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When Irish was still the greatest little language in the world

Reports of the terminal decline of Irish in the nineteenth century were greatly exaggerated, argues the author of a new study

Brenda Scallon and Liam Neeson in Translations by Brian Friel, a play about the threat to the Irish language in 19th-century Ireland: “There is no doubt that Ireland was an Irish-speaking kingdom in the nineteenth century despite claims to the contrary by contemporary administrators, travel writers, and observers – and even by certain scholars today,” argues US academic Nicholas Wolf. Photograph: Rod Tuach

A widespread claim among speakers of Irish well into the nineteenth century held that the language possessed such a tremendous antiquity that it had been spoken by Adam and Eve. If the idea of the first humans of the biblical account of the world’s origins passing their days chatting in Irish in the Garden of Eden strikes us as incongruous, that only demonstrates the distance Ireland has traveled in the past 200 years in its relationship to the language.

For centuries Irish speakers accorded only Hebrew a greater claim to antiquity or fluency – one could not, after all, go so far as to dismiss the evidence of the Old Testament regarding Hebraic originalism – and were apt to ascribe even more considerable accomplishments to the Irish language: that its capabilities comprised the best features a language could possess, that evil forces could not speak Irish, that it was the lingua franca of heaven preferred by God, and that it was more pure because it predated other languages and thus could not have borrowed from them in any way. In other words, the popular perception among past Irish-speaking communities was that Irish was not the threatened minority language of today, but rather a first-rate world language that had a claim to originalism over many others – and certainly over English.

This is a far cry from how most contemporary scholars have portrayed the attitudes of past Irish speakers toward their language, the understanding being that if Irish was spoken by a shrinking percentage of the Irish population in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, then surely Irish speakers had come to see it in a predominantly negative light.

But in fact language attitudes are often completely different from language practices, as will be revealed by a glance at any of the endangered world languages today that are absolutely treasured by their speakers and yet remain at risk of extinction in coming years.

Nor does the historical evidence support the often-repeated claim that Ireland had reached a point of diglossic linguistic standoff between an English that had achieved a high status and Irish. As long ago as 1970, the late professor Breandán Ó Buachalla republished the text of a public speech delivered in Irish by a Meath scholar named Robert King in 1843 in favour of the Repeal movement and its moves to restore an Irish parliament.

A close look at any of the major Irish newspapers from the early nineteenth century will similarly reveal a multitude of reports from Emancipation, anti-tithe and Repeal demonstrations at which, as an account in the October 1838 Freeman’s Journal of an address by a Galway priest put it, a speech was given “for a considerable time in the Irish language, which had visibly a great effect on the multitude”. The Irish language emanated, in other words, from a variety of high-status public places, including political meetings, courtrooms and Catholic churches, and not just from the cloistered homes of a dwindling minority.

As it turns out, the Irish-speaking community in Ireland of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries – precisely the time period when the vitality of the language was supposedly at its lowest point – was also able to extract a number of concessions from governing authorities regarding the language.

The restoration in 1793 of voting rights to Catholics who met required property qualifications brought thousands of Irish speakers to the polls for the first time, leading to widespread provisions backed by parliamentary statute as early as 1817 permitting election officials to administer election oaths in Irish. Following the case of R v Burke (1858), decided at the Court of Crown Cases Reserved, Irish speakers could provide testimony in any language they preferred; the judges had based their legal reasoning on the need to prevent the immense expenditure of time that courts had been devoting for decades to cross-examining Irish speakers on their ability to speak English in the hopes of denying their need for an interpreter and thereby discrediting their testimony.

That the R v Burke case arose at all was in no small part due to the widespread demand by Irish speakers for the courtroom interpreters whose translation services – in yet another concession to the strength of the language – had been backed by parliamentary statute as early as 1774.

Nevertheless this widespread acclaim for the language was mixed with elements that showed the tenuous connection of Irish with the island in the minds of its speakers. Curiously, the same creation myths about the language that had emphasised its virtues also asserted that Irish was not an original inhabitant of Ireland. These language origin stories, popularised by a number of writers including the priest-scholar Seathrún Céitinn in the seventeenth century and the Clare poet Aodh Buí Mac Cruitín in the eighteenth, unanimously asserted that the language had originated, like the Irish themselves, in the Mesopotamian East.

Irish was thus seen as having been intimately bound with the Irish people since their inception, but not necessarily with the landscape to which it had been subsequently carried by waves of invaders. And since the seventeenth century at the latest, with the clear dissappearance of the political capital held by those – both Gael and Gall – who had come to support a whole literary world through Irish, there was a constant hum of complaints from the learned classes about the future of the language because too little loyalty was being shown by its speakers to ensure that Irish would survive.

Still, there is no doubt that Ireland was an Irish-speaking kingdom in the nineteenth century despite claims to the contrary by contemporary administrators, travel writers, and observers – and even by certain scholars today. This is especially true once the perspective is shifted from the national level – where of course English had already gained an ascendancy numerically – to the regional level, where a close look reveals Irish to have remained stubbornly relevant in a variety of settings, whether public, private, legal, political or religious.

An Irish-Speaking Island: State, Religion, Community, and the Linguistic Landscape in Ireland, 1770-1870 (University of Wisconsin Press, 2014). Nicholas Wolf is an assistant professor and faculty fellow at Glucksman Ireland House, New York University, where he teaches courses in Irish history.