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A constellation of original work.

Nicholas M. Wolf.



THE NINETEENTH was a catastrophic century for the language that had been for over two millennia Ireland's lingua franca. Whereas in 1800 Irish was the language of the majority of its people, a century later, it had fallen to 4%. Efforts to account for these bare facts have converged on a few major factors which, through repetition in standard histories, have achieved apodictic status.

The establishment, in the 1830s, of the national schools--universal free public education at the primary level--in which the medium of instruction was English, is usually regarded as Suspect #1. In support of this case are numerous citations in the oral tradition of the use of tally rods to reckon the intrusion of the barbaric native tongue into the civilizing and anglicizing classroom. Notwithstanding the fact that in 1845 there were more Irish speakers--about 4 million--than ever in the history of Ireland, the Great Famine and its immediate repercussion in the reverse tsunami of mass emigration most heavily affected the Irish-speaking western half of the country. The 1851 census lists 1.5 million as speaking Irish (including 319,600 monoglots): a precipitous drop. The consequent association between backwardness, self-destruction, and the language, along with the practical need of English for the prospective emigrant, ensured a rapid loss of regard for the ancestral language of Ireland. It had little or no printed literature, either secular or religious, and was almost exclusively an oral residue of a long-defeated native civilization. Its use became regarded as a sign of uncivility, ignorance, truculence, and superstition. Both the Protestant proselytizers and the Catholic devotionalists had evangelical agendas with--intentional or not--anglicizing consequences. Finally, Gaelic Revivalism did not appear until too late--in the 1890s--to rescue this precious national resource from terminal decline.

Nicholas Wolf undertakes a revision of the idea that between 1770 and 1870 Ireland was an anglicized kingdom. To do so, he undertakes the herculean task of exhuming contrary evidence that challenges or at least modifies the presiding paradigm of the "language divide." The task he has set himself is indeed formidable. Not least that it seeks to unwrite the winners' historical account in the voluminous secondary record, it has to work from original resources found only in the Irish language, draw on long lists of manuscript materials in many archives, folklore reports, the correspondence and records of public and ecclesiastical administrators, and the journals of regional archeological societies. He has perused Irish-language catechisms and prayer books, election reports, and private letters. The hundred pages of endnotes--many of which cite scores of carefully collected evidence--the seventy-page bibliography, and the two-thousand-item index offer a steep challenge to would be disputants.

The subject is the manner in which the general population responded to pressures upon their native language wrought by the legal, educational, political, and ecclesiastical establishments. The tone is detached and impartial to a fault. The focus of this disciplined study is narrow, the argument tight. There appear but passing references to topics familiar to readers of mainstream, i.e. political, history. Thus, predictable issues like Catholic Emancipation, the Home Rule movement, and the Tithe War receive but passing reference. The Famine is mentioned only seven times, the Fenians twice, and the Young Ireland Movement once only.

This scrupulously documented study takes on the general assumption that under British rule the Irish people lost pride, interest, and consequently competence in their own tongue. This assumption has consequently focused attention on its endangerment rather than on the abundant evidence of its persistence, respect, and vitality. Focusing not on official documents but the products of Irish-speakers themselves during the last quarter of the eighteenth and the first three of nineteenth-century Ireland, he makes a strong case that far from death, the language played a large role in the lives of the majority of the population, both bilinguals and monoglots. He shows that substantial numbers of Irish citizens and at all levels of society continued to use the Irish language and to see it as a marker of shared religious, historical, and cultural identities. These interactions occurred beneath the official radar of government surveillance and records and retarded administrative efforts to conduct an all-English-language regime.

His argument takes a long-range view of many issues that are often viewed in nineteenth-century terms alone. He therefore begins in the Elizabethan and Tudor period when Anglicization was viewed as a phase of the Reformation and directed at religious, rather than linguistic, recalcitrance. The colonial authorities regarded the native Irish as barbarous and their illiteracy merely the counterpart to their primitive and superstitious Catholicism. In the subsequent centuries, the relationships between Irish political resistance, Catholicism, and the Irish language went through several phases. Meanwhile, the English struggle for colonial domination with Spain (and subsequently France) had its linguistic dimension in the effort to standardize grammar and spelling so as to make the language fit for its eventual triumph over Spanish, French, and German as the pre-eminent world tongue. To achieve this goal, English had to be accorded special privilege over its many minority languages. In this respect, Wolf reminds us that when the Act of Union was passed in 1801, 20% of the inhabitants of the UK spoke languages other than English; and due to the Irish population explosion then under way, Irish speakers were on the ascendant: as late as 1840, there were four million who were at least bilingual: an all-time record.

