A Reply to Robo

In my post Did The English Ban Irish (June 8, 2014), I criticised an article by a Canadian journalist which states that the Irish language was made illegal in Ireland in the 17th century under the Penal Laws. The other day, I received a comment on this article from someone called Robo in New York. Here is Robo’s comment in full:

The Statutes of Kilkenny in 1366 commanded that “if any English, or Irish living among the English, use the Irish language amongst themselves, contrary to this ordinance, and thereof be attainted, his lands and tenements, if he have any, shall be seized into the hands of the immediate lord…” That is the first of many. Henry VIII – 1537 And the closest to modern memory: The bata scóir or tally stick was usually a piece of wood which Irish-speaking children were forced to wear around their necks. Anybody who heard the child speaking Irish was expected to mark the stick with a notch. At the end of the day the marks were counted and the child was punished for each offence. Watch your language : an bata scóir, the insidious silencer. http://irelandhouse.fas.nyu.edu/docs/CP/4172/0111-0126_PoliticsOfTheIrishLanguage.pdf

What is Robo saying here? It’s difficult to say exactly (because he doesn’t specifically tell us) but it seems to me that by quoting a statute of 1366 banning the Irish language and the fact that the National School system in Ireland punished children for speaking Irish, that he thinks these two things are part of a continuous process, that they are somehow the same thing. This is implied in the article (not a very good one, IMHO) to which he provides a link:

“For more than six centuries, British policy in Ireland has aimed at the destruction of the Irish Gaelic language.”

I don’t agree with this. It makes me deeply uncomfortable when people put forward a clearly ideological argument and then cherry-pick the facts that suit that argument. The view that Robo is giving is history with an Irish Nationalist slant. Don’t get me wrong. I am a Nationalist and an Irish speaker. I am not pro-British, as I explain in the article. However, I am strongly opposed to the notion of Nationalist history. Facts are right or wrong, not Irish or English, and just as we don’t need an Irish mathematics or an Irish chemistry, we don’t need a specifically Irish history. All historians are biased to some extent, of course, but any decent historian should avoid polemic and try to find out what really happened.

In the Middle Ages, the English established an enclave in Ireland called the Pale (hence the expression ‘beyond the Pale’). The Statutes of Kilkenny were aimed at preserving this English enclave, which was being undermined by the strength of the Irish language. English speakers were marrying native Irish people and their children were being raised Irish-speaking.

I am quite sure that the English speakers of this enclave thought they were better and more civilised than the ‘mere Irish’ outside. However, the idea that they saw this statute as a prelude to a total blanket Anglicisation of the country is not supported by the facts. They were clearly on the back foot, and they probably thought that the chances of English surviving at all in Ireland were not good.

Through the hundreds of years in which the English consolidated their control over the country, Irish remained the language of the majority of the people. While the upper classes and the courts and institutions of government were conducted in English, English probably didn’t become the majority language of the country until the early 19th century.  In the 17th century, almost nobody in Ireland spoke English, so a law against speaking Irish would have been unenforceable. That particular claim is simply nonsense, which is the point I was making in the post.

As I have stated in another post, there is a specific reason why I object to the claim that the English banned Irish in 17th century Ireland (apart from the fact that it’s obviously not true!) Many people of a pro-British slant like to play down the importance of the Irish language in Ireland’s history and pretend that it has been a marginalised peasant patois since the 16th century. Claims like this make it easier for enemies of the language to present Irish in this light, rather than as the first language of roughly half the Irish population and of 20% of the combined population of Ireland and Britain at the beginning of the 19th century. (Which is the reality.)

However, throughout the 19th century, the Irish were encouraged by the English to fall out of love with their own language. This happened and it happened for various reasons (including the fact that many priests and Daniel O’Connell were hostile to the language). The bata scóir in the Natonal Schools is certainly a fact. It is also a fact that the National Schools were founded in 1831 and that education became compulsory in Ireland sixty years later. People didn’t have to send their kids to a school where they were beaten for speaking their own language. They chose to do so because they thought an English education was a good idea for children who would probably end up in Manchester or Glasgow or New York anyway.

In addition, this kind of simplified ideological history leaves out a huge amount. It ignores much of the complexity of the interaction between ethnicity, religion, language and class. It ignores any information which seems paradoxical. (For example, Wikipedia says: ‘Queen Elizabeth I encouraged the use of Irish even in the Pale with a view to promoting the reformed religion.’ And of course, the first printed book in Irish was a Protestant Catechism in 1571.)

And as in the case of Daniel Cassidy’s nonsense, the bottom line is that anyone with any sense wants to know what really happened in history, not a fairy tale specially concocted to pander to their collective sense of victimhood. After all, it’s not illegal to learn Irish now. Nobody has stopped me from speaking Irish. I speak it every day and I have no intention of stopping. My advice to the Cassidy-lovers is to stop bitching and whining about a fictionalised past, get up off their lazy, irresponsible arses and learn some genuine Irish.  Right this minute! (Follow the link below!) If you learn five words a day rather than wasting your time on Cassidy’s bullshit, you could have a solid basic knowledge of the language by this time next year.

http://www.focloir.ie/

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