What happened to Irish Gaelic (as the dominant language in Ireland)?

Dia dhuit, a chara!

The Famine happened.

Contrary to popular opinion, the English/British never banned the Irish language, apart from rather unsuccessful attempts to stop the assimilation of English people in Ireland[1][2] and piecemeal efforts to restrict to English the language of the Dublin Parliament* and the courts. The Irish language did decline fastest in Leinster, the region most under English/British control. Bilingualism was common elsewhere, with monolingual Irish speakers found only in particularly remote areas.

The Irish National School system didn’t help matters. Conceived as multi-denomination schools in 1831, the language of education was strictly English, a position given extra power by the wholehearted support of the Catholic Church, who saw Irish as the language of poverty[3] . In this, they were supported by Irish-speaking parents, who were keen for their children to have access to the social and economic advantages associated with English speaking.

The Famine triggered the fastest decline, however. Partly, this was because those remote rural reservoirs of Irish-speaking were hardest hit; and partly because of emigration: speaking English was an economic necessity.

The Gaelic Revival which occurred only a few decades later did help to stop the rot, as it were, and after independence the Irish government made efforts to support the language and prevent it dying out. These have not been the roaring success the instigators doubtless expected. The reasons why are various, from the relative usefulness of English vs Irish, contrary attitudes to government mandates, the lack of inducements** (or inducements being inadequate), the boringness of the Irish curriculum in schools, a failure to set out the aims and provide measurable goals with scope for improvements[4], etc., etc.

But the critical point was the Famine, when the language lost the support of its people.

* – There’s a rather amusing tale, which may or may not be true, that when Henry VIII declared himself King (as opposed to Lord) of Ireland, the proclamation in the Irish parliament had to be translated into Irish by the one member of the parliament who spoke English.

** – When my mother was a child, there was a payment made to families who could prove they were full-time Irish speakers. A neighbour of her parents claimed this, but his wife only spoke English. So, whenever the government sent someone to check his household, his wife was sent to visit her parents, and their Irish-speaking maid stood in for her.


[1] 1537 Act for the English Order, Habit and Language

[2] Statutes of Kilkenny – Wikipedia

[3] https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1085869.pdf

[4] Dearcadh ar Athbheocan na Gaeilge on JSTOR

Why did so many Irish people in the 17th and 18th centuries identify as British, even though Ireland wasn’t part of the UK at that time? E.g. the Duke of Wellington, a large percentage of the Royal Navy and British Army, etc.

Do you have any evidence to support your claim?

I doubt it – that you have evidence, that is. You can’t even get your dates right.

  • There was no “Britain” or “UK” in the 17th century.
  • There was no UK which included Ireland in either the 17th or 18th century.
  • Irish Catholics were forbidden from joining the British Armed Forces throughout much of the period until the Papists Act 1778, and then only on condition of swearing an oath abjuring aspects of Catholic doctrine.
  • The Duke of Wellington was an Anglo-Irish Protestant, active in the late 18th and early 19th century. Irish Protestants were not prevented from joining the British Armed Forces.

Ireland was a Lordship of England from 1171, a status created by Pope Adrian VI’s Bull, Laudabiliter, in 1155 and later confirmed by his successor, Pope Alexander III. It remained a Lordship of the English Crown until Henry VIII, King of England (note: still no Britain or UK), converted it to the Kingdom of Ireland, held with the Kingdom of England in “personal communion” by the monarch.

When James I (of England ) and VI (of Scotland) ascended the English throne, he held the 3 Crowns of Scotland, England, and Ireland in personal communion. This state of affairs continued until, during the reign of Queen Anne, the Kingdoms of Scotland and England were combined by the Acts of Union 1707 into the Kingdom of Great Britain (now there’s a Britain and a UK, but one that doesn’t include Ireland). Thereafter, her heirs and successors held the 2 Crowns of Great Britain and Ireland in a personal communion, until 1800 (19th century), when, under the Acts of Union, the separate kingdoms of Great Britain and of Ireland were combined into a single Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland (a UK including Ireland).

Once Irish Catholics could join the British Army, they did so in fairly large numbers; then again, they also joined other professions in increasing numbers, as they became open to Catholics.