In arguing that there was a distinctive and continuous engagement with the language long before the revivalist efforts of the late nineteenth century, Wolf is constructing an argument roughly parallel to that made by a number of historians of religion with regard to Emmet Larkin's thesis on the "Devotional Revolution." Others have argued convincingly that while under the sterling leadership of Cardinal Cullen, the Irish Catholic Church became a truly formidable force in Irish religious, social, educational, and political life, its devotional core was well in place by the last quarter of the eighteenth century. Similarly, Wolf argues that the Irish language was very much at the center of Irish life during the same period.

In substantiating his original case against monolithic Anglicization, Wolf undertakes several labor-intensive tacks: to excavate the viewpoints of everyday Irish-speaking communities, expose their multiple identities, and trace the exchanges between Irish speakers and the authorities of church and state. He expatiates the position of early apologists for the language and the later antiquarians. It was variously credited with having an Edenic source, with having an originally dominant and not submissive character, and with embodying a collective understanding of Irish history. To its early advocates during its first modern "rediscovery," it represented the values of honor, scholarship and aristocratic lineage. Among ordinary folk, even in bilingual or English-speaking areas, Irish retained a high-status reputation versus the vulgarity and criminality associated with the colonizers and their language.

To refute the charge that there was a paucity of printed documents in the language during the period under study, Wolf invokes a considerable body of religious and devotional manuscripts and publications. These include catechisms, hymnals, hagiography, moral tracts, and meditative manuals, attesting to the wide use of Irish among the ordinary people. Evidence of provincial loyalties can be seen in the persistence of a myriad local place names (thousands to the parish). In a boldly innovative stroke, Wolf undertakes a statistical analysis of the 186 jokes in the folklore archives dealing with language. While the main source of the humor is cross-linguistic misunderstandings, it is significant that neither language emerges as triumphant; rather, both varieties of monoglots are the butts of the humor.

Whereas the official language in the schools was English, Wolf produces evidence that it was an ordinance that was by no means universally practicable or practiced. At no point was the Irish language explicitly interdicted. The authorities, in fact, either through complacency or indifference, became "language agnostics": turning a blind eye to the persistence of Irish in the schools. Later in the nineteenth century, in response to language advocates, Irish entered the curriculum as a special subject. There is substantial eyewitness evidence, moreover, that Irish was widely used in Emancipation rallies, during the Repeal movement, at temperance meetings, and in anti-tithe speeches.

He devotes a great deal of effort in exploring the extent to which Irish was accepted by the court system, the electoral processes, and by the church authorities, Catholic and Protestant. In the former cases, he investigates the extent to which translators were employed in legal proceedings and at polling booths. Again, this method required a large investment in time and careful compilation of results. The inferences are difficult to assess, but there is no refuting the implications of the fact that in the 1868 election, no fewer than 78 interpreters were employed by the authorities in County Cork.

Two long chapters deal with the better documented religious record. Beginning with Andrew Donleavy's bilingual catechism of 1742, Wolf argues from the extensive material record that the "New" Tridentine Catholicism was imposed in late eighteenth century, long before the devotional additions of the 1830s. Thus many of the pious rituals attributed to Cardinal Cullen's promotional zeal--the rosary, forty hours, novenas, blessed altars, stations of the cross, vespers, and dedication to the Sacred Heart--were either long practiced in Irish-speaking Ireland or were exclusively Dublin-based. The practice of outdoor Masses or "stations" (celebrated in private homes) yielded to formal liturgies as appropriate chapels were constructed. But in all cases, Irish-language devotional materials played a considerable part in promoting Catholic orthodoxy.

To the charge that the Catholic Church discouraged Irish through lack of scholarship and by priests inadequately prepared to administer the sacraments and preach in Irish, Wolf offers a deeply considered historical contextualization. As in every other aspect of the question, no easy generalization fits the case. For various economic reasons, there was a decline in the number of native-speaking Irish-language priests throughout the century consistent with the general population decline and as urban diocesan seminaries replaced the rural classical schools of the previous period. There was considerable pressure on seminarians to learn Latin and Greek as part of their philosophical and theological training. The primary goal of their ministry was the moral and religious reform of their parishioners. There is ample evidence in episcopal letters of concern about the shortage of competent Irish priests to hear confessions. In sum, the clergy reflected the linguistic makeup of Ireland as a whole.

This sketch of some of his ideas in no way represents the complexity of Wolfs deeply thoughtful cross-examination of the inferences from his enormously painstaking and thorough original research. It would be a foolhardy critic who would undertake a refutation of conclusions drawn from so formidable a constellation of original work. He is as indefatigable in drawing out the nuances of each position warranted by his work as he is in assembling it. Certainly nobody--Irish or other--has put the question of the status and health of the Irish language to such concentrated attention. His study has implications for the ways in which other minority language are linked with various nationalisms and global empires.

--Mount Vernon, Virginia
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Title Annotation:An Irish-Speaking Island: State, Religion, Community, and the Linguistic Landspace in Ireland, 1770-1870
Author:Owens, Coilin
Publication:Irish Literary Supplement
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 11, 2015
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