The Decline of the Irish Language 1851


Map Code: Ax01860

By 1800, fluency in English was seen as essential for social advancement in Ireland. It was the language of the courts and of commerce. The opening of Maynooth Seminary near Dublin (1795) by a British government grant cemented English as the language of the Catholic clergy and thus, of education, even in the informal ‘hedge-schools’. This trend was crystallized by the formation of National Schools in 1831, in which teaching in, and of, Irish would be prohibited until 1871. Nevertheless, in 1800, there were still around four million Irish speakers, and bilingualism was the rule except in the Anglicized easternmost counties, and the monoglot Irish western periphery. The Great Famine (1845–49), and the great exodus that followed caused a drastic decline in Irish speaking. Both mortality and migration was highest in the rural west, which had been the traditional bastion of the language. Those that survived saw English as their passport from poverty.

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