‘Language and Religion in Ireland 1800-1870’

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On 26 November 2013, the Centre was pleased to welcome Dr Aidan Doyle (University College Cork) who discussed ‘Language and Religion in Ireland 1800-1870′. Below is this listener’s brief summary of the lecture.

The traditional view of this period maintains the Irish language was in sharp decline between 1800-1870, in an epoch deemed the ‘Great Language Shift’. Four principal causes are typically proposed to explain this decline:

– Free primary education through English from 1831

– The negative attitude of the Catholic Church towards Irish

– The Great Famine of 1845-52

– Emigration

Dr Doyle focused his lecture on the second cause outlined above (in bold) and sought to reappraise the traditional view. Before doing so, he outlined the basic background to this period. Between 1500-1600, the Tudor dynasty attempted to conquest Ireland and introduce Anglicanism, while stamping out Catholicism. Between 1600-1700, this conquest was consolidated, ending with the defeat of the pro-Stuart faction in 1691. Following this period, Penal Laws were introduced against Catholics.

Reaching the period in question, most of the church establishment felt the Irish should learn English in order to embrace Anglicanism, in a three-pronged attack incorporating language, religion and culture. Essentially, if the Irish learned English, this would lead to Anglicanism, in turn leading to an adoption of English culture.

Another view, held by a minority, advocated engagement with the Irish language as a missionary tool, in order to spread the faith. Translations of Christian literature into the Irish language included the New Testament (1601), the Book of Common Prayer (1608), and the Bible (1685). However, Dr Doyle noted that proselytization in Irish was generally regarded as a temporary stage on the road to learning English, and therefore, both sides of this debate ultimately shared the same end-game. Translation was not made for the sake of Irish as a language. Typifying this view was John Richardson, who noted in 1712: ‘I should not be for encouraging the language any further, than is necessary to promote the conversion of the Irish, and the salvation of their souls’. Engagement with Irish was a necessary evil.

From the 1790s onwards, there was a revival of Catholicism in Ireland, with the relaxation of Penal Laws followed by the Catholic Emancipation in 1829. Catholic involvement in schools and hospitals became an ever-present feature of the Irish cultural backdrop from this period.

The Church of Ireland reacted to this Catholic revival with the ‘Second Reformation’: intense missionary activity led by Evangelical Anglicans. Various Bible societies played a major part in this movement. These societies (like the Irish Society) taught the populace how to read Irish with a view to eventual conversion. Most of the population at this time was illiterate in Irish, yet at least 50% were Irish-speaking (and usually bilingual with English). Teachers were enlisted from the Catholic population literate in Irish, and despite the clash of faith, they were attracted by the fixed salary and premiums offered by the job. Between 1818-25, the societies were relatively successful at improving Irish literary, but the mass-conversion anticipated failed to pan out. Dr Doyle quipped that the teachers may have exaggerated the proficiency of their students’ literacy in order to obtain premiums!

Catholic opposition to the societies swiftly followed, with the teachers denounced from the pulpit and the parents of the students occasionally excommunicated. One riot led to 4 teachers being killed by a mob in Ulster. This opposition has been called the ‘Bible War’ of 1825-40.

From this conflict, a negative attitude towards Irish was fostered by Catholics. Folk memory from around this period speaks of the ‘fear’ the people had for speaking Irish, as it was strongly associated with Anglicanism and anti-Irish sentiment. A new national identity was formulated from this period, and Dr Doyle used the evolution of the term ‘Sasanach’ to elucidate this. In 18th century Gaelic poetry, ‘Sasanach’ (Saxon; foreigner; English) generally had linguistic and religious connotations. However, by the 19th century, the linguistic connotations had been shed and the religious aspect was more heavily emphasised. Up until 1750, ‘Sasanach’ meant ‘Englishman’, but after 1750, it typically meant ‘Protestant’ or ‘Anglican’. A poem by one of the Irish Society teachers states:

‘Many in this place are saying that I’m a Protestant (Sasganach)’.

So even though this teacher was Irish, and could speak and write the language, he was deemed a ‘Sasanach’ on account of his promotion of Anglicanism.

Dr Doyle concluded by emphasising that the ‘Bible War’ was fought on social, not linguistic, terms, and the negative view of the Irish language held by the Catholic Church often reinforced existing stereotypes about the Irish. The Irish language remained important at a popular level, with folk prayers, charms and stories, but it was almost entirely absent at an institutional level.

Summary by Ross Crawford (PhD Researcher)

This marked the end of our seminar series for this semester due to the postponed Angus Matheson lecture. Our seminar series will return in the new year. Please refer to our Facebook page to keep up-to-date with CSCS activity. 

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