The Most Irish Parish

Aodh O'Canainn

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Although the demise of the Irish language began with the colonisation of the peninsula in 1609, the acceptance of English as the language of the home was slow until the end of the eighteenth century. I would like to think that one reason for that resistance was an awareness of the Irish language inheritance.

When Cosslett O Cuinn went to Urris he could find only a small number of people who were both able to speak Irish well and wanted to. That was a total reverse of the situation which John O'Donovan found exactly one century earlier. How long does it take a language to die in an area? To answer that question I made use of published research to compare the language shift in Inishowen with that in other parts of Ulster such as South Armagh and the Glens of Antrim. I do not include West Donegal - that bastion of Irish.

At the beginning of the last century, the strongest Irish speaking area from Inishowen eastwards was Farney in Monaghan. As can be seen in Table 1, the number of young Irish speakers, already in decline, plummeted within fifty years. The use of Irish in the Glens of Antrim, already low at the beginning of the century , was at disappearing point around the time of the famine. How then do we explain the fact that Cosslett could collect songs in Irish around the Glens in the nineteen-thirties? How do we explain that the native Irish speakers of the Glens' Irish died in the nineteen sixties? The answer is that the barony is too large a unit. The figures represent crude averages of quite different levels of Irish-speaking. There existed homogeneous areas within which Irish was spoken by a high proportion of that population. One such area in Inishowen was Urris.

Table 1: Minimum level (%) of Irish-speaking by baronies among successive cohorts born between 1811 and 1871.

Barony Born Born Born Born Born Born
1811- 1821 1821- 1831 1831- 1841 1841- 1851 1851- 1861 1861- 1871
lnishowen East 43 35 27 24 18 15
lnishowen West 16 11 7 5 4 3
Strabane Upper 41 32 30 31 24 16
Orior Upper 47 36 30 15 10 3
Farney 73 55 37 23 9 1
Dundalk Lower 43 30 21 17 11 4
Glenarm Lower 27 18 11 5 1 0


Source: Fitzgerald (1984). Estimates for baronies of minimum level (%) of Irish-speaking by baronies among successive decennial cohorts: 1771-1781 to 1861-1871. Royal Irish Academy.

The two areas which were slow to yield were the baronies of lnishowen East and Strabane upper in Tyrone. What had they got in common? Part of that answer is isolation; they were not on trade routes. The Sperrin mountains constitute an inland island, so to speak. The north of lnishowen was not, commercially speaking, en route to anywhere. On the other hand it was in sea contact with other lrish-speaking areas in Fanad and Ros Goill.




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