‘The keystone of fortune is the power of speaking English’

A painting that says it all: The young girl reads the letter from America for her parents and older sister. Painted by James Brennan (1837-1907) with the title News from America.

A painting that says it all: The young girl reads the letter from America for her parents and older sister. Painted by James Brennan (1837-1907) with the title News from America.

Week III

Whatever about the discrimination against the Irish emigrants in both Britain and America as they fled the ravages of the Great Famine in the mid 19th century, the effect of gaining a foothold in the two major English speaking countries of the world, pretty much sounded the death knell for the Irish language. 

What use was Irish when you needed to convey your desperate situation, and to  beg for shelter and respectability, and find a job in an English speaking world?

Even before the Great Famine, a recent study shows that during the course of the 18th century  Ireland ‘was slowly absorbed into an economy whose language was English, into a cultural mileu which deemed English the superior language, into an administrative (including legal ) system which conducted itself through English, and into a political world whose discourse was conducted in English, the incentives to acquire English to converse, and to learn to read and write English to function effectively in an increasingly literary world became compelling.’*

The Irish language was the  normal form of communication among the Irish rural class, who existed outside the administrative, legal, cultural and commercial world of the time. But that too, was undergoing change. Almost by stealth the rural economy was being intergrated into the retail network. Improved communication, such as the railways, led to increased mobility and travel both internally and for emigration. The Catholic Church, with increased personnel, new schools and convents, had furthered the spread of English. But what decimated the rural underclass, which was the mainstay of Irish-speaking Ireland, was the Great Famine. 

Successive failure of the potato crop for six years, resulted in more than 1,000,000 deaths from starvation and related diseases. It precipitated a virtual tidal wave of emigration that would see up to 4,000,000 leave the country in the 20 years after 1845.

The shame of Irishness

The famine led not only a flight from the land, but a flight from the traditional practices and customs of rural life. The official neglect by the British administration to provide effective relief, leaving it to the local authorities to cope as best as they could; and the official slur that the Irish, in fact, had inflicted the famine upon themselves, created a sense of shame among its victims. 

Because of their sense of helplessness, loss, panic, and uncertainty, many people abandoned all things Irish, including the Irish language and traditions. They were determined  to avoid such a disaster at all costs in the future. Sir William Wilde, who wrote extensively on medicine,  archaeology  and folklore, commented in 1852, that ‘the traditional beliefs, superstitions, cures, customs, and remedies, their protective magic having failed cruelly during the famine, were being abandoned. The fairies were giving way to the schoolmaster and the engineer.’ 

Cultural revival

In 1856, the humane educationalist PJ Keenan observed that the strong passion for education among the Irish may be traced to one predominant desire - the desire to speak English:

‘They see, whenever a stranger visits their islands, that prosperity has its peculiar tongue as well as its fine coat; they see that while the traffickers who occasionally approach them to deal in fish, or in kelp, or in food, display the yellow gold, they count it out in English. If they ever cross over to the mainland for the ‘law’, as they call any legal process, they see that the solemn words of judgement have to come second to them through the offices of an interpreter...and while they may love the cadences, and mellowness and homeliness of the language which their fathers gave them, they yet see that obscurity and poverty distinguish their lot from English speaking people; and, accordingly, no matter what the sacrifice to their feelings, they long for the acquisition of the ‘new tongue’, with all its prizes and social privilges. The keystone of fortune is the power of speaking English.’

Before the end of he 19th century, efforts were made to revive Irish as a living language. The Gaelic League instigated a modestly successful programme, training teachers to teach Irish; while at the beginning of the 20th century a new wave of cultural revival took hold encompassing folklore, literature, and the arts and crafts, together with an intense debate of Irish ‘national identity’.

All of which fueled the 1916 Rising, and a new generation of language enthusiasts. Soon the Irish language became firmly embedded in the education system, and is enjoying a challenging revival today.

However, as Gearóid Ó Tuathaigh concludes, in the light of centuries long shift to English as the main vernacular of the country, and the global reach of English for what had become a diasporic people, by the time a cohort of advanced nationalists set out to restore Irish as the main vernacular of an Irish national state, it was very late in the day.’

NEXT WEEK: The Famine memorial at Murrisk, at the foot of Croagh Patrick, by Galway sculptor John Behan

NOTES: * Irish and English: Essays on the Irish Linguistic and Cultural Frontier 1600-1900, by James Kelly and Ciarán MacMurchaidh. Four Courts 2012.

For this article I am leaning heavily on I mBéal an Bháis - The Great Famine & The Language Shift in 19th century Ireland, by Gearóid Ó Tuataigh, part of the new award-winning Famine Folio Series, published by Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum, Quinnipiac University, USA. On sale €11.95 

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