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.


12 thoughts on “Did The English Ban Irish?

  1. franklparker

    Popped in again to thank you for liking my post about Creative Ireland. I wonder if you’ve checked out my book about the famine yet? MyBook.to/PoM. I don’t think you will find it contains any myths or misinformation – but if you think it does please let me know. I am open to correction if you can show me reliable sources.

    1. DebunkerOfCassidy Post author

      No, but I’ve just checked it out and the Kindle version is good value, so I’ll buy it and have a look over the next few days. I know from personal experience that errors creep in – it’s impossible to keep them out – but as long as you haven’t started with your conclusion and set out to prove it (as so many do) I’m sure it’ll be great! 🙂

  2. Diarmuid Breatnach

    Grma. I agree with this overall discourse but would add that I have read that it is also forbidden in Parliament and also that the education system under British rule endeavoured to squeeze it out still further, although no school was actually banned from teaching it.
    I would also add that the Irish State has done very well in the elimination of Irish as a spoken language in most of Ireland.

    As to the beauty of the language, it has many beautiful aspects but then so do many other languages, including English, one of a number of reasons why its demise (or that of any language) is something we should endeavour to avoid.

    1. Danielomastix Post author

      GRMMA as sin! I have dealt with the education question in the article I wrote on the Bata Scóir and I say more or less the same as you have said here in relation to the beauty of English (and all languages) in several posts, most notably the one I did on Meaisín Ticéad. Check it out!

      Yes, the Irish State’s attempts at linguistic engineering were a prácás saolta, gan amhras!

  3. Danielomastix Post author

    I have had a reply to this article from someone called Conor Clarke. I haven’t bothered giving it or answering it as it derives from the same sources as the comment I got from Seán Corcoran in 2020 and the post A Reply To Seán Corcoran answers it in detail.

  4. Swiss girl

    Good article, although I’d be cautious claiming the famine (the history of which is also riddled with myths and exaggerations) was a crime against humanity. At least it certainly wouldn’t meet the legal test of genocide, as many claim.


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