Great Famine rang the death knell for Irish language

The Great Famine of 1845-47 is reputed to have rung the death knell for the Irish language, not just in Co. Monaghan, but throughout the length and breadth of Ireland. The Gaeltacht areas of the western seaboard were the worst affected in this respect, as the greatest exodus of victims of that terrible period came from those Irish speaking districts. The remaining pockets of Gaelic speakers in rural areas in the Gaeltacht (English speaking areas) also witnessed the downward spiral of our native tongue during that same period.

The decline of the language, however, had dated from a much earlier time. The demise of the Gaelic chieftains and the Gaelic way of life, in the seventeenth century, had started the decline, with English being introduced throughout the expanding foreign controlled areas. The series of ‘Plantations’ drove the final nails into the Irish coffin, and the native tongue as a spoken language shrank, and continued to shrink, until it was confined to the western seaboard, from west Cork to north Donegal.

The trend continued for the next two centuries and was finally copper-fastened with the introduction of the National Schools system in the 1830’s. The Irish had always been renowned for their love of education and jumped at the opportunity to have their child educated, only to discover that their native language, if still spoken by the youngsters, was banned from the classroom, and even from the play-ground outside the school. The introduction of the notorious ‘tally stick’ made ure that they did not use a single word of their home language in the hearing of the newly appointed teachers, brought in from outside and who had no knowledge of Irish whatsoever.

A ‘tick’ was notched on the stick for every word of Irish that they uttered during the school day, and they received a corresponding punishment at the end of the day for same. Little wonder that they quickly decided to forget their native tongue, and little wonder also that the patriot, Padraig Pearse, later described that same National School system as ‘the Murder Machine’.

Despite all that, Farney, the most southerly of Co. Monaghan’s five baronies and embracing the parishes of Inniskeen, Killanny, Donaghmoyne, Carrickmacross and Magheracloone, was still practically one hundred per cent Gaelic speaking right up until the late 1830s, at the following piece taken from Proinsias O’Muirgheasa and Peadar O’Casaide’s excellent little book ‘A Man of Farney’, a Short Story of the Life of Henry Morris, published by Eigse Fhearnmhai in 1974, clearly shows:-

‘The Irish language was generally in use among the country people at this time. Henry (Morris) quotes two interesting Irish sayings referring to his great-grandfather. It was said of Lucas Mor:- ‘Da gcuirfea slat thart ar pharoist mhor Domhnach Maighin cha bhfaighfea fear nios Criostai na Lucas Mor O’Muirgheasa’ (If you put a rod around the great parish of Donaghmoyne you would not find a more Christian man than Lucas Mor Morris). And Malai Ban used to say to her daughter-in-law (Harry’s wife) when the younger woman was going to Carrick:- ‘Ma chasann mo chuidse ort thoir, thiar no thuaidh, abair go bhfuil mise anseo’ (If you meet any of my people, east, west or north, tell them that I’m here). This was a reference to her many children who had all married around the district’.

The strength of the Irish language itself, coupled with the resilience and determination of the people of the barony of Farney to hold on to their native tongue, has brought favourable comment from most historians throughout Co. Monaghan down through the years. The county’s leading historian, the late Fr. Peadar Livingstone from Castleblayney, in his mammoth work ‘The Monaghan work ‘The Monaghan Story’, published by Clogher Historical Society, Enniskillen 1980, wrote the following:-

‘The Irish language survived longer in Farney than in other parts of the country. The last native speaker, Dan Tate (Tuite) of Kednaminsha, Inniskeen, did not die until 1957. The 1891 census recorded that 2,161 native speakers still survived in the barony, mainly in the parishes of Donaghmoyne and Inniskeen. Besides, Farney had been closely connected with the Irish literary tradition of South Armagh and North Louth and there was a time when the poems of Seamus Dall MacCuarta, Peadar O’Doirnin, Art Mac Cumhaigh and Cathal Bui Mac Giolla Gunna, were on the lips of many in Farney. Farney too had its own poets, men like Aodh O’Mallaile who wrote ‘An Sistealoir Bronach’, Micheal MacMathuna who composed ‘Iomain Ionnus Caoin’, Liam Mac Seoin, Padraig Dall O’Mearain and Father Brian Callan. Irish manuscripts survived in Farney after they had disappeared elsewhere and, even in the nineteenth century, men like Eamonn McCabe, Thomas O’Connor, Owen Marron and Michael Carolan, were still transcribing manuscripts in Irish. Even at the end of the century Farney could still boast of a host of rich Irish speakers who had stores of folklore and old Irish stories an poems’.

