Most people spoke Irish until the early nineteenth century but by 1891 the majority spoke English only. It is one of the Celtic family of languages and is closely related to Scots Gaelic, Welsh and Breton. Since Independence the State has actively encouraged the use of Irish and it is the first official language with English as the second.
The latest figures show that 41% of all adults declare a knowledge of Irish. It is widely spoken in areas known as the Gaeltacht, situated mainly along the western seaboard. The Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht has responsibility for promoting the cultural, social and economic welfare of the Gaeltacht through Údarás na Gaeltachta (Gaeltacht Authority). The Irish Language Agency (Foras na Gaeilge) has responsibility for the promotion and encouragement of the use of Irish as a vernacular throughout the island of Ireland. Irish is a core subject in primary and secondary schools and a growing number of schools offer tuition exclusively through Irish (Gaelscoileanna). There is an Irish language national radio service (Raidió na Gaeltachta) and an Irish language television service (TG4). On 1 January 2007, the Irish language became the 23rd official language of the European Union.
Irish writers have long made a significant contribution to world literature in both the Irish and English languages. Written literature in the Irish language dates from the sixth century. With the end of the Gaelic order in the seventeenth century and its tradition of patronage of poets, Irish writers began to preserve a record of the old civilisation. Through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries members of the clergy, teachers and poets continued to write in Irish. One of the best known poets of this time is Brian Merriman (1747-1805) author of the frequently translated Cúirt an Mheán Oíche (Midnight Court). In the twentieth century writers such as Patrick Pearse (1879-1916) and Pádraic Ó Conaire (1882-1928) opened Irish literature to European influences. Distinguished writers in Irish in the modern period include such diverse voices as Liam Ó Flaitheartaigh (1896-1984), Mairéad Ní Ghráda (1896–1971), Máirtín Ó Cadhain (1906–70), Máirtín Ó Direáin (1910–88), Seán Ó Ríordáin (1916–77), Michael Hartnett (1941–99), Críostóir Ó Floinn (b. 1927), Gabriel Rosenstock (b. 1949), Liam Ó Muirthile (b. 1950) and Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill (b. 1952).
In the English language, the satirist Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) authored Gulliver's Travels (1726). Oscar Wilde's (1854-1900) plays, prose and poetry continue to be performed and read worldwide. Irish Nobel laureates include the playwright and novelist George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) and the poet and dramatist William Butler Yeats (1865-1939), whose work inspired the modern renaissance in Irish writing. James Joyce (1882-1941) wrote the pioneering modernist novel, Ulysses (1922) widely recognised as one of the greatest novels ever written. Joyce inspired the work of satirist Brian O'Nolan (Flann O'Brien) (1911-66), who also wrote in Irish. Nobel laureate Samuel Beckett (1906-89) wrote in a minimalist vein, often in French. His play, Waiting for Godot (1953) has become a twentieth century classic of absurdism.
The generation of poets after Yeats includes Patrick Kavanagh (1904-67). Kavanagh's example as a poet of rural realism inspired Seamus Heaney whose vision of the redemptive power of poetry earned him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995.
Irish fiction continues to be internationally recognised. In recent years, several Irish writers have won the Man Booker Prize including Anne Enright in 2007, John Banville in 2005 and Roddy Doyle in 1993. Writers shortlisted for the prize include Colum Tóibín (1999, 2004 and 2009), Sebastian Barry (2008), and Emma Donoghue (2010). Colum McCann's novel, 'Let the Great World Spin' won the National Book Award in the USA in 2009.
Irish theatre companies such as the Abbey, the Druid and the Gate regularly tour their productions to international venues and host the work of visiting theatre companies to Ireland.
Films have been made in and about Ireland since the Lumiére Brothers filmed in Sackville (now O'Connell) Street in 1897. Dublin born Rex Ingram was a Hollywood silent film director in the early 20th century. In 1910 the American, Sidney Olcott, filmed The Lad from Old Ireland in New York and Kerry, the first film ever made on two continents.
Throughout the last century Irish film makers were prolific in their production of amateur films, newsreels and documentaries, the most famous of which was Mise Éire (1960) directed by George Morrison. It was not until the 1970s however that a new wave of indigenously produced fiction films began to provide a striking alternative to foreign produced representations of Ireland. The Irish film industry has grown significantly over the last decade and Ireland is now becoming known for our film making talent in the same way as we are known for our theatre and literature. Following in the footsteps of Jim Sheridan and Neil Jordan, we now have a new generation of filmmakers including directors like Lenny Abrahamson, Conor McPherson, Martin McDonagh and Kirsten Sheridan.
