Gaeilge sa Tír Dhubh: the Irish language in the Black Country

Learn Irish & Visit West of Ireland Gaeltachts

It’s been a while since a post here, and I’d presumed that being furloughed from work would provide me with tons of spare time to write a blog. Reader, it does not work like that. However, I have been able to cobble something together about something that’s on my mind at the moment – Gaeilge, the Irish language. Lockdown (or “lockdown” really – it’s hardly stringent is it) has been a boon for online language learning, and it’s given me a bit of time to spend on learning Irish, which I’ve been doing on and off for about 18 months. Táim ag foghlaim Gaeilge, I’m learning Irish, via Duolingo mostly, though I’ve also just started a course with Gael Linn in Dublin who are making the most of new methods of teaching in this Covid world and doing online classes. I’m only tosaitheoir, a beginner, and would welcome any correction to the Irish scattered here please!

I’m not sure I can really tell you why. It’s a very beautiful language, for sure, and an interesting challenge; learning is it’s own reward I suppose. It’s tempting to try and make lockdown learning productive, or something you can monetise, and it’s not that. Until I go to Ireland on holiday again I won’t be able to use it much; and I could easily continue my historical studies with no knowledge at all of the language,  most historians of the Irish diaspora manage that just fine. But that’s not really why I’m doing it. It’s really nice to be doing something that’s not for furthering my career, or for making ends meet, or for preparing myself for future business, but that’s just a nice thing. This wasn’t a conscience part of the decision to learn, but perhaps also it’s a little push-back at a colonial mindset which has always denigrated subaltern languages in favour of a language of business, in this case English. My actual English forefathers probably worked alongside gaelgeoirí, Irish speakers, in Lancashire mills, but as a people the English are those most responsible for the decline of the language, as they were in numerous ways  and at numerous levels for the perpetuation of imperial control in Ireland just as elsewhere. It’s a legacy of English hegemony that Irish is such a minority language now, so perhaps it’s a good thing to reverse that trend even a tiny bit. I don’t know how native Irish speakers feel about those with no Irish blood at all taking up their language; I’ll walk that gauntlet, I suppose.

Stair na Gaeilge – history of the Irish Language

One of the major presumptions that historians of the Irish in mid-Victorian Britain have to make is about language. There has been some research, notably by Vincent Comerford, into the uses of Irish in Ireland prior to the Gaelic Revival of the 1890s onwards (the politicisation of which often skews how Irish language is treated by historians), but little that I can find about its use amongst the diaspora in England. It’s something that few primary sources touch upon in detail either. However, given that the large majority of Irish immigrants into the Black Country in the mid-19th century came from the Western counties of Ireland where Irish was spoken by the majority of the poor, it’s certain that Irish would have been heard in the streets, in the foundries, on the pit banks of the Black Country – it’s just a little difficult to find substantial evidence.

A Brief History of British and Irish Languages - Starkey Comics

The Celtic language of Ireland has a long history, more venerable than the English which eventually (almost) superseded it. It is a Goidelic language, which means it’s related to (in fact, the starting point for) Scottish Gaelic and Manx. At the time the Romans left Britain, archaic Irish was the principal language of Ireland, and Common Brittonic the principal language of Britain (perhaps Pictish was separate). As the Anglo-Saxons invaded and pushed further west, Brittonic was cut off into three geographical areas with their own versions of the language: Cumbric in what’s now North-West England, Welsh in Wales, Cornish in Cornwall. The Irish had spread into South-West Scotland and that pushed further and further too, so that by the time the Normans arrived, Britain had three language groups: Old English in what’s now England; Brittonic Celtic languages in Wales, Cornwall and Cumbria (see also Breton in Brittany); and Middle Irish in Ireland and Scotland; all seasoned with a smattering of Norse, producing some distinctive dialects in places like Shetland, Man and Viking towns in Ireland.

