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Gaelic and Catholic?

Niall Ó Ciosáin

An Irish-speaking Island: State, Religion, Community, and the Linguistic Landscape in Ireland, 1770-1870, by Nicholas M Wolf, University of Wisconsin Press, 416 pp, €34.95, ISBN: ISBN 978-0-299-30274-0

The closing of Ireland’s embassy to the Vatican in 2011, following unprecedented criticism of the Catholic Church by a taoiseach in the Dáil, could be said to confirm the end of a particular hegemony within the culture of independent Ireland. A few years earlier, in 2007, a major survey of language use in the Gaeltacht suggested that Irish could cease to be a community language in any part of the state by 2030, a finding confirmed by the updating of that survey this year.

Two of the central elements in the official discourse of the state will therefore have faded almost beyond recognition within the first century of that state’s existence. They followed different patterns, of course – the Catholic Church reached probably the highest point of its political and social influence in the decades immediately following independence, followed by a sudden collapse in moral authority, recruitment and lay practice from about 1980 onwards. Irish on the other hand has been in slower but continuous decline over the same period, despite the state’s avowed project of revival and conservation.

If we look back farther, over three or four centuries, we find that the fortunes of these two cultural elements have also been quite different, though their starting points were very similar. In 1600, before the final destruction of the Gaelic social and political order, the vast majority of the population of Ireland shared two features that marked them out from the culture and practice of the state in which they lived, and the state from them. These were religion and language, Catholicism and Irish. By 1900 the picture was very different. The Catholic Church was a far more powerful force than it had been in 1600, with near universal rates of practice among its members, control over a wide range of the institutions of civil society, considerable influence in parliamentary and local politics and substantial wealth. Irish, in stark contrast, had relatively few speakers, next to no presence in politics and public life and was concentrated in peripheral regions and among some of the poorest sections of the population.

In some ways this contrast is surprising when we bear in mind a few of the practicalities as well as the philosophical difficulties of cultural change. Religious conversion would have involved changing from one variety of Christianity to another, and arguably entailed less of a cognitive shift than a change of language did. There were widespread and rapid conversions to different forms of Protestantism throughout Europe during the sixteenth century, and in some areas the population later reconverted to Catholicism. In Ireland, there were those who converted from Catholicism to Protestantism and occasionally back again, whether landowner and lawyer in the eighteenth century or starving poor in the nineteenth. Such rapid transitions are not normally possible in the realm of language, and language shift is almost always slow and final. Moreover, changing a spoken language needs to be a collective process as well as an individual one – it is not possible for an individual to switch languages unless many others do so as well. There are of course very strong collective elements in religious belief and practice, and there was frequent community opposition to conversion. Even so, purely individual conversion is conceivable, and indeed Protestant religions have always emphasised individual conversion. Individual language shift is much less likely.

On the other hand, there are aspects of language shift that make it potentially a smoother process than religious conversion. At a local level, language shift normally takes place over a number of generations, with a monolingual generation followed by some bilingual ones, with these finally being succeeded by a generation that is monolingual in the new language. Changing religions, or at least changing churches, by comparison, is instantaneous. This is because religion is a binary variable whereas language isn’t – you can speak more than one language, but you can’t legitimately belong to more than one religion. Choices are presented more starkly in a religious conversion, and to that extent it might require more explicit and urgent motivation.

In practical terms, in seventeenth and eighteenth century Ireland, probably the most significant difference between Catholicism and Irish was the existence of external support. There were powerful Catholic countries in Europe, and an international Catholic church, for whom Ireland was of continuous strategic importance. The church supplied clergy through Irish clerical colleges abroad, while Catholic states, and to a lesser extent the papacy, could exert diplomatic pressure on Britain. There was of course no Irish-speaking state that could have been a similar support to linguistic practice.

Recent explanations of language shift in Ireland, however, have tended to focus on the material benefits of switching language, and it could well be argued that these were greater than the benefits of changing religion. This is far from obvious though, particularly in the eighteenth century, under what is generally referred to as the penal code. Catholics, whatever language they spoke, were barred from voting, teaching, having guns or buying land. There were no such legal barriers to Irish-speakers as such, and fewer immediate material benefits to changing. In both religion and language, the advantages of switching were greater the higher your social status, and there was a steady drift among the better-off towards Protestantism and English, and less so among the general population.

