The Decline of the Irish Language in the Nineteenth Century.

Mar 08, 2015

During Seachtain na Gaeilge Ian Kennedy reflects of the decline of the Irish Language in the Nineteenth Century. This lecture was delivered as part of the Drew University Transatlantic Connections Conference 2 on Friday 16th January 2015 in the Atlantic Apartotel, Bundoran.


On 25th November 1892 Douglas Hyde spoke to the Irish National Literary Society in Dublin about The Necessity for De-Anglicising Ireland. In this speech Hyde described the cultural effects of the loss of the Irish language which had been and I quote “making silent inroads upon us for nearly a century.” 1 Hyde challenged the Irish people to look within themselves, rather than beyond their shores to discover an Irish identity, culture and language. 2

The Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiongo has written extensively about language change as a stage in the process of colonisation. According to him, [Quote]

how we view ourselves, our environment even, is very much dependent on where we stand in relationship to imperialism in its colonial and neo-colonial stages; that if we are to do anything about our individual and collective being today, then we have to coldly and consciously look at what imperialism has been doing to us and to our view of ourselves in the universe. [End quote]

Prior to the fifth century Gaelic was a minor language3 but within a few hundred years it had evolved to a position of significance.4 From the ninth century there were several attempts to colonise the country. Both Reg Hindley and Sean de Freyne believe that these attempts failed because the colonisers were few in number5 and became assimilated in the language and culture6 of the people they were colonising.

By the fifteenth Century, Irish had become a literary language with a long tradition of writing that was sustained for hundreds of years9 by schools found in Ireland and Scotland. 10 Despite efforts during medieval times at imposing the English language the Tudor conquest marks the first real push to impose English as the language of the country. 11

Karl Bottingheimer, Sean De Freine and Phillip Hughes agree that Ireland was the only place where the sixteenth century reformation, when backed by the crown, failed. According to De Freine this failure was due in part to the strength of the Irish language among the people.12 According to Niall Ó Ciosáin and I quote:

A humanistic animus to Irish as a barbaric language restricted the Protestant impulse toward vernacular religious practice and contributed to the broader failure of the state to carry through religious reformation.13

In A view of the Irish Language, Stephen Ellis points out that the reformation with its consequent religious division among the Celtic nations lead to the decline of religious texts, poetry and prose in Irish. The language of the manuscript tradition, of saints and scholars thus lost its importance and standing within society as English gained linguistic ground among the landed classes. 14

Wars, revolts and rebellions, marked the process of colonisation during the sixteenth and seventeenth century with Irish resistance to the English and Scottish presence at its greatest.15 During the eighteenth century peace emerged from the conflict, and as a result economic and political prosperity developed.

By 1800, the Anglicisation of the nation was advancing, with the gentry speaking English as a first language or in much of the country no Irish at all. According to Hindley, landowners changed their religion and accepted the advantages of the English language in order to save their estates and lead a peaceful life.16 However, while Irish remained strong among the people,17 it was in areas where it was economically advantageous that English was embraced, and gradually the country became bilingual. 18 It was this opening of trade to international markets that hastened the transition from Irish to English in daily life.19


Despite a Pre-Famine population explosion that was in excess of the European norm,20 the population of Ireland fell dramatically in the post-famine period from 8 million people in 184621 to just under 4 million in 1911.22

With 4 million Irish speakers in 184123 the numbers of people able to speak Irish as their first language fell to 680,000 by 1891.24 These stark figures illustrate well the shocking decline in the Irish language in a short period. As it struggled to survive, the embrace of the English language offered an alternative existence to the ravages of famine!

