The establishment of English in Ireland was a long process lasting for centuries.
During this time the language became a weapon: it should have helped Britain to gain control over Ireland. However, it was not until the 19th century when English became the dominant language.
Two stages or waves of establishing the English language in Ireland are recognized. The first one is connected with the Norman invasion in 1169 which brought English and Norman French to Ireland. The status of English in Ireland was rather low then because it was spoken mainly by servants of the Normans.
The high status was enjoyed by Latin, which was introduced in Ireland since the arrival of religion, and by French (Kallen, 1997). Although the Normans expanded in Ireland, their language declined quite rapidly and they themselves became gaelicised (Filppula, 1999) or hibernicised using Todd’s (1999) terminology. Though English managed to endure longer, gradually it declined as well. Hogan (qtd. in Filppula, 1999) describes the language situation in 14th and 15th centuries as follows:
Irish came down again into the plains and up to the walls of the towns.
With the exception of those who carried on the Dublin government, or lived in or near the Pale1, the great Norman families, never having been English, now became thoroughly Irish. The English yeomen and small free holders steadily forsook the land, going to England or the Pale.
The area of the Pale (see Figure 1 below) was important for the survival of English in Ireland. It is the only area in Ireland where English influence was uninterrupted since the Norman invasions and thus the English language could continue to exist in Ireland. However, outside the Pale and especially in rural
1The Pale – the term comes from Latin palus ‘stake’, it was established at the time of Henry II’s expedition and consisted of the territories conquered by England, where English settlements
areas the impact of English was slight. Later even the area of the Pale shrank.
The assimilation of the settlers by the native Irish had, according to Hickey (2007), two main reasons, namely that the English settlers were Catholic and the English government adopted Protestantism later; and that the connections with England were still rather loose. There were made various attempts by English rulers “to halt the process of gaelicisation” in Ireland such as the Statutes of Kilkenny (Filppula, 1999: 4) – they imposed “heavy penalties on those who were found using Irish”. However, these and other measures were of no effect.
Figure 1 The area of the Pale (Hickey, 2008)
In the 16th century the Irish language spread even to Dublin. In 1578 Lord Chancellor William Gerrard criticised the use of Irish by the English (Hickey, 2007). Todd (1999: 47) comments it by saying that, “… the Irish had, slowly but surely, assimilated the invaders.” However, this was not allowed to continue.
In the 16th century the second wave of English started which is marked by the beginning of the reign of Mary Tudor (1553-1558). The second wave is characteristic of “the organised settlement of the Irish landscape which was to have the greatest consequence in terms of anglicisation” (Hickey, 2007: 35). It was a system for planting English settlers in Ireland in order to anglicise the Irish. The main plantations are those of Munster and Ulster (see Figure 2 below). The numbers of settlers were quite high when we imagine that in 1611 the ratio of the settlers and the Irish in Ulster was three Irish to two Planters (see Table 1 below) and yet further waves of English speakers followed later (Todd, 1999).
Table 1 Estimated numbers of the English settlers in Ireland in individual counties of Ulster in 1611 (Todd, 1999: 48)
County Irish Planters Total
Total for Ulster 63,272 40,651 103,923
Figure 2 Areas of English settlements (Encyclopædia Britannica Online.)
“The final blow to the old Irish society”, according to Hogan (qtd. in Filppula, 1999), was done by the Cromwellian Settlement in the 1650s which is
connected with confiscation of land of the natives and their resettlement. The confiscated estates were granted to the English which substantially changed the demography of Ireland. “In all provinces except Connacht [i.e. Connaught in the map above], the landowners were English-speaking Protestants” (Filppula, 1999: 7) an in addition, Bliss (qtd. in Filppula, 1999) states that, “the great houses formed centres where the English language was spoken: tenants and servants alike had to learn some English in order to communicate with their masters.” This situation when the Irish were either forced to the west of the country or to stay and learn the language of their masters deprived of any political rights helped to spread English in Ireland. However, despite all the adopted measures Irish continued to have the dominant position as Ó Cuív (qtd. in Filppula, 1999) states “… in 1731 … some two-thirds of the population still used Irish as their everyday means of communication, while as late as 1791 about half of the population were either monoglot Irish or had Irish as their preferred language.” Although the numbers of speakers of Irish remained relatively, it is obvious that the English language spread slowly but surely throughout Ireland.
According to Filppula (1999) it was in the first half of the 19th century when English speakers started gradually to outnumber Irish speakers. In addition, the Great Famine in the 1840s was an important factor in the spread of English: the number of native Irish speakers was reduced approximately by 25%, which was about 2 million people (Hickey, 2007), due to starvation and emigration caused by the Famine. Since then the decline of Irish spread quite
rapidly and by the census of 1891 the number of the Irish speakers dropped to little over half a million (Ó Cuív qtd. in Filppula, 1999).
According to the study “Europeans and their Languages” (2006) the present language situation in Ireland is following: 94% of the Irish claim English as their mother tongue and 11% claim Irish as their mother tongue2. As regards the actual use of Irish in Ireland, 40.8% of the Irish claim they are able to speak Irish (according to the Census 2006). In the areas of Gaeltacht3 (see Figure 3) the number of speakers is even higher: 70.8% of the Irish say they speak Irish. Table 2 below provides data about numbers of speakers of the Irish language. The increasing numbers show that the Irish language is still very
2The study enabled multiple choice, i.e. it was possible to mark more languages as mother tongues
3 Gaeltachts - areas in Ireland where Irish Gaelic is spoken primarily
4 The substantial increase of the speakers of the Irish language between the years 1991 and 1996 is explained by changed formulation in the Census question (Gaelic: Revitalising Gaelic a National Zaset, 1999)
Figure 3 Areas of Gaeltacht
Co. Meath Co. Galway
From the historical account stated above it is obvious that the establishment of the English language in Ireland was a long and complicated process – or rather a struggle between two languages that later became a struggle for power. Although English won and is now the main language in Ireland, the result of the struggle was not always sure. The Irish played in the past an important role in lives of the Irish which is reflected in their handling the English language. And as shows Table 2 above Irish is again gaining its prestige which can be in the future again mirrored in the usage of English in Ireland.