In 1800 therefore, both Catholicism and Irish were still well-entrenched in the mass of the population of Ireland. Indeed some thought that Irish was more likely to survive at that point than Catholicism. A well-placed observer like Whitley Stokes, professor of medicine in Trinity College, Irish-language publisher and former United Irishman, could write in 1799 that “it is easier to alter the religion of a people than their language”. Stokes wrote this by way of advocating the publication and diffusion of the Bible in Irish as a way of overcoming the political alienation that was manifested in the 1798 rebellion. That alienation was also from the Catholic Church, since the clergy and hierarchy had vehemently opposed the radical political movements of the 1790s. A Co. Cork priest wrote in 1806 that in the previous three decades, “not only all former influence was lost, but even that confidence in their clergy, without which all their exertions must prove abortive, ceased in a great measure to exist among the people”.

A century later the Catholic Church was central and Irish was peripheral. What had happened in between? The religious story has been well explored by historians and sociologists. Internally, the Catholic Church carried out a major reform programme, building churches, introducing new devotions and inculcating greater discipline among both laity and clergy ‑ a process known, for better or worse, as the “devotional revolution” after a famous 1972 article by the American historian Emmet Larkin. Politically, the clergy took a lead in the electoral politics of the period, from O’Connell’s Catholic Association in the 1820s to Parnell’s Irish Party. Finally, the Catholic Church became a major partner of the state in the general administration of Ireland. Ireland was governed after 1800 by a London parliament that was far better disposed to Catholics than the pre-Union Dublin assembly had been. Its willingness to engage with a Catholic population was fostered by its conquest of a multi-ethnic, multi-religious empire, including French-speaking Catholics in Canada, and cemented by the French Revolution, which produced an enduring alliance between the papacy and Britain, which were both strongly anti-revolutionary. A national Catholic seminary at Maynooth was established and funded by the London government in 1795 to house clerical refugees from the Irish Catholic colleges shut down by the revolution. It was intended to be “the salvation of Ireland from Jacobinism and anarchy”, according to its first president, Thomas Hussey. The Act of Union was therefore followed within a few decades by the co-option of the Catholic Church into the official political process. Catholic clergy were regularly consulted by parliamentary inquiries and the commissioners of the new national education system in 1831 included a Catholic bishop.

The story of the Irish language between 1800 and 1900, by contrast, has been much less studied and understood. In many accounts, it simply drops out of sight. This is partly the result of a type of retrospective teleology. The process of language shift was inevitable and irreversible, the argument goes; it had started by 1800; therefore Irish-language culture was effectively finished by 1800 as well, and can be ignored in the nineteenth century. In these accounts, Irish only re-emerges with the revival movements almost a century later. This is perfectly illustrated by one of the major statements of Irish cultural history in recent decades, the Field Day Anthology of Irish Literature, which appeared in 1991. Its three large volumes were scrupulously multilingual, with texts in middle and modern English, old, middle and modern Irish, Latin, and Norman French. If you look for texts in Irish from the nineteenth century, however, you discover something very strange ‑ there is no section in the anthology for such texts. There is a section in volume 1 on writing in Irish from 1600 to 1800. Two volumes and three thousand pages away, there is another section in volume 3 on writing in Irish after 1900. The clear implication is that nothing of any significance was written or composed in Irish between 1800 and 1900, and moreover that there is no continuity between pre-1800 Gaelic culture and the culture of the revival.

The Field Day Anthology may be an extreme example of the neglect of the nineteenth century, but it is not unrepresentative. Until now, there has been no single book that focused on the social history of language in nineteenth-century Ireland. The late Brian Ó Cuív contributed some magisterial chapters to different volumes of the Oxford New History of Ireland, but unless and until they are issued on their own these are easily available only in libraries; there are articles of great authority written by Maureen Wall, Seán Connolly and others; and there are some excellent local studies such as Bríd Ní Mhórain’s Thiar sa Mhainistir, on the barony of Iveragh, Co Kerry.

A decade ago, in a survey of the scholarship in this area, I pointed to this anomaly and suggested that one necessity was an ethnography of Irish-language communities that would separate the question of Irish-language culture from that of language shift and thereby avoid the invisibility mentioned earlier. Such an account would focus on language use in practice as well as on written production, on bilingualism and the co-existence of two languages, and on the interactions of Irish speakers with two institutions that were becoming ever more prominent in their lives, the state and the Catholic Church. A study of the petty sessions, small local courts introduced in the 1820s, of the Poor Law of the 1830s, or of publishing and printing, would show Irish speakers engaging with modernity, and not as irremediably pre-modern and doomed to extinction.

