Irish is an ancient language that has been spoken in Ireland for thousands of years. Although attempts were made for centuries to change the language spoken by Irish people to English, it was only in the 19th Century that this language shift gathered momentum. After the failure of the 1798 Rebellion, Ireland was placed under the direct rule of the United Kingdom, a condition that led to great dissatisfation amongst the people. Despite the achievement of Catholic Emancipation in 1827 which abolished most of the Penal Laws, many people in Ireland sought greater freedom, either in the form of an independent state or in the creation of a devolved parliament in Dublin.
Between 1800 and 1845 the population of Ireland doubled, before a catastrophic famine struck between 1845 and 1852. The combination of starvation caused by the famine, and the flood of emigration it triggerred, the population of Ireland collapsed until it was at a lower level in 1900 than it had been in 1800. No other European country underwent such an extraordinary change in the 19th Century, and it had a massive impact on life and culture in Ireland.
Although the Irish language had been under continuous institutional pressure for centuries, there were more Irish speakers alive in 1843 than ever before. The famine and the increased pressure caused by new institutions such as the national school system created in 1831 were to prove very damaging. By 1850, there were 4,500 national schools, but Irish was not taught officially in any of them. There was no official space for Irish in business life, in legal proceedings, or in government activities. Parents across Ireland began to raise their children through English, though they often spoke little or no English themselves. Many believed that Irish culture had no future, and that their children would have no opportunities overseas without a mastery of English.
“But to the wider question of why the aquisition of English meant, overwhelmingly, the abandonment of Irish, answers may be better sought in the study of collective behaviour rather than simply in a multitute of “rational” individual choice. The emotional impact on a family or household of suppressing or expelling a language and replacing it with another – the inter-generational ruptures involved – must have been sharply disruptive, however rational the motivations for the change. Again, we can only imagine (...) what the acoustic reality and social-psychological drama of these individual and collective attitudes may have produced in an individual dwelling, or in the chapel, shop, school, or square of a market town on a fair day in, say, the second quarter of the nineteenth century.”
Gearóid Ó Tuathaigh, I mBéal an Bháis, 2015
The Vision of Revival
In the latter half of the 19th Century, various groups were formed to try to preserve and promote Irish. The Society for the Preservation of the Irish Language, founded in 1876, and The Gaelic Union, founded in 1880, managed to achieve some recognition for Irish in the education system. he Gaelic Union also set up the first periodical in Irish, Irisleabhar na Gaeilge (The Gaelic Journal), in 1882.
Many of these groups were focussed on the study of literature, and had little contact with the greater public. Eoin Mac Néill and Douglas Hyde felt that more attention needed to be paid to the spoken language, and that the public needed to be encouraged to save and speak Irish.
Eoin Mac Néill called a meeting for the 31 July 1893 at 9 O’Connell St Lower to discuss the new way forward he had described in Irisleabhar na Gaeilge in March 1893. Conradh na Gaeilge (The Gaelic League) was founded at that meeting, Douglas Hyde was elected its first president, and the Revival of Irish began in earnest.
“Ní gá dom a rá, nár bhain gluaiseacht na Gaeilge roimhe seo ach le múnadh na Gaeilge. Na leabhair agus na máistrí, níor chonghbhadar-san teanga ar bith beo ariamh... Teanga ar bith níor mhair beo riamh nár mhair cois teallach na tuaithe. Gídh tábhachtach an ní an Ghaeilge a mhúnadh, ní hé an ní is mó tábhacht é.”
Eoin Mac Néill, Toghairm, Márta 1893
“Níl aon ní ar bith is mó teastáil le déanamh anois ná an Ghaedhilg do chonneáil dá labhairt i measc na ndaoine. B’fhearr liomsa, mo thaoibh féin, muinín 5 duine d’fheiscint ag labhairt Gaeilge ina measc féin ‘ná deich nduine d’fheiscint ionán í a léamh.”
Dubhghlas de hÍde in a letter to Eoin Mac Néill, 26.6.1893
American Influence and Support
The new organisation grew slowly at first. Several branches of Conradh na Gaeilge were founded in urban areas, and groups were registered in the Americas, in England, and in Scotland. Without resources, however, it seemed impossible to implement Mac Néill and Hyde’s vision of sending “a group of chosen people to walk across the country from house to house” to increase the public’s interest in Irish.
