Scary Eire


Fine Gall (Baile Átha Cliath Thuaidh), Cúige Laighean, Éire

I’ve discussed before the truly excellent blog Dublin Gaelic which discusses the history of the Irish language in the capital and its hinterland, focusing in particular on the historic dialects of Irish in the region (now essentially lost; the contemporary version of Dublin Irish is based upon dialects from the west of Ireland mixed with a new urban patois developed from Irish-medium schools). A recent article examines in detail the disappearance of indigenous-speaking communities in north county Dublin (Fingal) during the 18th and 19th centuries.

“So how exactly did Irish die out in north Co. Dublin?

If we consider the evidence in chronological order: Maighréad Ní Mhurchadha (2005, p. 115-120) demonstrates that Gaelic surnames comprised majorities in at least half of the parishes of north Co. Dublin in 1665 and significant minorities in the rest. Old English surnames comprised much of the remainder. Both groups had, at the time, a propensity to be Irish-speaking.

At a more local level Piatt (1933, p. 6) reports that Finglas was Irish-speaking in 1690 while in 1694 the Howth-Portmarnock area was sufficiently Irish-speaking as to be able to readily provide Irish-speaking crews to passing ships. These were at the time, we should stress, predominantly Irish-speaking areas at their peak – fíor-Ghaeltachtaí – not remnant areas where Irish had otherwise died out or was even close to dying out.

We then learn of Richard Tipper (fl. 1709-1742; note the new English surname) of Mitchelstown near modern Blanchardstown in Fingal, a noted Gaelic scholar, scribe and member of the classical intellectual circle surrounding Liberties (South Co. Dublin)-born Tadhg Ó Neachtain (1670-1749). There is no evidence to suggest Tipper was unusual in being an Irish speaker in Mitchelstown at this time; indeed as a classical scribe he was quite literally an Irish-speaker par excellence.

So far, we see in North Co. Dublin a repetition of the pattern elsewhere in the county between 1600 and 1700: Irish is holding its own, spoken and understood not only by the poor but also by the rich. Those of Gaelic Irish origin, of Old English origin and even those of New English stock all seem to know it well. English also seems well known, although not presumably by the peasantry.

After approximately 1750, however, evidence for Irish-speaking in north Co. Dublin begins to appear very mixed. For instance, John Rutty’s hobby botanical survey of the entire area makes intermittent (if desultory) note of local Irish words but is oddly silent on the extent of local Irish-speaking. Most tellingly Rutty reports both Irish and English terms used by the fisherfolk of Skerries, Rush and Portrane: some of the terms are clearly corrupt Irish, others perfectly good Irish, still others very colloquial English – all current in, as Rutty puts it, “vulgar” use. It is thus clear that by the time Rutty is writing (his information is from 1753 but was published in 1772) English is making significant inroads into a traditionally Irish-speaking area although it is unclear the extent to which Irish or English is the predominant language; the evidence I have supports both conclusions.

What is abundantly clear in north Co. Dublin is that (as elsewhere in Greater Dublin) between 1700 and 1800 Irish declined swiftly, and to a large extent very mysteriously. In north Dublin as in south Dublin Irish-speaking communities receded as quickly as an ink blot on paper, shying further and further away from Dublin city.

By the early nineteenth century English seems essentially ascendant in Fingal; we are thus forced to search for remnant Irish-speaking pockets. Irish was widely spoken at Stamullin in the far north of the county at the time of the Ordnance Survey letters (1836); according to Piatt (1933, p. 29) old people in the Stamullin area still had Irish of some sort – most probably residual passive bilinguals – as late as 1893. Yet Piatt considers that the final stronghold of Irish in North Co. Dublin – 1899 – was in fact to be found about seven kilometres to the west at (the) Naul, also on the Meath border (ibid.):

Tradition has it that the Naul area, just west of Balbriggan, preserved Irish until very recently, a family of Kirwans, locally “Karvan,” being said to be the last speakers, though Mr. A. Ward disputes the claim of Catherine Karvan, who died about 1899, to have known more than “very little” Irish.

