The Languages of Ireland – An integrated view
Language and ethnicity
Ethnic groups in Irish history
The purpose of this website is to offer information on language in Ireland. The word ‘language’ is deliberately used here in the singular as a collective term for various languages and forms of languages. The main languages are Irish and English, the former as the language of the majority of Irish people in the past and the latter as the majority language in contemporary Ireland. These languages show different varieties in Ireland and these are dealt with in the websites dedicated to them which can be reached by clicking on the words ‘Irish’ or ‘English’ in the centre of the screen respectively. There are and have been other languages in Ireland apart from the two major ones. And there were other languages spoken on the island of Ireland before these arrived. There is much speculation about the languages which preceded Irish and little certainty about what was actually spoken. In the more recent periods, the historical record is actually quite reliable, e.g. in the case of Anglo-Norman which is recorded in some items of literature and by its influence on Irish through contact and imposition.
Language and ethnicity
Not every ethnic group which was in Ireland established its own language alongside existing ones. Some groups came and assimilated fairly quickly. Some groups are doing this right now. In present-day Ireland there are many foreigners who migrated recently to the country or at least in the past few decades. The Chinese in Belfast are a good example of a group which now is quite established. In the south of Ireland there are large numbers of West Africans, above all Nigerians, who came in the last ten years. After the accession of several of the former communist block countries to the EU in 2004, many of their inhabitants decided to move to the west in search of better-paid jobs. For Ireland a result of this movement has been the arrival of something in the region of 200,000 Poles along with other east Europeans, such as Latvians and Lithuanians. By now (2008) close on 10% of the population of Ireland was not born in the country.
The factors which determine whether the language of a migrant group survives in a host country are many. There must first of all be an indentifiable and coherent speech community which initially speaks the background language. Then the younger generation in this community must wish to speak the language of their parents and regard this as part of their identity despite now living only in the host country. Furthermore, this country must accept that the immigrant language be spoken and maintained alongside its own language or languages.
If an immigrant group abandons its own background language then one of two situations can arise. Either the group shifts to one of the already established varieties of the host country’s language or it develops its own variety of this language, usually by mixing elements from the immigrant language with that of the host country. This language shift variety must furthermore have a clear profile to be recognised by the following generation as a distinct variety of the host language and thus be maintained and passed on to further generations. Whether this will happen with the English spoken by Polish people in present-day Ireland is uncertain. There are Polish-influenced varieties of Irish English but whether the Polish immigrants will (unconsciously) choose to maintain these varieties and pass them on to their children is not clear at the moment. A factor militating against this is that many of the Poles do not intend to stay in Ireland and hence do not need a specific Polish variety of English to give their identity in Ireland a clear linguistic focus.
Ethnic groups in Irish history
In order to speak of an ethnic group the immigrants to Ireland must have had a clear profile and come in reasonable numbers (this may happen for religious reasons, see the cases discussed below). Furthermore, they must have formed an indentifiable community or communities in Ireland after their arrival. Some groups do not qualify on these grounds. For instance, there has always been a slight trickle of Welsh immigrants to Ireland, but these never formed a separate community within Ireland so that they cannot be regarded as an ethnic group in this country. The same is generally true for immigrants from other European countries such as France, Spain or Germany, but there are one or two exceptions in these instances which are commented on in the following.
The Huguenots were French Protestants, mainly Calvinists, and were viewed with suspicion by the Catholic monarchy of France. Although religious toleration was granted to them with the Edict of Nantes in 1598, many of them decided to leave France in the following century and with the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685 they were formerly expelled from France. Several thousand of them came to Ireland in the 1690s, mostly from the area around La Rochelle and settled in various towns of Ireland, including Waterford, Youghal, Cork and Portarlington in Co. Laois where they were granted land. One reason to come to Ireland was that there was a colony of Huguenots in Swords near Dublin which had been found in 1590. Indeed this colony had gained a degree of official recognition in the seventeenth century, for instance with the assignment of the Protestant St Mary’s Chapel to them for their services in 1666. The grant which allowed them to use this church continued until 1816 after which services in French were discontinued. In present-day Ireland, one occasionally finds genuine Huguenot names, such as Pomfret or Guerin, but one should not confuse these few names with the many earlier ones of Norman origin such as Butler, Barron, Nugent, Power, Roach, etc.
Knox, S. J. 1959. Ireland’s Debt to the Huguenots. Dublin: APCK.
Lee, Grace Lawless 1936. The Huguenot Settlements in Ireland. Dublin: Longmans Green.
