Gaels (Irish)

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Gaels (Irish)

ETHNONYMS: Celts, Gaedhils, Irish countrymen and Countrywomen, Kelts


Identification. The Gaelic language (Gaedhilge) is a primary cultural marker of Gaels living on the Atlantic fringe of Ireland, distinguishing them from the English-speaking Irish of Ulster and the Irish republic in general.

Location. Apart from Iceland, the Gaelic enclaves represent the westernmost culture of the Old World. They are found along the south and west coasts of the republic, and these pockets, called "Gaeltachts," have had a special protected status since 1956. They are located in seven discontinuous areas: western Donegal, western Mayo, western Galway, the Aran Islands, western Kerry, western Cork, and southwestern Waterford. Only in these areas is Gaelic still widely spoken, though English is learned in school and also used. They are completely rural areas, and their economic development is tightly regulated; indeed, the frequency of Atlantic gales and the poor soil make farm improvement especially difficult. The number of primarily Gaelic speakers has steadily declined since the great potato famine of 1845-1848, and since then the boundary of their habitat has correspondingly been retreating westward. Although a century ago they covered the western half of the island of Ireland, today Gaelic enclaves are found discontinuously between 51°40 and 55°20 N and 7°30 and l0°0 W.

Demography. In 1981 1,018,413 Gaelic speakers were claimed for the Republic of Ireland (including 72,774 in the Gaeltachts), perhaps 20,000 in Northern Ireland, and a few thousand more who had settled in England, Australia, or North America. The number of Gaelic speakers (1,018,413) which is 31.6 percent of the total population of the republicdoes not come close to expressing the reality, since most of the self-identified "Irish speakers" are English speakers who learned some Irish in school. The number of speakers has really been declining for some centuries. Thus for example in the entire island in 1851 there were 319,602 speakers of Gaelic only, plus 1,204,684 bilingual in Gaelic and English. By 1901 these figures had dropped to 20,953 monoglots and 620,189 bilinguals. This trend has continued until recent times. However, the decline in numbers of Gaelic speakers cannot be explained simply by general population decline in the country. The closely related phenomena of population decline, high rates of underemployment, overseas emigration, the rural incidence of anomie, and the creation of the "Congested Districts Board" in 1891 must be considered together, as they apply in particular to what later became categorized as the Gaeltachts. In these areas the government has since 1891 made modest attempts to improve living conditions in what were recognized to be the poorest, least arable, and least developed parts of the country; but despite the board's activities and the creation of Roinn na Gaeltachta in 1956 to promote welfare in the Gaeltachts, the introduction of better housing, cooperative dairies, and certain welfare facilities has done nothing to hold the population in these areas. Typically today they contain an "old" population of widows, widowers, and other elderly people who have never married. While there are, of course, some young people too, many have moved to the Dublin area on the other side of the country or gone overseas. With national unemployment throughout Ireland (and Ulster) at 18 percent in 1989and higher in the Gaeltachtsno reversal of this demographic trend is in sight.

Linguistic Affiliation. Gaelic, Irish, or Erse is an ancient language of the Indo-European Family. It is not closely related to the neighboring English but instead is one of the Languages forming the small subfamily of modern Celtic, a relic of the ancient Celtic that reached in pre-Roman times from Britain and Iberia as far as Asia Minor. The modern Celtic languages, in addition to Irish, are Scottish Gaelic (also called Erse), Welsh, Breton or Armoric, Cornish (extinct in 1777), and Manx (virtually extinct by 1990). Most of them have an ancient literature. Two other important languages that had disappeared by about the fifth century a.d. were Gaulish and British. All Celtic languages have certain non-Indo-European features, such as positioning of the verb at the beginning of the sentence, which are otherwise known to us from Berber and Ancient Egyptian. Gaelic currently has the status of "first official language" in the Republic of Ireland, and because of urban migration the largest pocket of Gaelic speakers today is in Dublin County.

