English in Ireland

Irish writers have a special importance in English literature. Is this in spite of or because of the suffering of the Irish as English became the dominant language in Ireland?

Of course, many people in Scotland and Wales wanted to keep their ancient language and culture. Many Welsh people, and many more Scottish people, suffered as the English language culture became dominant. However, this was all nothing compared to the suffering of the Irish.

Children in schools in Wales were made to wear a wooden sign if they spoke Welsh instead of English. (There was a similar custom in Okinawa.) The Welsh children had to keep wearing it until another child spoke Welsh. The child who was wearing the sign at the end of the day was punished. However, this kind of humiliation was nothing compared to the experience of the Irish.

English was first introduced to Ireland by the Normans who settled ordinary English speakers (rather than French) in the area known around Dublin, known as the Pale. By the time of the Tudors, however, these English-speaking areas had virtually disappeared.

The Normans controlled large areas of Ireland and settled English speakers in some of those place.

Henry VIII proclaimed himself king of Ireland in 1541 and tried to introduce the Reformation to the Irish. Ireland remained Catholic but the conquest of Ireland was finally completed under Elizabeth I and James I. Both the Tudors and the Stuarts saw the use of the Irish language as a threat to their power and they encouraged the use of English. In the sixteenth and seventeenth century, the English followed a policy of simply taking land from the Irish and settling English-speakers, many of whom were from Scotland. These areas were called the Plantations.

The Plantations: English-speaking Protestants were settled on land stolen from the Irish.

English-speaking Protestants were rewarded; Catholic speakers of Irish Gaelic were persecuted and punished. As the united kingdom of Scotland and England became more strongly Protestant, Catholics had fewer and fewer rights.

Lands stolen from the Irish and given to English-speaking Protestants correspond closely to Northern Ireland (part of the United Kingdom) today.

In the seventeenth century, the British virtually completed the process of taking land from Irish Catholics in wars; about one third of the Irish population either died or left the country. From the fifteenth to the eighteenth century, thousands of Irish political prisoners were sold as slaves by the British in an astonishing act of dehumanization of one’s neighbors. Most of these ended up in the Caribbean.

Thousands of Catholic Irish political prisoners were sold by the British into slavery in the Caribbean. However, even though this sounds terrible, many of the Irish people who stayed at home were no better off.

Those who stayed at home were very often no better off than the slaves, however; they were governed by terror. The Protestant English-speaking people who had power in Ireland were often irresponsible and incompetent and showed no concern for the Irish Catholics; the Irish were denied political power and basic human rights. In the potato famine of 1740-1741, about 40% of the Irish population died. In the second potato famine of 1845-1852, about one million people died and about the same number of people emigrated. Ireland was actually producing lots of food at this time, but the British rulers did not allow them to have any of it!

The famine memorial in Dublin. By violent and hideously oppressive means, the ancient language and traditions of Ireland were weakened and the prestige of English was increased.

Ireland became an English speaking country but only after many had been killed or forced to leave the country. Little wonder that the Irish were overjoyed to gain independence in 1916 after a long struggle against tyranny.

The Irish population dropped disastrously after 1840, largely because of starvation and emigration. The population has still not fully recovered!