Irish History Circle: March Presentations

A Report by Brian Gillespie

The Irish History Circle held its second meeting for the year on the 20th March with presentations by Colin Ryan on Urban versus Traditional Irish Language and Jim Cusack on the Young Irelander, John Mitchell.

Colin Ryan on Urban and Traditional Irish Language

Colin gave a fascinating talk on the evolution of the Irish language from Gaeltacht to the big cities. Twenty years ago no one really spoke ‘Urban Irish’.

In the cities there is a growing cohort of Irish speakers far outnumbering the traditional speakers from the Gaeltacts. This brings with it a rapid change in how the language is spoken both grammatically and in pronunciation.


Colin went on to give a comprehensive history of the language. You could find Irish speakers in the urban areas right up to mid 19th century. For example there were resident native speakers in the Liberties of Dublin recorded in the 1851 census and in every town  in Munster. Cork was a foreign city from an English language standpoint.

Colin explained the renewal we see today has had little to do with government policy. It started around the 1970s and there were a number of influences.

Compulsory Irish taught in schools by non-Irish native speakers who had ‘book Irish’ but could not hold a conversation. There was a  severe lack of teachers with a real command of the language. This mainstream failure led to a revolution, the creation of Irish-speaking primary and secondary schools that teach everything through Irish and guarantee fluency. This was not through any government initiative. They were parent-driven and today can be found in both wealthy and disadvantaged areas.

They are increasingly multicultural in their intake of students. Demand is far outstripping supply. These schools are among the best academically. Importantly they are creating a critical mass of fluent Irish speakers, thought to be around 6% of the population. They use the Irish language on a regular basis.

Paradoxically, in the Gaeltacht areas, the young people prefer to use English. They are not hostile to the native tongue, but just use the language they are more fluent in.

The urban trend will continue. The next generation of those practising today will educate their children through Irish. In Belfast,  the Irish speakers have shown extraordinary enterprise and energy. An urban Gaeltacht, cultural centre, shops, clubs and cafés support their journey. Derry, Newry and Strabane have strong networks.

In the media, Urban irish has established itself – Radio Na Life, TG4 and, of course, there is plenty to watch and hear on the Internet.
Through Urban Irish, the language is set to evolve and prosper.

Jim Cusack on John Mitchell

John-MitchelThe second talk of the evening was from Jim Cusack on John Mitchel, an interesting character from Irish history.

Mitchel was a Presbyterian from Dungiven, Co Derry, a journalist, political commentator, author and activist in the mid 1800s.

From being a lawyer in Banbridge he moved to Dublin and became assistant editor of The Nation under Charles Gavan Duffy. He became involved with the Young Ireland movement, a cultural nationalist group which, following the example of socialist uprisings in Europe, by 1848 advocated physical force over political means.

Breaking with Duffy, he started a paper The United Irishman that propagated the views of the Young Ireland movement. The authorities acted and under a new Treason Felony Act arrested the leaders. Mitchel was sentenced to fourteen years penal service.
He was sent to Bermuda and then on to Van Diemens Land where the other leaders had been sent. Escaping in 1854, he sailed to Sydney and on to America where he received a hero’s welcome in New York. He became editor of The Citizen and then The Southern Citizen making many enemies for his Southern sympathies and advocation of slavery. Three of his sons served in the Civil War, two of whom were killed in action. He quarrelled with Jefferson Davis and later was imprisoned in New York for criticising the government. Through all this, his wife Jane and children remained ever loyal following him wherever he went.

Jim took us through the many conflicting parts that made up this complex character who was hated and loved in equal measure.

Brian Gillespie is one of the convenors of the Irish History Circle.