Review of The Irish Language in Ireland
|Date: Tue, 15 Nov 2005 17:29:53 -0800
From: John Murphy
Subject: The Irish Language in Ireland: From Goidel to globalisation
AUTHOR: Mac Giolla Chríost, Diarmait
TITLE: The Irish Language in Ireland
SUBTITLE: From Goidel to globalisation
SERIES: Routledge Studies in Linguistics
John L. Murphy, Humanities, DeVry University, Long Beach, California
This volume overlaps three areas: sociological theory on ethnicity and
identity formation within a globalized context; a historical synopsis of
the Irish language; analyses of surveys and public policy addressing
its use in both the Republic and the North of Ireland. Aimed at an
academic rather than a general audience, this study would be
appropriate for research-level university libraries. Its hefty price of
GBP 80 should not impede the wider impact upon which the author, a
lecturer in the School of Welsh at Cardiff University, intends this book
to have to foment practical policies that encourage the future survival
and growth of Irish-speaking communities.
In about 250 pages, Diarmait Mac Giolla Chríost contributes enough
material to keep not so much scholars as workers in the area of
linguistic promotion inspired for years. He manages to avoid polemic,
ignores romanticization, and provides sophisticated models upon
which informed initiatives to nourish Irish-language use can be
constructed. Although the density of considerable amounts of data
may overwhelm any casual reader seeking a concise introduction to
the fortunes of the past and present conditions within which Irish has
emerged and endured, for those already familiar with sociological and
public policy analyses, this study condenses immense efforts to direct
discourse about the state and fate of Irish into a previously neglected
intersection between academic and community-based efforts. The
author applies research too often languishing upon government and
academic shelves into a theory-laden but careful examination for a
This appeal heightens the relevance of Mac Giolla Chríost's thesis.
But, his presumed audience may remain narrower than his message
deserves. With such impacted concentration of so much research, the
book remains curiously uneven. Its three stubbornly discrete levels,
even partially synthesized, lack crossover appeal for the majority of an
already specialized readership to whom this book -- and I would
emphasize its implicitly stated need to put its many theories vigorously
to work within everyday Irish life -- would be received and understood,
let alone shifted into action that would strengthen the tenuous grip of
the Irish language upon a rapidly globalizing and quickly shrinking
native core for whom the language represents a necessary, daily
With its first sixty pages, the crushingly erudite foundation for this
densely related investigation that attempts to stimulate tangible
progress into furthering Irish-language community-based efforts nearly
stifles in the cradle the book's well-intentioned, engaged ambitions.
Only one paragraph in this vast chapter addresses the Irish language
within half-digested, half-quoted segments of sociological contexts.
Pierre Bourdieu's concept of ''capital value'' deserves the depth
excavated here, but how this ''capital'' is invested within Irish begins to
appear only in the next chapters, surveying linguistic history. Such a
delay frustrates a reader anticipating when progressing through this
dauntingly erudite terrain as to how Bourdieu's theory applies to Irish.
In the historical chapters, Mac Giolla Chríost's pace quickens. Perhaps
too rapidly for any newcomer, yet the amount of material remarked
remains impressive, given the evident editorial constraints upon how
much coverage appears to have been allotted to a topic that in itself
could have consumed easily twice the length of this study. For
instance, the emergence of Hisperic Latin deserves more than a
sentence, given that such accomplished fluidity between the two
languages demonstrates how, as the author here can only hint, early
medieval Irish with Latin flourished within permeable conditions akin to
those encountered by present-day speakers. In his summation of the
1366 Statute of Kilkenny which has been regarded by some historians
as more hyperbole than feasible, Mac Giolla Chríost reminds us that
the English overlords would not have fulminated for the first time
formally against the use of Irish and imposed harsh penalties upon its
use unless their law kept its clout. Although Tony Crowley's
sourcebook on the ''politics of language'' (2000) is not cited, this and
his companion study (2005) provide novices with easily accessible
contexts for the impacts of anti-Irish language policy up to
independence from Britain.
By the nineteenth century, the contraction of Irish--after centuries of
its relegation by both Irish and English speakers to a traditional rather
than modern attitude inculcated by clerical, political, and eventually
educational authority--ensured that only ''symbolic capital'' remained.