All the languages evolved, but for centuries the main change was only that in Scotland, Middle Irish morphed into Early Scottish Gaelic. English made some inroads in Ireland following the 12th century Norman invasion, but the Anglo-Irish settlers famously became “more Irish than the Irish” and its influence died back. English and the Scots dialect re-entered with the plantations in the 16th century and alongside English political and military power, Béarla, the English language became the language of power in Ireland too, pushing the use of Irish back to the South and West, and particularly the poor and Catholic, all of whom were largely disenfranchised by English control. In some ways something similar happened to Irish in Ireland to Britain following the spread of Early English: it was pushed back into three main areas and regional dialects followed: Munster Irish, Connacht Irish and Ulster Irish. The maps above are from an excellent explainer here.

Union between Britain and Ireland worsened things for the Irish language, but nevertheless by the time of the famine (an gorta mór – the great hunger) in the 1840s, Irish was still the first language of a majority in the Western provinces of Connacht and Munster, a sizeable minority in Ulster (particular in the West of that region) and by a small minority only in the Eastern, more Anglicized province of Leinster. It was geographically uneven at smaller scale too: if more than half from County Mayo spoke it as their first language, 80% did in the South-West of the county. A similar story can be found in neighbouring Galway, and it just so happens that these counties (along with Roscommon and to a smaller extent Leitrim and Sligo) provided the largest numbers of Irish immigrants into the English West Midlands.

Diaspóra na nGael – the Irish diaspora

Small Irish communities were found in several Midland cities in the 1830s, although nothing the size of those elsewhere in Sasana, England: Learpholl/Liverpool, Manchain/Manchester or Londain/London. (In fact, there are Irish names for Berwick (Bearaig), Bristol (Briostó), Carlisle (Cathair Luail – I think this, like several of these, stems originally from Scottish Gaelic rather than Irish) Cornwall (Corn na Breataine, the horn of Britain), Edinburgh (Dún Éideann), Glasgow (Glaschú), the Hebrides (Inse Ghall), Newcastle (an Caisleán Nua), Oxford (Áth na nDamh, literally ford of the ox) Shetland (Sealtainn), York (Eabhrac) and New York (Nua-Eabhrac) but I don’t believe there are any for Midland towns. Perhaps this could be rectified given the importance of the region to later waves of the Irish diaspora, though Black Country names tend to be solidly Anglo-Saxon and the translation might be difficult. What would Birmingham, Wolverhampton or Wednesbury be, I wonder? Did their Irish residents at the time have a name for them as Gaeilge?).

Emigration to England tended to be from poorer regions of Ireland than those who who could afford to go to Meiriceá/America, and these regions were also those most likely to be gaeltachtaí, Irish-speaking areas. The English establishment, typically, had a paternalistic view of the language in these areas, and sent missionaries armed with Irish to proselytise. They met with some success, and historians have called this a “second reformation,” although the evangelists made use of some dubious methods including “souperism” – food in exchange for conversion during the great famine of the late 1840s. The Irish Society of London, one of these missionary societies, held meetings promoting their work in Wolverhampton and Walsall in 1835. While the efforts to speak to Irish people in their own language were surely commendable, the overall tenor of the report is deeply anti-Catholic: discussion was led by local priests William Dalton and J Bevan, both of whom were very active in the intense anti-Catholic movement of the 1850s; and the local Catholic priest, Fr Patrick O’Sullivan, was evidently ticked off by the whole thing (Wolverhampton Chronicle, 11th and 25th November 1835).

The Royal Commission into the Condition of the Poorer Classes in Ireland in 1836 contained a detailed appendix on the Irish poor in Britain which touches on language use: Irish was a component of a:

“…separation… owing partly to the difference of habits, partly to the difference of religious persuasion, (as most of the Irish are Roman Catholics,) partly to the difference of country, and in some cases to the difference of language, (the Irish language being spoken by many of the immigrants).

Great Britain. Royal Commission into the Condition of the Poorer Classes in Ireland. Condition of the Poorer Classes in Ireland: Appendix G: State of the Irish Poor in Great Britain. Vol. XXXIV. Parliamentary Papers: 1833-1899. London: H.M. Stationery Office, 1836. Page xiv.