The suggestions made in that survey have been closely followed in Nicholas Wolf’s major new book, which is now the most complete and best-documented survey available of Irish-speaking communities in the nineteenth century, despite some reservations that will be made presently. It has chapters on the use of Irish in law courts and elections, in education, in Catholic religious practice and by the Catholic clergy. We read about Irish speakers taking court cases through interpreters, monolingual Irish speakers voting in parliamentary elections, again through interpreters, the recruitment of Irish-speaking parish clergy and the translation of major devotional works into Irish. These topics are all found in the second part of the book, entitled “Encounters”. In the first part, “Identities”, Wolf explores the attitudes of Irish speakers themselves to their language, which could be strikingly positive, and also their views of monolingualism and bilingualism. An extended analysis of a corpus of jokes about language from the National Folklore Collection shows bilinguals having fun at the expense of monoglots. These jokes are often taken as deriding the broken English of Irish speakers, but Wolf shows that they also ridiculed English-language monoglots. It was bilingualism that was prized, therefore, rather than English per se.

Wolf draws two related conclusions from the two parts of the book. From the first part, “Identities”, it is clear that some Irish speakers prized their language and regarded it as superior to others. A deprecating attitude to Irish has often been invoked as a cause of its abandonment, but Wolf makes the important point that this negative attitude did not prevail until the twentieth century (or perhaps the very end of the nineteenth) and cannot be projected back into earlier periods. It was a result of language shift, in other words, not a cause.

A stronger conclusion emerges from the discussion of “Encounters”:

In the century before 1870, as has been shown here, Ireland was not by any means an anglicized kingdom and, indeed, was quite capable of articulating the forms of modernity ‑ whether religious, political, or economic ‑ in the Irish language.

This is a striking statement and a welcome and necessary corrective to presentations of Irish as purely backward and limited in its uses. It should stimulate a great deal of debate and research among cultural and literary historians, and among a more general readership. It is refreshing in particular as it avoids viewing Irish purely in retrospect, as a language whose decline is preordained. But by the same token it raises the question of that decline with renewed urgency ‑ if Irish was adapting so successfully to the modern world, and if its speakers valued it so highly, why did it decline so rapidly and totally? For a community to change its spoken language in situ, rather than as the result of migration out or in, is a radical undertaking, and if market activity, interaction with the state, and religious practice were all possible in Irish, what other motivation was there for changing a community language?

Wolf does not address this issue, and it seems to me that, while his argument is valid and valuable, he overstates his case. This is most evident in the sections on “Encounters”, where the strategy of argument is to show that Irish was frequently spoken in situations and places that would normally be regarded as domains of English, such as courthouses, schools, shops and markets. Wolf cites newspaper advertisements for shop assistants specifying that they should be able to speak Irish, plaintiffs taking cases in Irish through interpreters, and teachers using Irish out of necessity where pupils did not understand English.

The difficulties with this argument are both conceptual and empirical. Conceptually, the fact that Irish is permitted and spoken in a particular domain or situation does not mean that the domain is not an English-language sphere. The language of commerce was English, and all banknotes and contracts were in English; those contracts would ultimately be enforced in English, since that was the language of the courts, and interpreters were the proof of that; and Irish was spoken in national schools as a way of teaching English.

Empirically, while all these arguments are very well-documented, Wolf’s evidence is usually qualitative rather than quantitative. As a result, the reader is never sure how typical are the cases being quoted. The constabulary, for example, began to be stationed everywhere in the country from the 1820s onwards, and might be thought to be purely English-speaking. Wolf quotes five instances of policemen being able to understand Irish, ranging in date from 1832 to 1887. These are fascinating cases, from which we learn for example that plain-clothes detectives valued Irish as a way of obtaining information, but we have no idea how typical they were. Nor are we told whether policemen who understood Irish were happy to speak it in the course of their work. The following description of a tithe protest in Lettermacaward, Co Donegal, in the 1830s offers a contrasting example of the linguistic practices of the constabulary and their attitude to Irish-language monoglots:

The chief constable, Mr. Taylor, after reading the Riot Act to a people, not one of whom understood the English language, ordered his men to fire, and wounded several.

