Home Reporting from Ireland How the English erased Irish

How the English erased Irish

How the English erased Irish
English language signage still dominates in Ireland, with any Irish-language translations often represented in smaller, less-distinct type. This harks back to a time before Ireland’s 1922 independence from Great Britain, when by law all public signs were required to be in English only.

Centuries of degrading Irish culture, and criminalizing Gaelic, created a country that speaks mainly English

Ireland’s history consists largely of its fight against 700 years of British colonial domination over the Irish people, culture and language. Generations have struggled against the debilitating effects of colonization, which disrupted every facet of Irish life, from diets and livelihoods, to education, language, values and customs.  During the days of English rule, it was illegal to speak Irish (Gaelic) in public. All schooling, government communication and legal affairs were provided strictly in English. As a result, Irish families began to abandon their native tongue, and to conform to the English language for reasons of social and economic advancement.

When passengers disembark at Shannon Airport near Galway, the English-language sign greeting them reads “Welcome to Shannon Airport,” translated into Irish below, in slightly smaller type.  This was a recurring sight during our visit, with most signage displayed in capitalized English words while Irish translations were smaller and written in a less distinct font. This harks back to a time prior to Ireland’s independence in 1922, when all public signs in Ireland were legally required to be in English only.

However, upon reaching the rural village of Carraroe in Ireland’s most populated Gaeltacht region (“Gaeltachts” are communities in Ireland where people speak Irish as their first language), there was a change in both the scenery and language. Most road and building signs were written only in Irish, conveying the strong presence of native Irish speakers in the area.

As Irish civil rights activists, and founders of an all-Irish pirate radio station in the early 1970s, Seosaimh O Cuaig (aka “Joe Cooke”) and Máire Áine Ní Fhlathartaigh (“Maryann Flaherty”) passionately portrayed in their conversation with us, language is an essential part of keeping a culture alive. They noted that the Irish language needs to extend beyond the family home and weave itself into schools, television, radio, social media, and every other sphere of Irish life in order to remain alive and evolve. In Ireland’s Gaeltacht regions, this is no easy feat, since in most of the country, English prevails as a dominant tongue.

Cuaig addressed the domination of English on minority languages around the world when he recounted a conversation he once had with a Native American in the United States.

“Do you speak proper?” the Native American had asked Cuaig. “Proper,” here, meant “English.”

Centuries of degrading the Irish for their culture, followed by criminalizing Irish as a language, created an Ireland that today predominantly speaks English as its first language.

“The world was ruled by priests and teachers,” Cuaig recalled about life in Ireland under British imperialism.

These administrators had an overwhelming impact on efforts to repress the Irish language and to enforce English as the superior or “proper” language. As English replaced Irish, cultural ways of viewing the world were also lost. The imaginative and poetic beauty inherent in the Irish language does not exist in many English forms of expression. For example, the Irish phrase to convey stormy seas, (“Tá gairdín an iascaire faoi bhláth bán”) which translates to “the fisherman’s garden is under white flower” is simplified in English to “choppy waves at sea.” We encountered many such examples during our travels.

Today, Irish-speaking youth use what linguists refer to as Hiberno-English –a mixture of Irish and English where Irish words are spoken following English grammatical rules. This form of Irish is generally frowned upon by older Irish speakers like Cuaig, who refers to this as not “proper Irish.” Irish is an Indo-European language that follows a verb-subject-object order, unlike English, which follows a subject-verb-object order. By switching word orders, Hiberno-English strays from original Irish, losing the original rhythm and conceptual formulations of the language.

Hiberno-English consists of four main dialects: the Ulster accent, the West and Southwest accents, the Dublin accent, and the standard accent. This variety of dialects and accents have historically made it difficult for Irish speakers to understand and communicate with people from different Gaeltacht areas.

The geographical significance of Carraroe, located in the heart of the West Coast, where most native Irish-speaking communities live today, makes it not only a hub for those who want to study Irish (The University of Galway has an Irish language academy in Carraroe), but also a hub of Irish language media. Broadcasters such as Raidió na Gaeltachta, an all-Irish radio station founded in 1972, and TG4, Ireland’s Irish-only television station, founded in 1996, are helping to preserve “proper Irish.” These media outlets were established and received designated government funding because of the civil rights activism or people like Cuaig and Ní Fhlathartaigh.

Acadamh na hOllscolaiochta Gaeilge, the Carraroe-based language academy founded in 2004 by the University of Galway to promote the learning of Irish, aids in the nation’s attempt to revive the language nationally and internationally. Through initiatives such as Irish language academies and Irish language broadcasting established as part of the Gaeltacht civil rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s, efforts are being made to promote “proper” Irish, and to realize the dreams that elders such as Cuaig, Ní Fhlathartaigh, and many of their peers fought for.


Brent, H. (2021, April 19). On this day in 1367: Britain passes “statute of kilkenny,” which banned Irish language and culture in Ireland. The Irish Post. https://www.irishpost.com/history/on-this-day-in-1367-britain-passes-statute-of-kilkenny-which-banned-irish-language-and-culture-in-ireland-209985

“History of the Irish Language.” Údarás Na Gaeltachta, https://udaras.ie/en/our-language-the-gaeltacht/history-of-the-irish-language/#:~:text=Irish%20is%20a%20Celtic%20language,Europe%20over%202%2C500%20years%20ago.



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