In 1895, Patrick Mullin, an expert gunsmith who had been born in Ballyshannon Co. Donegal, died in New York. He left a bequest to assist the Irish language in Ireland, both spoken and written. At a special conference held in the Mansion House in Dublin on September 7th 1898, T.D. O’Sullivan M.P., who was the executor of the will, decided that the money should be made available to Conradh na Gaeilge to create a timire (organiser) scheme. This system would, they hoped, save and increase the use Irish.
Conradh na Gaeilge was lucky to find an extraordinary talent to take on this extraordinary challenge: Tomás Bán Ó Coincheanainn. Tomás, a native of Inis Meáin, had just returned to Ireland after spending over 10 years as a salesman and winemaker in the United States and Mexico. With the skills, experience, and resources that had come from America, the momentum behind the revival increased enormously.
“Like all Aran islanders, Mr. Concannon is a man of splendid physique. He belongs to that physical type so characteristic of the islands, and of Inis Meáin in particular – tall, lithe and active, rather than robuset, with muscles of steel, and that graceful, dignified carriage of the body and head which betrays an Inis Meáin man all over the world; the features strong, handsome, and expressive. An excellent linguist, he speaks Irish and even Spanish much more fluently than English, which, however, he writes with great power. A man of untiring perseverance, gignatic energy, and sterling business qualites, he is emphatically the right man in the right place. He is, besides, the orator par excellence of the movement.”
“Mr Thomas Concannon, An Claidheamh Soluis, 23 Sept 1899”
“It is the experience of the Gaelic League that nothing can be done until that feeling of pride is awakened, and that the most practical way of awakening it would be to send travelling teachers and organisers about the country to stir up a strong public opinion in favour of the language. This scheme has been before the Committee of the League for some time, and was first announced publicly at the Conference held on May 25th, 1898, the day after the Oireachtas. These travelling organisers would themselves be familiar with the Irish language, and would teach it in the various districts to which they were sent.”
Norma Borthwick, Secretary of Conradh na Gaeilge, 1898
Tomás Bán built an organisation that had a huge impact on public attitudes in Ireland. He travelled all across the country, getting to know people, encouraging them, recruting them, teaching Irish, explaining Irish history, and creating a nationwide system to promote the Irish language and to increase knowledge of Irish history and culture.
The work that Tomás and his colleagues did help Conradh na Gaeilge grow rapidly, and increased the numbers of both adults and children learning Irish. By 1906 around 100 people were working as timirí or travelling teachers, and there were over 900 branches of Conradh na Gaeilge in Ireland and overseas.
The work of the timirí was hard and exhausting, but their impact on Ireland and on public attitudes towards Irish was incalculably great. The reports the timirí compiled provide a rich picture of life in Ireland in the period directly before and during the revolutionary period.
“.. an treabhadh agus an grafadh agus an bhracáil agus an síol-chur, agus ansann ar fhás agus ar mheathluigh den tsíol a scaipeadh! Ach ní heol dom aoinne a thóg páits ann dáiríribh, dá mhéid duadh agus deacracht a bhain le cuid de, ná gur bhreá leis uaireanta bheith ag machtnamh ar an saol do bhí ag lucht leanúna an Chonnartha an tráth san, agus ar an ndílseachta agus an grádh a bhí mar dhlúth-cheangal eatortha. Aon chuspóir amháin a bhí curtha rompa aca go léir – an Ghaeilge do chur á labhairt arís agus Éire chur mar ba cheart di bheith. Bhíos fuadar breá fútha agus ba mheidhreach muinteartha an sluagh iad, idir fearaibh agus mnáibh. Bhí iontaoibh aca as a chéile agus bhí dúthracht agus déine ina saothar. Sin é an fáth gur éirigh leo an tír go léir a chorraí i mbeagán blianta.”
Peadar Ó hAnnracháin, Fé Bhrat an Chonnartha, 1944
The Revival of Irish profoundly changed the education system. Irish had little presence in Irish schools in 1893, and the literacy in Irish was not officially tought to native speakers. There was little room on the Irish school curriculum for Irish history either.