Rates of emigration accelerated during the famine decade with many families being assisted by the British government as well as landlords, to take the coffin ships to North America. 25 Assisted emigration amounted to 10% of all ‘post famine emigrants’ and ‘was often eagerly sought.’26 Unlike other European nationalities, Irish emigrants had a low return rate of 8% between 1870 and 1921.27

By 1890, 39% of those born in Ireland were living outside it.28 Even though they were Irish speakers many emigrants were also English speaking or familiar with the English language. Literacy rates were high with a reading ability of 47% in 1841 which reached 88% by 1911.29 As this increased the chance of employability, most emigration was to the English speaking world.30


By the start of the nineteenth century English had replaced Irish as the language of education.31 This made proficiency in Irish difficult for those to whom it would have been a second language.32

During the Eighteenth century Catholic clergy were to the forefront of maintaining the language in parishes where many [quote]“were of English descent or who had already adopted the English language, as well as those who continued to speak Irish.”33 [Endquote] In many cases Bishops sent English speaking clergy into Irish speaking parishes where they were struggling to communicate with the people they were caring for.34

Writing in 1882 Fr. P. J. Moran described the difficulties experienced by clergy for whom Irish was a second language, (and I quote)

He was sorry to say that often, in the parts [of the country] where it was a necessity of the clergy (he did not refer to any particular denomination) to speak the Irish language, they spoke it imperfectly because it was with them, in many cases, purely a literary acquirement. They learned it in college and not from their mother's lips; the result being that they did not take to it naturally and dispensed with it whenever they could do so. These people felt diffidence, especially when they found that those who spoke the language habitually as their mother-tongue (particularly in the county of Mayo, West Galway, and County Clare) had a great natural taste, as well as intelligence, which made them very apt to ridicule the clergyman's mistake or mispronunciation. 35


These difficulties coupled with the tendency of the Catholic Church “to [quote] promote the Catholic religion, rather than the Irish language, as the central badge of Irish identity” [endquote] may also have contributed to the erosion of the language.36

Nationalisaton of Education:

According to Hindley the teaching of English through the ‘hedge-school’ system followed a trend among families to embrace English because it was to their advantage.40

Some of those who attended the hedge school received a broad education that prepared them for life in the “Irish Colleges of the continent.”41 Irishmen who fled the penal laws were accepted in other nations as people of great culture.42 The spread of the Irish language through the émigré’s, chaplains, felons and scholars around the world indicated the value and usage of the language at home at the beginning of the nineteenth century. On the other hand, Sean De Freine asserts that education was one of the forms of resistance to social change available to the people.43

To look at education as a cause of language decline would be to presume that education was open to all, just as it is today. As Hindley correctly points out education for all did not come into law until long into the century. It appears that those who could afford to send their children to school chose to have their children educated through English rather than Irish. 44

According to Gearoid Denvir, (quote)

[..] although the hedge schools so beloved of the nationalist version of Irish history also functioned mainly through English, the state-established national school system was a strong, active agent in the colonization process and was a major factor in cultivating cultural assimilation and political loyalty. Still the first language of millions, Irish was from the outset proscribed in the schools either as a subject for study, or more importantly as a medium of instruction.45

For Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o the [quote] “economic and political control of a people can never be complete without cultural control.” [Endquote] 46 In reflecting on Denvir’s point of view, we see the continuance of cultural colonisation and the ongoing subjugation of identity and culture within the period.

Those who embraced the nineteenth century changes in education and industrialization did so to escape the horrors of a post-famine world. In embracing the freedom that education would bring, identity and language were suppressed! One wonders why, after so many years of resistance, that upon achieving emancipation, the process of suppression of identity continued? 47

W. B. Yeats, in his speech to the Royal academy of Sweden upon winning the Nobel Prize for Literature situates the literary movements of the late nineteenth century as a development of a modern nation, where nationhood is expressed [quote] “in the language in which modern Ireland thinks and does its business.” 48 [endquote]

He also remarks upon the poor knowledge among the mass of the Irish people of that people’s heritage and culture which he seems to think can be as easily expressed in English as it can through a resurrected language. This “poor knowledge” was despite the fact that, during the penal age, the Irish were accepted in Europe as a nation of great culture. 49

However, as Maureen wall notes;