I think it very unlikely that any Irish people claimed to be British, except where legally required to do so. Certainly, looking at military and immigration records for my ancestors, where a place of birth was asked for, the answer was “Ireland”, not the UK; and where citizenship (UK) was required, there was usually a second question about nationality, where they answered “Irish”. NB: most of my ancestors were Irish Protestants – it was not unusual for Irish Protestants (such as the Duke of Wellington) to claim to be both Irish and British and to think no more of it than a US citizen would of calling themselves both American and Oklahoman. My ancestors appear to have considered themselves more Irish than British, however, and I can’t think of a reason why Irish Catholics would not have considered themselves similarly, the legal niceties be damned.

Could someone explain in brief, why Ireland wanted independence from the British Empire?

Obviously, Ireland is mainly Catholic and I think the people also felt like they had no real business being part of the U.K, but could I get a little more detail? Been living in Scotland for about a year and still am confused, haha.

Almost any country, finding itself subject to another, would want its freedom and independence. Living in Scotland, you’ve doubtless heard plenty about Scotland’s desire to leave the UK, and Scotland wasn’t treated nearly as badly as Ireland under British rule. They didn’t get off Scot-free (sic), but they had it a lot better than Ireland.

tl;dr – Cromwell, the Penal Laws, the Great Famine, and Northern Ireland: the Four Horsemen of the Irish Apocalypse.

The issues in Ireland didn’t really have much to do with religion, although religion came to be used as a shorthand for the two sides. I’ve written an answer elsewhere on the role of religion in the Anglo-Irish conflict which would be of interest: Ireland wasn’t truly Catholic until the first influx of British (the Normans) made it so. It was the Plantation of Ulster when Protestantism vs. Catholicism became the front-line of the conflict. Even then, it might have been avoided, but for two things:

  1. Cromwell’s war in Ireland. This was a truly vicious burnt-earth campaign, including the horrific massacre of Drogheda, the banishment of the entire Irish population to Connaught in the west, and the selling of Irish people as slaves in the Carribbean.
  2. The Penal Laws. These were instituted by Parliament, in defiance of the relatively generous Declaration of Finglas and Treaty of Limerick that ended the Williamite War in Ireland, and imposed significant restrictions on Catholics and Dissenters (non-Anglican Protestants, such as Presbyterians).

Now, even this might have been overcome, especially given the fact that many of Ireland’s rebel leaders were of Dissenter stock, but for the Great Famine, when approximately 1/8 of the population died of starvation over the course of a few years, while Ireland as a whole exported millions of pounds-worth of food to Britain. Britain, for the most part, ignored the famine – there were some exceptions, but not nearly enough was done. There’s a church near me with an odd lumpy patch of ground near the gate: it’s where the dozens of poles, used to carry famine victims from around the area to a mass grave in the graveyard, were left, and decayed. In many ways, that innocent-looking lump is more visceral than the big trench at the end of the graveyard, where uncounted hundreds lie.

The final piece of the jigsaw was partition and its aftermath. Home Rule had been a bipartisan movement from its founding in 1870, attracting Catholics and Protestants*, but when Ireland got its home rule in 1922, an exceptional clause in the treaty permitted the Protestant statelet of Northern Ireland to be formed for those Protestants that did not want to be a minority in the Irish Free State. Subsequently, the authorities in Northern Ireland became highly discriminatory to Catholics, limiting their political representation and access to jobs and housing. This led to the Civil Rights Movement in Northern Ireland, which was unfortunately hijacked by more violent elements within nationalism. The ensuing violence, which included loyalist paramilitary action as well as nationalist, became the Troubles. However, there were Protestants involved in nationalist paramilitary organisations, and at least one Catholic attempted to join a loyalist gang: it was simply easier to label one side Catholic and the other Protestant, than to get into republican socialist, nationalist liberationist, loyalist freedom fighters, volunteer forces, etc., etc.

* – Even Anglican Protestants didn’t get a good deal off Britain: the British government instituted tariffs and protectionist policies that effectively prevented Ireland having an industrial revolution, and made such industry as existed less profitable – and those industries were mostly in the hands of Anglicans.

