Language and Literacy: Decline of Irish Language

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Decline of Irish Language

The Irish language has been in decline since the seventeenth century. Its reversal was a complex phenomenon, and it not easy to describe or analyze the processes involved. For the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, only indirect measures of its downturn are available, but these measures at least help to identify the context of the decline in the nineteenth century. The rate of occurrence of indigenous Gaelic surnames has been used to determine the status of Irish in late seventeenth-century Dublin city and county: There was 26 percent usage in the metropolitan urban area at that stage, and more than 90 percent usage in some rural baronies around the capital. Estimates by researchers writing in the nineteenth century suggest that in the 1730s twothirds of the country's population might have been Irish-speaking. Signs of reduction are evident from the mid-eighteenth century onwards. One indication of this downward trend was the decrease in the number of scholarships with a Gaelic component offered to and accepted by young Irishmen studying for the Catholic priesthood in French seminaries. France was the principal training ground for the Catholic clergy prior to the French Revolution in 1789. Earlier in the eighteenth century, Irish would have been the vernacular of many of the communities that priests returned to serve, but this clearly became less so over time.

The nineteenth century witnessed a continuation of the foregoing trends and their dramatic acceleration after 1850. What principally distinguishes the nineteenth century from previous periods is the growth in data specifically focused on language matters, thus facilitating the measurement of change. Statistical surveys of counties conducted by the Royal Dublin Society and other bodies are one such source. Although only some twenty counties were studied, and although the treatment of Irish differs from report to report (reflecting changes in the kinds of information elicited from informants), these organizations' publications are valuable for their data on Irish-language usage in different regions of Ireland and among different social classes. A substantial reversal in the use of Gaelic in Leinster and Ulster is apparent for the years in question (roughly 1800–1830). There were also systematic inquiries conducted by proselytizing Protestant groups seeking to convert speakers of Irish by means of their own language beginning in the late 1810s. The responses to the surveys confirm that although Irish was still strong in the south and the west, it was diminishing there too.

The Great Famine was the key turning point, not only in the fortunes of the language but also in the modes of reporting its retreat. It was evident from 1845 onwards that mortality was greatest in regions where Irish remained the principal community language. Public officials and others aware of the change were successful in having a question on the use of the language included in the population census of 1851. This was the first time that such an inquiry had been conducted, although censuses had been taken in Ireland since 1821. Questions about the Irish language were posed in all of the decennial censuses from 1851 to 1911; no census was carried out in 1921 in the turbulent conditions of the war of independence. The seven censuses conducted between the two aforementioned dates are a foundation for the analysis of the story of the language both before and after 1850.

The first systematic investigation of the census returns, and still the best overview of the position of Irish in the period on the national level, was by Brian Ó Cuív (1950 and 1969). He determined the percentages of Irish speakers for each county from the censuses of 1851 and 1891, tabulating the story for all baronies in eighteen counties. Maps were drawn up on his instructions for the two time horizons. They show a dramatic shrinkage in the intervening years (from 25 percent of the population in 1851 to less than half this total in 1891), with the speaking of Irish effectively confined by 1891 to coastal and some inland regions of the north, west, and south (counties Donegal, Mayo, Galway, Clare, Kerry, Cork, and Waterford). These districts came later to be called the Gaeltacht, although this term was probably borrowed from the similar designation of Gaelic-speaking areas of Scotland. Subsequent scholarship has built on and refined Ó Cuív's work. FitzGerald (1984) sought to determine from postfamine census data precisely when in the late eighteenth century significant patterns of decline might have commenced. Later studies have investigated usage or decline at more discreet levels of local administration (Nic Craith 1993).

Census questions elicit a relatively restricted range of information, and as a result, they allow only large-scale alterations over space and time to be charted. The decline of Irish involves issues pertaining to the use of the language proper. Some work has been done on characterizing the parameters of usage—for instance, categorizing speakers into monoglots, fully bilingual in either Irish or English, or partially bilingual (exhibiting greater command of either Irish or English), and examining whether such bilingualism was active or passive. There has been only limited analysis of the distribution of these capabilities across the population during the nineteenth century. Investigating the issue further will require that researchers go beyond census reports to other sources.

