This page was created by Emily Bengtson.  The last update was by Dawn Duncan.

Star of the Sea : A Postcolonial/Postmodern Voyage into the Irish Famine

Political History

Irish is the first official language of Ireland, and used to be the language that most people spoke up until the fourteenth century when it became illegal to use Irish in the court system or for commerce. (Darmody & Daly 15). This was due to the Statutes of Kilkenny, passed in 1366, “declaring it high treason for any Englishman to marry an Irishwoman or to put out an English child to nurse. It was forfeiture of life and lands to speak the Irish language, or to follow Irish manners or customs” (Boucicault qtd in Duncan 93).  The Anglo-Norman colonists were doing their best to destroy the Irish culture.  One of the first things colonizers do to keep the native people in line is to destroy their sense of identity.  Language is one of the central parts of identity, the very way in which people communicate.  The British essentially tried to outlaw the entire Irish culture, starting with the language.  “From the 16th century onwards, English became the dominant language among the Irish people…English policies actively promoted the adoption of the English language in Ireland” (Darmondy & Daly 15).

Parents were encouraged to teach their children English, as it would be more practical for use in society.  Furthermore, with the English in charge, the Irish language was not taught in school; in fact, speaking in Irish would result in the student getting punished. “Gradually, Irish went from being the majority language of the island to a minority one; considerable numbers of the population switched from Irish to English in order to improve their position in Irish society and to gain access to education (Darmondy & Daly 15-16).

Irish nearly died out then, but still remained spoken in poorer and more rural communities and among the working class. The penalties were eventually relaxed, but the damage was already done (Údarás). The language was nearly dead. In 1800 when the Act of Union was introduced, uniting Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom, the ruling British government made Irish illegal again (The Irish Act of Union). With already so few people speaking the language, the Act of Union did even more damage than the Statutes of Kilkenny had started. Not only that, but the kind of people who still spoke Irish were peasants and tenants. Most Irish speakers lived on the west coast, in areas such as Galway, Connemara, Mayo, and Donegal. This makes sense, as geographically, the west coast is the furthest away from England. Unfortunately, the potato blight hit the west coast the hardest, thus dealing the Irish speaking population a heavy blow.

The penalties were so harsh for speaking Irish that the only people who still spoke it were poor workers - people who didn’t come into very much contact with the wealthier English. Many of the places where Irish was spoken the most were also the ones hardest hit by the potato blight. There was a higher concentration of Gaeltachtaí on the west coast (further from England) and this was the part of the country hardest hit by An Gorta Mór. “Before the Great Famine, up to 50 per cent of the population was Irish-speaking. By the end of the 19th Century, 50 years later, this figure had been reduced to not more than 10 per cent” (Darmondy & Daly 23).  All of these factors contributed to the decline of the Irish language in society.

Works Cited
"Background on the Irish Language." Background on the Irish Language. Údarás Na Gaeltachta, 2016. Web. 17 Mar. 2016.

Darmody, Merike, and Tania Daly. Attitudes towards the Irish Language on the Island of Ireland. Dublin: Economic and Social Research Institute, 2015. Print.

Dowling, Martin, Dr. Traditional Music and Irish Society. Farnham, GB: Ashgate, 2014. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 17 March 2016.

Duncan, Dawn. Postcolonial Theory in Irish Drama from 1800-2000. Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen, 2004. Print.  
Researcher/Writer: Michaila Gerlach
Technical Designers: Emily Bengtson and Maren Connell

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