Language Shift
Irish Cultural Heritage

Ireland | Language Shift from Irish to English in the 19th Century

There is much deliberation as to how the language shift from Irish to English occured.  It has been difficult for experts to agree on an explanation as to why and how this happened.  Irish has had many challenges over the centuries with the invasion of the Vikings and the Anglo-Normans.  Despite this, the Irish language prevailed and was even spoken by a growing number of settlers.  Overtime laws were introduced by the government in Dublin to suppress the Irish language and Gaelic Culture.  The plantation of Laois and Offaly, and the plantation of Ulster during the sixteenth century allowed for the extension of the English language throughout parts of Ireland.  After the Cromwellian and Williamite wars a knowledge of English became essential for native landowners who wanted to climb the social and economic ladder.

Irish Gaelic literature survived into the eighteenth century in oral and manuscript form thanks to tenant farmers, priests, publicans, artisans, and schoolteachers, although they weren’t professionally trained.  By the beginning of the nineteenth century, according to some experts, the Irish language was in decline.  It has been argued that this is unfounded as more and more literature was being produced at this time.  More literature may have been produced but Irish as a spoken language was declining.  Using the 1851, the 1861, the 1871, and the 1881 Census, it can be worked out that 45% of those born between 1771 and 1781 spoke Irish, with a drop to 13% speaking Irish among those born between 1861 and 1871.

It is often believed that Daniel O’ Connell, the Catholic Church, and the National School system are to blame for this decline.  However, this is an oversimplification, with there being no one cause and many issues at play.  It must also be observed that the Irish language was excluded from the economic and political sphere before the nineteenth century.  Therefore for the purpose of this article Daniel O’ Connell, the Catholic Church, the educational system, the Great Famine and the Irish legal system will be looked at as causes of the shift from Irish to English.

Daniel O’ Connell was the well-known barrister who liberated Irish Catholics from restrictive laws imposed by the government.  As O’ Connell’s father was a landowner and a businessman, English was spoken within the family.  However, to communicate with the tenants, the O’ Connell family spoke Irish, including Daniel.  On one occasion  O’ Connell was asked if he was aware of the language shift that was occurring among the peasant class.  He answered that he was aware that the peasantry were speaking English more often and because English was a better way of communicating he couldn’t be sad for the decline of the Irish language.  As Irish was associated with the Irish peasantry, O’ Connell believed the language represented ignorance and struggle; whereas English was associated with economics and politics.  Yet Irish was his native language.  When he needed to, his business dealings and legal cases were carried out through Irish.  Sometimes when he was attending public meetings he spoke in Irish so the reporters wouldn’t know what he was saying.  He wished he had changed his surname to ‘O’ Conal’ after Catholic emancipation.  It could be said that O’ Connell was pragmatic where the Irish language was concerned.

It is thought that the Catholic Church’s role in language shift has been the least reassessed of the factors considered to be a cause.  Before the nineteenth century the clergy had a role in keeping the manuscript tradition alive through collecting and commissions, and in being patrons of scribes.  Some priests, like Archbishop McHale, were Irish language enthusiasts trying to preserve the spoken language.  Irish was used by the Catholic Church in the first half the nineteenth century to administer pastoral care to a Catholic congregation. Yet it wasn’t part of the Church’s agenda to use Irish as a means to stop the spread of the English language.  While English was the focus when training priests in Maynooth College there was some provision made to teach Irish albeit not in a satisfactory manner.  By the nineteenth century there was very little production of religious literature except for religious literature produced by Protestant evangelical societies who were trying to convert Irish Catholics.  The English language soon became the language of the Irish Catholic Church as they wanted to reach the Irish diaspora and English speaking areas.

National Schools were established by the Commissioners of National Education in 1831.  It’s aim was to teach English to children and as such didn’t take into consideration the special educational needs of Irish speaking children.  The Irish language wasn’t added to the National school curriculum until 1878 and even then it was just considered an extra language.  It wouldn’t be until 1904 when a bilingual programme was established.  In 1834 and 1844 the Board of the Commissioners of National Education was asked to add Irish to the school curriculum and to make provisions for the use of Irish teachers.  Both of these requests were refused.  The Board believed that it didn’t fit into their plans.  However, Patrick Keenan, a senior inspector with the Board felt that the Board’s policy of furthering the English language in National schools was a hindrance to children who were monoglots.

