Loss of Irish damaged confidence, book claims


A CONTROVERSIAL claim has been made in a new study that Irish parents who believed their children only had a future with the English language may have been contributing to a loss of economic creativity and self-confidence.

The analysis by Dr John Walsh, lecturer in NUI Galway’s school of language, literature and culture, contends that the shift from Irish to English use in the 19th century had a detrimental effect on both Ireland’s economy and its society.

His new work has been described by Prof Peadar Kirby, who is professor of international politics at University of Limerick (UL), as “one of the most important books written on the Irish language for a very long time”.

“For the first time, it examines the claim made by authors as far back as Thomas Davis in the 1840s and up to historian Joe Lee’s magisterial book of 1989 that the decline of Irish as the vernacular language has had a detrimental effect on Ireland’s socio-economic development,” he said.

Prof Kirby was speaking at the book’s publication in Galway City Museum.

“The experience of language shift in the 19th century was a remarkably painful experience,” he said.

“This is a point which has not been acknowledged, but which affected us deeply. Contrast our sense of confidence and creativity with Scandinavian countries which held on to their languages,” he said.

“Walsh’s book adopts a rigorous social scientific approach to interrogating this claim, contributing important insights not only to debates about Ireland’s future development but also to international debates about culture and development,” the professor told those attending the launch.

“Coming at a time of major national reappraisal of where we are going as a society, this book has a huge contribution to make to charting the road towards a better future.”

Dr Walsh was appointed as a Fulbright Irish Language Scholar in 2009, and he subsequently spent six months engaged in researching the subject matter of the book at the University of California, Santa Cruz, in the United States.

He examined previous writing on the issue, dating back to Thomas Davis and Douglas Hyde, and chose three Gaeltacht areas as case studies.

He also investigated areas outside the traditional Gaeltacht, such as Galway city and west Belfast. Dr Walsh additionally examined the new development policy of Údarás na Gaeltachta, and looked at the changing focus of the organisation, particularly in the light of renewed concern about the strength of Irish in the Gaeltacht.

“I conclude that we need a new theoretical model, combining elements of sociolinguistics and socio-cultural development, in order to better understand the link between language and development,” Dr Walsh said.

Contests and Contexts: the Irish Language and Ireland’s Socio-Economic Developmentby Dr John Walsh is published by Peter Lang in the “Reimagining Ireland” series.