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The Queen’s English

Niall Ó Ciosáin

Irish Speakers, Interpreters and the Courts, 1754-1921, by Mary Phelan, Four Courts Press, 286 pp, €55, ISBN: 978-1846828119

Of all the social and cultural changes in the last two or three centuries in Ireland, the change in spoken language from Irish to English is one of the most difficult to track and to conceptualise. How do entire communities change their domestic spoken language while remaining in situ? As the first sentence of this book puts it, “A great deal of time, effort and determination are required to change the language of a country.”

If there is a conventional way of viewing this, it is to regard the language shift simply as part of the economic integration of Ireland into the wider British or United Kingdom economy. Irish agriculture and industry became commercialised and export-directed from the later eighteenth century, and survival and prosperity depended on learning English. As Donald Akenson put it, “with a rational and prudent calculus, the speakers of Gaelic in Ireland chose to learn English”. While this might seem like a bracingly commonsensical view (“Irish doesn’t sell the cow”, “it’s the economy, stupid”), in practice it falls well short as a comprehensive explanation, running into difficulties at both a chronological and a spatial level.

Chronologically, the continuity and intensity of engagement with market institutions was nowhere near the level required to drive a language shift in an entire population before at least the middle of the nineteenth century, while the shift in language began building momentum towards the end of the previous century. Until the Famine at least, the vast majority of the population grew their own food, supplied their own fuel and made most of their clothes. Crucial market transactions would have taken place only once or twice a year, when the crop was sold or cattle brought to market. Spatially, if the spread of English accompanied market penetration, we might expect some correlation between the two. The areas around major export ports, for example, should be more anglophone than other areas. In fact, this relationship didn’t hold at all. After Dublin, the two biggest ports for food exports in 1800 were Waterford and Cork, and the areas around these cities remained intensely Irish-speaking until well into the nineteenth century.

There is a further, more general and less visible, limit to strictly economic arguments for language shift. Strictly speaking, they should be expressed in terms of rationality and efficiency, that the exchange and circulation of goods has fewer costs if it takes place in one language only. However, this argument should work both ways ‑ in Irish-speaking areas markets would work more efficiently if conducted purely in Irish and agents from English-speaking areas should change language when operating in them. In reality this didn’t happen. The reason for this is because all of the documents and institutions that underlay markets in Ireland ‑ paper money, bills, contracts and so on ‑ needed to be in English to be legally valid. Moreover, the institutions that guaranteed market transactions by enforcing debts and contracts ‑ that is, the courts and their agents ‑ also operated in English. Ultimately, the economic argument resolves into a political one ‑ a market is embedded in a state, and the language of the state was English and English only.

What was happening, we might say, from the later eighteenth century on, was that the population of Ireland was coming into contact with the state far more regularly and directly than before, and that this had fundamental linguistic consequences. This was most dramatic and dangerous in the second half of the 1790s, when the growth of radical political movements was met by counter-revolutionary measures in many parts of the country. Martial law was declared, curfews were enforced and civilians were interrogated and tortured on a large scale. For a few years before and after the 1798 rebellion, being able to deal with an English-speaking military could be a matter of life and death.

A few years earlier there had been another fundamental shift in the contact between people and the state. This was the extension of voting rights to Catholics in 1793. Over the following two decades, this gave a vote in parliamentary elections to tens of thousands of Irish-speakers. In Co Galway, the electorate increased from 700 in 1793 to 5,000 in 1803 and to 13,000 in 1813. The vast majority of these new voters were Irish-speakers, and a significant amount would have had no English or limited English. It is true that elections were no more frequent than today ‑ there were elections in 1797, 1802, 1806, 1807, 1812 and so on ‑ and they weren’t always contested, but they were intense experiences when they took place. In county constituencies, where nearly all Catholic voters were, voters had to travel to the county town to cast their vote, a journey that could last two or three days, and the voting lasted several days and was done in public.

Even more far-reaching was the engagement of the general population with the court system. The major change here came in the 1820s, with the introduction of small local courts, known as petty sessions, the predecessors of the district courts. Before this there existed the assizes (held twice a year in large towns and cities) and the quarter sessions (four times a year), both of which dealt with serious offences and cases. By contrast, petty sessions were held locally and frequently, dealt with less grave issues and were cheap to use. And they were used with alacrity ‑ Desmond McCabe, the pioneering historian of these courts, has estimated that during 1839 alone a quarter of all the families in Co Mayo were involved in a case at the petty sessions. Mayo had an overwhelmingly Irish-speaking population at that point, and these courts brought it into regular and serious contact with an English-speaking institution.

The effect of these courts was reinforced by the simultaneous establishment of a permanent nationwide constabulary, who brought most of the criminal cases to the petty sessions. As a result there was a major increase in the number of Irish-speakers appearing in court, and it’s clear that they did so not just as defendants but also as witnesses and even plaintiffs. To accommodate them, there was a continuous use of court interpreters in many of the court districts. Interpreters had already been used in the higher courts, and many of the quarter sessions and assizes had permanent interpreters, paid for from local taxation. Arrangements at the petty sessions were much more informal. Some courts would have a regular interpreter, sometimes the clerk of the court would double as an interpreter, sometimes it would simply be a volunteer from the public gallery. Sometimes a hostile or impatient magistrate would refuse to allow an interpreter and insist on evidence being given in English.