History and Cultural Relations

The long history of Gaelic speakers in Ireland has been marked by the production of noble epic poetry but also by the depredations of Viking marauders and later by the suppression of the language by English soldiers and settlers in the country. Parallel with this military suppression of the Irish peasantry was the outlawing of the Gaelic tongue, which inevitably led to the "hedge schools" of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, so called because they had to meet in secret behind hedges. Irish literature and classical learning were both imparted in Gaelic. By the nineteenth century, Village schools teaching in English were becoming widespread. The founding of the nationalistic Gaelic League in 1893 put the Gaelic language into a new light: from then on it was promoted (by urbanized, English-speaking Irish) as the language of what would one day become the Irish Free State (formed in 1922); and the literary revival of Gaelic that the league initiated has marked the twentieth century. But those in the Gaeltachts found little comfort in being patronized by city intellectuals, and otherwise they saw no real extension for the utility of Gaelic.


Villages are small, usually with 100-200 inhabitants, and consist of dispersed farmsteads, each surrounded by a few acres of farmland (or "townland"). There are four important centers of interaction in a Gaelic village: the pub or pubs; the post office or store (if there is one); the space outside the church; and the crossroads, which was the traditional place for dancing, gossip, and interaction among the young people on a summer's evening. The main farmhouse is usually next to another building that houses cattle, horses, donkeys, and farm implements. This latter building may be a relatively new structure, or else the ancestral home of the family that they have recently relinquished to their animals. Prehistoric and medieval stone buildings (clocháin ) have sometimes been preserved in this manner. The traditional Gaelic home is a long one-storied cottage divided into three rooms, its long axis roughly oriented east-west. The west room has a special position in Irish folklore, for it is where the aging parent or parents traditionally live out their last years amid family mementos before "going west." The middle room, the largest, is the general living and dining room, and also serves as the kitchen. It has two external doors, on the north and the south sides of the house. The small eastern room is a bedroom, but in the more northerly Gaeltachts it is common for the living room to have a protrusion or "outshot," which also can contain a bed. The cottages are sturdily built of cut stone, with wooden rafters supporting a thatched roof. The kitchen fire provides the only heat, and so peat (the usual fuel) is burning there fairly constantly. An adjustable iron pot hanger (crock ) hangs over it to support a pot or kettle; the smoke escapes up a chimney.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. A mixed Subsistence economy prevails throughout the Gaeltachts, with some farm surplus being produced for sale to neighbors or in local markets. Since these areas are near the coasts, ocean fishing used to be a prominent activity. Its importance has diminished considerably, partly because of the risks to older men that would come from going out in frail boats, but partly too because recent commercial trawling by both Irish and European Community boats has largely destroyed the breeding grounds on the sea bottom. The remaining boatmen today are more likely to put to sea to take a group of tourists for an outing. Other aspects of the traditional mixed economy are still observable, however. Cows and poultry are kept for Domestic needs; goats or pigs are sometimes found. Horses and donkeys are used in all Gaeltachts to pull the carts and implements used in farmwork and dairying. Oats and potatoes are important crops, along with hay for winter feed, and some wheat, rye, and barley are also grown for bread. Timber is extremely scarce, requiring the reuse of old rafters and even the collection of driftwood. The common heating and cooking fuel is peat cut from the local bogs and dried for a month or more before being brought home. Cooking stoves using canned gas are now common. Sundry farm products are sold, privately or through cooperatives. There are also two major sources bringing money in from beyond the Gaeltacht: Tourism, and numerous government subsidies. Since many villagers claim to be unemployed they can obtain unemployment benefits ("the dole"); others receive old-age pensions from age 66 on. There are small financial incentives given for speaking Gaelic in the home or for supporting an incapacitated family member. In addition to these sources, many families receive cash remissions from relatives overseas, especially in Massachusetts, Chicago, and New York. Of these various sources, the provision of meals and accommodation ("Country teas" and "farm holidays") to tourists (high-school Students, urban Irish, and English and Americans) are among the most remunerative today.

