Education History The Irish Language - An Ghaeilge

Dublin Irish, 4000 Years And Counting

Ireland in chains
Baile Átha Cliath - Dubhlinn
Baile Átha Cliath – Dubhlinn

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 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.

(It was to Diarmaid that the sons and possibly the wife of Harold Godwinson, the last native king of England, fled after the battle of Hastings in 1066. Their father had previously sought political refuge in Ireland and their aunt, Edith of Wessex, wife of king Edward the Confessor, was a fluent Irish speaker. Diarmaid approved the sending of three expeditions from Dublin led by the exiled princes – Godwin, Edmund and Magnus – to free the English from their Norman-French conquerors, unknowingly sowing one of the seeds that led to the later Norman-British invasion of Ireland. History abounds with such ironies).

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.”

It is fact-based articles and posts like those featured on the Dublin Gaelic blog which provide an antidote to the poisonous anti-factual ravings of contemporary Anglophone supremacists in Ireland who wish to denigrate the modern Irish-speaking communities and citizens of our island nation. Knowledge is a weapon, a chairde. Arm yourselves.

15 comments on “Dublin Irish, 4000 Years And Counting

  1. Bhí sé sin an-spéisiúl. go raibh maith agat


  2. That manager, of course, is an asshole.

    But that does not change the fact that Dublin IS an English-speaking, English-reading and English-thinking place.


    • Except for the undefined places of Dublin that are Irish-speaking, Irish-reading, Irish-thinking, created by a minority that keeps itself to itself. They have no real geographical location. To borrow a quote it is wherever two or three are gathered. That becomes Irish Dublin.


      “I grew up in an Irish-speaking family in Dublin city. This was unusual at the time, there wasn’t that many Irish-speakers living in the city – the Gaeltacht or Irish-speaking areas were mostly located on the west coast of Ireland.

      So, when we spoke Irish to each other in the city, we spoke quietly. In a way, we were a little ethnic minority, keeping our heads down, hoping to pass unnoticed. Well yes, looking back on it, I think that was strange – why would we want to hide our culture, our unique identity in our own country? But… it’s complicated. I think that it was somehow tied up with the post-colonial condition, although it wasn’t our “colonial masters” that we were hiding from. We were wary of our fellow citizens in Dublin city who seemed to look with scorn on anything Irish – our language, our music, even our sports.”


      • Of course English is not the only language that’s spoken in Dublin.
        But it’s the most popular one and looks like that the Irish people want to keep it that way.


  3. Fascinating post, thanks for sharing it! I’m glad to learn something new. 🙂 And what goes through someone’s mind to convince them to make where you live and why their business, and judge you harshly for it besides? How frustrating for you. The world we live in: no sense of respect or the making of an attempt to live with and by, alongside others, too much concern to exert power over others instead, as if the correct cry is always given by the louder voice. Really? Time to change… we can’t afford not to.


  4. Cheart ar do fhreagra agus an phost a scrofa go mhaith freisin.
    The primary purpose in forming Ireland`s Gaelic league 1893 was reviving our native Irish language , literature preservation, music , traditions and culture.


  5. ar an sliabh

    Let’s not muddle rhetoric with facts, now. It’s almost like St. Patrick wasn’t English (even though England wasn’t to be until much later). Tir gan teanga tir gan anam! – go raibh maith agat, mo chara.


  6. john cronin

    Far from being “poisonous anti factual ravings” John Spain’s article was balanced and insightful.. While it is true that Gaelic did not die out completely on the East Coast until fairly late, the fact remains that these were remnants in a mainly English speaking seA way back when.

    The fact also remains that 90 years after the Free State govt started trying to revive Irish, those efforts appear to have failed dismally, mainly because of the teaching methods and resentment especially in working class Dublin areas, of being (as they see it) forced to learn a language which is of no practical use to them. The will among the majority of the population to revive the language just does not seem to be there, and that’s all there is to it – time for the enthusiasts to admit it. As someone once stated, no one in 1948 spoke Hebrew as a first language, but the Israelis managed to revive it because they had the will to do so.

    As Einstein said, the definition of stupid is doing the same thing again and again, and expecting a different result. Those who do genuinely have a passionate interest in reviving the language should perhaps think up some new strategies to do so.

    Why is no one trying to revive Danish? That was probably the lingua franca in Dublin for 300 years.


    • John, why am I not surprised that you approve of Spain’s opinions? 😉

      As I have repeatedly said – a point taken up by others within the Irish rights movement and many outside observers – there was no serious attempt by the Free State or any “Irish” state to revive or support the Irish language. The existing Irish-speaking communities where simply further relegated to the status of second-class citizens with second-class rights post-1922. The historical proof is there.

      The will was there to revive Irish as the national language amongst the general population – it was not there amongst the political, business and press elites. It was – and is – lip-service and tokenism.

      Danish was never spoken in Dublin. Old Norse (the ancestor of Danish, Swedish, the Norwegian dialects, Icelandic, etc.) was spoken in Dublin intermittently.

      From around 600 AD Dubhlinn was a monastic town with the secular settlement of Átha Cliath – founded several centuries earlier – slightly upriver (plus numerous communities in the surrounding countryside). All were of course Irish-speaking.

      In 841 Dubhlinn was seized by Scandinavian raiders with Áth Cliath falling at the same time or slightly later.

      In 849 Maol Seachnaill retook Dubhlinn and the “Vikings” fled. A larger Scandinavian fleet reoccupied Dubhlinn later that year.