Conradh na Gaeilge created its own education system, running Irish language classes, summer schools, training colleges, and training courses. Campaigns were organised to ensure a central place for Irish at every level in the education system, so that every child would have the opportunity to learn Ireland’s indigenous language.
After the two states were founded, support for the Irish language was withdrawn from the education system in the north, while extra supports were provided in the education system in the south. Today, across the island, 302 primary schools and 70 secondary schools teach completely through the medium of Irish. New Irish-medium schools are founded regularly due to the current overwhelming demand for places in Gaelscoileanna.
“At the May meeting of the Coiste Gnó, during the course of a discussion on the position of Irish in the primary schools, Mr Thomas Ashe suggested that it might be worthwhile to consider the feasibility of establishing under Gaelic League auspices and in or near an Irish speaking district a training college for primary teachers, which should be frankly Irish in standpoint and which should specialise in the training of teachers to handle Irish education in the Gaeltacht. The suggestion was received with unanimous approbation. We all felt that in the midst of a babel of Talk a man had stood up and proposed a Deed. Teh proposal, be it noted, was not to ask the National Board to do anything: it was a proposal to do something ourselves.”
Pádraig Mac Piarais, 1911
Culture and Industry
The Revival of Irish created new space and respect for Ireland’s indigenous culture. Folklore was collected and published, feiseanna and competitions were organised to give a platform to the native arts of Ireland. A great effort was made to promote products made in Ireland.
Today, Ireland’s traditional music, sports, and dance are practised across the globe, and Irish music and culture festivals attract millions of visitors every year. Oireachtas na Gaeilge, the large festival for Gaels founded by Conradh na Gaeilge in 1897, is attended by over 10,000 people annually.
The people of the Gaeltacht are recodnised as custodians of our language and crucial to the survival of our indigenous culture. Efforts are made to encourage employment and enterprise in Gaeltacht areas to ensure that they have a sustainable future.
“Ba iontach an spiorad náisiúnta agus an spiorad Gaelach a bhí le tabhairt faoi deara in óg agus aosta ar na feiseanna go léir an uair úd. Bhí fonn ar gach duine and Ghaeilge a labhairt agus cúis na Gaeilge a chur ar aghaidh. Chuireadh sé ríméad ar chroí aon Éireannach an spiorad sin a fheiceáil.”
Seán T. Ó Ceallaigh, Seán T. 1964
“And to the Gaelic League is due the credit of having established the first Irish national society which accepted women on as members on the same terms as men”
Jenny Wyse Power, 1924
The Technology of Revival
Although there were over 710,000 speakers of Irish in 1893, it is estimated that most of them could neither read nor write Irish. It was very important to provide them with learning and reading materials.
The Revivalists created newspapers, periodicals, and publication opportunities for learners, speakers, and readers of Irish. A new wave of writing in modern Irish emerged, and gradually the various challenges and controversies about dialects, standards, and fonts were resolved.
Today, more than 100 new books in Irish are published every year. Reading circles support those who are trying to improve their Irish. New technological resources are constantly being developed to created new spaces and opportunities to use Irish, and a new virtual global Gaeltacht a burst into life online!
“Cloistear daoine ag rá go mba dual do Phádraic Ó Conaire agus do Sheosamh Mac Grianna a bheith ina scríbhneoirí gan Conradh na Gaeilge a bheith riamh ann. Níl a fhios agamsa ná aon duine eile ar dhual nó nár dhual. Ní scríbhneoirí Gaeilge a bheadh iontu marach an Conradh. Sí an scríbhneoireacht Ghaeilge an toradh is léire inniu ar shaothar an Chonartha ar son na Gaeilge. An cló-inneall a ceileadh ar an nGaeilge go dtí sin thosaigh sí ag baint leas as le fonn, fonn a bheith cúiteach leí féin agus le mainneachtan na haimsire. Is mó an scríbhneoireacht atá ar fáil ag na cheithre fichead bliain seo caite ná ag aon tréimhse dhá chomhfhad i stair na Gaeilge”
Máirtín Ó Cadhain, Conradh na Gaeilge agus an Litríocht, 1968
Broadcasting in Irish
When Raidió Éireann was founded in 1926, it was decided that programmes in the Irish language should be broadcast on the new service, and Douglas Hyde was asked to launch the new station. The need remained however for a dedicated Irish language service, but despite much discussion and many plans, no radio or television station was set up to properly service the Irish language and Gaeltacht community.