Industrial Arts. There are very few towns in the Gaeltachts and virtually no industrialization. Boats, carts, and houses used to be made by Gaelic villagers. Now few have the skills or the need, as cars slowly replace carts and contractors build modern houses for the people. In earlier times coastal villages had large fishing vessels, but by the present century most fishermen only had small four-man canoes (called curragh in the north, naomhóg farther south). There were no shipbuilding yards for these vessels, which were built by the boatmen themselves and are still repaired by them. Small seaports no doubt used once to have a thriving shipbuilding and repairing industry for larger vessels.

Trade. A large village may often serve as a shopping center for a Gaeltacht, and a small town always exists somewhere nearby, perhaps an hour's bus ride away. Here a handful of shops, nearly as many pubs, a government office or two, and perhaps a weekly market supply the basic needs of the rural community.

Division of Labor. With little perceptible class differentiations among the Gaelic peasantry, division of labor along lines of gender and age is normal. Men do the fishing, dairying, and farmwork, and they cut and cart the peat, until at 60 or 70 they become too old for all this and have to rely on their sons. Women do the housework and may also handle the dairying and the feeding of domestic animals. They are largely responsible for bringing up the children. The entire family has to go into the fields in July or August to turn the hay repeatedly and then stack it. Children are normally at school, but they are given chores to perform around the house or farm and may work hard during the summer vacation.

Land Tenure. About 6 percent of Ireland is allocated to the Gaeltachts, and they are home to about 10,000 small farmers. These areas, however, contain some of the worst farmland in the country. It has been estimated that about 80 percent of the Gaeltacht land is mountainside, bog, or marshland, good only for grazing sheep or digging out peat: the good arable land is in the central and eastern parts of the country. Land tenure is intimately linked with the arranging of marriages and with migration. In the present century Marriages are still often arranged, but the small farmer can reasonably give his land to just one son: any other sons have to go elsewhere for work, emigrate overseas, or join the Priesthood. But the one son who stays on the farm of his ancestors inherits everything at his marriage. Generally, a formal contract is drawn up by a solicitor in which the old farmer agrees to transfer ownership of land, home, and livestock to his son upon the latter' s marriage. This contract then becomes a key part of the young man's marriage arrangements and also takes the place of a will. The money may be used to help support the old farmer and his wife in their retirement in the west room, or it may become the dowry with which one of their daughters is married off. All too often nowadays, though, no suitable girl willing to marry a young farmer is available, and so he goes through life remaining unmarried while he toils on the land and supports his aging parents. As long as the father does not legally hand the property over to his son, the latter will remain there in a web of obligations and delayed expectations.


Kin Groups and Descent. In Gaelic culture, dann has a different meaning than the Scottish clan and the common anthropological term. The Irish clann traces descent through both males and females; thus, a clann is the entirety of all Persons descended from the clann progenitor (regardless of whom those persons may have married). This means that an individual will belong to several clanns simultaneously: his or her father's one or more clanns, plus his or her mother's. The clann is not necessarily exogamous. There are other categories of kin that overlap with the clann. A person has a body of known relatives recognized as his or her kindred ("my People," mo mhuintir). A smaller kinship group is made up of those people considered relatives "by blood" (gaolta ). Membership in these groupings corresponds to a very different System of naming than the Christian-name-plus-surname pattern of Anglo-Saxon lands. A person's descent is actually named, going back to one, two, or three patrilineal ancestors. There are also surnames, but the well-known O' of so many Irish names occurs less often in Gaelic: O' means "son of." Women instead carry the term Ní, "daughter of." Neither of these terms is used in a surname except on very formal occasions.

