Stepping Stones into a Sociolinguistics of the Irish Language

PANU PETTERI HÖGLUND, Master of Arts (Åbo Akademi University)

This article was submitted to the first seminar of minority languages of the Royal Academy of Sciences in Valencia, Spain, in summer 2002

Glacaim buíochas ó chroí le Bryan Butterfield a cheartaigh mo chuid Béarla - I extend my sincere thanks to Bryan Butterfield for correcting my execrable English

The sociolinguistics of Irish presents an uniquely interesting field of study, because, to paraphrase Máirtín Ó Murchú, it is not quite about the conventional majority/minority language dichotomy. According to the latest data, published in Spring 1999 in the monthly Irish language magazine Cuisle (which proved regrettably shortlived), there are now about 80 000 native speakers of Irish in Ireland. This allows us to infer that the number of speakers has already stabilised, for as early as in the beginning of the eighties, about fifty thousand seems to have been arrived at as the most realistic figure. The geographer Reg Hindley's book The Death of the Irish Language - A Qualified Obituary has been perceived as the cornerstone of Irish sociolinguistics, but its methodology has been challenged, for instance, by Anders Ahlqvist, University of Galway, who stated in an interview with the Finnish university magazine Yliopisto, that if Hindley's criteria were applied to Finland, it would hardly be possible to find a native Finnish speaker there either - according to Hindley, a real native speaker should have spent all his life in the same place speaking Irish with the same neighbours. Hindley might have been trying to make a point about the way emigration decimates the Irish-speaking districts, but if so, he clearly missed the point. Of course, emigration is a problem and a threat to the language; but it would be rather bold to suggest that an Irish-speaking emigrant's linguistic skills must, in an irreversible way, be affected by a long stay abroad. Actually, native speakers of Irish frequently come back to the old country after their years abroad and participate, even actively, in cultural life in the Irish language. It should thus not be thought that all those Irish-speakers who leave for the United States are forever lost to the language.

Hindley's book was received much more enthusiastically than it deserved, because it fits only too well in with what Camille O'Reilly calls the dead language discourse in her book about Irish language in Northern Ireland. It is above all a discourse, i.e. an attempt to recreate or to sustain a perceived reality by reproducing established rituals of discussing matters relating to the discourse - or, implicitly, suppressing questions, arguments, and opinions, which are not compatible with the discourse. As Ó Ciosáin has stated in his reply to Hindley's book, to say that Irish is a living language is, in this discourse, a nationalistic (i.e., by implication an unscientific) argument. According to O'Reilly, those representing the dead language discourse often see Irish as part of a perceived de facto alliance of conservative, nationalistic forces in Ireland, including, for instance, the Catholic church and the anti-abortion movement. Opposing the Irish language is thus perceived as tantamount to protecting liberal rights and civil liberties against reactionary chauvinism. In recent decades, attempts to equate the language movement with the IRA have been very common - especially among Northern loyalists, of course, but also opponents of the language in the Republic of Ireland.

The dead language discourse as defined by O'Reilly has influenced popular images of the Irish language both in Ireland and abroad, and can even be adopted by native speakers, salient as it is in public debate. However, the linguistic scholar should take the slogans associated with this discourse with more than just a pinch of salt. The discourse is based on the assumption that speakers of Irish and any persons using the language in everyday life are by definition romantic nationalists, who cannot be "objective" about the language. This leads, however, to the obviously untenable conclusion that the scholar who does not speak the language is more "objective" and more of a serious scholar than the one who takes the trouble of learning and using the language.

As Ó Ciosáin states in his pamphlet, speaking about the "death of the Irish language" is also problematic, because it inspires images of an innate decay and failure of the language, a kind of divine predestination unstoppable with profane political measures - whereas it would be more appropriate to see the speakers of the language as marginalised and oppressed in society.

Of the 80 000 native speakers today, only 30 000 live in the traditional Irish-speaking districts in the west coast (called the Gaeltachtaí; the singular form Gaeltacht is frequently used collectively, to refer to them all together). The others probably live predominantly in the bigger towns and cities, where the networks of the Irish-speaking subculture might be numerically very strong - in Dublin (Baile Átha Cliath), Cork (Corcaigh), and Belfast (Béal Feirste), there probably are much more Irish-speakers (i.e. even more first-language speakers; active secondary bilinguals probably exceed the number of the first-language speakers anyway) in absolute numbers than in the west coast villages, but procentually speaking, they disappear among the urban masses. Instead of a language community, urban speakers live in a subculture of networks consisting of Irish-speaking families. People involved in the networks are frequently either non-native speakers or first-generation "neo-natives", who have been brought up in Irish by non-native parents. To what extent genuine first-language speakers of west coast vintage participate in these networks, is a question that has as yet not been answered, as far as I know. There is a prejudice about genuine native speakers' not being interested in the revival of the language, a prejudice that suggests that people moving, say, from the Aran Islands to Dublin wouldn't get involved in the Irish-language subculture; but it remains to be seen whether this is really the case.

