A few years ago a former passive-agressive manager in my job, who made a great point of mispronouncing my surname whenever the chance arose, confronted me with the following declaration: If you speak Irish why are you living in Dublin? Why don’t you go live somewhere down the country where it is spoken?
His pugnacious view probably reflects that of many other Dubliners (native or adopted) who choose to believe that the Irish language is somehow “foreign” to their city. No matter that Dublin is the capital of the island nation of Ireland, of which Irish is the national language. No, in their opinion the capital city is an English-speaking, English-reading, English-thinking place (and perhaps in more ways than those stated here). Some who hold this view do so out of simple ignorance. For others is it a badge of bigoted honour, Anglophone supremacists who insist that “they” and their “ancestors” in the capital never spoke “Gaelic” in the first place, that Dublin was always a non-Irish or English-speaking region – and always will be. I’m sure you’ve seen such things spouted online or heard them in person.
Of course this bigotry, like all bigotry, is based more upon myth and supposition than fact. It glosses over the very Irish origins of the city of Dublin or Baile Átha Cliath, beginning with the secular settlement of Áth Cliath “Hurdle Ford” (situated in what is now the vicinity of the present High Street and Cornmarket area) and the ecclesiastical settlement of Dubhlinn “Blackpool” (almost certainly on or near the site of what is now Dublin Castle). The former place was probably a small – and likely centuries-old – agricultural and fishing community on the southern banks of the river Liffey (An Life) near the main crossing-point. The latter settlement was also south of the tidal estuary, a large and once influential monastery of perhaps a hundred or so monks and servants situated on rising ground near the river mouth with several satellite churches dotted in the surrounding countryside. Both places derived their prosperity and importance from their location near the meeting point of Ireland’s pan-island network of slite or highways and their proximity to the ancient (and much disputed) boundary between the historic provinces of Mí and Laighin just to the north of the river Liffey. The region itself was part of the territory of the Uí Fhearghasa, one the branches of the powerful Uí Dhúnlainge, and was populated with scattered communities many of which were later absorbed into the suburbs of the Medieval and early industrial conurbation.
When Scandinavian invaders and colonists – the Vikings - made their permanent presence felt in Ireland during the 9th century one of the first places they occupied was the monastic “town” of Dubhlinn, annexing the neighbouring hinterland and river crossing. While some point to this as the (non-Irish) foundation of the city of Dublin it was of course simply another phase in a pre-existing (Irish) complex of settlements. In any case over the next hundred years the inhabitants of Dublin became thoroughly assimilated or Irishified, emerging as a bilingual Scandinavian-Irish kingdom and mercantile centre vied over by the country’s major dynasties. Indeed from the late 10th century onwards the rulers of Baile Átha Cliath / Dubhlinn were invariably Irish or Scandinavian-Irish, notably Murchú son of Diarmaid mac Maoil na mBó, the formidable king of Laighin.
So if that populist Anglophone understanding of Dublin’s origins is wrong what of the Irish language and its place in the life of the city and county? Would it shock you to know that the last native speakers of the Dublin dialect of Irish lived into the 20th century? From the new blog, “Dublin Gaelic”, which is dedicated to uncovering the evidence of the region’s once rich native identity and in particular the local manifestation of the Irish language we have this fascinating information:
“If you ask anyone the question, ‘When did native Irish die out in Dublin?’, the likelihood is that they will answer ‘very early on’…This is a well-founded presumption given the general trend of Irish history, but it is incorrect.First of all, Gaelic dialects from outside Dublin have been (and continue to be) spoken in the capital without interruption. There have always been Irish-speaking incomers in the city and once English became the predominant native language there there continued to be a partially Irish-speaking working class and underclass composed of rural migrants. Indeed, during the Famine, the populations of Dublin, Belfast and Cork all actually increased – many of these would have been Irish speakers. There almost certainly would have been small, poor Irish-speaking districts of the city well into the late nineteenth century, as people moved together to the metropolis from congested Gaelic-speaking areas throughout the country and encouraged others back home to join them.Secondly, and more importantly for this blog, traditional local Gaelic receded far more slowly in Co. Dublin than generally realised. Anglicisation took hold most quickly along arterial transport routes, through which commerce and bureaucracy could push the English language ahead of them. But mountainous parts of south Co. Dublin remained relatively remote (and so self-sufficient) well into the twentieth century, providing conditions that helped the survival of a local Irish dialect – although it was, even in its lifetime, very difficult to find.It is here – just 21km south of O’Connell Street – in the townlands of Bohernabreena (Bóthar na Bruíne) and Castlekelly (Caisleán Uí Cheallaigh) that local Gaelic persisted as a community language into the 1870s, with individual native speakers still to be found after 1900. These included one speaker, an elderly lady, who had – ironically – moved to town (Kimmage) by 1930 but who still spoke, with some difficulty, the Dublin Mountains dialect of her childhood.”