Why are there no genealogical records in the Irish language?

There are two sure-fire ways to make someone brought up in Ireland squirm. The first – especially effective if you’re North American and wearing tartan trousers – is to ask about “the leprechauns”. Watch them furtively check out the nearest exits.

Aidan Doyle’s excellent ‘History of the Irish Language’

The second is to ask if they speak Irish. Almost everyone in the country has undergone fourteen or fifteen years of daily lessons in the language and almost everyone can just about come out with a few fragments of token pidgin (the cúpla focail).

The result is a profound, squirming ambivalence about the language. On the one hand, it’s dinned into us from an early age that Irish is “part of who we are”, an ancient tongue uniquely evolved to embody the Irish national character, the official language of the state. On the other hand, our real mother tongue is English, and has been the mother tongue of our ancestors back more than six generations. And the Irish we were taught in school was not a language like French or German, a medium of communication. It was a form of advanced obedience training, a series of phenomenally complicated grammatical hoops to be jumped through.

Aidan Doyle’s  A History of the Irish Language (Oxford, 2015) sheds much light on how this state of affairs came about.  The author, a lecturer in Irish and linguistics in UCC, approaches Irish from the point of view of historical linguistics rather than with the customary deference of Irish-language revivalism. He concludes that as early as the mid-eighteenth century the language was doomed as an evolving, living, European vernacular. The annihilation of the Irish-speaking propertied classes in the wars of the previous century meant it had no chance to develop “print-capitalism”: no newspapers, pamphlets, contracts, novels, advertisements. It had been made the language of the dispossessed, spoken only, beautiful and utterly powerless.

But Doyle’s most extraordinary finding is that the language as it now exists was virtually re-invented in the late 19th century. The revival movement started and led by Douglas Hyde was an Irish version of the contemporary Europe-wide mania for nationhood, combining crude ideas about evolution with near-racist notions of ethnic purity.

It was a very strong mixture. Here is Hyde writing about his relationship with Irish in 1886: “…the language I spoke from my cradle, the language my father and grandfather and all my ancestors in an unbroken line leading up into the remote twilight of antiquity have spoken … “.

Douglas Hyde c. 1885

Hyde’s family came to Ireland in the Elizabethan era and were granted land in Cork in return for services to England. He learned Irish in his teens, and was almost certainly the first member of his family ever to speak it. The power of his desire for a Gaelic Irish identity to match Magyar Hungarian and Bohemian Czech must have been almost overwhelming. It was certainly blinding.

The language became a potent symbol of national identity, more important than any linguistic facts. And that is what led to its reinvention. For the enthusiasts of Hyde’s Gaelic League, the actual language still spoken in parts of the remote west and south was impure, debased by generations of contact with English. So they purified it. The end result was a small group of urban Irish-language experts whose mother-tongue was English teaching the Irish language to larger groups of students whose mother-tongue was also English. The inevitable result that English-language idioms, grammar and syntax seeped into the “revived” tongue.

Note the discreet non-verbal lumpeen on the left

The results are still with us. My own favourite example is the Irish-language sign in my local park urging dog-owners whose pets foul the grass to “Glan suas é”, “Clean it up”, an utterly idiomatic English phrasal verb translated word by word.  Imagine a sign in French that says “Nettoyez-le en haut.”

So the answer to the question “Why are there no genealogical records in Irish?” is that there are no written records of any description in Irish before the twentieth century.

Is mór an trua é.


9 thoughts on “Why are there no genealogical records in the Irish language?”

  1. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

    I though it was just me who got incandescent about the awful back formations from English that modern spoken Irish has been reduced to.

    1. Seafóid an méid seo. Is dócha go bhfuil an Ghaeilge níos coimeádaí na go leor teangacha Eorpacha eile. Cuid dhílis iad d’aon teanga bheo. Tá an chaint a mhúintear sna scoileanna an-ghearr do chaint na Gaeltachta a bhfuil nasc tríd síos gan bhriseadh. Agus sin ainneoin gach rud aineolach deirtear.