There is a similar difficulty in Wolf’s discussion of Catholic devotional literature in Irish. He gives a long list of translations of seventeenth and eighteenth century works of devotion, to demonstrate that Irish-speaking Catholics were familiar with newer forms of religion. They were almost all manuscript translations, however, and it is difficult to know how widely circulated they were, and consequently how representative of Irish-language belief and practice. An example would be Pinamonti’s 1693 book Hell Opened to Christians, famous as the source of the sermon in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. According to Wolf, this text “had currency in the Irish-speaking world as well: [the scribe and poet Mícheál] Ó Longáin completed an Irish translation from the English for Murphy [bishop of Cork] in 1818”. It’s not clear if Murphy shared it with others, but since it seems to be the only copy of this text, probably not. Indeed it’s quite possible that only Murphy and Ó Longáin ever saw and read it. This equation of two speakers of Irish, only one of them a native speaker, with an “Irish-speaking world” is not persuasive, and in fact Wolf himself has earlier in the book warned against precisely this type of argument.

A related issue is that Wolf’s examples are frequently interpreted in a way that maximises the incidence and prestige of the speaking of Irish, sometimes unjustifiably so. This is evident already in the opening pages, where Wolf maintains that ‘Irish speakers could be found among all social classes and religious persuasions’. As an example of gentry speakers, we have the following:

James McQuige, a Methodist preacher, recalled in 1818 being jostled on Grafton Street by a gentleman “of most noble appearance” who excused himself in Irish.

This man might not have been a landowner ‑ for all we know he was a well-dressed beggar with fancy airs. A few lines on, we are told that “Protestant labourers spoke [Irish] habitually” with a reference to an 1868 memoir of missionary work in Ulster by an Anglican clergyman. In fact, what the clergyman wrote was that “no person above the labouring class ever speaks it habitually”, not exactly the same thing. Moreover, the clergyman goes on to say that “among the Protestants of Ulster of the lower classes, there is a decided prejudice against the language, which they connect with superstition and barbarism and rebellion, and so wish to see it exterminated”, which gives a very different impression to Wolf’s short summary.

There is also a more general observation to be made about Wolf’s overall argument that Irish “was quite capable of articulating the forms of modernity ‑ whether religious, political, or economic”. Modernity here is defined as engagement with supra-local institutions, in particular the state and the Catholic church. It was in the century that Wolf is writing about, 1770-1870, especially the early decades of the nineteenth century, that both institutions began to incorporate and address the mass of the people. The population census and the Ordnance Survey mapping, the police, small local courts, national schools and the Poor Law, the essential mechanisms of the modern state, all date from between 1820 and 1840. The church, having emerged from its semi-clandestine status in the late eighteenth century, was aiming for universal catechesis and devotional observance in the same period. The two were related, and some historians have seen the establishment of the national schools after 1831 as in effect a state bailout of Catholic schools that the church did not have the means to maintain at a time of growing population and increasing poverty. Both also had in common the fact that perhaps half the population they were trying to reach was Irish-speaking and that they had to adapt to that fact. For their part, Irish speakers were faced with new interventions and had likewise to adapt. This adaptation, however ingenious and resourceful, was in the broader sense reactive.

A more active form of modernity that might also be used as a yardstick would be the creation of a print culture and a public sphere. In English-speaking Ireland from the 1760s onwards, the rapid growth of a newspaper press, periodicals, pamphlets and other printed materials created networks of communication and forums for argument that did a lot to shape modern political organisation and consciousness, from the Volunteers and the United Irishmen through the Repeal movement to the Land League. This print culture is almost completely absent in Irish. There were very few printed books and no newspapers or periodicals (with the exception of the short-lived Fior Eirionach, published in Clonmel in 1862, which was in any case a revivalist magazine aimed at least as much at English speakers as at Irish). Wolf comments that the reading aloud, with translation, of newspapers was a common practice, and this is so. However, it makes the participation of Irish speakers in the public sphere a more passive affair than that of English speakers. In this it resembles participation in courts, for example, but with the difference that a more active role was possible in print than in the courts but that this didn’t materialise. There could not have been an Irish-language state court. There could have been an Irish-language newspaper, but there wasn’t.