In recent years, Irish films have won almost every major international award such as the Palm D'Or at Cannes - won by The Wind That Shakes The Barley, the Golden Bear in Berlin won by Bloody Sunday and the Golden Lion in Venice won by The Magdalene Sisters. Once won the prestigious Best Foreign Film Award at the Independent Spirit Awards and Garage took home the C.I.C.A.E. Prize at the Cannes Film Festive in 2007. Two Irish films have won the Oscar for best short film in recent years: Six Shooter in 2006 and The Shore in 2012.
The earliest Irish art consists of carvings on megalithic monuments dating from 3500 B.C. Celtic art reached its apogee in the manuscripts of the gospels such as the books of Durrow and Kells. After the ninth century Irish art absorbed Viking, Romanesque and Gothic influences producing, for example, richly carved stone High Crosses.
From the mid-seventeenth century, decorative arts such as goldsmithery, plasterwork and glass flourished in conjunction with the large-scale public buildings of the time. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Irish painters looked to the French Impressionists for a new idiom. These include William Leech (1881-1968), Walter Osborne (1859-1903), John Lavery (1856-1941) and Roderic O'Conor (1860-1940). Crossing from Impressionist to Expressionism, Jack B. Yeats (1871-1957) towers over his contemporaries much like his brother, the poet W.B. Yeats, was pre-eminent among his peers.
For a country of its size, the global influence of Irish architects, both historically and contemporary, is considerable.
The Irish landscape is one of the oldest man-made landscapes in the world, dating back to 3500 B.C. when megalithic tombs were constructed. These include dolmens and passage graves such as Newgrange, Co. Meath. During the Iron Age (after 500 B.C.), large circular stone forts were built, usually on hilltops such as Dun Aengus on the Aran Islands. In early Christian times, Ireland's architecture once more flourished - for example the Round Towers, which are considered unique to Ireland and formed part of important monastic sites such as Glendalough or Clonmacnoise. The most spectacular surviving early Christian site is Skellig Michael (c. 6th-8th c A.D.), on the Great Skellig Island in the Atlantic Ocean, which was inhabited by Irish monks. Irish architecture is world-renowned for it's Georgian period (1714-1830), during which many architectural masterpieces were constructed such as the Palladian-style Castletown House (1729) in County Kildare and Dublin's neo-classical Custom House (1791). Dublin's elegant Georgian townhouses, generous squares and leafy parks also come from this period. Many masterpieces can be found on the university campus of Trinity College Dublin, such as the Old Library (1712) and the Provost's House (1759). Irish architects also made important international contributions in the 18th and 19th centuries. In 1792 James Hobam (1758-1831) won the competition to design The White House for U.S. President George Washington.
Once of Ireland's most famous architects from the early 20th century is Eileen Gray (1878-1976). A pioneer of the Modern Movement, Gray lived in Paris where she designed furniture as well as her house E1027 in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin. The National Museum of Ireland holds many of Gray's iconic furniture designs and architectural models. Today, the work of Irish architects is transforming cities all over the world - from Europe to China and South America where Grafton Architects' design for a new university campus in Lima won them a 'Silver Lion' award at the 2012 Venice Architecture Biennale.
Music has always been an important part of Irish culture, from the traditional accompaniment to festivals and funerals in the form of playing and ballad singing, to Irish dancing which is very much alive in Irish communities around the world. The harp was the dominant instrument in early historical times. One of the earliest Irish composers whose work survives is Turlough O'Carolan (1670-1738), the blind harpist and one of the last of the ancient bardic tradition.
There is also a classical tradition in the forms pioneered by other European composers, Eighteenth century Dublin was an important musical centre and Handel chose to premiere his Messiah there in 1742. In the twentieth century traditional Irish music inspired modern composers such as Seán Ó Riada (1931-71).
Traditional Irish music is now popular in many countries through the influence of groups as diverse as Clannad, Enya, the Chieftains, the Dubliners, Altan, Dervish, Lúnasa and Anúna, all of whom perform in a modern context without compromising the integrity of the original sound. Reflecting this versatility is the phenomenon of Riverdance, with music composed by Bill Whelan, combining the best of Irish song, music and dance.
