THERE IS a popular perception that “The Great Hunger” of 1845 to 1849 was a one-off affair, a unique event, and that there are two totally different Irelands - the one before and the one after The Famine.
It is also believed that it was during this “subsistence crisis and...social calamity without parallel in nineteenth century Europe” that Ireland lost its Gaelic identity, and that what emerged in The Famine's aftermath was a country subdued and stunned without a vernacular or unique culture, the shift from Irish to English as the dominant daily language of the people being the most dramatic element of this fundamental metamorphosis. While there is an element of truth in this perception, the shift from the use of Irish to English as the vernacular was a complex transformation that had its origins some centuries before the dramatic and tragic failure of the potato crop in 1845.
In his wonderful essay, 'I mBéal An Bháis: The Great Famine & The Language Shift in Nineteenth Century Ireland', one of the Famine Portfolio's recently published by Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum, Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Connecticut, Gearóid Ó Tuataigh suggests that the shift from the use of Irish as the daily vernacular began as early as the Elizabethan Conquest, with various attempts made by the English to totally obliterate the use of Irish, notably by the passing of the Statutes of Kilkenny in 1367.
It would seem, however, that the real shift from Irish to English began during the 18th century. Outside of the fact that the language of the Government, the Church, and the Law, was English there were also pragmatic reasons for the growing use of English. Ó Tuathaigh quotes from a recent work by James Kelly and Ciarán MacMurchaidh:
“What is apparent is that as Ireland was slowly absorbed during the course of the 18th century into an economy whose language was English, into a cultural milieu 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 to write English to function effectively in an increasingly literate world became compelling."
The ancient poets might lament the passing of the old Gaelic world, but that world didn’t put food on the table or a roof over one’s head. If one was to rise in the world or to reach a reasonable standard of living, it could only be done through English.
Throughout the first decades of the 19th century, the shift from Irish to English accelerated, with the building of the railways creating a new mobility and the growing wealth of the Catholic bourgeoisie, whose language was almost exclusively English, especially in the more populated parts of Ireland. By 1845, the only people for whom Irish was almost exclusively their daily language were what Ó Tuathaigh calls the rural underclass and as the Great Famine decimated this class it was believed that it also sounded the death knell of the language.
Ó Tuathaigh’s insightful and informative account of this long and complex process makes for riveting reading, and adds a whole new perspective to the role of the Great Famine in the complex drama of linguistic transformation in modern Ireland. The essay is part of the fascinating interdisciplinary series, called Famine Folios, covering many aspects of the Great Famine published by Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum in Quinnipiac University. To date, eight have been published and it is hoped there will be more as they add new and fascinating dimensions to our knowledge and understanding of the most traumatic and catastrophic event in modern Irish history - the Great Irish Famine.