Small courts and their interpreters were a significant point of interaction between an English-speaking state and an Irish-speaking population, and the variety and malleability of that interaction is typical of linguistic politics in a deeply bilingual society. This was very well brought out in An Irish-speaking Island, Nicholas Wolf’s rich ethnography of language in nineteenth century Ireland, where one chapter focused on the use of interpreters in courts and at parliamentary elections (reviewed here: http://drb.ie/essays/gaelic-and-catholic-). Wolf’s exploration has now been followed by Mary Phelan’s book-length study.

Phelan’s book is encylopaedic, both in content and layout. Like Wolf before her, she offers a wealth of ethnographic detail that will be an eye-opener to most readers, academic as well as general, regarding the cultural complexity and unpredictability of a highly bilingual and diglossic society. She surveys the higher courts as well as the petty sessions, and there are separate chapters explaining how interpreters were appointed, whether and how they were paid, how they worked, and how accurate and impartial they were. There is a very effective chapter on policemen acting as interpreters, which includes a discussion of the Maamtrasna case in 1882, in which a monolingual defendant was unjustly found guilty and sentenced to death, and which has been the subject of four books in recent years.

The encyclopaedic aspect is particularly evident in two sections which will form an invaluable handbook for other researchers. The first is a fifty-page survey, county by county, of levels of Irish speaking and interpreter provision in the nineteenth century. The second is a compendium of biographies of eighty-five interpreters that Phelan has identified and investigated, ranging in time from James Kennedy, who was born in 1742 and worked as an interpreter in Limerick for forty-five years, to Thomas Veale, who interpreted at Dungarvan petty sessions in the early decades of the twentieth century, and who died in 1954. This biographical dictionary is available to consult on the internet (https://zenodo.org/record/3345182#.X0YorchKhPY) along with an enormous corpus of newspaper articles featuring interpreters, stretching from 1796 to 1922 (https://zenodo.org/record/3347971#.X0YpP8hKhPY). This last is a reminder of how fundamentally the practicalities of research have changed in the last twenty years or so. It is the result of word searches in databases of digitised newspapers, allowing the instantaneous retrieval of items from eighty-three separate newspapers over a period of nearly two centuries, something that would have taken a lifetime previously. (This is not to say that the book is founded on tabletop research only ‑ dozens of handwritten jury presentment books held in eighteen counties have also been tracked down and combed for evidence of the employment of interpreters in the higher courts.)

Phelan and Wolf draw different conclusions about the role of Irish in the courts. Wolf was more inclined to emphasise the agency of Irish speakers and the need for the legal system to accommodate them, particularly after the introduction of small courts. “By appearing in court to testify,” he wrote, “and by litigating cases at petty sessions and assizes, Irish speakers themselves had created conditions in which the legal system had conceded the need to accommodate their language in order for the courts to conduct their business, however imperfect or limited that accommodation ultimately turned out to be.”

Phelan, by contrast, presents the courts as far more coercive in matters of language. People who insisted on giving evidence in Irish could be refused expenses; “witnesses were produced who swore that they had conversed with them in English" in order to discredit their testimony; and some were even threatened with jail if they did not testify in English. Her conclusions are presented in a chapter called “Language and Power”:

It is quite clear … that people who spoke Irish and English could not at any stage decide for themselves what language they wished to use if they appeared in court as a witness, plaintiff or defendant. On the contrary, if it could be shown that they spoke even a few words of English, they risked being humiliated in public, refused their expenses or even sent to prison. People who experienced this treatment, along with their families and community, must have felt that it was not in their interest to speak Irish.

The differing views are encapsulated in the contrasting conclusions drawn from an appeal case in 1858, Regina v Burke. In a trial for rape in Co Mayo, a witness for the defence chose to give evidence in Irish. The prosecution produced two witnesses to testify that they had heard him speak English. The evidence of the defence witness was thereby undermined and the defendant was found guilty. The defence appealed this tactic, and when a higher court found that the challenge to the defence witness on linguistic grounds was invalid, the conviction was quashed. Wolf and others, including myself, previously read this judgement as establishing a right to give evidence in the language in which the witness was most at ease. Phelan corrects this, showing that the judgement in fact concerned the timing rather than the legitimacy of such a challenge. It ruled that it was permissible at the beginning of a witness’s testimony, but not during cross-examination, as had happened in the rape trial. The case, Phelan writes, “conferred absolutely no rights on Irish speakers”.

One way of resolving this conflict of interpretations would be to look at the provision of interpreters in other countries. Ireland compares favourably with Wales, for example, in that the courts paid for Irish-language interpreters, at least in criminal cases, whereas Welsh-speakers had to provide their own. However Phelan extends the comparison to the Habsburg states, and this is very unfavourable to the Irish case. There, the provision of interpreters in a dozen languages was established by decree in 1835, and by 1850 there was a university examination specifically for them. As Phelan says, “in comparison to the situation in Ireland at the time, these provisions seem quite amazing”.

In other words, Irish was treated relatively well by British or UK standards, but that is not to say very much, as this was a state with a much harsher linguistic regime than the Austrian empire. Another way of putting it would be that Britain was a far more centralised polity than the multi-state Habsburg lands. That centralisation accelerated after the Act of Union. The small courts and the police were manifestations of that centralisation, as both were directed from the core and replaced mechanisms that were far more informal and local. So it was not just that contact between the Irish-speaking population and the state was growing rapidly around 1800, but also that the state was a linguistically unaccommodating one. Mary Phelan’s book is an imposing and valuable documentation of that contact.


Niall Ó Ciosáin teaches history at NUI, Galway. His research focusses on literacy, language shift and book history. He is currently engaged in a comparative study of publishing and reading in the Celtic languages (Irish, Scottish Gaelic, Welsh and Breton)  in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.