Are Irish soldiers who fought for the Empire considered veterans, and remembered by Irish republic, and its Armed forces?

Yes and no.

If you go to Protestant churches, you’ll find Rolls of Honour to those members of the parish who died in the world wars, and sometimes in other wars. This was rare to non-existent in Catholic churches. There is the Irish National War Memorial Garden which was created to remember the Irish soldiers of WWI, but which, due to controversies, didn’t get opened until 1940, when another generation of Irish people were fighting in another world war. After the 1950s, the garden fell into neglect, and was only re-opened in 1988.

However, times are changing, and there is definitely more interest in finding out about, and recognising, the Irish who served.

Was Ireland a fully sovereign country from 1931 to 1937?

In the Anglo-Irish Treaty, Ireland became semi-independent, just like Canada. It was not a sovereign country, but a dominion.

In 1937, Ireland had a new constitution “officially” becoming independent. However, in 1931, due to the Statute of Westminster, all dominions became officially independent.

Constitutions do not make countries or establish sovereignty: the UK doesn’t have one, except insofar as the Acts of Parliament and court judgements form the basis of an informal constitution. Ireland has had a Constitution since its inception as the Irish Free State in 1922. The 1937 Constitution was its second constitution.

Sovereignty is established, and invested in parliaments, by the 1689 English Bill of Rights, which devolved to Britain’s dominions. So, in that respect, Ireland could be said to have been a sovereign state as soon as the Dáil (the Irish parliament) was set up.

Dominion status – in particular, the rights of dominions to enact their own legislation and ratify their own treaties – began to be challenged almost as soon as the Irish Free State was formed. It was those rascally Canadians who started it, by refusing to become involved when the Chanak Crisis almost lead to war between Britain and Turkey. Then, those rebellious Canucks doubled down on their treasonous naughtiness by signing the Halibut Treaty with the USA. And I bet they never even said sorry. These events led to the 1926 Balfour Declaration, which stated that the UK and its dominions were “autonomous Communities within the British Empire, equal in status, in no way subordinate one to another in any aspect of their domestic or external affairs…” Thus, if not defined by the 1689 Act, dominions were effectively sovereign states under this declaration. The Irish Free State itself pushed back at its dominion status by joining the League of Nations in 1923, and gradually stripping away British involvement in Ireland.

The Statute of Westminster recognised – and tidied up – changes that had already occurred. The new Irish Constitution did the same thing, within Ireland.

Why do so many people support the actions of the IRA?

My first thought is that you must mean the ‘old’ IRA, from the days of partition. This IRA supported the Anglo-Irish Treaty which established the Irish Free State, and became the Free State’s National Army.

The anti-Treaty IRA, or Irregulars, were widely hated in the Free State and later Republic for their actions in the Irish Civil War. Their paramilitary successors inherited the Irregulars’ aim of de-stabilising the Irish government and nation, as a secondary objective to the terrorist campaign in Northern Ireland. As such, the IRA of the Troubles had little support in the Republic. It has always been a bit of a mystery to us why Americans, in particular, would support an essentially Marxist, terrorist, organisation that wanted to destroy not just Northern Ireland, but the Republic as well.

The ‘old’, pro-Treaty IRA did have some respect. One might compare this attitude to that held of the ANC in South Africa. It was felt that they had a legitimate reason for their actions, and, having achieved (part of) their aims by way of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, they did the honourable thing and supported it.

What was Bernadette Devlin’s role in the troubles?

Bernadette Devlin McAliskey didn’t really ‘fit’ with the Troubles, although she was a shooting star at the very start.

From a working class Catholic background, she was a socialist, and became involved while at university in the Civil Rights Movement which was hijacked by the Troubles. As such, she had perhaps more in common with the US civil rights activists and other student activists of the late 1960s than she did with Irish nationalism. She always claimed that, despite her sympathies for the republican movement in Northern Ireland, she was essentially non-sectarian and wanted to work for all the people of Northern Ireland.

