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  • Gaels on the Pacific:The Irish Language Department in the San Francisco Monitor, 1888–91*
  • Matthew Knight (bio)

Oscn 14 March 1888, without any prior announcement, an Irish-language column appeared on page two of the weekly Monitor, the official publication of the Catholic Archdiocese of San Francisco.1 Titled simply the Irish Language Department, it became a regular feature in the newspaper from 1888 to 1891 and included material and editorials contributed by members of the local Cumann Gaedhilge/Gaelic Literary Society (hereafter GLS).2 Declaring the cultivation and preservation of the Irish language as its main objective, the Monitor's Irish department offered original and translated poetry and prose, "Easy Lessons," and reprinted material from other Irish and Irish American publications to achieve that end. Although the existence of the Irish column in the Monitor has been given brief mention in the historiography of the period, a systematic examination of this newspaper's Irish department and its role in the transatlantic effort to promote the study of Irish has yet to be undertaken.3 Moreover, although the [End Page 172] Irish immigrant experience in San Francisco is often considered to be one of positive integration and acculturation, exempt from the stereotypical patterns of the East Coast Irish, many Irish Americans did embrace their "hyphenation" and joined clubs and societies to strengthen their bonds of group solidarity.4 Apart from the GLS, for example, San Francisco had Fenian circles, chapters of the Land League, Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH) branches, a Hibernian Benevolent Society, a Robert Emmet Club, and Irish Sufferers Relief circles, just to name a few.5 This article strives to give the contributors to the Irish department in the Monitor—and the GLS of San Francisco—a rightful place in the conversation regarding Irish language cultivation efforts in the nineteenth century. Further, although the Irish may have succeeded in San Francisco more than in most American cities, many immigrants and their relations still believed that the Irish language had a significant role to play in the fifth-largest Irish city in the United States, and their story has yet to be told.6

At the outset, it is important to clarify the terminology used in this article and in its source material. Quite often, efforts made in the United States to promote the study of the Irish language in the second half of the nineteenth century carry the label "revivalist." This is clearly problematic, considering Irish was never an indigenous language [End Page 173] in America. Certainly, many Irish Americans perceived a degradation of Irish culture evident in the gradual decline of the language in Ireland, but their varied experiences and cultural anxieties in their adopted home led to multiple perspectives regarding the current and future condition of Irish.7 For those Irish Americans who endeavored to cultivate and valorize the Irish language, Máirín Nic Eoin has established a useful framework for defining their potential motivations. The first of these involved the preservation, dissemination, and explication of Irish traditional material found in manuscripts or in the oral tradition. Another incentive was the teaching and learning of the language, including the promotion of Irish-language literacy among native speakers and learners alike. Finally, many who possessed a solid grasp of Irish felt that translating and adapting foreign-language poetry and prose, as well as composing and publishing original works, might encourage participation from others, expanding the movement and the discourse.8 Other scholars have pushed this analysis one step further. Úna Ní Bhroiméil notes that Irish Americans might have better assimilated to their new country if they had "a badge of ethnicity that indicated an ancient and glorious past rather than a demeaned and debased one," while Fionnuala Uí Fhlannagáin has linked the cultivation of the Irish language in the United States to the Fenians and the physical-force independence movement.9 In this light, when the term "revival" is used in the historiography or in the source material relating to the Irish language in America, it might refer to any combination of the motivations listed above; according to Fionntán de Brún, this simply reflects the natural extension and...


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