A Reply To Seán Corcoran

I have received a message from a certain Seán Corcoran, who has sent a link to the post about Did The English Ban Irish? The original post was taking issue with the notion that the Irish language was banned completely and on pain of punishment or imprisonment in Ireland. This is, of course, nonsense. The English certainly did nothing to help the Irish language or actively promote it but they didn’t make it illegal to speak Irish.

In the link provided by Corcoran, there is an article by Pádraig Óg Ó Ruairc about the use of Irish and Welsh in the courts. It’s a very poor article and it is difficult to understand how a professional and highly-qualified historian with a doctorate from the University of Limerick could have produced something so shoddy. The obvious conclusion is that Ó Ruairc is wearing both the broad black brimmer of the Irish Republican here as well as his historian’s hat. He who wears two hats simultaneously always ends up looking stupid. A historian has a duty to write history, not polemic.

You can read the original article by going to the site The Irish Story and searching for To Extinguish Their Sinister Traditions And Customs – The Historic Bans On The Legal Use Of The Irish And Welsh Languages.

Ó Ruairc explains the argument of his article thus:

Constitutionally both Wales and Northern Ireland are considered part of the integral and sovereign territory of the United Kingdom governed by the same legal system.

Yet the use of Welsh, the indigenous language of Wales, is legal in Welsh Courts whilst the use of Irish, the indigenous language of Ireland, is illegal in the courts of Northern Ireland and is a crime punishable by a monetary fine or contempt of court ruling.

I will ignore the Welsh language case here, as I have little to say on the subject. I should also point out that Ó Ruairc is entirely correct (in my view) in criticising the attitude of the courts in Northern Ireland towards the Irish language. It seems completely perverse to refuse to allow people to give their testimony in Irish now, in an age when language and cultural rights are respected by democratic regimes all over the world, when people were allowed to testify in Irish in the courts in the 19th century. Fortunately, before coronavirus came along, the DUP politicians in the north had consented to allow a Language Act in Northern Ireland which should resolve these problems for good.

Anyway, back to Ó Ruairc’s piece of pseudo-history. Ó Ruairc begins his discussion of this with the early legislation banning the use of the Irish language. As I have pointed out before, the Statute of Kilkenny of 1367 was very different, in that it was about stopping English colonists in Ireland from going native and using Irish. In other words, it is from a time when the English language was on the back foot in Ireland. Ó Ruairc continues:

This was followed in 1537 with The Statute of Ireland – An Act for the English Order Habit and Language that prohibited the use of the Irish language in the Irish Parliament.[10] In 1541, further legislation was passed which banned the use of Irish in the areas of Ireland then under English rule.[11]

There is no evidence that these were enforced, even in the limited areas of the Pale which were controlled by the English or their agents rather than local chieftains, most of whom spoke Irish and would hardly have imposed a ban on the only language they could speak.

Then Ó Ruairc discusses the supposed ban on Irish in the courts:

The Administration of Justice (Language) Act (Ireland) was passed by the Irish Parliament in 1737.[12] The Act not only forbids the speaking of Irish within the courtroom, it also prohibits the completion of legal documentation in Irish and imposes a financial penalty of £20 each time Irish is spoken in court in contravention of the law.

This is simply not true. It is a distortion because it doesn’t put the act in its proper context but it also goes way beyond the facts in terms of what the act says. You can find the text of this Act here:

statutes.org.uk/site/the-statutes/irish-laws/1737-11-george-2-c-6-administration-of-justice-language-act/

Firstly, a word about context. This Act was essentially transferred wholesale from the English courts. Its aim was not to attack Irish but to get rid of the tendency for all law to be conducted in a form of bastardised Norman-French and lawyer’s Latin. If you read the wording of the act, it is full of references to writing and written documents. It is not at all clear that there is any mandate in there to ban spoken languages other than English, though the words ‘and proceedings thereon’ could be construed that way. (A point I will return to below.)

However, it is important to stress here that the genuine practice in the courts in the 18th and 19th centuries allowed people to speak Irish. We know this because there are plenty of records of it happening, as I mentioned in my post.

Ó Ruairc says: It seems clear therefore that the implicit intention of these laws was to promote the Anglicisation of the Welsh and Irish peoples rather than the stated intention of the legislation ie: for the purpose of securing the orderly transaction of court cases in the ‘local vernacular’ language which in all cases was wrongly assumed to be English.

If it were true that the Irish language was banned in courts, then this would be tenable. As this isn’t the case, it isn’t.

In fact, Ó Ruairc actually contradicts himself in his reference to the Maamtrasna case. As Ó Ruairc says, interpretation was carried out by a member of the constabulary. Why wasn’t the policeman fined every time he spoke Irish in the court? He wasn’t fined because it was standard practice to interpret for witnesses who couldn’t speak English. Maamtrasna was a disgrace but there was more wrong with it as a trial than bad interpretation.

As I have said, there are many, many documented cases of interpreters being used in courts, though we also know that much time and effort was wasted trying to establish how much English people had and whether they could give evidence in that language to try to stop people pretending they didn’t speak English. As a result of this, following the case of R v Burke (1858), it was decided at the Court of Crown Cases Reserved that Irish speakers could provide testimony in any language they preferred.

There is a whole book (a real history book and a good one) about the use of the Irish language in the courts in 18th and 19th century Ireland, by an academic called Mary Phelan. It was published after Ó Ruairc’s article but that is no excuse. I knew about these cases before its publication and I’m not a professional historian ná baol air. You can get the book here:

https://www.fourcourtspress.ie/books/2019/irish-speakers-interpreters-and-the-courts-17541921/

In short, Mr. Corcoran, Ó Ruairc’s article doesn’t change things. The English didn’t ban the Irish language in the 19th century, even in the courts. As I have said before and keep saying, people like Seán Corcoran should learn to think for themselves and assess the value of articles like this on their merits rather than accepting stuff like this as gospel without evidence.

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