Or so says Nicholas Wolf, who teaches courses in Irish history at New York University, in this piece for the Irish Times; it starts off with some irrelevant stuff about how “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,” but gets down to actual evidence:
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. […]
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.
Obviously you’d have to go to his book An Irish-Speaking Island: State, Religion, Community, and the Linguistic Landscape in Ireland, 1770–1870 for the full argument, but the taste given here is certainly provocative. (Thanks, Trevor!)