In Northern Ireland today the Irish language is used as a strong marker of cultural identity and, as such, is highly politicised. The most high-profile disagreement over the Irish Language Act (Acht na Gaeilge) – proposed legislation that would give the Irish language equal status to English across Northern Ireland – contributed to the three-year suspension of Stormont from 2017-20. Even as recently as this summer an Irish language pre-school, which was set to be the first to open in the traditionally unionist heartland of east Belfast, was forced to relocate because of a social media hate campaign. However, as is often the case, it has not always been this way. The Celtic Language we now know as Irish came to Ireland before 300BC and by the ninth Century had spread over much of Scotland, parts of Northern Britain and the Isle of Man. By the nineteenth century, the language was seen as a common heritage, with Ulster Protestants playing a leading role in the Gaelic revival. In this week’s blog post we’ll be exploring the history of the Irish language in North Belfast and the different languages that exist across North Belfast Heritage Cluster!
By the late seventeenth century English was well established as the language of the Law and of government and public institutions throughout Ireland. The use of Irish was discouraged, though not prohibited in everyday affairs, and the language declined in social status becoming the language of the poor and rural classes. This symbolic shift away from Irish established what has been termed a ‘dynamic of decline’ for the language.
In the early nineteenth century, around 40% of the population spoke Irish, compared to around 30% in 1845, the eve of the Great Famine (1845-52). In 1851, the first census to register language returned the number of Irish speakers as 1,524,286 or roughly 25% of the population. Whilst Irish was showing signs of decline before 1845, the process was accelerated by death and emigration during the Great Famine. Those who died or emigrated during the Great Famine were disproportionately Irish speakers, mainly because the famine hit the rural areas, especially on the West of the island, the hardest. The latter part of the nineteenth and early part of the twentieth century were characterised by further decline in the proportion of the population speaking Irish, especially in Ulster, as social and economic pressures further accentuated the language shift toward English. As we touched on in previous posts, the growth of Belfast as an urban centre in the nineteenth century reflected a wider pattern of rural to urban migration across the island. The growth of industry and commerce attracted large numbers of Ulster’s predominantly rural population to the town in search of employment in the docks and mills.
Gaelic League and Revival:
In the late nineteenth century, the Gaelic Revival emerged as a response to the decline in both the Irish Language and traditional Gaelic culture (e.g. folklore, sports, music, arts). In 1893, six years after he left St. Malachy’s college, Eoin Mac Neill co-founded the Gaelic League (Conradh na Gaeilge) with Douglas Hyde to promote the Irish language and culture in the face of its massive decline amongst the native people. The Gaelic League stressed that their mission was non-political; this was due in no small part to the divisive nature of Irish politics. This wish was prominent in the League’s constitution with the second clause stating that the League shall be ‘strictly non–political and non-sectarian’. In a speech in New York in 1905, Douglas Hyde echoed this sentiment commenting that “The Irish language, thank God, is neither Protestant nor Catholic, it is neither a Unionist nor a Separatist.”
Hyde, the son of a Church of Ireland rector from Roscommon, became the League’s first president and helped to create an ethos in the early days that attracted a number of unionists into its ranks. Remarkably, these included the Rev. Dr Richard Rutledge Kane (1841-1898), a leading Orangeman, County Grand Master of Belfast, and organiser of the Anti-Home Rule Convention of 1892! Kane presided over the opening of the new Clifton Street Orange Hall in January 1885. Politically, Kane was a Conservative and Unionist and a vocal opponent of Home Rule and William Gladstone’s conversion to this cause, gaining him the nickname ‘Roarer Kane’ in the Irish nationalist press. When Kane died in a number of Orange lodges were named in his memory. Perhaps more surprisingly, his headstone was also engraved with the phrase ‘Loyal Irish Patriot’.
Kane’s position as a Protestant Minister, Orangeman and Irish Language advocate complicates our understanding of Irish language politics. In the late Victorian period, prior to partition and the politicisation of Gaelic language and culture, Belfast Protestants like Kane took an active role in conserving and documenting the Irish language. Belfast Orange Hall holds items in its archive collection with Irish script, including banners! As the league developed it was seen more broadly to counter the ongoing anglicisation of the country and promote Irish nationalism through cultural expressions of language and literature. By 1904, the League’s membership extended to some 50,000 members in 600 branches. In the 1920s the League met at St. Malachy’s College on the Antrim Road.
Whilst English is the most spoken language in Northern Ireland, there are also two recognised regional languages in Northern Ireland; the Irish language and the local variety of Scots known as Ulster Scots. Both languages were recognised as ‘part of the cultural wealth of Northern Ireland’ under the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. In addition, there are also numerous other languages in North Belfast that represent the newer communities in Northern Ireland.
Indian migration to Northern Ireland dates back almost a century and newcomers predominantly arrived from the northern states of India, specifically Punjab and Gujarat. India is vast, housing around 1.1. billion people and regional differences mean more than a change in accent. India is administratively organized into 35 entities, each as big as many independent nations! There are 28 States and seven Union Territories, broadly set up on the linguistic principle. Each Indian state also happens to be pluri-cultural and demonstrates a great degree of multilingualism. Therefore, while most migrants from Punjab speak Punjabi (92.2%) there are also pockets of Hindi and Urdu. Similarly, migrants from Gujarat predominantly speak Gujarati (91.5%) but also Hindi and Sindhi.
More recently, the 2011 census revealed that, after English, the top three main languages recorded for Northern Irish residents, were Polish (1.02%), Lithuanian (0.36%), and Irish (0.24%) reflecting both the newest wave of international migration and the continued existence of two national cultures.
Today the Irish language is highly politicised and is seen by many to represent just one community. However, this is not the case. In the nineteenth century, the language was seen as a common heritage, with Ulster Protestants playing a leading role in the Gaelic revival. The Gaelic League aimed to be ‘strictly non–political and non-sectarian’ and it achieved this in the early days.
Although ideas of culture and identity in Northern Ireland are complex and at times contradictory, the societal importance of ‘culture’ can offer opportunities for connection and communication both within traditional communities and with the newer communities that now call Northern Ireland home. Migrant communities bring their own languages which are equally important to those that are already recognised as regional languages in Northern Ireland. We hope that by ‘Celebrating Diversity: Past and Present’ and exploring some important elements of culture in more detail we have gone a small way to explore and challenge the traditional ideas around culture, community, and identity in Northern Ireland today. Keep your eyes peeled for the next feature!
 Cormac Ó Gráda, “The Great Irish Famine”, Cambridge University Press, 1989.
 Gaelic League (Ireland), The constitution of the Gaelic League: as amended by the Árd-Fheis, Dublin, 1903 (Special Collections Library, Queen’s University Belfast).
 From the 2011 census. ttps://www.nisra.gov.uk/sites/nisra.gov.uk/files/publications/2011-census-results-key-statistics-northern-ireland-report-11-december-2012.pdf