The Most Irish Parish

Aodh O'Canainn

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Relentless Anglicisation

It is easy to blame the Famine for the major shift to English in Irish-speaking areas but there was a big decline in Irish in the 1820-1850 period as a result of the schools, economic relationships with Britain and a shift of interest from continental Europe to America. The language change in Urris came late in the century .Perhaps the heavy emigration of the 1860s was the final twist of the screw. English was the language of State, commerce, education and Church, not only in their parents time but in that of their grandparents. When a new church was consecrated in Urris, in 1889, not a word of Irish was used although it was the first language of a majority of the adult population. That event must have confirmed to parents that they were right to cease speaking Irish to the young.

One result of independence was that the State policies in favour of Irish helped to stabilise the Irish language in strong Gaeltacht areas. Urris was not in that league. The Irish heard in Inishowen today is that of people from Gaeltacht areas or of people who acquired it. It may be scattered but it is alive.

There was only a twenty year difference between Urris and the rest of the parish as regards the language shift but people there were made feel "backward" because of their retaining Irish longer. The mockers were more to be pitied than the mocked. They were both victims of self-denigration. When a community abandons one language for another, the next generation feels compelled to decry the older culture in order to reassure itself about the decision. Following generations, however, can afford the luxury of a reappraisal.

Conclusion

There are two lessons to be learned from the decline of the Irish language in Inishowen. Firstly, it was the abandonment of Irish in the public arena that hastened its demise as a home language. Secondly we should put the blame on our own people and stop trying to externalise it. The language shift impoverished people and ruptured emotional links. The lore that Cosslett collected from Peigí Ní Shearcaigh helps us to span that discontinuity. The dream I share with Cosslett is to see the people of Inishowen recuperating their Irish-language heritage and expressing it again in song, in drama, in the spoken and in the written word.




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