As part of the Gaeltacht Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, a campaign for a Gaeltacht radio station emerged. The campaign succeeded, and RTÉ Raidió na Gaeltacht began broadcasting in 1972. In addition to Radió na Gaeltachta, three other radio stations broadcast though Irish: Raidió na Life (since 1993), Raidió Fáilte (since 2006), and Raidió RíRá (since 2008). Programmes in the Irish language are also broadcast on other radio stations.
In the 1970s the demand for an Irish language television service increased. After another long campaign that lasted over 20 years and which involved the imprisonment of some of the campaigners, the government agreed in 1993 to found a new station. Teilifís na Gaeilge, now called TG4, began broadcasting on October 31st 1996.
"Bhain an plé faoi Theilifís na Gaeilge leis an díospóireachta mhór dhomhanda faoi fhéinmheas náisiúnta. Ba í an cheist bhunúsach ná an rabhthas le spás ar bith a thabhairt don Ghaeilge sa timpeallacht úr seo ina bhfuil comhdhlúthú ag tárlú maidir le teicneolaíocht agus úinéireacht. Níorbh fhéidir é a chur ar an méar fhada. Chaithfí an cheist a fhreagairt. Dá ndéarfaimis nach raibh spás le tabhairt don Ghaeilge sa timpeallacht úr n’in cinneadh ar dhoiligh dul siar air amach anseo."
Micheál D. Ó hUigínn, 1996
The Irish language had no official recognition in 1893. Conradh na Gaeilge made a tremendous effort to win recognition for the native language of Ireland. A campaign was organised to have post addressed in Irish and signs written in Irish accepted. Many Irish speakers who stood up for their language rights were prosecuted and punished.
When the Irish Free State was founded in 1922, Irish was recognised as an official language, and since 1937 the Irish language has been protected as the first official of the State by the Irish Constitution. As the result of a great campaign at the beginning of this century, Irish was recognised as an official language of the European Union in 2007. The Irish language does not have the same protection in the north however. There, the Administration of Justice (Language) Act (Ireland) 1737 prohibiting the use of Irish in legal proceedings remains in force, and Irish is not recognised as an official language.
An Coimisinéir Teanga, appointed for the first time under the Official Languages Act 2003, helps to protect the language rights of those in the south. Under the Good Friday Agreement (1998), the St. Andrews Agreement (2006), and the New Decade New Approach deal (2020), a new era and language protection legislation for the Irish language in the north were promised. We are still waiting for the new legislation to be implemented and for the Irish Language Commissioner's functions.
Much work remains to be done do protect these rights, both inside and outside of the Gaeltacht. The Irish language movement welcomes all support from and for the community. With the proper understanding, attitude, and energy, we can ensure a bright future for our language.
"D'féadfaí an tuairim a chosaint, is dóigh liom, gurb í is fíorfhadhb chultúrtha don ghlúin seo againn ná consensus cultúrtha a éabhlú, córas a bheadh comhdhéanta de luachanna agus de chuimhní agus de dhóchas, nós agus cleacht a thabharfaidh saol saibhfur sásaíoch do gach ball den phobal. Is é a bheadh le déanamh ag lucht na hathbheochana ná a chur ina luí ar mhuintir na hÉireann gur slí tábhachtach, nó b'fhéidir riachtanach, athbheochan na Gaeilge chun an consensus sin a bhunú agus a dhaingniú. Éilíonn an athbheochan sin mórathrú sóisíalta, óir caithfidh ár gcóras sóisialta teacht i gceist, chomh maith lenár dteanga phobail, ó thárla gur toradh iad an dá cheann ar phróiséas stairiúil nach nglacann an t-athbheochantóir leis."
Breandán Ó Doibhlin