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Author: John Ridge

Publication Year: 1986

Journal Volume: 01

Article Reference: NYIHR-V01-02

Download PDF: The Gaelic Revival in 19th Century New York

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The Gaelic Revival in 19th Century New York

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There have been many languages which have immigrated to America, but their histories seem to be remarkably similar. They prosper either in isolated settlements or in compact urban settings for a while, and then the inevitable downfall begins until that transplanted part of the old world fades forever.

The story of Irish-speaking immigrants is unlike that of other non-English speaking groups The Irish language was brought to America in the earliest days of settlement, but it was already hampered by years of English political and cultural domination in Ireland. While a majority of the immigrants could speak Irish in colonial times, the numbers dwindled with each generation. The language did not enjoy the ability to isolate itself in either rural or urban surroundings, and few Irish-speaking communities developed. Soon. Irish arrivals to America were at best bilingual, but more often Englishspeaking.

By the 19th century and the "Great Famine", the outlook of most new arrivals in America was decidedly pragmatic. The land, of their birth had seen a monumental struggle for mere survival and coming to America was a chance to live., perhaps even to prosper. Rapid integration into American society was judged to be the requisite for success. The Irish language had declined after centuries of persecution. The only key to survival - economically and politically - was to use the Engish language.

In 1855, 23.2% of the Irish people cou-ld speak Gaelic and if that figure is applied to the Irish-born inhabitants of New York and Brooklyn, the number of Gaelic speakers would be 47,000 and 13,000 respectively. But emigration out of Ireland was even more Irish-speaking than that, since most of the emmigrants came from the western seaboard. In such counties, the percentage of Irish speakers was high: Cork, 47%, Kerry, 61%, and Galway, 69%. It is therefore probable that closer to a third of Irish-born New York and Brooklyn residents, totaling some 86,000 people were speakers of Irish.

There are no statistics to indicate how many of the Irish used their language in America, but the lack of testimony as to its use indicates that it was not widespread. In the Famine exodus, the most common mention of the Irish language in America is the occasional reference to a priest ministering to one of the many Irish gangs of laborers engaged in various public work projects.• Most of these instances took place in rural areas where these newly arrived laborers were relatively isolated from American life and could maintain the use of Gaelic amidst their own kind. It was but a temporary condition and changed when they acquired more permanent homes.

In places where the Catholic church was established, English and Latin were the languages of services.

The church leadership was conscious that their congregation was regarded by the native population as foreign, and they therefore resisted the introduction of services in immigrant O'GROWNEY'S REVISED SIMPLE LESSONS Edited by Rev. RICHARD HENEBRY, Ph. D. NEW YORK: THE GAEL PUBLISHING CO., I5O NASSAU STREET. PRICE. riFTEEM CENTS. pdmne THE NEWS OF THE WEEK IN IRISH. Literary Articles, Soots, 4c, In Irish.

Reports of Gatlic League Branchesthe Progress of the Movement, SUBSCRIPTION RATBS : One Year 8s. 8a Six Months 4s. id Three Months .. .. 2s. 2a e United Statesoad Canada may remit in Dollar Bills.

Add"-"!-THE MANAGER, -An CL&foexMfi Sotuip, 24 O'Conoell St., Upper, DUBLIN. languages. The first exception in New York came in the late 1830s, whe n the Germans were given permission to hav e their own chu rch . As far as it is known, however, no tho ugh t was eve r given by the hie rar chy to est abl ish facilities for Iri sh speakers.

It is int ere sti ng to not e that a half a cen tur y before, in 178 4, when the first New Yor k congregation was founded, Father Whelan wrote to the papal nuncio to req ues ti ng priests who could speak foreign languages including Irish. There is nc evi - dence, however, that Gaelic was ever used in ser vic es at St. Peter's, even in post revolutionary days. It was probably confined to the con fes sio nal and so its use in unr eco rde d.

Circumstantial evidence suggests an anglicization process under way in the 19th century. Marriage records from the lat e 1700s at St. Pet er' s still occasionally contained dis - tinctly Gaelic first names such as Murrough or Phe lim , but by mid 19th century names of thi s sort are rar e indeed.

THE IRISH LANGUAGE IN NEW YORK One of the pro ble ms with the survival of Gae lic in Ame ric a, was the overall lack of lit era cy in the lan - guage - eve n among its mos t accomplished speakers. There was not a single periodical nor mor e than a handful of boo ks available at mid 19t h century. Most pf the i hl y p |t}]ie PMfc7 cations were scholarly printings of classics from Gaelic literature - bes t suited to be por ed over by aca dem ics . In the 185 0s, John O'Mahony, one of the founders of the Fen ian s, translated Keating's History of Ireland from Gaelic in the 185 0s for a New York publisher but although he was a native speaker of the lan gua ge an d regarded himself more as a cla n leader than a genuine political one, his attitude towards Irish was tha t it would be imp oss ibl e to res tor e as a viable language.

About the sam e time, Archibishop Hughes of New York, afraid that Catholics would stray fron. the fai th if removed from their churches, appeared secretly at a New Yor k meeting of a group promoting western colonization of the Iri sh. The Archbishop waited for a sta teg ic moment to ris e in the audience to den oun ce the col oni zat ion movement and acc use the mov eme nt of trying to pro mot e a colony similar to the Mormons in Uta h. The Iri sh would be made distinct and sep ara te, he said, and eve n though he loved the language as a you ng man growing up, he could not support the exclusivity that would result if the Irish spoke Gaelic in their new wes ter n settlements.Such an idea , acc ord ing to Hug hes , would hamper the pro gre ss of the Iri sh in America.