Its daily users, antiquarians and scholars who already regarded it as a
dead language, and administrators who condemned it as preventing
economic progress and practical literacy among the natives all
hastened its neglect as an oral rather than written vernacular. This
worsened the fragmentation of the language among the active
remnant, now divided by geography as depopulation, the Famine, and
anglicization combined against its territorial and demographic claims.
Mac Giolla Chríost's division of Irish into the ''popular vernacular''
opposed by the ''bureaucratic mediation of the English map'' (97) sums
up the invasion of the indigenous Irish mentality and polity as the land
and its people were renamed. Irrelevant to many native as well as
nearly all English politicians within the nationalists emerging before the
Famine, Irish next suffered a nearly fatal loss of many of its speakers
from its remaining home bases in western and southwestern regions.
The author comments upon the anglicizing medium of ''American
letters'' sent home -- nearly always in English despite the Irish spoken
by many of the emigrant writers -- but cites neither Kerby Miller's use
of them to immigration (1986) nor his co-edited collection of such
letters (2003). Further analysis of such documents would strengthen
Mac Giolla Chríost's employment of this factor as accelerating the
erosion of Irish among many speakers later in the nineteenth century.
English became the chosen vehicle of emancipation for native Irish,
emigrants or not. Irish, increasingly denigrated as antonymous
with ''modernity,'' relegated to a few rural redoubts by the twentieth
century, could not then, phoenix-like, spread its reborn wings to stoke
for long the revolutionary fervor that fired up many of the middle
classes and urbanizing Irish into leading their war for independence.
The idealism shared by Gaelic Revivalists and republican activists was
illuminated by the ''symbolic capital'' invested in the Irish language, but
the practical failure of the Free State post-1922 in sustaining the
energy of the previous decades meant again that Irish dwindled.
Between the partial freedom of Ireland and 1939, native speakers
declined by a hundred thousand. The nation's recognition of the
linguistic heartlands as Gaeltachtaí neither protected the language nor
inspired its replacement among the rest of an English-speaking island
in which its official language was not its everyday language.
Regrettably, essential recent work is not cited that analyzes the 1911
census basis for this collapse (FitzGerald 2003) and that maps (Walsh
2002) this well-intentioned attempt to define linguistic reservations
from which, it was proposed, Irish could then reverse its retreat and
regain its lost lands. The comparative isolation and economic poverty
of these Gaeltachtaí, however, doomed any but a posthumous reward
for attenuated Irish. Compulsory Irish in the schools, its often
unprepared teachers, and its requirement as entry into civil service,
the police, or university earned ''school'' Irish not the affection but the
enmity of millions. (Not cited by Mac Giolla Chríost, see Kelly 2002; cf.
Hamilton 2003, Ó Treasaigh 2002) This mentality eliminated any pride
or comprehension among many Irish that their ''official language'' was
other than symbolic capital invested in and pocketed largely for only
ceremonial display, most often indulged in by the most greedy and the
Such convolutions, rhetorically and practically, meant that for
twentieth-century Ireland, the Free State's thwarted ambition to revive
the language became the Republic's lip service, the ''cupla focal''
ritually commencing a political speech or an Aer Lingus announcement
for flight departure. Mac Giolla Chríost reminds readers that while
prominent revivalists as Douglas Hyde blamed earlier loss of Irish
upon imperial compulsion, for most of this last century, an arguably
independent Irish polity had only itself to blame. While this judgement
sounds overly harsh considering overwhelming handicaps with which
a nascent State had to contend under a British-dominated economic
hegemony and postwar internecine conflict, the Free State gave ''an
aspirational rather than actual'' constitutional status to the Irish
language. (121) Any ideological well-spring imagined by
revolutionaries and revivalists purified by Irish neither invigorated
English-speaking millions nor sustained thousands who remained at
its mytholgized cisterns. By the 1940s, maintenance of rural
Gaeltachtaí became unofficially status quo for language policy. No
wider recovery of the ancestral language would occur throughout the
rest of the island.
