On the Ancient Races of Ireland: Irish Language: - Sir William Wilde

Besides the sparse introduction of Latin by Christian missionaries in the fifth century, some occasional Saxon words springing from peaceful settlers along our coasts and in commercial emporiums, and whatever Danish had crept into our tongue around those centres where the Scandinavians chiefly located themselves, and which were principally proper names of persons and places that became fixed in our vernacular, we find but one language among the Irish people until the arrival of the Anglo-Normans at the end of the twelfth century.

The linguistic or philological evidence on this subject is clearly decisive. The residue of the early races already described spoke one language, called Gaelic; so did the Scotch, the Welsh, and probably, in early times, the Britons and the Bretons. It was not only the popular conversational tongue used in the ordinary intercourse of life, but it was also employed in genealogies, annals, and other records in a special character, not quite peculiar to this country, but then common in Europe. Much has been said about the necessity for a glossary of our ancient MSS., such as those at Saint Gall, in Trinity College, in the Royal Irish Academy, and in Belgian and English libraries; but there are very few ancient languages that do not require to be glossed in the present day, even as the words of Chaucer do.

The Government are now, under the auspices of our Master of the Rolls, and the special direction and supervision of Mr. J. T. Gilbert, giving coloured photographs of some of our ancient writings, and have promised that some of our remaining manuscripts will be translated. I see no occasion now for waiting for more elaborated philological dictionaries or glossaries while there are still some few Irish scholars in this country capable of giving a free but tolerably literal translation of these records that do not require any great acumen in rendering them into English. Is history to wait upon the final decision of philologists respecting a word or two in a manuscript, and to decide as to whether it may be of Sanscrit or any other origin?

No doubt some of my hearers may ask, What about the Oghams (or Ohams)? do they not show a very early knowledge of an alphabet? As yet this is a moot question. A rude pillar-stone, having upon it a tolerably straight edge, was in early times notched along its angle which served as a stem-line by nicks formed on it, and straight or oblique lines, singly or in clusters, proceeding from the stem. The decipherers of these inscriptions have, one and all, agreed upon the fact that these lines represented letters, syllables, or words, and that the language is either Irish or Latin. Therefore the persons who made them must have been aware of alphabetic writing and grammar. These carved monoliths are chiefly found in Kerry and Cork. Upon some of them Christian emblems are figured. The incising of the stone has evidently been performed by some rude instrument, either a flint or metallic pick; and it is remarkable that these pillars present scarcely any amount of dressing.

In Connaught, in my youth, the exception in remote districts was where the person spoke both English and Irish. In 1851, when we first took a census of the Irish-speaking population, after the country had lost three-quarters of a million of people, chiefly of the Irish race, we had then (to speak in round numbers) one and a half millions of Irish-speaking population. In 1861 they had fallen off by nearly half a million; and upon the taking of the last census in 1871 the entire Irish-speaking population was only 817,865. The percentages, according to the total population in our different provinces, were these: in Leinster 1.2, in Munster 27.7, in Ulster 4.6, and in Connaught 39.0; for the total of Ireland 15.1. Kilkenny and Louth are the counties of Leinster where the language is most spoken. In Munster they are Kerry, Clare, and Waterford; In Ulster, Donegal, where 28 per cent. of the population speak Irish; but in Connaught, to which I have already alluded as containing the remnant of the early Irish races, we have no less than 56 per cent. of Irish-speaking population in the counties of Mayo and Galway respectively. Of my own knowledge I can attest that a great many of these people cannot speak English. We thus see that of the population of Ireland, which in the present day might be computed at about five and a half millions, there were, at the time of taking the census in April, 1871, only 817,865; and I think I may prophesy that that is the very largest number that in future we will ever have to record. On the causes of this decadence it is not my province to descant. These Celts have been the great pioneers of civilization, and are now a power in the world. Are they not now numerically the dominant race in America? and have they not largely peopled Australia and New Zealand?