Over time, languages change. Political, cultural, religious, and economic factors cause their use to grow, or cause them to wither and die. Usually this is a natural process, happening merely as a byproduct of the factors involved; sometimes the process is given a push. That's what happened in Ireland.
It is believed that Celtic immigrants arrived in Ireland between 3,000 and 4,000 years ago. They spoke a language called Goidelic. As this language changed over the centuries, it became the three versions of Gaelic spoken in Ireland, Man, and Scotland. The Isle of Man is a Crown dependency located in the Irish Sea.
The Gaelic spoken there is also sometimes known as Manx. The Gaelic spoken in Scotland is sometimes known as Scottish or Scots Gaelic to distinguish it from the other two. In the same way, Irish Gaelic is usually just called Irish. Closely related to these are languages that are derived from the other Celtic branch, Brythonic.
These include Welsh and Cornish, which were spoken in Britain, and Breton, which was spoken on the continent in Brittany (once an independent kingdom and now a province in France). These languages have similar lineages, and in some cases, similar demises.
Conflict has existed between Ireland and England for centuries, with the English having a presence on the island since 1171, when King Henry II invaded. In spite of this, the two languages spoken by the English and Irish existed side by side, with many of the English living in Ireland learning the native language.
This is understandable since the same scenario has been repeated over and over again around the world. Whenever two or more language groups exist side by side, it is common for the minority to learn the language of the majority.
However in Ireland, a change was to come. In an attempt to enforce complete subjugation, the English passed laws to suppress the native Irish language. First, the authorities had to deal with their own people.
In 1366, the Statutes of Kilhenny required that all Englishmen in Ireland retain their English surnames and continue to speak English. After this, various attempts were made to suppress the use of the language by the native Irish.
At first, these met with little success; when Irish Catholics were forbidden to teach in schools, illegal schools were opened. Eventually, the Irish understood that in order to prosper in business or politics, you had to speak English.
The Irish language increasingly became associated with poverty and backwardness. In the National School system that was established in 1831, children were beaten with what became known as a 'tally stick' if they were caught speaking Irish.
Far from being upset by this, many parents enthusiastically endorsed it, feeling that the future of their children depended on their ability to speak English. Because of this, Ireland experienced a steady decline in native Irish speakers. It has been estimated that there were five million people living in Ireland at the end of the eighteenth century.
Of these, two million were exclusively Irish speakers, one and a half million spoke both Irish and English, and one and a half million spoke English exclusively. A hundred years later, there were only about 600,000 Irish speakers left, with only 3.5% under the age of 10 able to speak the language.
The end of the nineteenth century also saw efforts by scholars to preserve the Irish language. An organization called the Gaelic League was founded in 1893 with the goal of restoring the language. They ran classes throughout the country, teaching people how to read and write their own language. Writers even began to publish in Irish.
Today, Irish is continuing its slow comeback in Ireland. Although English is still the main language used in schools, as well as in business, politics, etc., any student attending a school that receives public funds is required to study Irish. In addition, more and more Gaelscoileanna (Irish speaking schools) are opening.
So, contrary to expectations and in spite of concerted efforts to eradicate it, the Irish language is still around. Just as its decline was tied to politics, its comeback was tied to the nationalist movement that eventually led to the birth of the Republic of Ireland.
By Earl Hunsinger
By Earl Hunsinger