Comhaltas Ceoltóiri Éireann a non-profit cultural movement with hundreds of local branches around the world plays a prominent part in the development and preservation of Irish traditional music and dance.
There are three full-time professional orchestras performing in Ireland, the largest of which is the RTÉ National Orchestra, as well as a National Opera Company.
Ireland also has made a huge contribution to the history of rock music with world famous acts such as U2, Rory Gallagher, Thin Lizzy, the Boomtown Rats/Bob Geldof and the Pogues followed more recently by bands such as the Cranberries, Snow Patrol and the Frames and up and coming groups like the Script and Two Door Cinema Club. Ireland is also known for its singer-songwriters with Van Morrison in particular achieving global fame while Paul Brady, Christie Moore and more recently Damien Rice and Lisa Hannigan have also reached global audiences. Ireland can also claim to have been at the forefront of pop music, with Boyzone and Westlife achieving fame and selling tens of millions of records worldwide.
Among the most popular sports are Ireland’s traditional games, gaelic football, hurling and camogie, which are played almost exclusively in Ireland and in Irish communities abroad. Games in the All-Ireland hurling and football championships attract large attendances throughout the summer months culminating in the finals, the highlight of Ireland’s sporting year, which are held in Croke Park in Dublin.
A thriving GAA club exists in Japan with both men’s and women’s Gaelic Football teams. Training sessions are held throughout the year and the club is always looking for new members. Further information can be found at their website.
Soccer is popular at all ages from school to senior level in domestic competitions. The Irish International team, which plays as the Republic of Ireland, has over the past number of years enjoyed some success and is well supported by enthusiastic and friendly fans. The team has qualified for the World Cup on 3 occasions - 1990,1994 and 2002 - with their best finish in 1990 when they reached the quarterfinals. Ireland has also reached the finals of the European Championships twice in 1988 and 2012. Rugby is also popular in Ireland at international, club and schools level. The sport is managed by the Irish Rugby Football Union (IRFU).
Ireland competes in the international annual Six Nations Championship, winning the tournament on a total of 11 occasions, most recently in 2009. Ireland has reached the quarter finals of the Rugby world cup on 5 occasions.
Ireland has a strong reputation for field sports such as shooting, fishing and also for equestrian events, show jumping and horse racing. The Irish bloodstock industry is considered one of the finest in the world.
As Ireland has over 3,000 kilometres of coastline and numerous inland waterways, sailing and boating are long-established sports. A wide range of marine leisure activities such as fishing, water-skiing, canoeing, wind-surfing, diving and swimming are also pursued.
Over 400 golf courses offer facilities throughout the country. All-Ireland teams compete in international amateur golfing competitions with the major Irish tournaments on the international professional circuit being the Irish Open and the Irish PGA Championship. Ireland hosted the September 2011 biennal professional women golfers’ Solheim Cup at Killeen Castle Golf Resort, County Meath. The Ryder Cup was last held in Ireland in 2006 with top Irish golfers Pádraig Harrington, Darren Clarke and Paul McGinley contributing to the European team’s victory over the United States. Harrington later went on to become a three times ‘Majors’ winner, winning the British open championship in July 2007 and in 2008, and the US PGA in 2008. Irishman Paul McGinley led the European team as captain in the 2014 tournament. 2010 and 2011 were remarkable years for golfers from Northern Ireland: Graeme McDowell, Rory McIlroy and Darren Clarke won three major tournaments – the US Open 2010, the US Open 2011 and the British Open 2011 - respectively. McIlroy went on to win his second major at the US PGA in 2012 and is now considered one of the best golfers in the world.
Ireland also has a rich Olympic history from the 2 gold medals won by Pat O’Callaghan in the hammer in 1928 and 1932 to the London Olympics where Ireland won 5 medals in total, including the gold won by Katie Taylor in the first ever Olympic women’s boxing tournament. In between, great athletes such as Ronnie Delaney, Sonia O’Sullivan and Michael Carruth have competed and won medals for Ireland. Ireland also saw great success in the 2012 Paralympics in London, winning 16 medals including 2 golds each for Michael McKillop (athletics) and Mark Rohan (cycling).
Ireland hosted the Special Olympics in June 2003. Over 7,000 athletes from 160 countries came to Ireland to participate in this unique sporting achievement which was the largest sporting event ever to take place in Ireland.