The second half of the twentieth century found the Republic presiding
over what appeared to be the deathbed of Irish. That it survived the
past century as a living community language, as Mac Giolla Chríost
admits, is miraculous. The European Union refused to grant official
status to Irish, the only ''official language'' of a member state so
denied. (This was overturned only in 2005.) Standardization of its
spelling--overcoming what had been its territorial fragmentation into
dialects with cumbersome orthography dissonant with its voiced
varieties as taught in schools-- and dictionaries codifying Irish
appeared around mid-century, solidifying scholarly advances. Even as
the language stagnated in its ''official'' capacity, research expanded
into its relevance. Government boards then floundered -- in bringing
industrialization into the Conamara Gaeltacht, for example, native
workers often returned from outside the ''reservation'' with non-Irish
speaking spouses and children; managers were likewise recruited
many times only among non-Irish speakers or even non-Irish,
exacerbating the symptoms that the Gaeltacht sought to remedy.
Recent reforms in the Republic and across the border show renewed
commitment to addressing job, schooling, and community-based
problems. While the author states that the role of Raidio na
Gaeltachta (RnG) has not yet been ''rigorously examined'' (131),
Watson (2003) applies Jürgen Habermas' (1992) nation-praxis to RnG
contexts. The TnG television channel, newspapers, and the Internet
do not gain deep coverage here, but these media demand further
analysis within their Irish-language presentation and reception. 1960s
activism from the West of Ireland's Cearta Sibhialta and Language
Rights Movements (see Fennell 1985, 1993; Quinn 2001), noted in
passing here, struggled decades to bring broadcasting to fruition after
long government neglect, but such triumphs witness to the
combination of symbolic with financial capital that Bourdieu situates
and for which not only grassroots agitators but lecturers (if in rarified
prose) such as Mac Giolla Chríost advocate. If the passivity too long
associated with Irish is to be overcome, and its ''symbolic capital''
exchanged and traded as a global commodity, Mac Giolla Chríost
urges that the shopworn display demands investment and remodeling
for a multiethnic, ideologically complex, non-sectarian and trans-
political identity. The chapter on its status in the North further
delineates the current state of Irish and how it may be expanded in a
post-Agreement, peacetime society. Any ideal Irish-speaking Ireland
has expired but idealism inspires a minority increasingly urbanized,
determined by consumer choice rather than by legislative fiat to
broaden its market.
In the 2002 census, twice the number speak Irish in its cities as in its
Gaeltachtaí. Surveys filling many of the book's remaining pages
quantify the current health of the language as a daily medium. Space
prevents incorporation of even a broad summary, but Northern Irish
fieldwork done by Mac Giolla Chríost deserves attention. He
demonstrates rejuvenation; 48% of those questioned under twenty-
four years of age affirmed some use of Irish. Cohorts within the best-
educated, the professional classes, females employed, and males
unemployed ranked highest. He counters charges of sectarian or
political bias by comparing uneven patterns across predominantly
Catholic and Nationalist areas. Linguistic resurgence is not confined to
stereotypical demographics. As post-Agreement cultural efforts
continue, Mac Giolla Chríost locates also a decline from earlier 1980s
surveys in political or sectarian motivations for studying, or neglecting,
the Irish language among largely urbanized Northern Irish populations.
As in the rest of Ireland, the role of all-Irish schools and the cultural
support given speakers foster a small but growing, voluntary cadre of
those investing in their chosen reclamation of Irish.
The closing chapter spirals back to widen sociological issues with
which the study opened. Mac Giolla Chríost calls for a redefined
ethnic and civic discourse that does not separate into citizen and
consumer an Irish-language speaker. That is, he criticizes the
Republic for treating users as if relegated to the former identity,
concerned with ''rights, equality, and rigidity,'' or the latter,
favoring ''choice, empowerment, and flexibility.'' (197) Legal
challenges to moribund government delivery of services to its Irish-
speaking constituencies have, in 2003, resulted in special provisions.
Yet, the Republic's policies remain often meshed in only a binary
response, ignoring individual Irish speakers while nodding to those
geographically favored (and as speakers, then state-subsidized -- a
topic needing more investigation than given) by Gaeltacht residency.