  2. A John, a chara,

    In response to your statement:
    “‘So the answer to the question ‘Why are there no genealogical records in Irish?’ is that there are no written records of any description in Irish before the twentieth century”. Táim ag ceapadh go bhfuil dul amú ort leis an bhfreagra sin – I think you may have gone astray in your answer, else you might need to clarify what you mean by the term “written records”. There are of course, written records of Irish of every description from the medieval period down to the modern era. If you’re referring to “newspapers, pamphlets, contracts, novels, advertisements” you may be right in saying that some of these were relatively uncommon before the 19th century, but think for a minute of the work of Tadhg Ó Neachtain and the other (perhaps as many as 30) scribes who were working away in Dublin city, copying manuscripts and creating their own materials (and genealogies) in the Irish language in the 17th and 18th centuries.

    If you’re referring to genealogical records, I’d imagine that you are very much aware of the existence of an extensive collection of genealogies in the Irish language dating from the medieval period right down to the 17th century (e.g. Leabhar Mór na nGenealach – The Great Book of Irish Genealogies by Dubhaltach Mac Fhirbhisigh, edited by Nollaig Ó Muraíle and published in 2004).

    I’d also like to think that during the course of your own research on Irish family names, that you have had the opportunity to visit the Royal Irish Academy and see the written materials held in that library.

    Written records in the Irish language do indeed exist, and chart the development of the language through literature (prose and poetry), chronologies, histories, religious materials, legal and bardic materials and of course, extensive genealogical texts.

    Ní gá trua a bheith ort! Is ann dóibh i gcónaí.

    Is mise, le meas,

    Liam Ó hAisibéil

  3. I think you need to do some reading John. Leaving aside your negative attitude to the Irish language, and your seeming total ignorance of it’s history and literature, the following statement: ‘So the answer to the question “Why are there no genealogical records in Irish?” is that there are no written records of any description in Irish before the twentieth century.”, must rank highly among most profoundly ignorant statements a person purporting to be an expert on Irish genealogy could possible make. I do not care if you publish this comment or not, but I think, for your own sake, you should remove this blog asap. The Irish language has one of the earliest and most extensive corpuses of genealogical material of any language I am aware of.

    1. First, I do not have a “negative attitude to the Irish language”. My negative attitude is to the disconnect between linguistic reality and the pious lip-service paid to the Irish language by the Irish state since independence. It blighted (and continues to blight) the prospects of Irish surviving as a genuine language. I really want it to survive.

      I write about Aidan Doyle’s book because he explains how such a peculiar state of affairs came about. The language revivalists were more interested in cultural purity than in a real language – they marginalised native speakers, purged Irish of ‘impurities’, ignored the wealth of regional dialects and ended up creating a language-bureaucracy, not a language.

      As for the immense corpus of medieval and early modern Irish genealogies, I’m very well aware of them. But not even the most sanguine of historians would call them “records”. Rather, they were powerful tools for legitimising political power. And none date from late than the 17th century.

      The real point I was trying to get across was that, even when Irish was still the majority vernacular in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, no-one, not priests, not clerks, not teachers, not journalists, used it as a medium of record.

      1. An Leabhar Muimhneach in it’s current form generally dates to 18th century, there were several scribes working on versions of it throughout the 18th century. Leaving that aside the “scribal tradition” is generally put down as coming to an end in mid 19th century and not in the 17th century. Doyle himself if I recall mentions that.

        Perhaps a more interesting read with regards to usage of Irish in various fields of society (Civil, Religious etc.) throughout the late 18th/early-mid 19th century is:

        “An Irish-Speaking Island: State, Religion, Community, and the Linguistic Landscape in Ireland, 1770-1870”
        by Nicholas M. Wolf (Published by University of Wisconsin Press)




  4. Gaelic culture was and is renowned for genealogy.

    There is no truth whatsoever in the claim Irish was reinvented.

    Irish scholarship is renowned for its dialectology and knowledge of its evolution.

    Its difficult to understand how you have formed your opinions.

    1. Reading too much into Doyle’s book it would seem. Specifically Chapter 8, where the author was talking about standardisation process of written Irish during revival period.

      The “EMI standard” vs. caint na nDaoine controversy, borrowings/word formations, norm formation, proscriptiveness etc. — basically what most European languages went through during the 19th century (eg. Romanian, Norwegian, Danish, Finnish, Czech, Swedish etc.) of course Doyle chooses to end his book specifically in 1922.

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