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War on the Irish Language


The July 9, 1921 edition of The Gaelic American contained an article titled “War on the Irish Language.” The article reported, “The war on the Irish language by the English government has never ceased… Threats for having Gaelic names displayed over shops have now been followed by destruction of these shops. Frightening the parents of children who attended Gaelic classes is now succeeded by burning the Irish language colleges…” The article then related the assassination of Gaelic language activists, Sean O’Brien, Timothy O’Donoghue, and Sean Carroll by British forces.
Caitríona Ní Choigligh comments on the continuing “war on the Irish language.This article was first published July 2021 and has been edited & republished February 1, 2023.

The Irish language and the Irish language community have tackled many human rights and equality issues since 1921. 

In comparison to the article ‘War on the Irish Language’ written in The Gaelic American in 1921; the murder of Irish language activists seems to be a crime of the past, but language discrimination remains.

During the Troubles in 1984, my Irish teacher, Brendán Ó Fiaich, was arrested and fined for speaking Irish instead of English when questioned at a checkpoint in Belfast. Ó Fiaich stated that “Irish is the language of Ireland and should be allowed to be spoken”. You can watch the RTE archive video of the incident here. 

The number of Irish language schools in the North of Ireland is growing and many in Ireland are proud to speak their native language. Unfortunately, one hundred years after that article in The Gaelic American, there is still a war on the Irish language and ignorance from the British Government towards the Irish language is still prevalent.

Currently, the divided opinions of Northern Ireland politics, particularly in regards to the Northern Irish Protocol, have seen equality issues regarding the Irish language come to the fore. 

Some DUP members have been publicly disrespectful to the Irish language and the Irish language community, and their party strongly resisted the passage of the Irish Language Act despite numerous promises to enact the language equality legislation.

The Irish language legislation recently passed will provide official recognition of the Irish language in Northern Ireland and sets out to support, protect and enhance the development of the Irish Language. 

The Irish language community was furious with unionist politicians dragging their feet to implement the Irish Language Act which dates back to commitments made in the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. 

While this legislation has now been enacted, discrimination remains. Last summer, an Irish language-medium school in East Belfast was forced to relocate after intimidation and threats from loyalist agitators. Earlier this week, after St. Malachy’s High School (where Irish is taught) representatives visited Clough Primary School (C.P.S.) for a school information day, a sign was erected stating, “Keep Irish out of our kids classrooms. St. Malachy’s not welcome at C.P.S.”

Showing his contempt for the language which gave him his own name and the original names of his community, Unionist councillor Harold McKee (TUV) said: “Clough is a village with a strong loyalist identity and I am not surprised that there are people in the area who are concerned about Irish language which has been imposed across the council area against the wishes of many communities… The language has unquestionably been weaponised by republicanism down through the years so any backlash against it lies at the feet of that movement.“

It is another example of how the “war on the Irish language” continues.

A country without a language is a country without a soul! – Tír gan teanga, tír gan anam!

By Caitríona Ní Choigligh.

Produced with thanks to Villanova University who have digitized their archives of The Gaelic American 1903-1924 from the Joe McGarrity Collection.

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