The Revival of the Irish Language


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The children in the Irish-speaking counties are not so well off in respect of any of the school appliances as those in the English districts—why, then, do they earn higher results fees? This question has been asked again and again, but nobody has attempted to answer it in any way so as to show that Irish-speaking or reading or writing is a "bar to progress." All the children in Wales learn to read and write their own language in Sunday schools before they go to the National Schools. Many of these children—the majority of them—go to these latter schools unable to speak a word of English; they hear Welsh only spoken at home and at play; yet they earn as high results as the English speaking children of Great Britain—that is to say, they acquire such natural intelligence from the discourse of their parents—speaking in the language they understand—that the children are a match for English-speaking children—the examinations, be it remembered, being all carried on in English.

And, 150 years ago, the people of Wales had got a fit of Anglo-mania such as our poor people in the West of Ireland are suffering from; and they had those who told them that their own language was a "bar to progress." The Rev. Griffith Jones, of Llandowrer, writes about the year 1730:

"In the ordinary way, it is as unlikely to bring the whole body of the Welsh people to learn the English tongue as it would be to prevail with all the common people of England to learn French. I am much at a loss to know what method should be tried. Should all our Welsh books and our excellent version of the Holy Bible, Welsh preaching, and the stated worship of God in our language be taken away to bring us to a disuse of our tongue? So they are in a manner in some places; the more our misery; and yet the people are no more better scholars than they are better Christians for it. Welsh is still the vulgar tongue, and not English. The English charity schools which have been tried produced no better effect in country places. All that children could do in three, or four, or five years* amounted commonly to no more than to learn very imperfectly to read some easy parts of the Bible without knowing the Welsh of it. Nor should this be thought strange, considering that they were learning to read an unknown language, and none to speak it but the master, and he, too, obliged to talk to them often in Welsh, insomuch that they who have been in English schools could not edify themselves by reading till many of them lately learned to read their own language in the Welsh charity schools." "Sure I am that the Welsh charity schools do no way hinder to learn English, but do very much contribute towards it; and perhaps you will allow, sir, that learning our own language first is the most expeditious way to come at the knowledge of another, else why are not your youths in England, designed for scholars, set to Latin and Greek before they are taught, English?"

Mr. Jones was able to stem the mania of the Welsh people for learning to read English at first. He got up schools for teaching to read English through the Welsh language as a medium. After some years' trial of these schools he wrote:—"Experience now proves beyond dispute that if ever it be attempted to bring all the Welsh people to understand English, we cannot better pave the way for it than by teaching them to read their own language first." This was written 150 years since, and the only person who took this sensible view of things in Ireland for 110 years after were Professor Connellan and Sir Patrick J. Keenan. But as this subject is so very important, it is well that all should know how Mr. Jones set about the business. Fortunately the Rev. Thomas Charles, of Bala; tells us in a letter written in January, 1811, to Christopher Anderson:—

"The Rev. Griffith Jones, about A.D. 1730, made the first attempt of any importance on an extensive scale to erect schools for the instruction of our poor people to read their native language. Before that time the country was in a most deplorable state with regard to the acquisition of religious knowledge. After the decease of this very pious and laborious minister, A.D. 1761, the schools were continued on the same plan by a pious lady of fortune, an intimate friend of Mr. Jones, and a constant attendant on his ministry: her name was Mrs Bevan. In her will this lady, who lived many years after Mr. Jones, left ten thousand pounds, the interest of which was to be applied for ever towards perpetuating these schools. Her executrix, a niece of hers, disputed the validity of the will so far as it applied to this money. It was thrown into Chancery, where it continued for 30 years before a decree was obtained. The decree was obtained, applying the money to the support of circulating charity schools through the whole principality. There are now forty schools erected in different parts of the country, and the number is continually increasing. In a few years after Mrs Bevan's death the country reverted to the same state of ignorance as that in which Mr. Jones found it, though he had founded two hundred and twenty schools, and there were besides many districts in which there were no schools in the mountainous country. In one of these poor districts it pleased Providence to place me, and I attempted to instruct the rising generation by catechising them every Sunday afternoon; but their being not able to read I found a great obstacle to my work, and on inquiry I found the poor people to be in general in the same state of ignorance.

Mr. Jones' schools had ceased to circulate, so no help could be got from that quarter. I thought of getting a teacher and removing him from one locality to another, and when I had got pecuniary aid I had a difficulty in getting a proper teacher. I instructed a poor man myself and at first employed him near me so as to be under my own constant inspection. The next difficulty was to get books, and this I obviated by composing two or three elementary books, besides two catechisms. My teachers, as my funds increased, multiplied gradually from one to twenty, but of late the number is decreased as the necessity of the week-day schools is superseded by the increase of Sunday schools. The circulating day schools have been the principal means of erecting Sunday schools, for without the former the state of the country was such that we could not obtain teachers to carry on the latter. My teachers are all poor persons as my wages are but small. All my care with them has been amply repaid, for my teachers are all as anxious as myself for the success of the work. In introducing a school into a place I pay a previous visit there. After conversing a little with some of the principal inhabitants I convene the people together. I inform them of my intention of sending a teacher to assist them in instructing their children and also grown up people who cannot read who will attend them on Sundays. I conclude by exhorting the parents to send their children to the school. I take kind notice of the children also, and thus in general we are kind friends after the first interview. Before the school is removed I go there twice if possible, and examine the children publicly. These examinations I have found most profitable to the parents and grown up people. I have often seen them exceedingly affected by the intelligent and proper response of their children.

"At first the strong prejudice which universally prevailed against teaching them to read Welsh first, and the idea assumed that they could not learn English so well if previously instructed in the Welsh language—this I say, proved a great stumbling block in the way of parents to send their children to the Welsh schools. … But now these idle and groundless conceits are universally scouted. This change has been produced not so much by disputing, as by the evident salutary effects of the schools, the great delight with which the children attend them, and the great progress they make in the acquisition of knowledge. The school usually continues in the same place six or nine months at one time. The time necessary to teach them to read the Bible in their vernacular language is so short, not exceeding six months in general; teaching them English requires two or three years, during which long period they are concerned only about dry terms, without receiving one idea for their improvement, etc."

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* Five winters, for they could attend only at that period of the year, though but few of the poor could stay so long.