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The Irish language and the Church of Ireland

The Irish language and the Church of Ireland

An Ghaeilge
An Ghaeilge

The Irish language
Irish (An Ghaeilge) was the main language of the people of Ireland for most of their recorded history. It was brought by the Irish (then known as the Scotii) to Scotland and the Isle of Man, giving rise to Scottish Gaelic and Manx. It has the oldest vernacular literature in western Europe and is today the first official language of the Republic of Ireland, a recognised minority language in Northern Ireland and an official language of the European Union.

With the coming of the Anglo–Normans in the late 12th century the position of Irish in Dublin and other large towns was gradually weakened, though for centuries the authorities were concerned that many of the settlers not only adopted Irish social customs, but also spoke the language. Until well into the 17th century it remained the tongue of most of the population. However, a dramatic decline occurred in the 19th century, hastened by the Great Famine and the spread of state–sponsored elementary education conducted entirely through the medium of English. In certain areas of the country Irish survived as the language of the people, and was the medium of instruction in some, though not all, of the unofficial ‘hedge’ or ‘pay’ schools. But English, being the language of the political, professional and commercial classes, was seen as the key to further education and social advancement.

Such was the parlous state of the language by the late 19th century, when its everyday use was largely confined to the Gaeltacht regions of the south–west, west and north–west, that a movement for its preservation, the Gaelic League (Conradh na Gaeilge) came into being. One of the League’s founders was Douglas Hyde, a son of the rector of Frenchpark, Co. Roscommon. This was an area in which spoken Irish survived to some extent, and captured the imagination of the young Hyde, as, indeed, it did of a number of other members of the Church of Ireland.

The Church of Ireland and the language in the past
Considerable debate continues as to the extent to which the widespread failure by the leaders of the Reformation in Ireland to convert the wider population to the teachings of the Established Church can be attributed to their ignoring the fact that the great majority of the populace was Irish–speaking. Certainly, they were betraying a crucial Reformation principle: bringing the Church to the people in their own language. Some effort was made. The first book printed in Irish in Ireland was an Irish alphabet and catechism published with type presented by Queen Elizabeth I. Subsequently, Bishop Bedell of Kilmore was instrumental in having an Irish translation of the Old Testament made– this was printed after his death in 1685 along with a translation by William Daniel, Archbishop of Tuam, of the New Testament. Crucial to the failure of the Reformation to make greater progress was the lack of Irish–speaking clergy (despite the requirement laid down by Bedell, when provost of Trinity, that ordinands intended for Irish–speaking districts must attend Irish classes) Furthermore, there was a widespread belief in political and ecclesiastical circles that the Reformation must go hand in hand with the ‘civilising’ (in other words, the Anglicising) of the people. The banishment of Irish from public life was seen as a key instrument in that process of Anglicisation. The so–called “second reformation “ of the early 19th century, particularly in the West of Ireland, saw further efforts to advance the reformed faith with the use of Irish–speaking worship materials and the deployment of Irish–speaking clergy.

Yet whatever the attitude of the Church authorities to the language, the major renaissance in Celtic studies in the mid to late 19th century with its fresh academic appreciation of Irish language and literature owed much to scholars with a Church of Ireland background. Douglas Hyde, who was destined to be the first president of the independent Irish state, has already been mentioned for his seminal role in the foundation of the Gaelic League and remains an iconic figure in the Irish–speaking world. But there were many other such scholars, including clergymen such as James Henthorn Todd, Charles Graves and EJ Gwynne. A number of Church of Ireland laity played leading roles in the Anglo–Irish Literary Revival, especially WB Yeats, Lady Augusta Gregory, JM Synge and Seán O’Casey, all of them inspired by their dedication to Irish language and culture.

The language in the Church of Ireland to–day
Dedication to the survival of Irish, and in the case of some (including Hyde) its restoration as the everyday language of communication, was a growing phenomenon not only among Church of Ireland academics, but also among a small but determined minority of Church members. Influenced strongly by the cultural revival outlined above, in 1914 the Irish Guild of the Church (Cumann Gaelach na hEaglaise) was founded with the purpose of preserving the spirit of the ancient Celtic Church and promoting the use of Irish language, art and music in its life and worship. The Guild, which to–day receives funding from the General Synod, has been responsible for such noteworthy publications as Canon Cosslett Quin’s New Testament in Irish (An Tiomna Nua) and his translation of Holy Communion 1984 (Ord Ceiliúrtha na Comaoine Naofa, dá ngairtear i nGaeilge an tAifreann) The Cumann has also published the Irish version of The Book of Common Prayer 2004 (Leabhar na hUrnaí Coitinne 2004), very much the work of the Ven. Gary Hastings and his wife Caitríona. Regular services in Irish have been held for many years in Dublin and more recently in Armagh, Belfast Galway and Kilkenny. An interdenominational service in Irish is held annually in the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin where the Guild is based, and where settings of Urnaí na Nóna (Evensong) commissioned by the Guild are sung by the cathedral choir. A regular article in Irish appears monthly in the Dublin and Glendalough Church Review, as does an occasional column in the Church of Ireland Gazette.

A major stimulus to the Guild’s work was given by the appointment in 2011 of a full–time language development officer to promote its activities. This position is funded by Foras na Gaeilge, a North–South body that has state funding.  

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