Reports of the Death of Irish Have Been Exaggerated.

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!)


  1. The absolute number of Irish L1 speakers peaked at four million at the start of the famine in 1845. Anyone know when the number of fully literate L1 readers peaked?

  2. How is it possible to write an article about Irish in “the nineteenth century” without a mention of the Famine?

    The article describes a speech given partly in Irish by a “Galway priest” in 1838. Galway is in the province of Connacht, still today the province with largest percentage of Irish speakers. In 1841, the population of Connacht was 1,418,859. By 1851, the population had fallen by 30 percent to 1,010,031 and continued to fall for the next hundred years.

    It is a fair assumption that the 400,000 residents of Connacht who starved or emigrated in the 1840’s were overwhelmingly Irish speakers, and that of the 25% of the Irish population who had died or emigrated by 1852, the great majority were Irish speakers as well.

  3. J. W. Brewer says

    My impression (which might be wrong) is that Irish-speaking immigrants to the US etc were linguistically assimilated in the New World fairly quickly and generally did not raise their US-born kids as L1 Irish-speakers. By contrast, the Scottish-Gaelic-speaking enclave in Nova Scotia held out against assimilation for several generations, with the state of Gaelic fluency there really only going downhill in the 20th century. Maybe it has to do with an urban v. rural/small-town setting? Something else?

  4. I’d guess it’s because NS had (and has) no large cities to serve as sorting points, comparable to Boston, New York, Philadelphia, etc. to which immigrants originally moved and in which English was a necessary language.

  5. J.W., Scottish Gaelic certainly has held out far longer in NS than any other Celtic enclaves in the New World, and the rural character of NS Gaelic communities should be the cause. But despite their communities’ longevity compared to more urban ones, the number of Gaelic speakers in NS actually began its continuous fall by 1881. There’s a handy graph somewhere, but I can’t seem to find it now. The assimilation of Gaelic speakers in NS to English has been remarkably fast compared to their francophone neighbours. Or maybe the francophones’ assimilation has been remarkably slow? Not sure. I wondered about the reasons in another thread:

    The assimilation of the speakers of Newfoundland Irish would make for a good rural comparison. Its death will have predated the death of NS Scottish Gaelic by a century, but without some further googling I don’t know much about Nfld Irish and have no idea how the migration patterns and peak number of speakers compare to NS Gaelic.

  6. I’ve found the graph showing the number of Scottish Gaelic speakers in NS over time.

    The graph is on page 368, but the whole book is interesting reading.


  1. […] Hat links to an Irish Times essay arguing Ireland stayed much more Irish in language than people give it […]

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