The scourge of emigration which began in pre-Famine times, but gained quick momentum following that dreadful catastrophe, was also a major factor in the decline of the language. With little employment and few opportunities to be gained at home, the younger generations took to the emigrant ships and headed westwards across the Atlantic to find a new life for themselves. Irish, they knew full well, would be of little benefit to them in the gaining of employment or any kind of advancement whatsoever in the New World, so they made it a point to use English only in their homes before departure time, so that they would have some preparation for life abroad, where Irish as a spoken language was unknown.

Because of all these various adverse factors it is an absolute miracle that Irish has survived at all as a language, and full credit to those who had the courage and the tenacity to hold on to their native tongue in such terrible circumstances.

Outside of Farney the language also survived in several other corners of the county. The credit for much of this must be given to a number of poets who lived there and whose verses remain to this day. In Donagh parish in the north of the county a poet called Brian MacCionaith lived at Pullis, Emyvale, in the closing decades of the 18th century and early part of the 19th century. A poem in Irish written by him, circa 1810, was unearthed by the late Athair Padraig O’Maolagain, later Bishop of Clogher, and was published in the ‘Clogher Record’ on two occasions, the first in the 1954 edition. The poem was in praise of a previous Parish Priest of the neighbouring parish of Errigal Truagh, named Ross MacCionaith, who was obviously much revered by the people of both parishes and who died in 1760. The opening verse reads as follows:

Mile Seacht gcead agus tri fichid,
De aois Mhic De dha bhliain da dhioghhail,
O chuaigh scathan na nGael a bhi in eideach Chriosta,
Ins and chriaidh is cead faraor e.
Do bhi crionnacht Sholaimh in eochair na ceille,
Feile Eochaidh a chothuigheadh na heigse, Hector is Paris, Troiius, Ganimedus,
Achilles, Hercules a d’iomchradh na sleibhthe.

From the same area comes a novel written by the Ulster writer William Carleton called ‘The Fair of Emyvale’. It is the story of an 1815 abduction and the main family involved was named Goodwin, but Carleton points out that they were known locally by their Irish name, McGoughan, and states quite clearly that the family used only Irish as the spoken language in their home. He also adds:-

‘When talked of, or spoken to, in the Irish language, he was never named or addressed as Goodwin, nor did he himself much relish this innovation upon his Celtic appellation’.
In the west of the county during that same period, Irish was also the everyday language in the home and there is a strange piece of evidence for this. At 9 am, on 19th July 1824, a Clones man named Alexander Pearce was hanged at Hobart town jail in Tasmania, Australia, for murder and cannibalism (ach sin sceal eile!!). He was prepared for death by Fr. Phillip Connolly, by coincidence another Monaghan Man, who suggested to him that he make a full public confession of his crimes. Pearce, knowing that there was no escape and probably to gain notoriety, agreed and made the confession which was written down by Fr. Connolly. The authorities, however, refused to accept it as it was written in Irish, which they had never seen before. Irish had been first (or home) language of both Pearce and Fr. Connolly.

All of these instances show quite clearly that Irish was still the ‘home’ language of the people of Monaghan right up until nearly Famine times. Then came the disasters already mentioned and Irish disappeared. However, with the introduction of Connradh na Gaeilge (the Gaelic League) and other kindred organisations, in the early part of the 20th century, Irish has been revived and has made considerable progress over the past one hundred years. Hopefully it will continue to do so and that our native tongue will again attain its proper place in the lives of Co. Monaghan people in the not so distant future.