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Cormac Ó Gráda

Irish and English: Essays on the Linguistic and Cultural Frontier 1600-1900,  James Kelly and Ciarán Mac Murchaidh (eds), Four Courts Press, 288 pp, €55, ISBN: 978-1846823404

Even in an era when language homogenisation threatened many minority languages and dialects in Europe, the headlong decline of a majority language like Irish between circa 1600 and circa 1900 stands out. But how radical was its retreat? What do we know about its contours at different dates? What caused it? Was it unavoidable? This valuable volume of ten erudite essays and an excellent introduction does not answer these questions but it does shed invaluable light on why a widely spoken community language with a rich literary heritage spanning a millennium went into free fall. Irish and English is more an exercise in cultural and literary history than in sociolinguistics or the history of language decline per se; recent works that focus on the latter more directly include Hindley (1991), Ní Mhóráin (1997), Ó Canainn (2006), Ó Ciosáin (2005), and Ní Chiosáin (2006, 2008).

The late Garret FitzGerald’s statistical analyses of the decline of Irish imply that in the 1800s at least two-fifths of Irish children grew up speaking Irish. His data are census-based, and so may underestimate the true proportion of Irish speakers somewhat. If the Protestant population, always overwhelmingly English-speaking (as James Kelly’s contribution makes plain here), is excluded, then the true Irish-speaking share among the remainder must easily have exceeded a half. Naturally, the proportions of Irish-speakers and Irish-speaking households were subject to strong regional variations. FitzGerald’s numbers indicate that two centuries ago nearly four in every five households in Connacht and Munster were Irish-speaking, but less than one in five were in the other two provinces. At the same time, a look at the numbers at baronial level suggests that very few of the thirty-two counties lacked an Irish-speaking community ‑ the most likely candidates being Laois, Wexford, Wicklow, Dublin (although Dublin would surely have had its networks of blow-in Irish speakers), and perhaps Kildare. As Nicholas Williams has reminded us, even Offaly then had its Irish-speaking enclaves.

Another striking feature of FitzGerald’s 1984 study is that the decline in the proportion of Irish-speaking households between the 1770s and the 1800s was very modest. The contrast between what folklorist Sean Ó Súilleabháin eloquently dubbed “an ghluaiseacht mhall mhí-thapaidh sin fé’n mBéarla go dtí tosach na 19adh aoise” (1940: 551) and what followed in subsequent generations is remarkable. Table 1, which is based on FitzGerald’s calculations, implies that the slippage was considerable between the 1800s and the 1830s, but more dramatic still between the 1830s and the 1860s. By its effects the most Irish-speaking sections of the population, the Great Famine certainly hastened the decline of Irish, but it was not mainly responsible for it.

Table 1. Percentages of Children Who Were Irish-Speaking by Decade
Province 1770s 1800s 1830s 1860s
Leinster 17 11 3 0
Munster 80 77 57 21
Connacht 84 80 63 40
Ulster 19 15 8 4
Ireland 45 41 28 13
Source: FitzGerald 1984

In their introduction, editors James Kelly and Ciarán Mac Murchaidh note that even in the 1630s “the tide was flowing strongly” in favour of English. Hints of this process at work are scattered throughout the volume. For example, in his chapter on the poets of Oriel or Oirghialla ‑ a loosely-defined area straddling parts of counties Armagh, Monaghan, Meath, and Louth ‑ Charles Dillon describes the shift in the linguistic landscape between the days of poets Séamus Dall Mac Cuarta (1647-1732), Peadar Ó Doirnín (1704-69), and Art Mac Cumhaigh (1715-73) and the time when later scholars tried to rescue their work from obscurity ‑ through the medium of English. Indeed, Mac Cumhaigh’s own repeated allusions to language shift – “nuair a chluinim an Ghaeilig uilig dá tréigbheáil, agus caismirt Béarla I mbéal gach aoin” ‑ may reflect the linguistic pressures on Irish speakers in his own time. The tréigbheáil so lamented by him ended in Omeath in 1960 with the death of Annie O’Hanlon (née Dobbin), Oriel’s (and the whole of Leinster’s) last native speaker. Lesa Ní Mhunghaile describes how in mid-eighteenth century Co Limerick, Jacobite poet Liam Inglis’s fervent hope was that French victories during the Seven Years War (1756-63) would help restore the language to its former status – “Gaeilge anois labharfar, cé fada le fán (Irish will be spoken from now on, although for long on the back foot)”. And Liam Mac Mathúna chronicles the increasing role of bilingualism in the eighteenth century through shifts in the character of macaronic verse.

