Review: An Irish-Speaking Island by Nicholas M Wolf

An engaging examination of the Irish language landscape in the late 19th century

Sat, Jun 20, 2015, 01:31


Book Title:
An Irish-Speaking Island: State, Religion, Community and the Linguistic Landscape in Ireland, 1770 -1870


Nicholas M Wolf

The University of Wisconsin Press

Guideline Price:

The opening statement in An Irish-Speaking Island: State, Religion, Community, and the Linguistic Landscape in Ireland, 1770-1870 reminds us that, contrary to popular perception, the number of Irish speakers increased in the early 19th century as a natural result of the general rise in the population

“By the third decade of the 19th century,” Nicholas M Wolf writes, “ it is estimated that Ireland was home to between three and four million speakers of the Irish language, more than at any other time in the history of this language community.” The most compelling evidence for Wolf’s assertion is to be found in Garret FitzGerald’s groundbreaking Estimates for Baronies of Minimum Level of Irish Speaking amongst Successive Decennial Cohorts 1771-1781 to 1861-1871, which has been available since the mid 1980s and is acknowledged here by Wolf.

FitzGerald’s painstaking sifting of the census evidence pointed to a figure for Irish speakers in pre-Famine Ireland which would equate to the entire population of the island of Ireland on the eve of our (partial) independence. As scholars like Niall Ó Cíosáin and Gearóid Denvir have previously noted, the voices of these millions of 19th-century Irish speakers were for a long time routinely ignored by scholars relying only on English-language sources and their wits. (Some scholars familiar with Irish have been equally culpable.)

In Ireland the past is indeed another country, and we have proved particularly stubborn in failing to accept that people spoke differently there.

Mainstream Irish historiography has tended to ignore the cohort of intrepid mythbusters whose research challenges simplistic and sensationalist notions about language decline in Ireland, preferring to foreground a less problematic narrative. In the popular telling the changing fortunes of one aspect of Gaelic culture (learned poetry) became conflated with the (supposed) decline of the language as an everyday vernacular.

For years schoolchildren learned about a polarised country where the Catholic Church, Daniel O’Connell and the national school system encouraged poor (and strangely supplicant) Irish speakers to abandon their native language.

The neat business of language replacement was then completed by a reforming church and modernising British state. It was assisted linguacide, plain and simple.

Meanwhile, the lurking horror of the Great Famine cast its shadow over an entire century and still colours modern-day perceptions of the Gaeltacht as residual and remote, a historical anomaly.

The reality of language shift in Ireland was both more nuanced and, eventually, more brutal. Though the linguistic shift happened much later than most Irish people realise, when it did come the change was unprecedented in its rapidity.

Seán de Fréine coined the memorable phrase “the Great Silence” to describe the lack of critical discussion of the extent and impact of the psychological wound left by the linguistic upheaval of the late 19th century. De Fréine described how an “Orwellian” dispensation in scholarship and the popular imagination turned Irish into “an unlanguage” and made “unpersons” of its speakers.

Historical groupthink Wolf’s book examines key aspects of this often-neglected Irish-speaking community and assesses its significance for historical scholarship. In this regard An Irish-Speaking Island is an important addition to a growing body of work that challenges the historical groupthink about the decline and durability of the Irish language.

In recent decades the relative vitality of Gaelic culture in pre-Famine Ireland has been attested to in various pioneering studies on manuscript culture, literacy and literature.

In Wolf’s engaging examination of the linguistic landscape of Ireland in the post-Famine period he gives voice to the perspectives of Irish speakers themselves by tracing their interaction with the authorities of church and state. This is a bold and necessary act of restoration, which draws on original research and recent important scholarship.

Wolf argues against viewing what was a vibrant and diverse linguistic landscape through a lens skewed by our knowledge of later decline, or indeed by the Revivalist idealisation of the “Gaeltacht”.

The author is at his best when challenging received wisdom about the history of Irish and the agency of Irish speakers in the language’s decline. The timeframe for his own study was chosen after he realised that the use of historical periodisation, which was based on political events, was an unsuitable basis for assessing the history of Irish speakers.

Sensitive also to preconceptions implicit in terminology, he notes that “using terms like diglossia has helped to bolster this sense of the passivity of Irish speakers, leading to descriptions of a broad swathe of formal institutional domains in Irish society as self-evidently English-speaking while referring to the settings of Irish-speaking homes and private life as doomed Gaelicised holdouts”.

The first section of the book, “Identities”, examines the linguistic community from a variety of unexpected angles. Jokes about language use from the National Folklore Collection are retold for the light they shine on speakers’ views on linguistic behaviour.

Localism, so intrinsic to Irish identity, is discussed in another chapter, “Peasant Etymologies”, whose central thrust – that Irish speakers subscribed to a deeply regional identity – will perhaps be of most interest to non-Irish readers.

In 2005 Ó Cíosáin identified a need for further research on the use of the Irish language in the judicial system and within the church. These two topics are discussed at length in the second section of the book “Encounters”.

Here Wolf proves himself an equal opportunities myth-buster as he sets about debunking absolutist takes on British complicity in the decline of Irish by outlining many instances of the state apparatus making accommodations for Irish speakers.

Pythonesque journey At times, present-day Irish speakers, who recently saw a Language Commissioner resign over the Government’s failure to protect their language rights, may find themselves sighing at the irony of it all.

Wolf takes us on a Monty Pythonesque journey of the “What have the English ever done for us?” variety. Well, for one, they provided court interpreters, often in response to demand by Irish speakers who had a knowledge of English but preferred Irish. Wolf provides examples of assertive Irish speakers successfully exercising their right to use their own language.

In one striking report from Mayo in 1829, we learn that “the witnesses are constantly examined in Irish and though a person . . . should be pressed to speak English . . . he would declare in Irish that he would not trust his soul to any other.”

An Irish-Speaking Island makes a convincing case against the notion of a polarised country where poor, impassive Irish speakers surrendered meekly to the anglicising oppressor, sacrificing their language for the promise of progress.

Wolf may be overstating his case when he claims that the Ireland of 1770-1870 was “fully capable of articulating the forms of modernising – whether religious, political or economic – in the Irish language”, but his provocative thesis is nonetheless another necessary corrective to false narratives that would have an entire community and their language written out of history.

Although the use of some examples from the period preceding 1770 and an occasional tendency to over-extrapolate muddies the waters somewhat, what emerges in this meticulously annotated book is a compelling picture of a linguistic community which often engaged with state and Church in its own language.

Wolf’s original, imaginative and frequently surprising examination of the Irish language community between 1770 and 1870 offers interesting ways in which scholars might approach what Ó Cíosáin has identified as the need for a 19th-century-Ireland “ethnography of speaking”. Such a scientific examination of the varieties and characteristics of language use within Irish culture would require a comprehensive study of all available sources to address these and other questions.

In the meantime, this important work should serve as a wake-up call to those who still insist on a simplistic and a historical view of the Irish language in Ireland, both past and present. An Irish-speaking Ireland is no less than a call to give Irish back to the Irish.

Róisín Ní Ghairbhí lectures in Irish at St Patrick’s College, Dublin City University