The Quakers are members of the Religious Society of Friends which was founded by George Fox (1624–91). They were active in many English colonies, most notably in the early United States where William Penn, a Quaker, founded the state of Pennsylvania and offered religious toleration to all groups who wished to settle there. This was one of the reasons why the Presbyterian Ulster-Scots emigrated there in the course of the eighteenth century. The Quakers have always been helpful to the Irish — without proselytising — and undertook measures to alleviate the suffering of the poor. During the Great Famine (1845-8) they organised relief for the hungry by establishing soup kitchens in many places. As opposed to other ‘Soupers’, the Quakers did not attempt to bribe the native Irish into abandoning their Catholic faith. The practise of other divisions of Protestantism led to the phrase ‘to take the soup’, i.e. to convert to Protestantism. The term ‘souper’ also refers to a Catholic during the Famine who converted to Protestantism in return for food. Today, there are many Quakers in Ireland but they do not speak a variety different of Irish English from the areas in which they live. There is a dedicated website for this group at http://www.quakers-in-ireland.ie/.
Grubb, Isabel 1927. Quakers in Ireland, 1654-1900. London: Swarthmore Press.
Hatton, Helen E. 1993. The Largest Amount of Good: Quaker Relief in Ireland 1654-1921. Buffalo, NY: McGill- Queen’s University Press.
In early Irish history there are occasional references to Jews. But in 1290 the Jews were expelled from the dominions of the English crown. Later, in the sixteenth century, many Sephardic Jews left Spain and Portugal to escape persecution by the Catholics there. By the latter half of the seventeenth-century Jews had begun to reappear in Ireland. By 1700 Dublin had a rabbi and shortly afterwards a Jewish cemetery was opened. Cork also had a community which developed in the eighteenth century. However, by the end of this century the community in Dublin had been largely assimilated to the native Irish by conversion and marriage to Catholics. Many of the Jewish merchants who had moved from London to Dublin returned to that city. By the beginning of the nineteenth century the number of Jews in Dublin was insignificant, but later on some Ashkenazi Jews of Polish and German origin came to Ireland through England and practised typical professions such as goldsmiths, watchmakers or jewellers. In the latter half of the nineteenth century there was a continuous trickle of Jews from Eastern Europe, mostly from Russia, seeking to escape persecution there. By the turn of the twentieth century they were several thousand Jews in the country. This led to a certain amount of tension in various cities, notably in Limerick in the early twentieth century which at one stage led to a boycott of Jewish traders in the city. Today, there are just less than 2,000 Jews in Ireland (according to the 2006 Census). More information can be found on the website http://www.haruth.com/JewsIreland.html.
Hyman, Louis 1972. The Jews of Ireland: From Earliest Times to the Year 1910. London: Jewish Historical
Society of England and Tel Aviv: Israel Universities Press.
Keogh, Dermot Jews in Twentieth-century Ireland: Refugees, Anti-Semitism. Cork: Cork University Press.
Shillman, Bernard 1945. A Short History of the Jews in Ireland. Dublin: Easons and Sons.
The Palatines form a small religious group — the same as the Amish in rural Pennsylvania — who are related to the anabaptists and who left the region of Rheinland-Pfalz in the south-west of Germany at the beginning of the eighteenth century. The Palatines were mostly of farming stock, as opposed to the Huguenots who preceded them, and they mostly settled in Co. Limerick where they were assimilated to the local population before long. There is an Irish Palatine Museum and Heritage Centre in Rathkeale in Co. Limerick (see http://www.irishpalatines.org/heritagecentre.html.
Despite the presence of Palatines and of some German-speaking or Yiddish-speaking Jews from Eastern Europe, the German language never established a foothold in Ireland. Nonetheless, the connections between Ireland and Germany are of interest and have been studied in detail, see the follwing references. There is a centre for Irish German studies at the University of Limerick which can be reached via the following internet link: http://www.ul.ie/~lcs/Irish-German/. Information on the Irish Palatines can also be found in Franklin (2003).
Franklin, Margaret 2003. A Guide to Tracing Your Limerick Ancestors. Dublin: Flyleaf Press.
Fischer, Joachim, Gisela Holfter and Eoin Bourke (eds) 1998. Deutsch-irische Verbindungen - Irish-German Connections. Trier: Wissenschaftlicher Verlag.
Fischer, Joachim 2003. ‘The eagle that never landed: a history of uses and abuses of the German language in Ireland’, in: Michael Cronin and Cormac Ó Cuilleanáin (eds) Languages in Ireland (Dublin: Four Courts Press), pp. 93-111.