Until Mhairi Black of the SNP became a Member of Parliament, McAliskey was the youngest woman to take a seat in Westminster, at only 22, as a republican-aligned Unity politician. Her maiden speech (for, unlike other nationalist MPs, she did not practice abstention) was considered one of the best since Disraeli’s in the 1830s. In it, she tried to explain the difficulties that Northern Irish Catholics faced. Interviewed recently, she said the speech came from her political naivety: “I didn’t think the government was bad. I genuinely thought they just didn’t know and if I just went to London to tell them, people would say, ‘Do you hear that young woman there? We need to do something about that.’ But then I realised: the bastards, they do know and not only do they know, they don’t see anything wrong with it.”

She later served a prison sentence for her part in organising the working class residents of Derry in the Battle of the Bogside, and witnessed the events of Bloody Sunday in the city. Then an independent socialist MP, she gained notoriety by slapping a fellow MP, Reginald Maudling, for comments he made about Bloody Sunday.

She gave birth to a daughter, Róisín, in 1971. This was a considerable scandal as she was unmarried, and it cost her some political support amongst Catholics.

By 1974, her public political life was over. She lost her seat in parliament in the general election, and has never held political office since, despite running for election to a number of bodies.

Later that year, she helped found the Irish Republican Socialist Party, a splinter group from Official Sinn Féin, but left after a failed attempt to co-opt the Irish Nationalist Liberation Army terrorist group. I’m not sure of the details – did she leave because the attempt failed, or because the attempt was made in the first place (given her claimed non-sectarian stance, it’s interesting that the INLA had some Protestant members). However, she later supported the blanket protest and the dirty protest, and was the main spokesperson for the Smash H-Blocks Campaign, which supported the republican prisoners’ hunger strike, all of which involved INLA prisoners.

In 1981, she and her husband were shot in their home by members of the Ulster Freedom Fighters.

Currently, she runs the South Tyrone Empowerment Project, which advocates for migrants.

What was the O’Donnell clan in Ireland?

Their territory was in mainly Donegal, Ireland. Apparently, my family were their stockmen and cattle drivers (Timoney, or Ó Tiománaigh). If anyone has any info on the Timoneys as well, that would be awesome.

Timoney is a fairly rare surname in Ireland. I believe there are some in Leinster, but it’s more common in Donegal and Leitrim. That rarity should help you find them more easily (seriously – there’s only about 80 in the Irish phonebook – you could get round them all in a week, easily).

There are Timoneys and Timonys in County Donegal. There was one family who were my grandfather’s neighbours, but I don’t know if any survive – most died of TB in the 1930s, and of the survivors, only one, a girl, married. The other Timoneys live in Donegal town, Laghey, Ballintra, and Ballyshannon.

I would not put any faith in stories of their being the O’Donnells’ cattlemen, though – it sounds like a fanciful suggestion from ‘tiománaí’, the Irish word for ‘driver’, as in a person who drives a car, bus, stagecoach, etc. However, a driver or drover of animals – cattle, mules, camels – is ‘cinnire’. One source claims Timoney derives from an old word for kettle-drum, but I don’t trust that much either. Many Irish surnames are difficult to decipher, as they come from words lost to history.

Why is the conflict in Northern Ireland cast as Catholic vs Protestant when it seems (to me) to be British vs Irish?

800 years is a long time. It’s so long ago that:

  1. There were no Protestants. There were some faiths that evolved into Protestantism through more or less convoluted paths, but the Protestant Reformation was a good 2–400 years later.
  2. The Roman Catholic Church had only been invented a couple of centuries previously following the Great Schism, and wasn’t the power it became.
  3. Ireland wasn’t really Catholic even by the standards of the time (see above).
  4. Ireland also wasn’t really Ireland, but a variable number of warring kingdoms with a more but mostly less effective referee (High King).
  5. There was no Britain. There was barely an England, and it was French.

Now that I’ve cleared that up for you, I’m sure you can see your way to the answer.


Okay, the English and some not-quite-onboard Welsh – who were all actually Frenchmen descended from Vikings – went to not-Ireland to help one of the warring kings of not-Ireland against all the other kings of not-Not-Ireland and the referee-king. Following the not-invasion and ensuing not-conquest, the French Viking not-English-and-not-Welsh brought not-quite-Catholicism to some parts of not-Ireland. Not-Ireland had signed up about 100 years previously to the not-quite Catholic Church – having been a lot closer doctrinally to the Orthodox Churches from which the not-quite Catholic Church had recently schismed – but the not-Irish had signed up to the even-more-not-quite-Catholic Church on several occasions since Patrick popped his pampooties and had not followed through, so the not-quite-Catholic Church was keen for a little more cooperation and enforcement on the matter.