Greater levels of Irish-only competence are to be expected for the early nineteenth century. Contemporary manuscript materials are the most immediately relevant basis for assessing the language attainments of such speakers. More bilingualism and diminishing amounts of monoglottism were evident as the century progressed. The Irish of speakers born after 1850 survives in documentation from the early twentieth century—for instance, in oral traditions written down in the 1930s and later. Many of these records reveal the speech patterns of communities where Irish was disappearing as an everyday vernacular. Some breakdown in distinctive Gaelic linguistic characteristics such as initial mutation (sounds changing at the beginning of a word when the word's grammatical context alters) is evident from the seafaring and other traditions described by the fisherman Seán Ó hAodha (1861–1946), a native of Glandore, Co. Cork. These developments possibly reflect the decreasing use of Irish by Ó hAodha and his neighbors, rather than necessarily mirroring any predictable evolution within the structures and sounds of the language itself.

While Ó hAodha's Irish shows signs of contraction in usage, the language of his near-contemporaries from adjacent regions exhibits a continued vibrancy. This is the case for the renowned Blasket Islander Tomás Ó Criomhthain (1856–1937), whose autobiography An tOileánach (first published in 1929 and translated in 1937 as The Islandman) is an epic testimonial to his maritime people. The same is true for other male and female tradition-bearers, such as the masterful west Cork storyteller, Amhlaoibh Ó Luínse (1872–1947), and the Beara peninsula exponent of oral narrative, Máiréad Ní Mhionacháin (1860–1957). Accordingly, the concept of language decline cannot be equated automatically with morbidity (Crystal 2000) or with intrinsic weakening in the expressiveness of Irish itself. The Irish of the late nineteenth century still clearly benefited from the linguistic vitality of the prefamine period (three million people probably spoke Irish in the early 1840s). The Gaelic Revival that began in the late nineteenth century capitalized on such residual strengths. This factor and the state support that it received throughout the twentieth century have meant that Irish may not now be as close to extinction as many of the world's other less-used or minority languages (McCloskey 2001).

The causes of the decline of Irish have attracted scholarly notice, but further work on the issue remains to be undertaken. Seán de Fréine's classic account (1965) sketches the main reasons as well as their impact. They include the age-old hostility of the English authorities to the language, growing indifference toward it on the part of Irish ecclesiastical and political leaders in the nineteenth century, and the community's own willingness to jettison its use. Whether arising from enforced or voluntary circumstances, the loss of Gaelic, according to de Fréine, was reflected in the population's diminished self-confidence and self-awareness. The main planks of de Fréine's arguments are still largely tenable, but they must be refined in light of more recent scholarship. Efforts on behalf of Irish by agencies directly or loosely associated with the government, particularly in the domains of religion, culture, and education, suggest that not all branches of the establishment were unremittingly hostile to Gaelic in the nineteenth century. And recent studies on the social and educational background of Catholic priests and bishops have given a clearer impression of how the clergy might have been predisposed to acquiesce in language change.

Much more study of important aspects of the language is needed. Though there has been significant recent work on the transformative effects of literacy and on school curricula in the critical first half of the nineteenth century, this scholarship does not investigate these issues through contemporary Gaelic manuscript sources themselves, which are replete with relevant data. Nor has there been a full investigation of the effects on Gaelic-speaking communities of industrialization and the development of modern communications networks. Perhaps the most serious omission is the failure to study the decline of Irish in comparative terms. In this connection the forces that impelled language shift in Aboriginal Australian populations in such a short space of time might be considered (Schmidt 1985). This will inevitably bring into focus the considerable literature on language and colonization. These considerations further demonstrate how complicated a topic language change is in its own right, and they reinforce the need to approach it in a broad and sophisticated manner. In Ireland's case the decline of Irish is one of the more profound transformations in the country's history, affecting a range of issues beyond language use and encompassing psychology and identity as well.

SEE ALSO Blasket Island Writers; Education: Primary Public Education—National Schools from 1831; Gaelic Revival; Gaelic Revivalism: The Gaelic League; Hiberno-English; Language and Literacy: Irish Language since 1922; Literacy and Popular Culture; Raiftearaí (Raftery), Antaine


Crystal, David. Language Death. 2000.

De Fréine, Seán. The Great Silence. 1965.

FitzGerald, Garret. "Estimates for Baronies of Minimum Level of Irish-Speaking amongst Successive Decennial Cohorts." Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy 84 C (1984): 117–155.

McCloskey, James. Voices Silenced: Has Irish a Future? 2001.

Nic Craith, Máiréad. Malartú teanga: Meath na Gaeilge i gCorcaigh san Naoú hAois Déag. 1993.

Ó Cuív, Brian. Irish Dialects and Irish-Speaking Districts. 1951.

Ó Cuív, Brian, ed. A View of the Irish Language. 1969. Schimdt, Annette. Young People's Dyirbal: An Example of Language Death from Australia. 1985.

Neil Buttimer

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Language and Literacy: Decline of Irish Language

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