Did The English Ban Irish?

In my last blog post, I commented on a terrible St Paddy’s Day article by Mark Bergin called May The Road Rise To Meet You. This article, in addition to supporting Cassidy’s nonsense, is full of mistakes. It should be obvious what you are in for as soon as you read this: The Celtic thought process is not like that of the left-brain-dominant world. Irish thought resembles the Celtic knot, twisting and turning with a glorious lilt. And nowhere is that lilt more obvious than in the language. Personally, I despise this kind of patronising mysticism. The Irish are every bit as capable of rational, linear, cause-and-effect thinking as any other people on earth. The idea that the Irish are somehow childlike and mystical and different from the rest of the human race is a discourse derived from British Imperialism, however much of a positive and pro-Irish spin you try to put on it.

However, there is one important mistake in Bergin’s article which I would like to correct, because although (to the best of my knowledge) Cassidy never claimed this, it has been repeated by several of Cassidy’s supporters, the claim that the English banned the Irish language under the Penal Laws. Here’s what Bergin has to say:

But starting in the 17th century, our language was made illegal, banned. Speaking Irish could get you jail time and a good beating.

Bergin is not alone in making this claim. For example, on Amazon, we find this moron holding forth in support of Cassidy’s mindless drivel:

They were also severely penalized for speaking Irish (it was legally banned in Ireland by the British). Not conditions conducive for generating literary traces that professional linguists can track from the comfort of their stuffed chairs.

I am always interested in the way that false ideas are spread and turned into certainties. The fact is, of course, that the English administration in Ireland was no friend to the Irish language. Irish was progressively squeezed out of any realm of life which would have given it power or influence. I am not defending the English here. But the Penal Laws were about disadvantaging Roman Catholics (and to a lesser extent, non-Anglican Protestants), not about attacking Irish speakers or Irish culture. The fact is that there was never any law against speaking Irish. This is a complete myth.

The Church of Ireland (the Anglican church of the British Ascendancy in Ireland) continued to produce material like the Bible (1686) and The Book of Common Prayer in Irish-language editions throughout the Penal Era. In the early 19th century, The War Office even published demobilisation instructions in Irish for Irish-speaking soldiers who didn’t speak English!

So, if this is a complete myth, where does it come from? It seems to me that there are two possible reasons (apart from the sloppiness and incompetence of lazy internet users and crap journalists, that is!) One is that the Irish language was banned inside the English enclave around Dublin called the Pale by the Statutes of Kilkenny in 1367. This was probably not enforced and being long before the Reformation it had nothing whatever to do with the Penal Laws. The other is that in the 18th century, the Irish language was banned in the legal system (possibly misinterpreted by idiots as ‘legally banned’). This meant that whatever the language of a community, the English language was the working language of the courts. However, witnesses continued to give evidence in Irish if they didn’t speak English, and lawyers or clergymen interpreted for them. There was no blanket ban on speaking Irish in courts and there is a stack of well-documented evidence to prove it.

The Famine was a crime against humanity. What the English actually did in Ireland was bad enough. We don’t need to make up false and ridiculous claims that people were randomly beaten up and thrown into jail for speaking the only language they were able to speak.

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