Through centuries fraught with attempted takeovers by the Germans and Spanish and actual takeovers by the Welsh, Scots, Dutch and the Germans (more successfully this time), French-England-and-Wales became Great Britain, then not-proper-Catholic, then Protestant, then proper-Catholic-as-understood-at-the-time, then Protestant again, then maybe-Catholic, then ultra-fundamentalist-Protestant, then who knows under Charles II, then Catholic, then Protestant, where it finally stuck. During this period, not-Ireland became Ireland under British rule, and the natives progressively more Catholic. This happened largely without the nation-wide convulsions seen over the water until the very end, when the last British Protestant-Catholic war was fought in Ireland by a Pope-backed Protestant against a Franco-Scottish Catholic. Such was the confusion engendered by this bizarre confluence that they forgot to take it with them when they went back to Britain – or rather, to continental Europe, where both William and James (titular kings of Britain and Ireland) spent much of the rest of their lives.

Now: William, King Billy, was more concerned with getting his big white horse over to the continent to continue his wars there, than he was about his English throne or Ireland, and signed a surprisingly modern, non-punitive treaty to end the war in Ireland. Unfortunately, Parliament, frankly knackered from a century and a half of turmoil which had seen them variously kicked out of their jobs, hung drawn and quartered, burned as heretics, or on the run in foreign parts, decided they simply were Not Having That. Hence, the Penal Laws.

Lest ye be thinking the mud of confusion is finally beginning to sink to the bottom of the flowing stream of this narrative, fear not: the Penal Laws didn’t just affect the Irish (they applied in Scotland, England and Wales too) or even just Catholics (anyone who wasn’t a member of the Anglican faith was subject too – Presbyterians, Quakers, Jews…). Partly as a result of this, many of the Irish rebel leaders and agitators for home rule and/or Irish independence from then onwards were in fact Protestant, including Wolfe Tone, Robert Emmet, William Smith O’Brien, Charles Stuart Parnell, Erskine Childers, and Douglas Hyde.

It was really only after partition that the conflict coalesced into a Protestant vs. Catholic division, and, even then, only in Northern Ireland. The religious terms gloss the two traditions, and have come to be applied, retrospectively and inaccurately, to the demented carousel that is Irish history.

Did the English actually drive the Irish out of Northern Ireland and repopulate it with Scots and Welsh?

Yes no sorta.

Oliver Cromwell is the person who attempted to drive all the native Irish out of Ulster, Leinster, and Munster, and into Connaught (plus County Clare, which is in Munster, but on the Connaught side of the River Shannon. I suppose “To Hell or to Connaught” is a better soundbite than “To Hell or to the west of the Shannon and also the bits of Connaught that are north of the Shannon”).

This policy was not the overwhelming success he hoped for. Some did move, but some didn’t, and quite a few went back after Cromwell left Ireland.

There were other instances of Irish people being moved from their land so that land could be given to people loyal to the English king (or queen), but that was piecemeal by comparison. The Ulster Plantation in particular was supposed to be cleared. However, Irish society in that period was semi-nomadic, and thus weren’t always around to be told to clear out, IYSWIM. They might stay in an area for a growing season to raise a crop, or for longer or shorter periods depending on habit and circumstance. After the Plantation, they mostly continued the nomadic lifestyle, often side by side with the Planters (this led to conflict, obviously, as the Planters would settle the better land, reluctantly leaving the rest to the Irish). Also, some native Irish who had supported the British in the Nine Years War were granted lands as part of the Plantation, so they obviously couldn’t be cleared out.

Ultimately, however, the British milords rarely arrived with enough of their British peasants to manage and work the land they’d been granted. For that matter Ireland was far from the kind of cleared and enclosed agricultural land that Britain was, so the British peasants were thoroughly out of their depth anyway. The result was that they were dependent on the native Irish population.

So, to sum up, an A for intention, a D for effort, and an F for effectiveness.