pre-school level, children may attend "naíonraí," or nursery schools, followed by "Gaelscoileanna," or Irish-medium schools. Sometimes parents take special classes in Irish so that they can work along with their children. And the movement is spreading. There are many community-based classes in the United States, although very few of them offer college credit. And, around the world, from Canada to Japan, people are learning Irish in order to enjoy and understand Ireland's music, literature, history, and culture. English majors intending to study Ireland's famous authors, such as James Joyce, William Butler Yeats, John Millington Synge, and Sean O'Casey, will find study of the Irish language very helpful as all of these writers use Gaelic words, names, and sometimes even Irish sentence structure and idiom, literally translated into English. More recently, some Irish authors are writing exclusively in Irish and gaining international acclaim, most notably Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill and Cathal Ó Searcaigh.
Irish is one of six modern Celtic languages, which also includes Scottish Gaelic, Manx Gaelic, Welsh, Breton, and Cornish. Scottish Gaelic and Manx Gaelic are closely related to Irish and almost mutually understandable, at least orally. Welsh, Breton, and Cornish belong to a separate branch of the Celtic group, and while the three are similar to each other, they are not at all mutually understandable with any of the Gaelic languages. The last native speaker of Manx Gaelic died in 1974, but the language is being actively revived today. The last native speaker of Cornish died in the late 18th century, but again, there is an active revival movement. The other four Celtic languages all have considerable numbers of native speakers, but even within their own regions, the Celtic languages are very much threatened by English or French intrusion. Old Irish literature dates back to the seventh century, and all Celtic languages are related to Gaulish, the language spoken by Caesar's opponents.
Many Americans use Irish words without being aware of it. Most of this vocabulary arrived with Irish immigrants of the 19th century, and some of it has spread into mainstream use. Examples include "shenanigans," a "slew" of people, and "kybosh." Most modern Irish fiction will toss in at least a few Irish words, perhaps a "colleen" (girl) or a "houseen" (the English word 'house' with an Irish diminutive ending, '-ín).