By 1800, Irish had ceased to be the language habitually spoken in the homes of all those who had already achieved success in the world, or who aspired to improve or even maintain their position politically, socially or economically. The pressures of six hundred years of foreign occupation, and more particularly the complicated political, religious and economic pressures of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries had killed Irish at the top of the social scale and had already weakened its position among the entire population of the country.50 [End quote]


The language shift which began during the late eighteenth century as a consequence of peace and prosperity, was accelerated throughout the nineteenth century because of the destruction of the population as a result of famine. It continued into the twentieth century as the population attempted to recover from the consequences of famine that made emigration a way of life and the embrace of English a necessity in order to escape the ravages of poverty and starvation. 51

The use of Irish as a language of importance was all but settled by the early nineteenth century. Those who sought to advance a nationalist cause –the return of parliament, emancipation of the people etc, utilised English as the language of negotiation and debate in an effort to achieve their aims. This appears to bolster the claim that the decline of the Irish language was in process long before the Act of Union.

Given that 4 million people reportedly spoke the language on the eve of the famine it may have been the case that but for this calamity Irish may have survived for longer but this is to read back into history. Certainly the ravages of the famine on the population would not have helped but the political scene of the post-famine world had other priorities other than the language.52

If one accepts that there are different forms of cultural identity then one could argue that the decline of the Irish language and the embrace of English as the language of “modern Ireland” as Yeats puts it, is but a progression of cultural development. 53

The Gaelic revival which began in the early 1890’s attempted to address issues that had arisen with the decline of the Irish language. Specifically, the Gaelic league was concerned “with the revival of the Irish language and of a distinctively Irish literature.” Despite the development of a European progressive literature, those who sought to produce a Gaelic literature were divided as to how it should be presented. Some leaguers, like Richard Henebry, wished to produce a Gaelic literature that was “faithful to traditional narrative patterns.” Others, like Padraic Pearse and Padraic Ó Conaire, preferred to look to European progressivism as a model of literature for a modern Gaelic country. This expression of a new form of literature which was based in the reality of modern life, rather than the folklore of yesteryear, demonstrated the rich potential of Irish writing at the time.

Like many of my generation I completed primary and secondary school courses in Irish and successfully passed it at the leaving certificate. Although I have no ability to maintain a conversation, I approach the language as an opportunity to grow rather than something to fear. This confidence in approaching the language has been greatly encouraged by the enthusiasm of my post graduate colleagues at the NUI Galway Centre for Irish Studies, many of whom have come from the United States, who daily engage the language as a means of understanding the culture and traditions of the place we call home.

There is a vibrancy, richness, excitement and vitality to the language that one hears in the poetry of Sean O’Riordain, Martin O’Direain, Maire Mhac an tSaoi and other Irish language poets that invites one to delve deeper into the Irish cultural experience. This mixture of cross cultural experience coupled with contemporary expressions of Irish language media persuades me that rather than being something dead, Irish as a language is continually reinventing itself for new generations.

End Notes

1 Hyde, D. ‘The Necessity for De-Anglicising Ireland, Speech to the Irish National Literary Society.’,

2 Mathews, P. J. Revival: The Abbey Theatre, Sinn Féin, the Gaelic League,

and the co-operative movement. (Notre Dame, 2003). p. 5

3 Ellis, S. G., ‘A View of the Irish Language: Language and History in Ireland from the Middle

Ages to the Present’,, p.68

4 Hindley, R. (1990). The Death of the Irish Language: A qualified obituary [Kindle edition], location 480

5 Hindley, Irish Language, location 492

6 De, Freine, Sean. The Great Silence. (Dublin, 1965), pp. 113

7 Ellis Stephen, The collapse of the Gaelic World, in Irish Historical Studies, Vol. XXX1, No.124, November 1999, pp. 449-469

8 DeFreine, The Great Silence, pp.109

9 De Freine, Silence, pp 113

10 Carney J. ‘Literature in Irish, 1169-1534’, Cosgrove, Art, (ed.), A New History of Ireland,

Volume II: Medieval Ireland 1169-1534. Vol. 2. (Oxford, 2008), cited in: Ellis, S. G. A View of the Irish Language.