The obvious comparison here is with Welsh, which in the nineteenth century had a large print element, with up to ten thousand books being published and dozens of periodicals and newspapers, many of them lasting for decades. The contrast is even more marked when we bear in mind that there were four times as many Irish speakers as Welsh in 1800. Welsh was also in far better health than Irish in the later nineteenth century, and in fact the number of speakers had quadrupled over the century. From this perspective, Irish was abandoned because it hadn’t embraced modernity while Welsh survived because it had.

Many of the Welsh periodicals were produced by clerics, and this brings us to another marked contrast between Welsh and Irish, and back to the relationship between religion and language. By 1850, most Welsh speakers belonged to nonconformist denominations, Methodist and Baptist in particular. These underlined their separateness from the established Church by emphasising the use of Welsh in both church services and devotional reading. The Catholic Church in Ireland didn’t use Irish to anything like the same extent, and it formed no part of its cultural politics. One sign of this is that the campaign for disestablishment of the state church in Wales took place to a great extent in Welsh, while that in Ireland was conducted exclusively in English.

Wolf recognises the centrality of religion to the story he is telling. Two chapters discuss the Catholic Church and another one the Church of Ireland, altogether nearly half the book. The chapters on Catholicism look at the provision of devotional reading material and at the provision of clergy and church services respectively. Both are based on substantial original research in manuscript catalogues and in church archives. Wolf’s approach to the devotional texts is to list, categorise and describe them, and to show that they reflect currents in Catholicism that were new (and therefore “modern”) at the time. There is some fascinating material here, but the exercise as a whole is vulnerable to the problem discussed earlier, that of typicality. Just over seven hundred manuscripts survive containing religious texts, and by no means all of these would have contained the new texts in question. Even allowing for the fact that the surviving manuscripts are a fraction of what was produced, and that many of them were read aloud, it still seems tiny relative to the print material circulating in English. Wolf identifies twenty-two new devotional texts being printed in the century 1770-1870, and again this seems a lot until one compares it with the hundreds produced in Welsh, and for a much smaller language community.

The following chapter, on the clergy, tackles what Wolf sees as the standard view among historians that the Catholic church was indifferent, even hostile, to Irish, resulting for example in priests without Irish being sent to Irish-speaking parishes. He lists priests who were known for their preaching abilities in Irish and discusses collections of written sermons, mostly in manuscript. Again questions of typicality and volume arise, with one contemporary observer claiming that there were no more than five manuscript sermon collections in all of Connacht in the 1870s. There is however some strong quantitative analysis as well. Wolf builds on Brian Ó Cuív’s tracking of the linguistic capacities of Maynooth students through the census and does the same for clerical students from the diocese of Cloyne using the diocese’s own recruitment records. He finds that the proportion of Irish speakers among the Cloyne students was the same as that of the population of the diocese, so that priests were not more anglicised than their congregations. “In any case,” writes Wolf, “the ability of priests to speak Irish became less relevant as time went on, since their congregations were increasingly anglophone … Even where there was a willingness to preach in Irish, however, two difficulties stood in the way in this period: the availability of Irish-language written material from which to deliver a sermon and the growing number of parishioners proficient in only one language, making it difficult to accommodate both … To accommodate the old, in this scenario, was to risk losing the young who represented the future of the church.”

To put the issue like this, it seems to me, is to regard the clergy as the passive providers of services to the laity rather than as the active local representatives of a national and international organisation, whose decisions and practices would have some cultural influence locally. The same is true of Wolf’s treatment of the state ‑ it is presented as a supplier of education, dispute resolution and public order to the entire population and therefore adapting itself to the linguistic practices of that population. This approach is clearest in the short discussion of markets and shops, where buyers and shopkeepers needed Irish to complete commercial transactions. In all these cases, the need for Irish grew less as regions shifted from Irish to English. The problem that then arises is that, since all these activities were reactive, the presentation leaves no room for any force that might drive a language shift, let alone one as sweeping as occurred in nineteenth century Ireland.