The influence of genuine native speakers' Irish on that of the urban networks should definitely not be ignored. Regular tours to the Gaeltacht districts constitute an important element in the Irish-language subculture. On the other hand, it must be remembered - as several commentators before me have repeated in different contexts - that a network is no substitute for a community, and that the language attrition rate is high among children brought up in Irish by secondary bilinguals in the non-Irish speaking part of the country.

Anyway, despite these difficulties, we should forget about the dead language discourse and see Irish, in principle, as just another minority language - not more "dead" than most of them, although due to its place in society an interesting exception from most of them.


The roots of modern Irish nationalism can be partly traced back to Theobald Wolfe Tone, who led the rising in 1798, partly to the tradition of rural secret societies. Wolfe Tone wanted the Protestants and Catholics of Ireland to forget about their mutual conflicts and unite against the common enemy - that of British supremacy. However, the rural conspirators he cooperated with were simply too accustomed to denominationally defined frontlines and intercommunal violence to grasp his message, or to apply his ideas to practice. Hence the rising degenerated into precisely the kind of sectarian violence Wolfe Tone wanted to prevent. Even in the twentieth century, the same dissonance between non-sectarian theory and rather sectarian practice has been characteristic of the so-called "physical force nationalism" in Ireland.

Wolfe Tone was not yet interested in Irish as a resource that could be exploited for nationalist purposes. In fact, most of the 19th century Irish national politics concerned Catholic emancipation and Home Rule type issues, i.e. about political rights, without much cultural content. Nationalist thinkers, such as John Mitchell and Thomas Davis, could give token praise to the ancestral language, but real linguistic preservation was only attempted by Protestant intellectuals (!) in Belfast in the first decades of the 19th century. During most of the century, linguistic and cultural societies were established, but most of them never developed beyond scholarly clubs dedicated to collecting manuscripts and copybooks with old poetry. These societies were mostly interested in the reliquies of the classical bardic poetry (i.e. 17th century or older) and in the classical standard language: living dialects were often perceived as debased and worthless.

Finally, Douglas Hyde (Dubhghlas de hÍde) established the Gaelic League (Conradh na Gaeilge) in 1893. To start with, this organisation wanted to preserve Irish as a spoken language and create the necessary social institutions, above all an educational system partial to the language. The League was in the beginning ecumenically minded and non-sectarian - Hyde was himself a Protestant. The original stance towards politics was also neutral and conciliatory: Hyde stressed the role of the organisation as a common ground for Protestants and Catholics alike. This policy did take effect: some of the key figures in the early years of the League were Protestants, above all Seosamh Laoide (Joe Lloyd), who was in charge of their publications.

Gradually, the situation changed. The Irish Republican Brotherhood, also known as VC or the Fenians, a secret society of militant nationalists based in the Irish-American community and probably to some extent inspired by rural conspiration, developed in the 19th century into a profoundly influential underground network, which infiltrated both the Gaelic League and the Gaelic Athletic Association (or Cumann Lúthchleas Gael, a body devoted to promoting national sports, such as hurling - iománaíocht - or Gaelic football, an Irish variant of mêlée, rugby, and American football) converting them into recruiting grounds and using them for agitation. Only in the 1920s, in the independent Free State, could the Gaelic League concentrate upon its real task again; but even then, its work was marred by old grudges and bitter memories of the Irish civil war fought at the beginning of the decade.

The nationalist takeover led to several important members' leaving the League, but they were mostly Protestants, such as Seosamh Laoide or Douglas Hyde himself. Other members initially joining the League because of their cultural and linguistic interest in Irish, were simply carried away by the rising tide of nationalism: they were inclined to approve of the takeover, or themselves changed with the times. There was also the plausibly sounding nationalist argument that the language could only be safe in an independent Ireland.

When the nationalist movement in the nineteen twenties divided into two groups, i.e., the Free Staters, who accepted the dominion status offered by Lloyd George after the armistice in the War of Independence, and Republicans, for whom only full and unrestricted independence was acceptable, a self-serving and self-reproducing tradition of nationalism was born, for which no independence is ever independent enough.