Like Mac Cumhaigh, Liam Inglis was probably more worried about the declining prestige of Irish than its wholesale rejection by the masses. In Mac Cumhaigh and Inglis’s day, literacy, high socioeconomic status, and Protestantism (again, see James Kelly’s contribution) were good predictors of being English-speaking. But the great majority of the population did not tick any of those boxes before 1800. And so the decline did not really gather pace until after 1800, with the increasing opportunities for ordinary people offered by literacy in English. As FitzGerald’s analysis makes plain, wholesale rejection was still far in the future in the mid-eighteenth century. In the interim there was a transition characterised by diglossia (the two languages being used by the same community in different social and economic situations) and transitional bilingualism (when the grandparents were monoglot Irish speakers, the parents bilingual, and their children monoglot English speakers or passively bilingual). As Mac Mathúna explains, “boundaries of usage” were fluid, but English was the wave of the future and overwhelmingly the language of literacy and the printing press.

Those who made the switch, and those who had most to gain or to lose from it, are overrepresented in this volume. That explains why there is some tension between its central theme, that Irish was in rapid retreat from the sixteenth century on, and the implication of FitzGerald’s numbers that the decline was rather slow before 1800. The tension suggests a little caveat about the selectivity of the evidence.

Irish and English is not a study of what was best in Gaelic literature in this period. The great Aogán Ó Rathaille and Dáibhí Ó Bruadair hardly feature. Nor is it about the rich and unique intricacies of the language itself. Its focus, rightly, is on work on the “cultural frontier”. Vincent Morley’s brilliant essay continues the late Breandán Ó Buachalla’s work of rebranding one frontiersman, Seathrún Céitinn, as a forward-looking rather than a reactionary or elegaic figure. Morley has identified one hundred and forty-four manuscripts containing copies of Céitinn’s Foras Feasa ar Éirinn, but also shows that over time it became more a work of reference than a history to be read from start to finish. Still, it sustained followers of a weakening Náisiún Gaelach right into the nineteenth century. Not until 1902-14 did the Irish Texts Society publish a full four-volume edition of Foras Feasa; a new printing with a short, provocative introduction from Ó Buachalla appeared in 1987.

Several of the essays attest to the vibrancy in the eighteenth century of a literary culture that circulated in manuscript form. Manuscripts were studied, traded, borrowed, copied, stolen, and lost. The footnotes gracing the essays by Morley, Bernadette Cunningham and Ray Gillespie, Lesa Ní Mhunghaile, and Deirdre Nic Mhathúna all attest to the primacy of this literary medium. But why did the material they contained not make it into print? After all, this was in an era when Dublin boasted an important publishing industry. Part of the answer may be fear of repression, but an important part too must be the lack of demand. Given Irish poverty and the limited number of readers of Irish, the market was just not there. Had the Protestant Reformation succeeded in Ireland the story might have been different, at least while religiosity lasted; in Wales and Scotland evangelical Protestantism sustained literacy in Welsh and Scottish Gaelic for generations, even in their remote fastnesses. But as Niall Ó Ciosáin explains, whereas Gaelic was the language of evangelisation in Scotland, in Ireland the Catholic revival of the mid-nineteenth century was “very much an anglicizing and romanizing process”. Because Protestantism did not catch on, the impact of the Protestant evangelical printing press in Catholic Ireland was paltry. Not until 1685, more than four decades after the death of its original promoter, William Beddell, English-born bishop of Kilmore, did the first Irish translation of the Bible appear. Never widely used, it represented a feeble effort in the evangelical direction, as did, much too late, its reprinting in 1827 by the Irish Bible Society. Beddell’s Bible soldiers on through its influence on the Catholic An Bíobla Naofa (1981). Ó Ciosáin here ably documents the role of printed matter, devotional and other, in a comparative essay on Irish and Scots Gaelic. Ironically, it was not until the twentieth century, when Irish was already in a parlous state, that some of the works considered in detail in this volume ‑ Dánta Phiarais Feiritéir (1903), Foras Feasa ar Éirinn (1902-14), for example ‑ finally made it into print.