This is something Engels drew on for his descriptions of the Irish in Manchester too, written in 1844. Most Irish emigrants, the report found, lost touch with their language swiftly after arrival. The authors found those regional variations and migration routes intersecting in these diasporic communities:

There is infinitely more Irish spoken in London than in Dublin, less in Liverpool, but still I am inclined to think more than in Dublin. The children of Irish parents, however, seldom prefer to converse in Irish, though many of them understand it. They, of course, all speak English; among the better classes, without the accent or “brogue…”

The vernacular Irish language is little spoken among the Irish of Liverpool ; and those who speak it at first, soon disuse it.
Ibid, p.21, 27

Accent – often referred to with some mockery as “brogue” – was one of the main indicators that someone was Irish in the early Victorian Black Country. Some locals will have had some small experience of the Irish in the Black Country, as labourers or railway navvies, but this increased dramatically following the famine of the late 1840s. The rags in which many arrived during and after this period could be shed when work was got, and much as contemporary “race scientists” disagreed, an Irish person could of course easily pass in terms of skin colour, facial features etc. Although there’s much to compare between the reception of the Irish in the 1850s and that of Caribbean of South Asians migrants in the 1950s, this is one of the key differences: there’s nothing that can be done to change skin colour. But an Irish accent could be a giveaway.

A.M. Ó Súilleabháin sa Tír Dhubh – A.M. Sullivan in the Black Country

Meeting Street, Wednesbury, during slum clearances in the 1930s (Sandwell Community History and Archives Service)

The Irish journalist A.M. Sullivan visited the Black Country in 1856 and wrote a remarkable series of reports on the region for the nationalist Dublin newspaper The Nation. He claimed that in Wednesbury:

In no other large town in Great Britain, except Liverpool, Manchester or London, will one be so struck with the large proportion the Irish form of the population, and in no part of England is the Irish language so prevalent.

‘An Irish Colony in England’, The Nation, 16 February 1856

I think this is a bit of an exaggeration: according to the 1851 census, towns including Gateshead, Stockport, Bradford, Preston, Newcastle, even Winchester (a garrison town) had higher proportions of Irish-born residents; in the Black Country, they formed 6.98% in Wolverhampton, 5.87% in Wednesbury. Nevertheless, this was a larger proportion than Birmingham, Leeds, Bristol, and other important cities. Wednesbury was notable for its campaigning priest, Father George Montgomery, who kept the needs of his Irish congregation front and centre of public attention, and was no doubt an obvious starting point in the region for Sullivan.

Sullivan’s reports constitute a rich description of the Black Country, worthy of consideration alongside more famous texts by Elihu Burritt, Walter White et al. Waking up on the train as it reached Wolverhampton, he stared out of the window as Queen Victoria had once done:

On, on went the train, through – as it seemed to me – mounds of fire and sheets of flame, and a forest of stacks belching out smoke… There was no green surface to see: the country appeared as if after some awful convulsion; its face was torn and worried; calcined rubbish covered it all over in heaps and hills – some of these hills burning, and smouldering, and smoking like lava. It was Tierra del Fuego. The gloom was hideous, lit up now and again by the glare of some burning heap, close by which we were whirled.

The day was fine; I could see that a gentle gale essayed to force a way for a few sunbeams to reach the earth; but in vain; in this contest against the beams of daylight, the lamps of Vulcan were successful; soot and darkness covered the face of the land. It was only now I understood in its full force and meaning the term “Black Country,” which is applied to this region.

‘The Midland District’, The Nation, 17 May 1856

AM Sullivan

On reaching Wednesbury, Sullivan was appalled at the conditions but quick to note a distinctive Irishness in the town. “Who has ever heard of the murky courts and alleys in Darlaston, Oldbury and Wednesbury,” he wrote, “where the Gaelic tongue is now more often heard than the language in which Thor and Woden were praised and glorified?” (This is a reference, of course, to the presumption that the source of the name “Wednesbury” is “Woden” or Odin, the Norse god). On exploring further, he “heard more of the Irish language spoken than if I had traversed Dublin, Cork, or Waterford.” Many of them were monoglot, particularly the women, and Irish could certainly have been the predominant language in some of the courts and alleys of Wednesbury that Sullivan visited. This had proved dangerous for the migrants in the past. When the English miners of South Staffordshire rioted against the influx of Irish labour – this likely refers to a swathe of anti-Irish violence in 1847 – an Irish accent was a signifier of Otherness, and a surefire way to get a beating. Sullivan’s guide through the town, one John Hayes, recalled having to stay silent in the streets and pubs of the town, because there was no recourse to justice.

