Monday, February 13, 2006

Why The Irish Don't Speak Irish

This is a bit of a "recycled post." I wrote this piece for a discussion forum in one of my graduate seminars here at the UW. It is in a seminar concerning language, nationality and migration. My argument seems to be that the Irish language is certainly a huge part of Irish national identity but no-one seems to care that hardly anyone speaks/learns it anymore.

Let me know what you think.

First, how many speakers of Irish are there in the Republic of Ireland today? According to statistics provided by the Irish Government in 2004, there are 1,570,894 speakers in total. Of these, 339,541 reportedly use Irish everyday as their primary language. To give a little perspective, the population of Ireland is 3,917,203. Clearly, Irish is a minority language at least as a primary use language is concerned. Yet, Ireland is officially a bilingual state (Irish and English). Irish will even become a working language of the EU in 2007, owing no small part to the Irish presidency of the EU in 2003.

What is the connection between the Irish language and the history of Ireland in the last 200 years? To start with another question, when was the last time in Ireland's history when Irish was spoken by more than half of the population? According to the 1841 census (which yielded a population of 8.1 million), about 4 million of these reportedly spoke Irish as their primary language (1).

Who were these people, broadly speaking? They were laborers, cottiers, the working-class and generally the poorer and lower reaches of Irish society in what was still a predominantly rural society. They were concentrated mostly on the west coast in such places as Donegal and Galway (2).By 1851, however, the situation was markedly different. After the depridations caused by the Great Famine (1846-1851), it was reported that less than 25% of the remaining population spoke Irish at all and less than 5% were monolingual (3). This started what was to be seen as a long cycle of decline in daily usage of the Irish language. Why?

Demographically, the population was decimated by the Famine. Institutionally, English had (especially since the Act of Union in 1801) become the language of state, law, commerce, industry and (increasingly) church. Knowledge of English equalled social mobility. It was also the case that those who immigrated during the Famine were not Irish speakers nor were they the poorest people in Ireland. They were mostly English speakers from the south and west. This left a significant vacuum of population that needed to fill the essential workings of administration, business and "the system" in Ireland - a development that occasioned many more to learn and use English alone (4). This was also aided by the establishment of a system of national schools in 1830 that didn't instruct pupils in Irish at all (5).

Bearing this in mind, how did the Irish language become a central plank in the platforms of Irish nationalists in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries? After the collapse of the Fenian movement in the 1860's and the disappointment of the Land League in the 1880's, Irish nationalism, which had become political rather than revolutionary since the time of Daniel O'Connell in the 1830's, changed dramatically after the death of Charles Stewart Parnell in 1891. There were two dominant strains of nationalism: the old political nationalism represented by the Irish Parliamentary Party and John Redmond. There was also a new nascent cultural nationalism pioneered by Eoin MacNeill, Patrick Pearse and the Gaelic League. A central focus of this cultural nationalism was the "de-anglicization" of Ireland and the return of the Irish language.When did the leadership change?

After the Third Home Rule Bill passed in April of 1914, Redmond and the IPP thought that their path had finally made some real progress. This legislation was tabled indefinitiely upon the outbreak of the Great War in August of 1914. This blow proved fatal to the political nationalists, and it was from these elements (together with the cultural nationalists and socialist trade unions) that the new nationalism was formed, with the revitalization of the Irish language as a primary goal (6). It was this group that led the Easter Rising in 1916, presided over the rise and victory of Sinn Fein in the 1918 parliamentary elections and led Ireland into battle in the Irish Civil War (or Anglo-Irish War) in 1919-1921. This revolutionary generation would preside over Irish language policy for years to come (7).

Between 1925 and 1937, the constitution of what would become the Republic of Ireland was debated. The taioseach (prime minister), Eamon de Valera was in the forefront of this process. He fought with the IRA in the civil war and was a fluent Irish speaker. Under his leadership, the Irish language became a central part of the legal and cultural basis of the new republic. This was enshrined in the 1937 constitution which de Valera helped to draft (8).This did not, as we have seen, match the situation "on the ground."

Independence from Britain did not immediately spark feelings among the Irish people for independence from its language. As the "founding generation" passed from political life in the 1950's, a new generation of Irish politicans came to prominence and the Irish language was not a primary concern anymore. Starting with Taioseach Sean Lemass in 1961, Irish leaders began to look to industry, trade and a greater role for Ireland in Europe as their primary goal.

It was in this period that the "leakiness" of the official status of the Irish language began to show and it continues to the present. All legislation is supposed to be published in Irish and English, but it rarely is. To recieve a Leaving Certificate from an Irish university, students used to have to pass an exam in Irish, but this requirement was done away with in the 1970's. Also gone in 1971 was the requirement of Irish proficiency for positions in the civil service, military or Garda Siochana. This was all coupled with the increased move to the Gaeltacht (the Irish speaking areas) of English speakers and the general effects of Ireland's "turn towards Europe" beginning with their entrance into the Common Market in 1972 and leading through the "Celtic Tiger" of economic expansion in the 1990's (9).

In attempts to address this, the Official Languages Act was passed in 2003. It's intent was to expand the use of Irish in public lige and protect the linguistic and cultural integrity of the Gaeltacht (10). This act has not been in force for long enough to see any real effects on the state of the Irish language. The department responsible for the enforcement of the act, the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht affairs, is (if their missions statements are to be believed) committed to the preservation of the irish language and the cultural milieu of its use. To do any less, the department believes, would be to relegate the key aspects of irish culture to the mists of history and to rob the Irish diaspora worldwide of their cultural and linguistic roots. In today's Ireland, however, this department often loses out for funding and support as Ireland continues to develop into a "modern" European state.

On the other hand, one can understand the position that the government finds itself in. Why continue to finance something that seems to inspire so little interest among the citizens? It is well for the diaspora to care about the language, but in the strict purview of government finance, is this a central concern? Has the Gaeltacht become a sort of linguistic cultural park financed with taxpayer dollars, effectively on life support? To quote one of my favorite television programs of all time, Yes, Minister, subsidies should be for art and culture and not for things people actually want. It is for things that they ought to have but don't.

1. Gearoid O Tuathaigh, Ireland Before the Famine: 1798-1848 (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1972), 157.
2. Brian O'Cuiv, A View of the Irish Language (Dublin: Irish Government Stationery Office, 1969).
3. O Tuathaigh, 158.
4. Ibid. (for the situation in Ireland). For immigration to the United States, see Reginald Byron, Irish America (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999), 52-53. For the Irish diaspora in general, refer to Tim Pat Coogan, Wherever Green Is Worn: The Story of the Irish Diaspora (London: Hutchinson, 2000).
5. R.F. Foster, Modern Ireland, 1600-1972 (London: Penguin, 1988), 341.
6. K. Theodore Hoppen, Ireland Since 1800: Conflict and Conformity (London: Longman's, 1989), 130-131.
7. Ibid., 137-138.
8. James Lydon, The Making of Ireland: From Ancient Times to the Present (London: Routledge, 1998), 372-373.
9. See
10. See several of the "sidebar topics" at


ChrisWoznitza said...

Hi I´m Chriswab. Greatings from Germany,Bottrop !!

Lost A Sock said...

Gooooo Irish! (wink wink)