      Between 850-870 the Vikings of Dubhlinn began to marry into the major Irish dynasties, notably that of Aodh Fionnliath.

      In 902 Cearbhall mac Muirecháin seized Dubhlinn and placed it under his suzerainty. From then on the city was ruled directly or indirectly by the major Irish kingdoms with brief periods of nominal independence (especially post-988). By 1000 the population was largely bilingual with numerous monolingual Irish and some monolingual Old Norse speakers. Certainly its direct Irish rulers were unlikely to have spoken anything but Irish or Latin (c.f. Murchú mac Diarmada).

      So, no, Danish was not the lingua franca in Dublin for 300 years. Irish/Scottish/Manx and Latin were as much languages of trade and diplomacy in the Irish Sea region c.750-1100 as Old Norse, and more so. The number of recorded Irish-speakers in the histories outside of Ireland is significant.


      • john cronin

        John Spain once paid me 150 Euros for a book review in the Indo, so he can’t be all bad.

        “The will was there to revive Irish as the national language amongst the general population – it was not there amongst the political, business and press elites. It was – and is – lip-service and tokenism.”

        But surely nearly all of the revolutionary leaders of the 1916-24period were enthusiastic Gaelic revivalists: Pearse, Collins, Brugha etc: de Valera once said that if he was given the choice between ending partition and reviving Gaelic, he would take the latter.

        Spain’s piece, was I thought quite balanced. I know plenty of folks who send their kids to the Gaelscoils and good luck to them (call me cynical, but I think some of the reason for this is that the middle classes want to keep their little darlings from going to school with the “new Irish”) but in the world of modern communications, minority languages are just gonna find it hard to keep going. Up until the war, there were thousands of monoglot Welsh speakers in N Wales: hardly any today. And it is simply the case that, if you spend X hours a week teaching Irish, it means X hours when you can’t be teaching French or biology or maths or other stuff which is actually going to get you a job when you leave school.

        Given Angela Merkel’s quasi imperialistic role in the Irish economy since the bailout, maybe German might be the language of the future?


        • Pearse, Collins, Brugha were all dead by 1923. The counter-revolution killed the revival of Irish as the vernacular tongue of the nation, all else was tokenism, a façade of Irishness. Even de Valera baulked at facing down the Anglophone elites when it came to the 1937 constitution and the articles on the Irish language. He threw in 8.3 (the state’s opt-out from Irish services) to satisfy the demands of the civil service, business interests and the Catholic hierarchy knowing that the chances of passing his new constitution were 50/50 without their support (as indeed was the case). They settled on the Irish-speaking through education option knowing that it was unlikely to work in a national revival. Partly it was ignorance partly conceit partly simply not caring.

          Ah c’mon, John. You present yourself as a reasonable person then you repeat the same base canards spouted by Anglophone bigots when it comes to Irish medium eduction. Parents are sending their children to Irish medium schools so their children don’t have to mix with immigrant children? 15 years ago it was middle-class parents supporting Irish medium schools so their children wouldn’t have to mix with working-class children. 25 years ago it was Catholic parents ensuring their children would get a more strict Catholic education. 35 years ago it was Republican parents wanting their children to be imbued with a “Republican ethos”. It’s the same petty racism from Irish-haters, just with new allegations every decade or so.

          The first Irish medium schools in Dublin were established in working-class areas of the city and the population of “new Irish” in Irish medium schools is only a few percentage points behind that of English medium schools (reflecting just as much their lower availability and geographical spread as linguistic challenges). Insinuating that Irish parents are racist for wanting their Irish children in Ireland to speak Irish in Irish schools is bizarre to the point of insanity. Whatever their social-economic, ethnic or national background.

          Would you ever knock that chip off your shoulder?!


  7. john cronin

    Let us now forget our differences and look to the future and celebrate someone who is (in my opinion, ) the greatest Irishman of recent years. Raymond Kelly of the NYPD


  8. ar an sliabh

    Any occupier knows that a key element to complete the ultimate take-over is to erase language and culture of the occupied. The Romans were the first to historically document these tactics, ultimately enslaving large swaths of indignous populations of Europe. The British followed their example in all of their territories. Another Roman scheme they followed was to divide conquered lands into segments violating tribal and religious boundaries to keep the locals busy fighting each other. The Pan-Arabic movement is among their creations, along with most of the African “Nations” cleanly organised to violate tribal boundaries. Very devious and efficient, almost German. They, not the aforementioned Germans, are also the inventors of the Concentration Camp. The Gaels were not too different in terms of their victimization. Most of their losses and final defeat are due to intra-tribal strife and the treason that went along with it. The butcher knew how to exploit it, Similar to the tribes under Vercingetorix and their defeat at Alesia by the Romans, Vinegar Hill was the defeat suffered here. Similar to Alesia then, it is rarely spoken about now. Convenient amnesia is also exhibited to our language in Ireland today, our young refer to it as an inconvenience needed to satisfy their leaving cert instead of their heritage. The heritage their ancestors willingly died for. Now a mere inconvenience. Our identity, a mere inconvenience. The songs and poems of our past an inconvenience. Learning Facebook is more important. So little is known, our history was orally transmitted until St. Patrick, and much of it past that time, in that very language. Although it is hardly what it was then, much of the “soul” of our ancestors is preseved in it. That is why it is soooooo important. It is truly the heart and soul of the gael. It, just like the pipes, should send that shiver down your spine and evoke that connection to the blood in the ground shed by those who gave you the freedom to speak it.


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