Sullivan was not a native gaeilgeoir himself, though strongly supportive of its propagation. He didn’t necessarily extend that good feeling to other Celtic languages however, describing Welsh as “unintelligible gibberish.” The Irish of Wednesbury, on the other hand, almost certainly were native speakers. Sullivan records that they came from villages such as Cong (Conga), Kilmaine (Cill Mheáin,) Shrule (Sruthair), Neale (An Éill) and Ross (probably Cross, An Chrois). These straddle the border between Counties Galway (Contae na Gaillimhe) and Mayo (Contae Mhaigh Eo), West of Tuam (Tuaim), and were majority Irish-speaking areas – perhaps up to 80%. In fact, Sullivan quotes a Father Brown, parish priest of Kilmaine, who described his parish as “one of the most intensely Irish in Ireland.” These residents would have spoken in a Connacht dialect, though there were also various sub-dialectal differences between Galway and Mayo, South and North Mayo, and so on. This particular small area sits just outside the modern Cois Fhairrge (seaside) gaeltacht; the most recent Irish census (see map) revealed that this part of the country could certainly not make Father Brown’s claim anymore.

Irish spoken in Ireland in 1871

Census enumerators were often too lazy to note Irish immigrants’ counties of birth, let alone their parish or townland, and so it’s rare to find reliable birthplace data in mid-century census returns. However, those few that are recorded, and the testimony of others such as Col. Hogg of Wolverhampton police, suggest that the majority of Irish in Wolverhampton – as elsewhere across the West Midlands – came from the counties of Mayo and Galway particularly, plus Roscommon, Leitrim and Sligo. As the map shows, these were all Irish-speaking areas, in particular the former two, from where most Wulfrunian Irish came.

An Ghaeilge agus an Eaglais Chaitliceach – Irish and the Catholic Church

Father Montgomery in Wednesbury was a campaigning priest with a particular passion for his Irish flock. He wasn’t the only Irish speaker: Fathers James Terry and John Sherlock at Bilston were noted for it. Sherlock in particular was noted for his work amongst the Midlands’ Irish population: he had learnt Irish from a nurse as a child, and bolstered his memory of it with sufficient practice to hear the confessions of monoglot Irish speakers in Bilston. Although Sherlock spent most of his career in Birmingham, he was always associated with (and interested in) the Black Country; amongst non-Irish, he was also well-known for his heroics during the town’s traumatic outbreaks of cholera. He was certainly an Irish nationalist too, being thoroughly involved in the Home Rule Associations that set up in the early 1870s, and commended for his work by the Fenian organiser John Denvir in the 1890s. His skill in Irish was a central part of his tremendous popularity: in 1867, for instance, he spoke at a fundraising meeting for the new St Patrick’s Church in Wolverhampton’s Littles Lane. “The rev. gentleman delivered the rest of his speech in Irish,” wrote the Staffordshire Advertiser, “much to the delight of the meeting, the majority of whom seemed to be familiar with that language.”

Archbishop John MacHale

On the whole, the Catholic church was not overly interested in maintaining the Irish language, either in Ireland or amongst its diaspora. There were exceptions, however. In 1857, the Archbishop of Tuam, John MacHale (Ardeaspag Seán Mac Éil), visited Wolverhampton. MacHale was an ardent Irish nationalist, regularly proving a thorn in the side of Cardinal Cullen, Archbishop of Dublin – a hugely influential figure in Irish Catholicism, but no supporter of more advanced nationalism at this time. MacHale was from a heavily Irish-speaking part of County Mayo himself, and retained his language throughout his tuition and clerical training. When he came to Wolverhampton he was greeted by a “numerous and respectable concourse of English and Irish Catholics” as he made his way from the station to SS Peter & Paul in North Street – very likely via Canal Street (Sráid Canáil?), in the heart of Wolverhampton’s (predominantly Connacht) Irish district. He addressed the crowd “in their vernacular tongue” outside the chapel, then again preached his sermon in Irish in the evening. On both occasions, the Wolverhampton Chronicle noted, “profound attention” was given to his words – an indicator that Irish was certainly understood and used in mid-Victorian Wolverhampton.