Little of this impinged on the masses. As Irish fought its losing battle in people’s homes, the infamous bata scóir (a stick used to keep tally on how often pupils spoke Irish) had the full sanction of parents in the schools. Folk memory of an bata scóir probably reveals more about post-independence revivalist mentalités than it does about the feelings of those who made the switch to English. As Seán Ó Súilleabháin (1940: 565) wistfully noted, “do chabhruigh an mhuinntir sa bhaile le droch-inntinn na scoile do chur chun cinn mar is mar sin a bhí an roth ag casadh san am san”. Referring to a somewhat earlier period, the editors mention how it was a “crime” to speak Irish in the hedge school in Bekan in southeast Mayo where middleman-priest John Patrick Lyons “received the first rudiments of knowledge” in the 1800s.

Indeed, just as the post-independence state sought to saddle the educational system with reviving Irish, so in the pre-independence era the masses used the educational system, not to learn how to read works such as those featured in the volume under review but as a means of learning English. Modern research on people in places as far apart as India and South Africa identifies and quantifies the economic advantages of being fluent in English (for example Chiswick and Miller 2007; Levinsohn 2007; Adsera and Pytlikova 2012); similar advantages undoubtedly accrued to our forebears in the nineteenth century. But modern research also highlights the advantages of fluent bilingualism. Indeed, had opinion-formers and poor parents in nineteenth century Ireland known what savvy middle class non-Anglo parents in the US and elsewhere know today ‑ that fluent full-blown bilingualism in early childhood is linked to higher academic performance in school and college and higher self-esteem and that it confers cognitive benefits that extend to mathematics (Portes and Hao 2002) ‑ perhaps the fate of Irish might have been different. So, contrary to some begrudgers, there may be nothing sinister about the relative economic success nowadays of the small minority who are completely at ease in both Irish and English: by this reckoning, they are at an advantage simply because their bilingualism has made them brighter. The notion that Irish speakers in the 2000s ‑ whatever about the 1950s ‑ are at some “structural advantage” in the labour market because of “the constitutional status of the national and first official language of Ireland” (as recently proposed by Vani Borooah and his co-authors) seems ludicrous.

Various contributors hint at but do not elaborate on factors that led to language decline. Colonial status was certainly one such factor from the start: indeed, the fate of Irish is perhaps our best proof that Ireland was a colony. As the editors note, the insistence of the Tudor authorities that English be the exclusive language of government “constituted an important marker” and an enduring one. There would never be any question of the ruling classes providing, for example, for Irish-speaking teachers, policemen, judges, bishops or public servants. Irish is a prime example of a language of the people succumbing to what Liam Mac Mathúna here dubs “the dominance of the ascendancy public sphere”. By the mid-eighteenth century the language of government had become the working language of the elite, the Catholic middle class, the Catholic Church (on which see Ciarán Mac Murchaidh in this volume) and the public intellectual. Referring to the headlong decline of Irish during the nineteenth century Douglas Hyde lamented that only one notable individual had complained about the loss and used Irish in public whenever he could. He was referring to Archbishop John McHale of Tuam.

Low living standards and globalisation also mattered. The realisation that speaking English had an economic value for emigrants, particularly female emigrants, led both those who emigrated and those who thought they might emigrate to become both literate and English-speaking. This spillover Anglicisation was a form of investment or “brain gain”. And so, understandably enough, schooling through the old language held no attraction for the nineteenth century subaltern Irish, even in totally Irish-speaking areas.

