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For more information on Irish language writing please click here. Article by Professor Alan Titley, Professor of Modern Irish at University College Cork.

Ireland is officially a bi-lingual nation, but Dublin, like all post-colonial cities, bears the imprint of that historical experience in its languages. A key aspect of this is the linguistic vitality that the city’s inhabitants display and the irreverent, often iconoclastic and inventive ways in which Irish people speak English. Hiberno-English, a dialect of English, is used by Dubliners in varying degrees and owes its origins to the centuries of colonial rule to which the city was subjected.

Archaic and elsewhere obsolescent uses of English words persist; (e.g. ‘delph’ for crockery). Its more anarchic side is visible in the way that it appropriates many words from Irish (e.g. ‘amadán’ for fool) and also in the way English is subjected to non-standard patterns where the structures of the Irish language replace those of the conventional English model. The result is a particular form of English with an extended range of expressive possibilities, enlivened and enhanced by these elements and inflections.

The use of the English language in Ireland began with the Anglo-Norman invasion in the 12th century and enjoyed fluctuations in use until the later plantation schemes, when it became more widespread throughout the island.

From the 17th century onwards many concerted attempts were made to suppress the Irish language, including the imposition of harsh financial penalties on those found speaking it. From the outset, the distribution of the languages could roughly be charted along an urban/rural divide, gradually becoming more pronounced in an east/west division as the native population was systematically driven from fertile lands to the more barren regions of the western seaboard. These remain the primary locations for Irish speaking communities, or Gaeltachts, today. Irish however, continued to be part of life in the cities, including Dublin, which was home to several prominent Irish language writers at this time. Forced to function underground, the Irish language literary world survived, in this and the following two centuries, by smuggling works published abroad back into the country for circulation.

The process of anglicisation was extensive throughout the 18th century. By the 19th century the Irish language and other elements of Irish culture had come to be regarded by many as symbols of backwardness and failure amongst the native population. Daniel O’Connell’s mass emancipation project for the Catholic population was conducted in English; the new system of national primary schools also used English as the language of instruction and the anglicisation of the island culminated in the first ordnance survey undertaken by the British Government in the 19th century in which all the place names of the island were given in English.

Resistance to this imposition was initially strong, but after the devastating Great Famine (1845-51), English was embraced more actively by the native population. This shift has traditionally been interpreted as resulting from a need to embrace English as the language of economic survival. It is now acknowledged that a situation where emigration from Ireland was seen as the means of survival, let alone advancement, also contributed to this change in attitude. America and England were the preferred destinations for Irish people and the English language was a prerequisite for employment there. However, the abandonment of the language did not persist as the 19th century drew to a close. Agitation for political independence was supported by several cultural movements, including the Irish Literary Renaissance and an Irish Language Revival. The Gaelic League, founded in 1893 by Douglas Hyde, sought to revive Irish as a spoken and literary language. A mass movement emerged and thrived up to the middle decades of the 20th century.

With the achievement of independence and the formation of the new Irish Free State in 1922, the Irish language was reinstated as the first language of the country. The study of the language by all schoolchildren became compulsory and the Irish language and literature movements continued to enjoy widespread support from government and educationalists. Irish is now recognised by the European Union as an official language of the country. Government and legal business is conducted in both Irish and English. Most government offices, bodies and state organisations are referred to by their Irish language titles. Much of the population is bi-lingual to some degree. Irish language television and radio channels attract wide audiences. Since the 1980’s the Irish language has enjoyed a rise in popularity. Schools teaching through Irish have increased in number throughout the country as more parents opt to raise their children in a bi-lingual environment.

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In 1926 the largest Irish language publisher, An Gúm, was established and continues to thrive today. To date it has published in excess of 2,500 titles. Another important state initiative was the establishment in 1952 of Bord na Leabhar Gaeilge (Irish Language Books Board), now called Clár na Leabhar Gaeilge (Programme for Irish Language Books), an organisation which fosters publishing in the Irish language by awarding grants and commissions to Irish language writers and publishers.

Both An Gúm and Clár na Leabhar Gaeilge are now part of Foras na Gaeilge, established in 1999 to promote the Irish language throughout the whole island of Ireland.

The most recent Irish language literary development is the Irish language writers’ collective, Cumann Scriobhneoiri Úra na Gaeilge (New Irish Writers Association). Founded in 2007 to cultivate new Irish language literature, its members are young and have diverse literary interests.

The strength of Irish language writing in Dublin is reflected annually in IMRAM, a festival of readings by celebrated contemporary Irish language writers such as Louis de Paor, Rita Kelly, Gréagóir Ó Duill and Liam Mac Cóil. Performances and music events are also central to the festival.

The Irish language has its own canon of great works, many of which are available in translation in English and other languages. The works of Tomás Ó Criomhthainn, Máirtín Ó Cadhain, Máirtín Ó Direáin, and Máire Mhac an tSaoi were followed by those of Muirís Ó Súilleabháin, Cathal Ó Searcaigh, Gabriel Rosenstock, Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, and more recently by Éilís Ní Dhuibhne, Anna Heussaff and many others. Several of these writers enjoy international reputations through English and other translations. For those equipped with both languages, the contemporary literary activity in Irish offers a range of challenging and exciting writing, equal in scope to its English language counterparts.

The dual language legacy outlined above creates an added dimension for Irish speakers of English, one where both languages infect and inflect each other. The result has been an Anglo-Irish literary tradition, rich in colourful and original forms of expression, in a body of writing which enjoys worldwide acclaim. Coming from the margin, from the periphery of empire and equipped with a sensitivity to the expressive possibilities of both languages, Irish writers were willing to push the boundaries of literary conventions in innovative and creative ways. James Joyce is a key example of the skillful use of this dual language inheritance and his worldwide reputation testifies to his unique contribution to 20th century literature. Many other Irish writers show a similar inventiveness in their open embrace of Irish idioms and forms within their writing. Their ranks include Brendan Behan, Flann O’Brien, J.M. Synge, Sean O’Casey, and more recently Patrick McCabe. All have exploited the unique linguistic heritage of the Irish subject to great effect in their writing.

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