In part this is the result of a methodological position proposed by Wolf earlier in the book. From the 1960s until the 1990s or so, the most frequent approach to thinking about language use and language shift historically, in the Irish case and more generally, has been based on the idea that language use was differentiated by function and location, what is known as “diglossia”. Some domains, in particular high-prestige and public domains, used a higher prestige language, that is, English, while others, normally low-prestige and private ones, were Irish-speaking. In this scheme of things, language shift is the replacement of the lower language by the higher one in domain after domain until there is so little use for the displaced language that it ceases to be transmitted to the next generation. Wolf disagrees with this approach, maintaining that “no concept has tended to obscure the understanding of scholars of this period more than the idea that eighteenth and nineteenth-century Ireland was characterised by diglossia”. The first part of the book therefore constitutes a demonstration that Irish was in fact viewed as a high prestige language by many of its speakers, and the second part shows that Irish was present in many of the domains that are held to be English-language ones. Wolf suggests instead, following recent work in sociolinguistics, that language use is determined by the relationships between speakers, that the language you use depends on who you’re talking to, rather than on where you are talking, or what you’re talking about.

This can be a fruitful approach, but I’m not sure that it displaces an analysis by domains. In the first place, there is often no substantial difference between the two approaches ‑ you meet particular people only in particular domains (a shopkeeper in a shop, a magistrate in court). Secondly, it is very difficult to document or test the idea for the eighteenth of nineteenth centuries, as opposed to the observational and participant fieldwork of contemporary linguists. Wolf produces some examples all to the effect that people in Irish-speaking areas spoke Irish among themselves and English to outsiders, but only a few other cases. (And one of these cases doesn’t actually bear out the argument. It’s a description of a seal hunt in Kerry in 1856 during which, according to Wolf, the boatman spoke English to his passengers but gave orders in Irish to his crew. In fact a few pages later the text records him shouting orders in English to the crew at a crucial point in the expedition.) Finally, such an approach has difficulty explaining language shift. In this presentation, people switch their principal language when enough of those around them are monolingual in the new language. But those other people must have made the transition first, so that language shift is being invoked to account for itself. Of course it is true, as noted earlier, that language is a social phenomenon, maybe the quintessential social phenomenon, so that language shift around you is a compelling reason to change your own language. But as a broader explanation it is circular.

The passivity of speakers in this model of change is the same as that of the clergy, state agents and others discussed above. But of course the personnel of state and church were all active cultural agents, their decisions about language mattered, and they were not always responding directly to the requirements of the population or the laity. One very clear illustration of this is the reaction of the Catholic Church and clergy to the various Protestant missionary organisations that conducted evangelical campaigns in Irish-speaking areas between the 1820s and the 1850s. As well as preaching, these societies encouraged devotional reading in Irish and circulated large numbers of Bibles and religious tracts in Irish. The response of the Catholic Church seems to have involved a distrust of printing in Irish, if not of the language itself. According to David Greene, the evangelical campaign

succeeded in provoking a reaction against the reading of the Irish bible, or indeed any material in Irish at all, which was to do much harm to the already weakened status of the language.

At a local level this seems to have translated in some cases into hostility, and the Celtic scholar John O’Donovan wrote in 1850 that

I know that the Catholic clergy, who are the real anti-Irish party at present, are moving heaven and earth to put out the Irish language.

Even if the reaction to vernacular Protestant evangelisation was not uniformly anti-Irish, it is remarkable that there was no sustained campaign of preaching and publication in Irish in response. Very few popular Catholic tracts were published in Irish, and as Wolf points out, the missionary orders that were mobilised to counter the Protestant crusade, mostly new European orders, did not consider the language issue, at the beginning of their campaigns at least. Remarkably, Archbishop McHale of Tuam, usually regarded as a champion of the use of Irish, sent Rosminian priests, who were Italian and English and therefore without Irish, into Irish-speaking north Connemara in the 1850s to counter the evangelising of the Irish Church Missions there.

The cultural resonance of this response can be gauged by comparison with the other Catholic region that spoke a Celtic language, Brittany. At the same time as the Protestant Crusade was beginning in Ireland, and as part of the same broader evangelical movement, Methodist and Baptist missionaries from Wales began to travel through Brittany, preaching and distributing religious tracts and Bibles in Breton, which is related to Welsh. The reaction of the Catholic church in Brittany, by contrast to Ireland, was to mount a counter-offensive in Breton, circulating and encouraging Catholic tracts, periodicals and other publications in that language. In Ireland, from a pastoral point of view, at least in the short and medium term, it would have made far more sense to encourage the reading of Catholic books in Irish than to wait for the completion of a language shift (or perhaps even to stimulate that shift). The fact that this first option wasn’t chosen on any scale suggests that the Catholic church in Ireland was not particularly inclined to use Irish even before the evangelical campaigns.