In order for Irish to only be remembered by residual elderly bilinguals in Stamullin in 1893, the last generation to have Irish as its native, normative preferred language in north Co. Dublin must have been born in Stamullin around 1773. This in turn means that Irish ceased to be passed on there, with the usual exceptions, by around 1830. This allows for Irish speakers to be found in relative abundance by the Ordnance Survey of that decade but they would have belonged to the older age groups – the younger people having gone over to English among themselves and only using Irish to communicate with their elders.

The switch from Irish as community language to English in Stamullin therefore took place just slightly over a generation earlier than at Glenasmole (this would help explain the low returns in the language question on the 1851 census: by 1851, English had been the predominant language of Stamullin for at least a generation).

… Irish in fact passed away as the everyday language in Naul a little earlier than at Stamullin (around 1820).

Using the same method we can extrapolate that Skerries, Rush, Portrane – the fishing village coast – probably ceased passing on their Irish relatively early, around 1790. This would also explain the sudden preponderance of Anglo-Irish terms and English found by Rutty in the fishing villages: the first truly bilingual generation on the Fingal coast would probably have appeared around 1750, at coincidentally about the time Rutty was collecting his botanical information. Certainly the coastal villages succumbed to English much earlier than the interior; why this should be so is puzzling, unless their commercial relationship with the rapidly anglicising Dublin city is the primary culprit.

Likewise, extrapolating even further, we can conclude that local Irish likely ceased to be the community language of rural areas around Balbriggan by about 1810. What caused this rapid abandonment of traditional speech in Fingal remains unclear but it is worth nothing that, of the Fingal areas listed, Stamullin was situated closest to other surviving Irish-speaking areas (in Meath) – for instance Julianstown which still had a residual Irish-speaking community around 1900 according to Piatt.

Irish had ceased to be the majority community language of any place in North Co. Dublin by 1830; even isolated semi-speakers are not recorded after 1893-1899.”

I strongly recommend that you read the full post for yourself and spread the word about the Dublin Gaelic blog, especially if you are a fellow Dubhlinnach.

3 comments on “Fingal Irish

  1. This just underlines how quickly a language which has been passed on for centuries can be lost in a lifetime, a single generation almost, although there will always be a few stragglers, e.g. people brought up by elderly relatives etc. There is nothing at all unusual about the timetable deduced above. It is roughly a century later than the loss of Cornish in West Cornwall, and about a century or so earlier than the loss of Manx. The problem to my mind is that once a language ceases to be the default means of communication within a community, ceases to be ‘normalised’ in current jargon, it is very difficult to reverse. Children may use the language at home or even in school, but once they get out into the ‘real world’, the world of their peers in particular, the spell is broken and they revert to English, because “everybody speaks English”. I’d really like to believe there was an answer to this, but sometimes it feels like a statistical process, once there is 100% bilingualism the pressure is all one way. There will always be more situations where English can be used than the minority language, so English will be increasingly used and the native language will recede from view, even without prejudice etc. Show me I’m wrong.


    • Unfortunately I can’t. The same events are now taking place in what were formerly traditional Irish-speaking communities with the language largely confined to the home and irregular speech with bilingual parents/grandparents. I am more pessimistic than optimistic. Today is one of those days where I wonder if it has all gone too far.


      • Well anything is possible given the will. But one thing I really don’t understand is why for example English language signs are allowed to be publicly displayed in the Gaeltacht, since these are supposed to be protected ‘reserves’ for the language. Why weren’t they banned at the outset? (The way Jānis tells us Latvia banned almost all Russian signs even in places where Russian speakers were close to 50%). Simply creating an official ‘parity’ between Irish and English isn’t going to work because the pressures are not anything like symmetrical, English speakers in Ireland are x% bilingual in Irish, but Irish speakers are 99.999% bilingual in English. Even in places like Wales with around 20% speaking the minority language, I seriously wonder if the policy of across-the-board official bilingualism (iaith pawb) could do more harm than good. I.e. bringing English into the Welsh heartlands is more damaging to Welsh than spreading a bit of token Welsh all around the long-anglicised districts is to its advantage.


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