Presbyterians and the Irish Language Roger Blaney (Ulster Historical Foundation/The Ultach Trust, £6.50) ISBN 0-901905-75-5

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Early Modern History (1500–1700), Issue 1 (Spring 1997), Reviews, Volume 5

The events of last summer raised many questions about the nature and exercise of certain aspects of unionist cultural traditions in the North. Whilst historically it is the case that only a minority of the Protestant population there has, at any time, ever had actual membership of organisations such as the Orange Order, the Royal Black Preceptory or the Apprentice Boys of Derry, the controversy surrounding the parades issue and the presentation of marching as a defining component of overall Protestant identity and heritage tends to overshadow the history of Protestant involvement in other areas of cultural activity. From the seventeenth century onwards there was a small but significant minority of Northern Protestants who made a continuous contribution to the promotion and preservation of the Irish language and to whose efforts Irish speakers today are greatly indebted. Roger Blaney contends that the origins of the Gaelic League are as likely to be found in Presbyterian Belfast as in Catholic Dublin and in this minutely researched and well argued publication he presents very strong grounds for supporting such a view. Whilst most people who take an interest in the history and fortunes of the Irish language are well aware that Protestants from different denominations were involved in using Irish for evangelical purposes, and that efforts were also made by some individual Protestants to arrest the decline in the use of Irish, to preserve Irish language manuscripts or to actively work to promote Irish as a living language, what will come as a surprise to many is the sheer scale of the Presbyterian involvement with Irish, an involvement, moreover, that has spanned four centuries.
Presbyterians were not formally organised as a separate and distinctive church in Ireland until the establishment of the first presbytery at Carrickfergus on 10 June 1642. Blaney argues that prior to that date it would be difficult to separate the Anglican involvement with Irish from that of the Presbyterians. Many contemporary authorities attributed the failure of the Reformation in Ireland to the lack of use of Irish to communicate with the people and the Presbyterians made strong efforts to remedy this shortcoming. Several Scottish Presbyterians, coming as they did from a Scots Gaelic background, seemed to have found little difficulty preaching in Irish. By use of individual biographies and evidence from early records such as the Session-books Blaney demonstrates that the growing Presbyterian Church was well equipped to deal with Irish language communication at a time when very few of the native Irish had any English. How effective this Presbyterian capability was may be judged from the many records Blaney has consulted which show how the pool of Irish-speaking Presbyterians expanded, a consequence of the conversions of the native Irish. He argues that there were a number of congregations where Irish/Gaelic was, by far, the majority language, and that the custom of having Irish preaching every second Sunday in other areas also implies a substantial Irish-speaking congregation. Blaney contends that at least one-eighth of Presbyterians had been recruited from the native Irish-speaking population, that at least one quarter of the incoming Scots were Gaelic-speaking, and that another eighth of congregations used Irish both to speak to their Irish neighbours and to converse with Irish-speaking members of their own congregations. He argues that conservative estimates suggest that at least half of all the early Presbyterians in Ulster were Irish/Gaelic speakers. From early times until 1720 all the Presbyterian approaches to Catholics were in Irish and considerable efforts were made to enlarge the pool of Irish-speaking ministers. However, after 1720 the Non-Subscription controversy was to distract the Synod from all other issues and the Irish language faded into the background. Nevertheless, the early Presbyterian Church had strong Gaelic/Irish speaking roots and so it is perhaps not so surprising that when a revival of interest in the Irish language came about at the end of the eighteenth century Presbyterians were involved.
Interspersed with historical narrative Blaney’s book contains many valuable biographies, detailing the activities of well known and not so well known Presbyterians in the field of Irish-language missionary work, education, manuscript collection, promotion, preservation and writing. They were a remarkable group of individuals, and their overall contribution is impressive. The recognition of the importance of the language as a cultural repository and the rescue of many priceless manuscripts, songs, histories, poems, stories and fragments of tradition has left a rich legacy. Whilst Presbyterians were not alone in these activities, they were pioneers, and a substantial proportion of the material that has come down to us is due to their efforts.
The politics of today may result in some people dismissing the Presbyterian contribution to Irish as somehow unrepresentative, as the work of a tiny minority of aberrant Protestants. That is to miss the point that the preservation of Irish has always been the work of a tiny minority, be they Presbyterian, Catholic, Church of Ireland, Methodist or whatever. Irish speakers today owe much to all of those tiny minorities who had the ability to recognise Irish as something more than the preserve of any particular denomination or political grouping.
The ‘politicisation’ of the language issue is said to have come about after the 1915 Conradh na Gaeilge Árd Fheis at Dundalk, an oft- quoted occasion which is said to have deterred many Protestants from taking an interest in Irish. Ironically, it was actually a Protestant, T. O’Neill Russell, whose assiduous lobbying of Home Rule MPs led, in 1878, to the preservation of Irish becoming one of the objectives of the Irish nationalist movement. Given the various measures which had served to bring about its eventual legal, economic and social status it is surely the case that Irish was a political issue prior to O’Neill Russell’s 1878 intervention or the events of 1915. Those who continually point out the ‘hijacking’ of Irish by radical Irish nationalists often avoid confronting the no less political motivation of opponents of Irish both before 1915 and since, nor do they account for continued Protestant interest in the subject even in the face of anti-Irish language opposition. After the Dundalk Árd Fheis the Irish language was not to become inextricably linked with Irish nationalism although there can be no doubt that many Protestants were dismayed by events at that time. Among Presbyterians, Rose Young, known to Irish speakers as Rois Ní hÓgán, managed to continue to combine her love of Irish—she produced valuable works on songs from the Irish tradition—with her ardent Unionism. Nor did Lieutenant-General William MacArthur’s love of Irish clash with his military career in the British army. Mac Arthur was director general of the army medical services and during his travels he sent postcards to his son written in Irish. I found it interesting to read how individual Presbyterians often passed on their enthusiasm for Irish and taught it to their children, unlike, for instance, such venerated scholars as John O’Donovan or Eugene O’Curry who, for all their academic achievement, seemed to have little regard for Irish as a living language.
In reviewing the fortunes of Irish it would be a mistake to view the interests, actions and motivations of individuals as somehow fitting in with particular modern day stereotypes. Historically, the world of Irish language activity is not one neatly peopled with Protestant Lundys and Catholic revolutionaries. Some Protestant Unionists were and are interested in Irish. Some Catholics have been and are indifferent to its fate, or are even, as recently witnessed by the noisy opposition to Teilifís na Gaeilge, actively opposed to it having a role in the world of today.
Some of the material in this book complements Padraig Ó Snodaigh’s Hidden Ulster: Protestants and the Irish Language. However, the enormous contribution made by Ireland’s Presbyterians to the preservation and promotion of Irish deserves special recognition and Roger Blaney is to be commended for producing a timely book that securely establishes the Irish language as an important part of Presbyterian heritage. This should be required reading for anyone who wishes to understand the intricacies of cultural diversity in Ireland.

Caoimhghin Ó Murchadha


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