For the most part, those who shifted languages did so fatalistically and without fuss. As New York University historian Nicholas Wolf has shown, some even made fun of the linguistic misunderstandings and embarrassments entailed in the transition. Not for them the warning of irascible Welsh language enthusiast Saunders Lewis that “to acquiesce in the death of a language which was the heritage of our forefathers for one thousand five hundred years is to despise mankind”. The minority who treasured their manuscripts and the culture associated with them were marginalised. The relative insouciance of our predecessors (for the most part) is echoed by the younger generation in today’s Gaeltacht which, with utter “ar nós cuma liom”, seems to be in the process of dealing Irish as a community language the final blow.

In time, of course, the native Irish would become part of “lucht an Bhéarla”, and past masters of a language not their own. And yet, reading here about Seathrún Céitinn, Séamus Dall Mac Cuarta, Tadhg Gaelach and the others, one understands them better and wonders about what might have been ‑ and what might yet be. Don’t it all remind you of that Joni Mitchell song?

They took all the trees
Put ’em in a tree museum
And they charged the people
A dollar and a half just to see ’em.

Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got
Till it’s gone?
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot

Works cited:

Adsera, Alicia and Mariola Pytlikova. 2012. “The role of language in shaping international migration”, Norface Migration Discussion Paper No 2012-14.
Borooah, Vani K, Donal A Dineen, and Nicola Lynch. 2009. “Language and Occupational Status: Linguistic Elitism in the Irish Labour Market”. Economic and Social Review, 40[4]: 435-460.
Chiswick, Barry and Paul Miller. 2007. The Economics of Language. London: Routledge.
FitzGerald, Garret. 1984. “Estimates for Baronies of Minimum Level of Irish-Speaking Amongst Successive Decennial Cohorts: 1771-1781 to 1861-1871”. Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy 84C: 117-155.
Fitzgerald, Garret. 2003. “Irish-speaking in the pre-famine period: a study based on the 1911 census data for people born before 1851 and still alive in 1911”. Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy 103C[5]: 191-283.
Hindley, Reg. 1991. The Death of the Irish Language: A Qualified Obituary. London: Routledge.
Levinsohn, J. 2007. “Globalization and the Returns to Speaking English in South Africa” in Ann Harrison, ed, Globalization and Poverty. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 629–646.
Ó Canainn, Aodh 2006. Teacht den tSliabh Tráthnóna: Pádraig Ó hEaráin agus Oidhreacht Bhaile na Scríne. Dublin: Coiscéim.
Ó Ciosáin, Niall. 2005. “Gaelic culture and language shift”, in Laurence Geary and Margaret Kelleher, eds, Nineteenth-century Ireland: a Guide to Recent Research. Dublin: UCD Press, 136-152.
Ní Chiosáin, Máire. 2006. “Meath na Gaeilge i gCléire”, in Aidan Doyle & Siobhán Ní Laoire, eds, Aistí ar an Nua-Ghaeilge in Ómos do Bhreandán Ó Buachalla. Dublin: Cois Life, 85-94.
Ní Chiosáin, Máire. 2008. “The Irish language in County Clare in the early 20th century: a census-based perspective”, in Matthew Lynch & Patrick Nugent, eds, Clare: History and Society. Dublin: Geography Publications, 503-508.
Ní Mhóráin, Bríd. 1997. Thiar sa Mhainistir atá an Ghaoluinn Bhreá: Meath na Gaeilge in Uíbh Ráthach. An Daingean: An Sagart.
Portes, Alejandro and Lingxin Hao. 2002. “The Price of Uniformity: Language, Family, and Personality Adjustment in the Immigrant Second Generation”, Ethnic and Racial Studies 25: 889–912.
Ó Súilleabháin, Seán. 1940. “Bata Scóir”, in Eoin Ua Riain, ed. Féil-Sgríbhinn Eóin Mhic Néill. Dublin: Three Candles Press, 551-566.
Williams, Nicholas. 1998. “The Irish Language in County Offaly”, in William Nolan and Timothy O’Neill, eds. Offaly: History and Society. Dublin: Geography Publications, 543-68.
Wolf, Nicholas M. 2009.”Scéal Grinn? Jokes, Puns, and the Shaping of Bilingualism in Nineteenth-Century Ireland”. Journal of British Studies 48[1]: 51-75.

Cormac Ó Grada is Professor Emeritus of Economics at University College Dublin. His latest book is Famine: A Short History (Princeton 2009).