Breaking this dichotomy, Mac Giolla Chríost contends, becomes an
His conclusions recapitulate three concerns. First, given diffusion
among Gaeltachtai, he rallies for community-based ''moral ownership,
agenda-setting and action.''(198) Next, he demands recognition of the
multi-ethnic, multiple identities chosen by contemporary Irish people
away from the petrified ''passive totem'' of Irishness towards a
dynamically fluent, evolving identity. (see Mac Murchaidh 2004; Nic
Eoin 2005) Finally, he strives to bring the urban environment into
language and policy engagement. His final words on this
vexed ''language question'' and intricately compiled report remind
readers of the shift away from a fatalistic pronouncement for Irish. In
its ''modern past,'' it was devastated by ''a fateful encounter with
empire.'' (236) Now, an honest confrontation forces us to view its post-
modern future. Unlike so many venerably ''dead'' languages, its
survival still depends upon our own power to kill off Irish or sustain its
Given the diligence with which Mac Giolla Chríost has carried out his
investigation, the neglect of more accessible, recently published works
such as those I have mentioned in favor of often more obscure
sources puzzled me. The uneven integration of the opening section
and closing section both dependent upon theory weigh down these
chapters, and leave the central portions stranded. The historical
chapters condense millennia into a few relatively straightforward
pages. The survey material, however, appears to have been imported
from another project, and again is not sufficiently blended into the
previous historical coverage. It is left to the patient reader to balance
the sociological theory, the rise and fall of the Irish language, its
current prospects in both the Republic and the North, and ethnic,
political, and policy considerations. The application that Mac Giolla
Chríost intends for this considerably diverse material and for which
this volume documents as urgent remains for an audience capable of
comprehending a vast amount of data, and to bring what is proposed
through this English-language medium into the realm of Irish. The
expense of this book may imply that it will find only a small readership
to subsidize the labor of its author. The relevance of its message
should remind a larger readership of the necessity to intervene and
direct the survival of the Irish language towards the broader, global as
well as territorially contiguous market that has been the traditional
consumers of Irish. Certainly, as the Linguist List itself shows, the links
between the past strongholds and the present dispersion of Irish point
also to its spread among the electronic as well as its internal and
Crowley, Tony (2000) The Politics of Language in Ireland 1366-1922:
A Sourcebook. London: Routledge.
Crowley, Tony (2005) Wars of Words: The Politics of Language in
Ireland 1537-2004. Oxford and New York: Oxford UP.
Fennell, Desmond (1985) Beyond Nationalism. Dublin: Ward River.
Fennell, Desmond (1993) Heresy: The Battle of Ideas in Modern
Ireland. Belfast: Blackstaff.
FitzGerald, Garret (2003) Irish-Speaking in the pre-Famine period: a
study based on the 1911 census data for people born before 1851
and still alive in 1911. Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy. 103-C,
Habermas, Jürgen (1992) Citizenship and national identity: some
reflections on the future of Europe. Praxis International 12.1, 1-19.
Hamilton, Hugo (2003) The Speckled People: A Memoir of a Half-Irish
Childhood. New York: Fourth Estate-HarperCollins.
Kelly, Adrian (2002) Compulsory Irish: The language and the
education system 1870s-1970s. Dublin: Irish Academic.
Mac Murchaidh, Ciarán, ed. ''Who Needs Irish?'' Reflections on the
Importance of the Irish Language Today. Dublin: Veritas.
Miller, Kerby (1988) Emigrants and Exiles: Ireland and the Irish
Diaspora to North America. Oxford and New York: Oxford UP.
Miller, Kerby, et al., eds. (2003) Irish Immigrants in the Land of
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Nic Eoin, Máirín (2005) 'Trén bhFearann Breac': An Díláithriú Cultúir
agus Nualitríocht na Gaeilge. Dublin: Cois Life.
Ó Treasaigh, Lorcán (2002) Céard é English? Dublin: Cois Life.
Quinn, Toner, ed (2001) Desmond Fennell: his life and work. Dublin:
Walsh, John (2002) Díchoimisiúnú Teanga: Coimisiún na Gaeltachta
1926. Dublin: Cois Life.
Watson, Iarfhlaith (2003) Broadcasting in Irish. Minority language,
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| ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
John L. Murphy, a lifelong learner of Irish, teaches in the Humanities
course sequence at DeVry University at its campus in Long Beach,
California. His research interests include the representation of the
Irish language within English-language literature and culture,
macaronic and multilingual uses of Irish within English, and rhetorical
applications of Irish republicanism. Since its founding, he has served
as contributing editor to the on-line Belfast-based journal The Blanket.