Published in Book Reviews, Book Reviews, Issue 5 (September/October 2020), Reviews, Volume 28

Palgrave Macmillan
ISBN 9783030260200

Reviewed by Tony Lyons

Dr Tony Lyons formerly lectured in Education History at Mary Imaculate College, University of Limerick.

This book is something of a tour de force within the realms of the history of Irish education and schooling. It is an elucidating embrace of the intricacies of promoting the continuation of a linguistic culture which by 1900 was firmly overshadowed by long-standing external influences, with the use of a rich vein of primary and secondary resources. One of the key features of the book is its support for the bilingual programme of 1904, a programme which, had it received State support during the post-1922 era, would have enhanced the fortunes of the Irish language. Instead, compulsion in the teaching and learning of the language was introduced in an increasingly aggressive manner. Conciliarity was absent. Under the National Board, the scheme of 1904 would have enabled the people to look upon the language more favourably.

One of the great ironies of education history in Ireland is that the schools in the nineteenth century were used as agents in promoting the English language and completely ignoring the native language, while in the twentieth century (post-1922) the same schools were used as agents in promoting the Irish language and at some levels ignoring the English language.

During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries there emerged a growing concern that the Irish language could not provide the people with the social and economic advantages they desired. The courts and newspapers/pamphlets were all in English. The political system required a knowledge of English. The psychological effects of the penal system in depriving Irish-speaking Catholics of promotion must have had detrimental results within Irish society, and consequently much of the blame lay at the foot of the native language, which could not offer better life chances to the poor and the deprived. Irish became associated with poverty and backwardness and it had nothing to do with upward social mobility in Britain, the United States or Australia.

When we reach the twentieth century and the new state in 1922, the hill to be surmounted presented a virtually impossible task. The first Free State government undertook a direct assault on what had come to the surface during the two previous centuries: one manifestation of this was the setting up of a Department of Irish and not a Department of Education. The schools were expected to overturn in a few short years what had gone before, the infants in the schools being the agents-in-chief. This did not work. As a result, bribes were offered in the 1930s instead of propaganda. This applied to parents in the Fíor-Ghaeltacht, who were told that the Irish language had a monetary value and that their willingness to promote the language would have monetary compensation. Other schemes, such as school meals for Gaeltacht children, were introduced. Positive discrimination of this type can be dubious at the best of times. This, allied with compulsion, which amounts to coercion, hardly ever works, particularly where culture is central. ‘You must pass this exam before you can pass six others’—what does this do to young minds, what does this do to parents of the young minds, what does this do to the subject at the core? What will be their view of the language?

The book considers the fate of the Irish language: imperial policy towards it and Irish native government policy towards it. Diverse issues surrounding the language are located in circumspect perspective, and there is an admission of the degree to which the Gaeltacht fragmented during the course of the twentieth century.

The book provides a historical context regarding State policy in conjunction with the resulting language status of Irish in the Gaeltacht and beyond. The sentiments expressed in the quote from Marwick (p. 226) do not always live up to expectations. The Germans learned very little about their campaign in Eastern Europe from Napoleon’s failure! Humans do not always learn from previous mistakes. The irrational nature of humans often prevents the surmounting of problems ‘intelligently’.

The book has a remarkable mix of sources, including the written and the oral (in written format). It places the status of the Irish language in its historical, sociological, economic, and political locale—each of these have many-faceted elements, inevitably having a bearing on the future of the language. One or two questions must be asked. What was the purpose of the Gaeltacht? Was the Gaeltacht successful in its pursuit of that purpose?

From the time of Seathrun Ceitinn to current times the Irish language has ebbed and flowed, from high-brow poetry to a mere form of everyday communication. The solution to the question of its survival or revival is not simplistic; it’s not just an economic concern; it’s not just a government concern. The advent of TG4 and Raidió na Gaeltachta has made significant inroads into popular consciousness in recent decades. Irish speakers and schooling in the Gaeltacht, 1900 to the present is laden with integrity and cohesion, and, perhaps, it goes a fair distance towards rectifying, or at least highlighting, the discordance between nineteenth-century and twentieth-century government policies towards the Irish language and culture.


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