To start with, Republicans were defined by their refusal to vow loyalty to the King, as required from all members of the Free State Parliament. When Éamon de Valera, the Republican leader, later on won the elections and declared the former Free State a Republic, thus abolishing the vow of loyalty, some Republicans never accepted this Republic - from now on, the Northern statelet was to be the main symbol of the "British connection" to be broken up, the focal point of the "struggle for independence". It seems that every time part of the active, fighting Republicans - terrorists, if you prefer this word - are satisfied to lay down their weapons and accept a compromise, some Republicans always refuse, styling themselves from now on the only, real, true etc. Republican movement (the old IRA in the 1920s; then the Provisional IRA in the 70s, when the so-called Official IRA went into politics as a communist party, giving up armed struggle; now the Real IRA, which does not accept the Good Friday Agreement), which is striving to create the "original" Irish Republic.

The Republic the IRA aspires to is a Utopian dream often painted in colours reminiscent of the Marxist utopia of a perfectly just and righteous communistic future. The point of this juxtaposition is, that neither IRA men nor communists have ever been very apt at finding out the necessary concrete methods of how to construct this ideal world, once its enemies (internal or external) have been defeated. The card-carrying IRA member seems, for instance, to expect that if the "British connection" has been severed, the Irish language is restituted (by itself?) as the vernacular language of all Ireland; he does not spend much time on practical preparations and plans for this restoration. If the Irish language is suffering, this kind of a nationalist does not necessarily commit himself to practical work for the benefit of the language cause - it is more probable that he interprets this as evidence to the effect that Britain is still oppressing the Irish and that armed struggle must be resumed. Nothing can ever be a disadvantage stemming from Ireland and Irish society, which should be fixed by the Irish themselves - the culprits are always and invariably the Brits.

This means that Irish nationalists and the language movement are not quite so comfortably allied as is commonly thought. In fact, an active nationalist, a Sinn Féin member for instance, is probably no more interested in personally contributing to the linguistic revival than the Irish man in the street. Both the active nationalist and the rank and file Irishman are most probably friendly but passive about the language - as one jokester said years ago in an Irish-language magazine, if you could learn Irish by drinking a sip of a magic drought, most Irishmen would be willing to drink it - but in the life of nationalist organisations, as in the life of most Irishmen, the role of the language is limited to symbolic phrases (tiocfaidh ár lá! saoirse! sinn féin!).

On the other hand, people who were initially only vaguely nationalistically minded can proceed to armed republicanism and terrorism through the language movement, because it is easy, as a language activist, to reach the same conclusion as Patrick Pearse did in his day. This famous nationalist leader (executed by the Britons after the Easter Rising in Dublin 1916) started as a language enthusiast, but drifted into believing that the future of the language could only be secure in an independent Ireland. In a similar way, Seán South (Seán Sabhat), originally a young language enthusiast, joined the IRA to take part in its Border Campaign in the end of the fifties and the beginning of the sixties, to be killed in this campaign and to be celebrated as the resistance martyr par excellence. Commitment to the language cause requires long-suffering and forward-looking cultural work. But as nobody knows yet, what is the best and most productive way to extend the usage of a threatened minority language, the language movement tends to go astray or is satisfied with maintaining the positions attained. Thus, impatient young idealists can easily succumb to the temptation of the quick fix offered by armed force republicanism. This means, that instead of helping the language cause along, the armed Republican movement has actually been draining the language movement of some of its best-equipped and most gifted people, having them killed in action or imprisoned by security forces.

Consequently, it is possible to see nationalism and language as rivals, rather than allies. Even in the beginning of the twentieth century, the recruitment and agitation of the Gaelic League were often impaired by the fact that the national volunteer force - the Catholic self-defence organisation being the fledgeling Irish army - had already recruited all young men to be drilled and trained to use rifles, leaving no time or people to be had for Irish language work. Very often the IRA fighters and supporters quite frankly believe their own war to be the best possible work for the Irish language, thus infringing upon, say, Internet discussions in Irish, orationing at length in English about something related to their struggle (but not even distantly to the language) and be plainly astonished at the negative reaction this force-feeding of English provokes in what should be an all-Irish discussion forum.