Kinship Terminology. The Gaelic kinship system uses bifurcate-collateral terminology, which is very different from the English system so widespread in Ireland.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. A woman's marriage traditionally centered on finding a young man who stood to inherit a farm and then paying a dowry to his parents. Even today, arranged marriages along these lines still occur. It has also long been thought desirable, however, for a farmer's daughter to marry someone with a shop in a nearby town; in this way the woman can hope for a somewhat easier life than if she marries into another farm. At the same time her family can expect little favors from the shop that she helps to run, while her in-laws can expect some fresh farm produce whenever her relatives come to town. This tendency of girls to move to the towns in marriageor even to migrate to Dublin, Liverpool, or London to work as chambermaids or in other service occupationshas contributed to the steady depopulation of the Gaeltachts during the past century. Since World War II, the tendency for both male and female youths to migrate has been enhanced by the ease of air travel and the knowledge that they can find well-paid jobs in Massachusetts or Chicago. Nowadays everyone seems to have at least one relative in the United States.

Domestic Unit. Six types of household can be found in the Gaeltachts: (1) single-person households; (2) jointsibling households, with unmarried or widowed brothers or sisters living together; (3) widow/widower households, Including married or unmarried children; (4) nepotal Households, defined by Fox as "households consisting of an uncle/aunt with his/her married/unmarried nephew/niece"; (5) extended households, consisting of father and mother with their unmarried children, one married child with spouse, and perhaps grandchildren; (6) nuclear households, made up of parents with their dependent children. In each case the household is viewed as a family and is a labor unit.

Inheritance. A young man whose father owns land and livestock can hope to inherit these at the time of his marriage, rather than at his father's death. A marriage contract thus often replaces a will. If there are more sons, only one will have hopes of getting the small farm, since the land cannot usually be divided among several sons.

Socialization. All children get an informal education in daily activities by helping their parents around the home or on the farm. Gaeltacht children nowadays are usually Educated at village schools provided by local government authorities. The average school-leaving age is 16, and after that boys tend to work on the farm, at least for a while. Girls are likely to emigrate sooner than their brothers. A few of these young people attend universities or theological colleges, in preparation for careers that will almost certainly keep them away from their home villages.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Gaelic villages are usually acephalous entities with a tendency toward exogamy.

Political Organization. Ireland is a sovereign, independent, democratic republic. At the national level is an elected president (An Uachtarán), a partially elected senate (Śeanad Éireann), and the Assembly (the Dáil Éireann) in Dublin, which has 166 representatives (teachta dala ) elected by universal adult suffrage and proportional representation; in the Assembly the Gaeltachts are represented through their Several parliamentary constituencies. Of the two major parties, Fianna Fail draws most support in the Gaeltachts because of its pro-Gaelic policies, and it forms the current government. At the local level are twenty-seven county councils in the Republic, made up of elected members.

Social Control. The formal authorities in Irish villages are police constables (gardai ). Gaeltacht villages do not have elected mayors, and the moral leader of a community is likely to be the parish priest. His threat of supernatural sanctions for wrongdoing is taken very seriously. Gossip and public opprobrium are also strong forces of social control. Not long ago, another powerful deterrent was the fear of what the fairies might do to one at night. Even now, one of the worst things one can ever say about a neighbor is to hint that he or she is in league with the Devil and thus is an agent of evil powers.

Conflict. Incidence of crime in the Gaeltachts is generally very low, rarely involving more than occasional petty theft or drunk and disorderly behavior. The people of the Gaeltachts are not directly involved with the current strife in Northern Ireland.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefe. The religion in the Gaeltachts is Generally Roman Catholicism, and in most of them Protestant churches account for less than 5 percent of believers. Vestiges of ancient pre-Christian practice and belief are nonetheless still to be observed (for example, in some annual festivals).