Many nationalist thinkers believed that if schools could bring about this language shift from Irish to English on their own then the schools could be relied upon to revive the Irish language.  However, some critics saw schools as a vehicle for this change in so far as they were providing a service for a demand that was already there.  Patrick Keenan, the senior inspector, noticed this demand for learning English on Inishbofin.  Yet he wasn’t convinced of a school’s ability to teach English.  Using Tory Island as an example Keenan observed that each year very few children could speak English on leaving school.  The responsibility of the National Schools for solely causing the language shift from Irish to English has to be brought into question for a number of reasons.  Firstly, the attendance of pupils was laxed and often ended at a young age.  Secondly, there were many teachers working in National Schools who weren’t trained.  Finally, English was not taught to students through their vernacular language making it harder for them to pick up the English language.

Many experts agree that the Great Famine was a major factor in the shift from Irish to English due to death and emigration.  It is estimated that a million and half died and a million emigrated.  There were very little opportunities in rural parts of the country and so emigration was the only option to earn a decent living.  The majority of those left from Irish speaking areas and travelled to English speaking countries, such as the United States of America.  It was thought to be an advantage to be able to speak English and that it would help these immigrants to advance in their new country.  However, it has been questioned the availability of such evidence to support this and there is evidence that the emigration from Irish speaking areas didn’t occur until after the Great Famine, making those emigrating bilingual anyway.  Seán Ó Dúbhda remembers his father telling him stories of letters from America full of encouragement for children to learn English so they wouldn’t be at a disadvantage when they emigrated like those who had gone before them.  The lack of English didn’t dissuade monoglot speakers from emigrating but it was still expected of them to acquire a level of proficiency in English. 

The role that the Irish language played in the Irish legal system during the nineteenth century has been assessed by Dr. Lesa Ní Mhunghaile and Dr. Mary Phelan.  It’s important to note that the official language of the state at this time was English and for a document to be legally binding it had to be transcribed in English.  The use of the Irish language in the courts is an area looked at by Ní Mhunghaile.  Irish was understood and even spoken within the Irish courtroom, but it’s use was reduced in some of the courts from the 1830s because of the increase in people being able to speak both Irish and English.  Interpreters would be employed if a judge didn’t have a good proficiency of the Irish language.  Although some of these interpreters were dubious.  

An example of this is the use of a policeman as an interpreter in the case of the Maamtrasna Murders.  Five members of the Joyce were murdered on an August night in 1882 in the area of Maamtrasna.  Maamtrasna is an Irish speaking area on the border of Co. Mayo and Co. Galway.  Ten men were arrested and charged with the murders.  Some of the men could speak English, some of them were Irish speakers only.  The trial began on November 1 in Dublin, each of the men were tried separately and RIC Constables were used as interpreters throughout. The trial of Maolra Seoighe is a controversial one.  Seoighe could speak Irish only and the QC for the defence, Mr. George Orme Malley had previously taken the strategy of prejudice against Irish speakers.  In trying to ascertain if Seoighe could speak English there was a miscommunication, and so none of the testimony read out in court was translated for him.  Observers noticed that Seoighe was struggling to understand what was going on.  Seoighe was found guilty and sentenced to hang.  It came out after Seoighe’s death that he was innocent.  Thomas Evans was Seoighe’s interpreter.  He was a RIC Constable and this would have been advantageous for Dublin Castle and the Crown Court.  To trust a Constable to interpret truthfully in a trial was brought into question.  Because of the big controversy regarding Seoighe’s trial, steps were taken to prevent this miscarriage of justice from happening again. A hundred and thirty six years after his death, Seoighe was posthumously pardoned by the President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins. There was no requirement at the time for policemen to have a knowledge of the Irish language and so this could been seen as an indicator of the prejudice against the language.

It has been questioned why there was such a shift from Irish to English when both languages could have been kept.  It’s widely thought that people couldn’t get by in the economic sphere without knowing English.  This is disputed by John Joseph Lee, who uses the example of some Northern European countries that adopted English as a second language but kept their native tongue and yet were economically successful.  It’s also argued that Irish society went through some swift changes and as such the Irish language couldn’t keep up with the times.  Again, Lee counters this narrative by showing that other countries were capable of bringing their respective native languages along with them as society changed.  Reg Hindley suggests that it was a collective choice when making the language shift, implying free will and not coercion, which is a strongly held narrative by some.  Daniel O’ Connell, the Catholic Church, the National School system, and the Irish legal system are in no way exhaustive of the causes attributed to the language shift from Irish to English.  In conclusion no one cause can be solely responsible for this change.  

Marteen Lane (4)


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Language Shift

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