The other handy place for understanding how Irish was used is news, particularly, court reporting, where we can read against the grain of the article. We learn, for instance, that in 1847 when one John Welch was bumped pillar to post by the Poor Law Guardians to avoid having to care for him, that his friend named Dunlavey was probably monoglot Irish-speaking as he “seemed to be rather ignorant of English.” In 1860, an English witness to a domestic abuse case in Walsall was unable to repeat what the defendant had said “as the parties were speaking in the Irish language.” In Pelsall in 1861, a Thomas Smith claimed to have travelled all the way from Cloonfad (Cluain Fada, Long Meadow) in Co. Roscommon (Contae Ros Comáin) (in fact, only about 20 miles from Kilmaine, where Wednesbury’s Irish had come from) to seek his wife – he threatened her in Irish to ensure that Mary Smith’s landlady was not able to understand. There’s a lot more going on in this story that I’ll have to follow-up, but for these purposes that will have to suffice.

The literary theorist Richard Kirkland has written about London’s Irish enclave, the St Giles Rookery, at the same period:

It is important to realise that much of the Rookery’s discontent was articulated in Irish, the language of impoverishment, exclusion, and, ultimately, of denial. Indeed the prolonged existence of the Irish language in the Rookery community was one of its more remarkable characteristics, and another crucial way in which it maintained a degree of autonomy despite its location.

Some historians have considered the explosion of emigration in the wake of the famine as the death-knell of the Irish language in Ireland, and with good reason. Those emigrating during this period were the poor and desperate, frequently correlating with Irish-speaking; combined with the push towards national education in Ireland in English, and the reluctance of clerical, cultural, even nationalist elites to support the use of the language, it’s little surprise that it took a huge hit. But I think there’s evidence that the Irish language had an extended life in the Irish diaspora: it was a marker of difference for sure and many Irish emigrants dropped it swiftly; but for some it was a marker of identity, a useful tool for protesting injustices and unfairness and, sooner or later, a marker of commitment to the Irish nationalist cause.

There’s more to be said on the actual language written and spoken in the Black Country but I’ll save that for another post. We also need to see what happened (if anything) amongst the Black Country Irish during the great revival of interest in all things Gaelic in the 1890s and beyond – that too for another day.

6 thoughts on “Gaeilge sa Tír Dhubh: the Irish language in the Black Country

  1. I’ve greatly enjoyed your post on the Irish language and will return to it, I’m sure. I’ve been trying to learn more about Irish history and the impact of English on the country, in part because one of my great-grandfathers was, by all accounts, a dreadful bigot about Irish Catholics and I wanted to try to understand why. One reason may have been the arrival of diaspora Irish in the Lancashire mining village in which he lived.

    The book “The Eternal Paddy” by Michael de Nie, which discusses the portrayal of the Irish in the British Press, sheds some light (while making me wince at the stereotypes that have too many echoes today). I wondered if you had read it and also whether you are familiar with the trilogy of novels by Thomas Flanagan, and what you think of them as someone with far more knowledge of Irish history than I. The first of the Flanagan trilogy, the Year of the French, has awoken my interest in the Irish language and in Irish poets. I’m encouraged by your blog to investigate further and will look into Duolingo and Gael Linn.

    I should also add that I’m grateful for your insights into Black Country social history as I have a single ancestral line from “Mud City”, which I gather is the nickname of Lye Waste, birthplace of a 3g-grandfather who is a very stubborn brick-wall character.

    Thank you again for your very interesting piece, and all good wishes in these very trying times.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Like yourself Irish is a self taught language for me . Ive been dabbling with it off and on for 30 years and have got a GCSE in it. However living and working in South London for 40 years I can tell you that it only takes a couple of generations to loose a language especially when youre up against english . Ive lost count of the number of times elderly immigrants came into my surgery bemoaning the fact that their grandchidren can barely speak a word of their ancestral languauge.


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