Traces of hostility to Irish among the parish clergy, or at least of a reluctance to use it pastorally, can be found in the memoirs of some early Gaelic League activists at the beginning of the twentieth century and in folklore collected in the 1930s. In a different mode, differences between the church and language activists flared up particularly during the dispute that led to the dismissal of Michael O’Hickey, the professor of Irish, from Maynooth in 1909, after O’Hickey had criticised the hierarchy for not supporting the inclusion of Irish as a compulsory subject for matriculation to the new National University of Ireland. Overall, though, tension between the two elements was submerged in the ideology of the new state that was held to be both Gaelic and Catholic. This ideological fusion was brought about by the revolutionary generation of 1916-22, many of whom had participated in the Gaelic League and were at the same time devout Catholics, and was subsequently institutionalised in the new state. The constitution of 1937 was the classic expression of this fusion, making Irish the “first official language” of the state and recognising the “special position” of the Catholic Church.

The tension between Catholicism and Irish remained not far from the surface, however, and was exemplified in a memorable exchange in 1932. In that year the Celtic scholar TF O’Rahilly published Irish Dialects Past and Present. A single paragraph in the introduction of this book summarised the relationship between religion and language over the centuries. In 1600 “the ties which bound the Catholic Church in Ireland to the Irish language seemed indissoluble” but in the eighteenth century O’Rahilly found “an extraordinary remissness in the supplying of devotional books in Irish”. By the nineteenth century, in contrast to the nonconformist churches in Wales, the Catholic Church had “definitely turned its back on the Irish tradition”.

This summary provoked a thunderous response in the Jesuit journal Studies from “J.R.”, probably John Ryan SJ, a lecturer in history in UCD:

[O’Rahilly] might have said a word of the abject slavery under which the people groaned, and the impossibility of getting a hearing as long as the national case was put in a language which the oppressor ignored. If the leaders of the nation, lay and clerical, used English rather than Irish as their medium of expression, they did so for the reason that in this way alone did they see any hope of winning back for the people their lost national rights … Would Catholic Emancipation ever have come if the case for it had not been put powerfully by Irishmen in the English tongue?

Irish, for Ryan, was a hindrance to nationalist and Catholic politics, because all forms of engagement with the state (‘the oppressor’), required the consistent use of English, as did the co-option of the Catholic Church into the mechanisms of that state. This negotiation and co-option was made possible by a final difference between Catholicism and the Irish language. The fact that Catholicism was an institution as well as a belief system meant that it was possible for the United Kingdom state before 1921 to deal with Catholics as a totality, and for them to deal with that state through the structures of the church. Catholics as such had leaders and representatives, Irish speakers did not, and as a result the state could co-opt the Catholic Church, and by extension Catholics, into official structures and forms of power, or at least come to a compromise with them, but not with Irish speakers.

At independence, there were no radical changes in the structures and practices of government and administration (and, apart from the police and the army, remarkably few changes in personnel). Catholics, both clergy and laity, were strongly present in those structures, especially in education, social welfare and disciplinary institutions, and were therefore able to consolidate their position and construct a Catholic hegemony that lasted for more than half a century. Irish-speaking communities (as opposed to Irish-language revivalists), by contrast, were marginal to the new state and partly as a result continued to decline thereafter. As cultural practices, therefore, the Irish language and Catholicism have followed very different trajectories, both before and after independence, and it might even be said that there was some opposition between them. This was hidden, however, by the official ideology of a state that envisaged a polity that was simultaneously Gaelic and Catholic.

The collapse of the Catholic Church in Ireland since the 1980s has meant that its practice, like the use of Irish in Gaeltacht communities, is increasingly confined to the older age groups. As elements of a public discourse, however, Catholicism and Irish have gone in quite different directions in that same period. In the recent same-sex marriage referendum, for example, it was striking that they lined up on opposite sides. The Catholic Church as an institution was strongly in favour of a No, while there was a very visible Irish-language presence on the Yes side. An organisation, ‘Tá Comhionnanas’, was formed to campaign for a Yes vote. It canvassed, produced posters for the Connemara Gaeltacht, published articles in Irish and had a social media presence. A video of Stephen Fry giving a short speech in Irish for a Yes vote was also available on YouTube. On the No side, while there were individual Irish speakers who were active in the campaign, there was no organisational presence in Irish and no publicity. As we approach the centenary of independence, this contrast between these two elements of Irish public discourse may well continue to grow.




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