11 Hindley Reg, The Death of the Irish Language, Kindle edition, location 492

12 De Freine, The Great Silence, p. 112; Bottigheimer, K. (2000). Revisionism and the Irish Reformation. The Journal of Ecclesiastical History, 51(3),. p.582

13 O’Ciosain Niall, Print and Irish, 1570-1900: An Exception among the Celtic Langauges? In Radharc, (Vol.5/7 2004-2006, pp.78)

14 Ellis, AView of the Irish Language, p.73

15 De Freine Sean, Silence, p.121

16 Hindley, Irish Language, location559

17 Hindley, Irish Language, location 567

18 Hindley, Irish Language,location 609

19 O’Ciosáin, Print and Popular Culture, pp.156-157

20 Ó Grada, C. Ireland: A new economic history, 1780-1939. (Oxford, 1994), p. 23

21 Foster, R. F. Modern Ireland, 1600-1972. (New York, 1989), p.331

22 Lee, J. The Modernisation of Irish society, 1848-1918, (Dublin, 1973), p.1

23 1841 census cited in: O’ B ei rne Ranelagh, J. A short history of Ireland, (Cambridge: 1983), p. 118

24 1891 census -

25 Clear, Caitriona, Social change and everyday life in Ireland, 1850-1922, (Manchester, 2007), p58

26 Clear, Social change, pp.58-59

27 O Grada, Ireland, p. 227

28 Foster, Modern Ireland, p.345

29 Lee, Modernisation, p.13

30 O Grada, Ireland, p.226

31 Wall, Maureen. ‘The decline of the Irish language,’ in O’Cuiv, Brian (Ed.), A view of the Irish Language, (Dublin, 1969), p.84

32 Wolf, N. M. ‘The Irish-Speaking Clergy in the Nineteenth Century: Education, Trends, and Timing,’ New Hibernia Review, Volume 12, Number 4, p.77 (Winter 2008), p.78

33 Wall, Irish language, pp. 83-84

34 Wolf, Irish-Speaking Clergy, p.62

35 SPIL, ‘Report of the Proceedings of the Congress Held in Dublin, 15th-17th August 1882,’ 25. Cited in Wolf, N. M. ‘The Irish-Speaking Clergy in the Nineteenth Century: Education, Trends, and Timing,’ New Hibernia Review, Volume 12, Number 4, p.77 (Winter 2008),

36 Mathews, Revival, p.27

37 Wolf, Irish-Speaking Clergy, p.82

38 Whelan, I. (2005). The Bible war in Ireland: The "Second Reformation" and the polarization of Protestant-Catholic relations, 1800-1840

[Kindle Edition], location 3116

39 Irish Society Proceedings, p. 30 cited in Whelan, Bible Wars, [Kindle edition], location 3157

40 Hindley, Irish Language, Location 642

41 DeFreine, Silence, 119

42 DeFreine, Silence pp 116

43 De Freine, Silence, p.119

44 Hindley, Irish Language, location 666

45 Denvir, Gearóid. ‘Decolonizing the mind: Language and literature in Ireland.’

New Hibernia Review/Iris Éireannach Nua, Vol. 1, No. 1 (Spring, 1997)p.47

46 Wa Thiong'o, Ngugi. Decolonising the mind: The politics of language in African literature. (London, 1994), p.93

47 Denvir, Decolonising, p.48

48 Yeats, W. B. ‘The Bounty of Sweden - Nobel Lecture,’ lecture.html,

49 De Freine, Silence, p. 116

50 Wall, Irish Language, p.82

51 Hindley, Irish Language, location, 3579

52 Hindley, Irish Language, location 666

53 Mathews, Revival, p.12