With Roman Catholicism so widespread, the usual Christian beliefs in the Trinity are universal. But in Gaelic belief the Trinity that people acknowledge is less often the Orthodox triad of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost than the distinctly Irish one of Jesus, Mary, and Josephwith Mary being the dominant figure in the Holy Family. A lively cult of saints is also found everywhere, many of them distinctively Irish ones. Saint Patrick (Pádraig) was the semimythical bearer of Christian civilization to the pagan Irish. Rich legend surrounds all of the Irish saints and dozens of other Christian saints. Clearly many minor gods, goddesses, and other spirits of pagan times were incorporated into Christian faith during the Middle Ages, to such an extent that much of the idiosyncrasy of Irish Catholicism can be traced by a folklorist back to pagan custom and belief. Some of the ancient cults have been kept alive in innocent-looking folk customs and a huge corpus of epic poetry. On the borderline of Christian belief is the Devil ("Black Nick" or "Old Nick," as he is usually called), a powerful presence still active in the world. He takes the form of a black dog, a cat, or an anthropomorphic figure with tail and cloven feet. The Devil, like a more powerful form of the fairies, is potentially harmful, causing some disease, crop failure, or other disasters. He even possesses selected humans, thereby making them into his agents. People hope they have a guardian angel who will protect them from the advances of the Devil; otherwise they must rely on rosaries and Christian prayer. People also commonly have a personal saint, chosen not so much on the basis of his or her history as on whether the saint is known to be a powerful intercessor with God. Other beings of the supernatural world are the fairies or elves, the cobbler (leipreachán ), and the vindictive female ghost or banshee (bean sídhe, "the white woman"). In addition many people believe in ghosts, the wandering souls of the dead (taidhbhsí ).

Religious Practitioners. Pagan practitioners of healing and witchcraft are no longer to be found, and the parish priest is now the ubiquitous spiritual shepherd of his flock. While a few of these men are from the Gaeltachts themselves, most of them are from other parts of Ireland: they were trained at Maynooth College and learned Gaelic for the ministry. Mass is now commonly said in Gaelic in the Gaeltacht communities.

Ceremonies. Christenings, weddings, and funerals are Religious rites celebrated by the parish priest at his church. But beyond these life-cycle ceremonies are others marking the annual cycle, many of them grounded in pre-Christian antiquity. The Gaelic annual cycle includes: Saint Brighid's Day, 1 February; Shrove Tuesday (just before Lent) ; Chalk Sunday (the first Sunday of Lent) ; Lent; Saint Patrick's Day; Easter; May Day, 1 May; Midsummer, 23 June; Michaelmas, 29 September; Samhain (Halloween or All Souls' Day), 31 October-1 November; Christmas; Saint Stephen's Day, 26 December. As elsewhere throughout modern Europe, many of these calendrical observances are becoming past memories.

Arts. The traditional arts of the Gaeltacht are music, storytelling, and poetry, all still very much alive. The pride of many communities today is the local teller of folktales (seanchaí ) or the singer of mythical epics (scéalai ). Their skills are usually heard in the pubs, shebeens (scíbíní ), and nighttime dance parties (ceilidh ), essential scenes for community interaction. The tourist trade has brought forth several other arts, among them pottery and knitting, which might seem traditional to the culture but in fact are not.

Medicine. Ireland is divided into a large number of "Dispensary Districts," each with at least one doctor and some nurses on duty. Thus the government makes modern health care available in the Gaeltachts, as elsewhere, and for those of low income it is free. There are also some "herb doctors," unlicensed and untrained folk healers who practice their craft in Gaelic villages, making use of various herbs as well as talismans and charms. Theirs is of course a traditional lore in these areas, specific to the flora of the Atlantic fringe.

Death and Afterlife. Christian burial is universally practiced in hallowed ground in the Gaeltachts, but it is preceded by the distinctive Irish institution of a wake. The principal realms of the other world in Christian thought are heaven, purgatory, and hell. People see heaven as a calm and peaceful place where the dead are reunited with friends and relatives; thus, people look forward to this afterlife, and the thought of it makes present troubles easier to bear. Despite much skepticism about the existence of hell, many Gaels do see it as a place of fire and punishment that will engulf evildoers. Purgatory is often seen in the folk eschatology as a part of this world, not the afterlife.

See alsoTory Islanders


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