chapter  12
Irish- speaking society and the state
Pages 48

The people of Ireland have a complex relationship with the Irish language. Until the middle of the nineteenth century Irish was widely spoken throughout the country, but even before the watershed of the Great Famine in the 1840s, a linguistic and cultural division of labour had appeared whereby Irish speakers were predominantly found in rural areas and in farming, unskilled or family-based professions socially and economically peripheral to the largely anglophone economy of the growing urban areas, industry and large farms. In the copper mines in the Béarra peninsula of west Cork, for example (Verling 1996), an area which was very strongly Irish speaking until late in the nineteenth century, all those involved in heavy physical activity were local Irish-speaking Catholics, but the engineers and managers were English-speaking Protestants. It is true that a small number of literate and educated Irish speakers were gradually joining the emerging professional and middle classes throughout the country in this period, but those who retained Irish and passed it on to their children while going through this cultural and economic change were the exceptions. Amhlaoibh Ó Súilleabháin was a school teacher who married into a family with a business in a small town in the south of Co. Kilkenny in the fi rst half of the century. He kept an extensive diary, largely in Irish, from 1827-34 (McGrath 1936, 1937; Ó Drisceoil 2000) in which he documents his thoughts and activities as a local organizer for Daniel O’Connell’s Catholic Emancipation movement and as a member of the middle class in this rural town in a rapidly anglicizing area. He clearly shows how as an Irish speaker he was an exception among his social peers, but that the lower classes and the rural poor in the region were Irish speaking. Like other literate Irish speakers of the period, he was a school teacher who was a son of a school teacher and most probably belonged to one of a restricted number of learned families with roots in the old Gaelic order of the seventeenth century that had carried on the literary tradition by re-applying their inherited skills as scribes, teachers or composers of popular song. There is no evidence that he brought up his own children as Irish speakers, and Irish had disappeared as a native community language in the area within two generations.