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  • The Irish-Speaking Clergy in the Nineteenth Century:Education, Trends, and Timing
  • Nicholas M. Wolf

Of all the factors once seen as central to Ireland's nineteenth-century language shift, the Catholic church has received the least scrutiny in attempts to reassess the period. The opprobrium heaped on Daniel O'Connell by later cultural nationalists for his utilitarian approach to language and culture—an attitude long portrayed by historians as contributing to a disdain for Irish among his multitude of followers—now looks misplaced in light of investigations into popular culture that have revealed no apparent concern with the politician's ambivalence on the issue.1 On the contrary, folk accounts about "Counsellor O'Connell" that broached the subject of language offered tales about his ability to use Irish to avoid cunning traps laid by English-speakers.2 The emphasis once placed on the national school system established in 1831 as the primary force for Anglicization has been repeatedly called into question by historians, and more recent studies have even challenged the facile connection between the acquisition of English and school-acquired literacy in general.3 As [End Page 62] early as the 1960s, Seán de Fréine's The Great Silence (1965) confronted lingering notions that the British had crudely legislated Irish out of existence, and subsequent work by de Fréine and others has discussed the decline of the language from the broader context of economic and cultural transformation in postfamine Ireland, colonialism, the intersection of Anglicization and modernity, and the long history of linguistic interplay on the island.4

When it comes to the status of Irish in the nineteenth-century Catholic church, however, the definitive assessment remains that the hierarchy, in the words of Brian Ó Cuív, "never planned collectively" to make certain that Irish-speaking priests were available for pastoral care, and that the use of Irish by church personnel had become the exception in this period.5 Conclusions reached by Maureen Wall, Oliver MacDonagh, Gearóid Ó Tuathaigh, and Máirín Nic Eoin, among others, have confirmed this finding, with the founding of St. Patrick's College, Maynooth, in 1795 seen as providing a particularly strong influence over clerical language. From Maynooth, as Wall described it, "English-speaking priests often went to minister in Irish-speaking districts."6 Not all historians have been so pessimistic about language and the church. The enthusiasm of individual clergymen and bishops for the nineteenth- and twentieth-century Gaelic revival and the earlier contributions of priests to scribal activity in Irish have been well established in sporadic [End Page 63] research.7 But this focus on the Irish-language literary and antiquarian interests of priests hardly addresses the heart of the concern expressed by Mac Donagh, Ó Tuathaigh, Ó Cuív, and Wall: the possibility that Ireland's nineteenth century clergy increasingly could not speak the language of many of its parishioners.

Setting aside for the moment the question of willingness to use Irish, it seems reasonable to ask when and to what extent monolingual English-speaking priests faced Irish-speaking congregations, and how new trends in clerical education affected this situation. Undoubtedly, English dominated student life at Maynooth and at the new colleges founded in Kilkenny, Carlow, Thurles, and Tuam, as well as in the many minor seminaries taking root in places like Cork, Wexford, Navan, Newry, Armagh, and other towns around the country from the end of the eighteenth century. But given that Latin was required in the Maynooth classroom (as well as in the classical curriculum required of matriculating students), and that the college occupied a mere six to seven years of the life of newly ordained priests, doubts must be raised as to whether education alone could alter the languages spoken by the clergy—either by creating English monoglots out of Irish-speakers, or vice-versa.8 Moreover, as Sean Connolly has cautioned, the impact of Maynooth and the domestic colleges before 1850 was considerably reduced by the prosaic fact that it took decades for the generations of priests educated before 1800 to be replaced. As late as 1853, Maynooth-trained priests made up only 53 percent of the Irish priesthood.9 This alone suggests that...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-5815
Print ISSN
1092-3977
Pages
pp. 62-83
Launched on MUSE
2008-12-19
Open Access
No
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