Irish: a brief history of an endangered language

Grían an Mheithimh in úllghort,
Is síosamach i síoda an trathnona,
Beach mhallaithe ag portaireacht
Mar screadstracadh ar an noinbhrat.

(June sun in an orchard,
And a rustling in the silk of evening,
A cursed bee humming
Is a screamtear in the eveningshroud)

Seán O Riordáin

The above is a stanza from ‘Adhlacadh mo Mháthar’ (‘Burial of my Mother’) written by my great uncle Seán O Riordáin, an Irish poet. There are very few people left in the world who can read or understand his beautiful poetry.

Once, Irish (note: not ‘Gaelic’) was the sole language spoken in Ireland. It is a Gaelic language of the Indo-European language family and evidence of its presence in Ireland dates back to the 4th century CE.

When the Anglo-Normans arrived at the end of the 11th century their language came with them. The vast majority of people continued to speak Irish but it slowly lost its status as the official and legal language of Ireland.

The Tudor conquest of Ireland in the 16th century was the beginning of the end for Irish. The confiscation of land from native Irish people and the forcible plantation of English settlers over the subsequent centuries changed Irish society profoundly. Penal laws prevented Catholics from owning land and holding power, which meant that the Catholic ruling classes were replaced by what became known as the Protestant Ascendancy. Irish was seen as a threat to the power of English settlers and so its use was discouraged in law, education and administration. English was the language of power, and it was in the interest of Irish natives to learn it.

A further blow was dealt to the language by the Great Famine caused by widespread failure of the potato crop due to blight. It lasted from 1845 to 1860 and caused the deaths of approximately one million people. A further million emigrated. By 1911, the population of Ireland had halved to 4.4 million, while the population in England and Wales had doubled to sixteen million. The majority of Irish speaking people had died, emigrated or were living in very poor conditions in a small and struggling country. It was necessary to learn English to survive.

When Ireland began struggling for independence from Britain in the late 19th century, Irish became a focal point for political rhetoric. The so-called Gaelic Revival led to the setting up of organisations such as the Society for the Preservation of the Irish Language in 1877 and the Gaelic League in 1892. The Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA), formed in 1884, was set up to preserve uniquely Irish pastimes such as hurling. Irish is named as the national and first official language of Ireland in the 1937 constitution of the Republic of Ireland and all official documents are available in both Irish and English.

Today, Irish is a compulsory subject for every single child at school, from the start to the end of their school career, meaning that most children have at least twelve years of Irish language lessons. In 1996 an Irish-language television station, originally called Teilifis na Gaeilge, now called TG4, was set up. Over the past twenty years the popularity of gaelscoileanna – schools that teach entirely through Irish – has increased greatly. However, in spite of all of these successes, very few people leave school with any degree of fluency in Irish. Today less than 100,000 people use Irish as their daily tongue. They tend to be concentrated in ‘Gaeltacht’ areas, parts of Ireland such as Connemara where the government recognises that the Irish language is the predominant vernacular.


In future posts I’ll explore my experiences of Irish as a child, the structure of the language itself and the English phrases and expressions that developed from the Irish language.

Bilingualism in Literature

There are two things that could be meant by bilingualism in literature. First of all, it could mean featuring a bilingual character in an otherwise monolingual book, or in some way working a mention of it into the story. Secondly, and I suspect this is the meaning that will spring to most people’s minds, it could refer to a book that has been written in two languages. This could be a text with the same story in either language on opposite pages, or it could be a story that has been purposely written in two languages. Here, we shall look at the first issue.

In the first instance, I think it is important for there to be bilingual characters in literature. Bilingualism is a normal part of life. There are in fact more bilinguals in the world than there are monolinguals, so it is hardly an unusual phenomenon – and even if it were, that would be no reason to exclude it from literature.

Starting from the beginning, from children’s literature, I believe that it is good for children to have characters and situations in books that they can fully relate to. There have been movements to get representation for children with special needs in literature,movements which I fully support and agree with. It is important for children to be able to identify with literary role models; therefore why should bilingual children not be able to identify with a bilingual character?

Not only that, but also monolingual children can benefit: firstly from the normalising of bilingualism, so that they do not consider their bilingual peers unusual or abnormal in any way; and secondly because such devices in literature can help to expose monolingual children to languages, and the idea that it is possible to speak more than one language fluently. Who knows, it may even spark an interest in the language in question and help them on the road to their own linguistic mastery. This is something that is addressed by a few authors, such as Millie Slavidou in her Instaexplorer series, all of which contain something of the local language.

As we go on to adult literature, it is again important to present something that is a normal part of everyday life for so many people. There has in the past, and still in some instances today, been a lot of prejudice against bilingualism. Despite a wealth of evidence pointing to the benefits of bilingualism, parents were and are frequently advised to drop one of their home languages in favour of the dominant community language.

Against such a tide of negativity, literature can play a role in redressing the balance. Normal, ordinary bilingual characters, who are not superheroes or super polyglots, but just regular, believable people, can help to present a positive face of bilingualism. They can help to normalise it in the subconscious of the readers. This is quite apart from the fact that it makes for good reading, as it reflects the reality of the world we live in.

For writers, it can be a very useful plot device. As a multilingual myself, I have frequently been in the middle of situations where I am the only one who has understood everything from all sides, including humour that has left one set of monolinguals baffled while the others roar with laughter. Imagine putting your character in the midst of something like that: what intrigue and mystery could thereby be created!