The word Gaeltacht (in Classical Irish orthography Gaedhealtacht, Scots Gaelic Gaidhealtachd) means both in Ireland and Scotland a district where a variety of Gaelic - Scots Gaelic or Irish - is still spoken as a native language and passed orally from generation to generation. In Scotland, native speakers are mostly found in Skye and the Western Isles (Outer Hebrides), although even in the Scottish mainland some residual dialects are still heard. In practice, the Gaelic of the Hebrides is largely used as a standard language, in radio transmissions for example, which has, however, led to the peripheric mainland dialects' being left behind by the development of the Scots Gaelic standard language, media, and culture.

In the Irish Gaeltachtaí - this is the plural form - the main problem is the absence of anything reminiscent of the Hebrides - of an accepted standard language based in the Gaeltacht community. The Gaeltachtaí are spread all over the west coast.

In County Donegal (Dún na nGall, though the Irish-speaking coast is often called Tír Chonaill) the most important stronghold is the Rosses area (na Rosa) south of Bloody Foreland (Cnoc Fola), where the west coast turns eastward, becoming the north coast. Besides, there is the relatively isolated Tory Island (Toraigh); the Aranmore Island (Árainn Mhór); and the nowadays very diluted Irish of Central and Southern Donegal. Donegal is west of Northern Ireland, belonging to the historical Ulster province, but not to the Northern statelet.

In Connacht, there are Gaeltacht areas in County Mayo (Maigh Eo), such as Carrowtaigue (Ceathrú Thaidhg) in the northern part of the county, and some areas in Joyce Country (such as Tourmakeady, Tuar Mhic Éadaigh) near the border of County Galway. No Mayo Gaeltacht areas can be characterised as strongholds, most are actually rapidly turning to English. The northern Mayo dialects are an interesting hybrid of typically Ulster and Connacht features and would have made a good base for a standard language: their demise must be pitied. The south Mayo dialect is very similar to Connemara-Aran Irish, which is today the numerically strongest variety of the language. This dialect is, with some variation, spoken in Connemara (Conamara), i.e. the coastal area west of Galway, as well as in the Aran Islands (Oileáin Árann): Innishmore (Inis Mór), Inishmaan (Inis Meáin) and Innisheer (Inis Oírr). Moreover, there is a colony of Connemara Irish speakers in Ráth Cairn, County Meath, near the towns of Trim (Baile Átha Troim) and Kells (Ceanannas Mór).

There are more native speakers of either the Ulster or Connacht dialects than of Munster dialects, which are found, above all, in Kerry (Ciarraí), in the Dingle Peninsula (Corca Dhuibhne). However, there are smaller areas in Coolea-Muskerry (Cúil Aodha - Muscraí) in the interior, as well as in Cape Clear Island (Oileán Cléire) and in County Waterford - the so-called Ring of Waterford (An Roinn). However, Munster dialects have had an impact upon the development of modern Irish literature. This is due to the prestige of the dialect in the earliest revival literature. The first native writer of Irish after the establishment of the Gaelic League was Peadar Ua Laoghaire (or Ó Laoghaire), a priest born in the Coolea-Muskerry area. His most influential writings were the folkloristic "novel" Séadna and his autobiography Mo Scéal Féin. In the nineteen twenties, the authority of the southern dialect was further strengthened by the autobiographies of Tomás Ó Criomhthain, Peg Sayers and Muiris Ó Súilleabháin, all native speakers from the (now depopulated) Great Blasket Island (An Blascaod Mór) off the coast of Kerry. Their books became compulsory reading in Irish schools, and are still widely studied. Before Ireland's new independence, the authority of Munster Irish was additionally boosted by the Keating Branch of the Gaelic League, in Dublin: its members preferred Munster dialects, and the branch produced quite a cadre of well-trained and influential people who were to play an important part both in the language movement and in the nationalist movement. The dialectal provincialism of the Branch was well-known, as was its esprit de corps: as the in-joke went in the beginning of the 20th century, the Keating Branch went scouting for new members any time a train from Cork arrived at the railway station.

The borders of the present Gaeltacht areas have been officially defined in the nineteen fifties. This means that it includes areas which have since then been anglicised, or never were very Irish-speaking to start with. Reg Hindley has interpreted the situation as a progressive Anglicisation, but my fellow countryman Jonas Holmqvist, who recently travelled extensively in the Gaeltacht areas speaking to the local inhabitants, has drawn a somewhat different picture in his contributions to the Internet mailing list GAELIC-L in August and September, 2001. Mr Holmqvist's results induce one to think that the Anglicisation may look much worse than it is, because some very strongly Anglicised areas were assigned Gaeltacht status to begin with. While the encroachment of English can hardly be overstated, Mr Holmqvist's field research seems to imply that the real, as opposed to official, language border may have been more stable than pessimists tend to assume.

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