In 1858, the lea din g Irish-American weekly, the Ir ish American, began a Gaelic column that appeared in eve ry issue. Inspired by Dub lin societies such as the Ossianic Society, it was almost entirely a reprinting of old Irish poetry and se ana chu s. Otherwise, the only Irish in the paper were expressions such as Cea d Mile Failte and Sogarth Aroon, the lat ter inspired by the poe m of Joh n Banim. An ad which appeared in 186 3 in the mis sin g persons column by one Eugene 0 Con nel - lan from Sligo - in Eng lis h and in Irish - rem ain s one of the few exam-The New York Irish page 6 GAELIC, cont'd. pies of the practical use of the language. O'Connellan appealed in both languages for news of his missing brother.

It is probable that the Fenians had an effect on the Gaelic revival which began began to show signs of life after the civil war. The name "Fenian" itself was drawn from the Gaelic name of the warriors of ancient times. An off-shoot of the Fenians, the secret revolutionary society Clan na Gael, begun in New York in 1867, actually introduced Gaelic into popular nomenclature among the Irish-Americans in choosing a Gaelic name for its society.

It was only in 1872 that the Gaelic revival in An.erica began... in Brooklyn. A Galwayman, Michael Logan from Curraghaderry, Tuam, sent a series of letters to the Irish World urging the study of the language. He organized a class at Our Lady of Victory school on Throop Avenue and two years later he founded the Philo Celtic Society to promote the language. [Another group? had already been established in Boston in 1873]. Irish language societies soon followed in Manhattan with first a branch of the Philo-Celtic, and then the Gaelic Society in 1878. Logan's biggest achievement was the publication of the bi-lingual monthly, An Gaodhal (The Gael) which appeared for the first time in 1882 and continued to 1904, five years after his death. It was his passion, and he prided himself in 1897 that An Gaodhal never had less than "1,440 copies of Gaelic matter in any one issue for the past twelve years". His influence was even felt in one of the Brooklyn daily newspapers, the Brooklyn Citizen, which even went so far as publishing a front page article in Gaelic, usinf> the tpecial scriptevery St. Patrick's Day in the 1890s.

By the late 1870s there was a move to bring Gaelic directly to the children of Irish immigrants and it was accomplished in at least two New York parishes. At St. Columba the Irish language had already had a foothold, (although a brief one) under Father Burke. Now classes were scheduled for several times a week.

The St. Lawrence O'Toole parish in Yorkville, nowadays called St.

Ignatius Loyala, established an "uptown Irish school". St. Lawrence's offered classes on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday for "young scholars 7 to 12 years old". The Irish World replaced the Irish-American as the principal organ for the propagation of the Gaelic language and featured, in the last three decades of the 19th century, "The Gaelic World", a weekly column in Irish and an accompanying column in English promoting the movement.

While there was no dramatic change in all areas of Irish-American life insofar as Gaelic was concerned, the language became much more evident because of the societies promoting it.

Irish newspapers occasionally had advertisements in which Gaelic words and phrases were used. The Emerald Cottage in Coney Island, for instance, used the slogan "Shin Fane, linn fane" in all its notices. Even the questionably Irish tin-pan alley stage productions took up the use of Irish titles. Bouccicault's "The Shaughraun" and Brougham's "Iascaire" came to New York stages in the 1870s.

Michael Logan died in 1899, but the Gaelic revival did not die with him. In the 2 decades that followed, Irish nationalism and the Gaelic movement grew simultaneously. Gaelic clubs appeared at the turn of the century in Yonkers, Greenpoint, the South Bronx, Jamaica, Flushing and at least two new branches in Brooklyn and New York.

THE GAELIC SOCIETY CARD OF MEMBERSHIP (Saelic SDrama The New Her oic Play In Irish - - D E I R D R E ' • With Ancient Costumes and Elaborate Scenery . ^ • - » 'twill be given by The New York Philo-Celtic Society LEXIXGTON at OPERA HOUSE 58th Street between 3d and Lexingtoa Aves.

Saturday Evening, April 30, 1910. Dancing immediately after the Play.

ADMISSION FIFTY CENT3 ••Tike Irish in tne Revolution end Civil War and Every Walk of Life," by Dr.

Jeffrey C. O'Connell, 1213 Rhode Island avenue, Washington, D. C. Price seventy-ave cent-. It was a tim e, too, for unu sua l opportunities for those wanting to learn Irish in a native environment without having to spend time in an Irish Gaeltacht. There was, in a sense, two Gae lta cht s right in New York. In Brooklyn, the Craobh Colmcille was an org ani zat ion composed exclusively of Don ega l people from the Irish speaking regions. And in New York, the Cra obh Brendain attempted to do the sam e thing for Iri sh speakers from Kerry. Both organizations prospered for a tim e until the cha os of World War I des tro yed them. With them went a part of old Gae lic New York.

John Ridge is the aut hor of The Flatbush Irish and oth er books on the A0H. He was rec ent ly elected president of the NYIHR. BOLK MEMORY, CONTINUED... enlarged as literacy and overseas experience in America magnified its common features. Irish identity broadened. Family traditions were very important to the process. It was through the family that much of this lore and consciousness was transmitted, and the immigrant experience enhanced some of the features of the underlying Irishry even while it cut off and subverted others. Thus, in the Irish-American homes of yesteryear there were three common artifacts that expressed identity and its components. One was a picture of Robert Emmet, often with his address mouunted in the same frame. This stood for a memory of Ireland wronged and oppressed. The second was picture of the Sacred Heart or St. Patrick, and this stood for the religious heritage. The third was a volume of Moore's Melodies, the poems and songs of Thomas Moore - many of which were borrowed from Irish and from traditional music. This volume stood for the old past, the recollection of a golden age deep in the mists of antiquity.

It was this fund of popular culture and memory that was the elixir from which grew the mythology that sustained so many Irish people in their awareness of themselves and their tradition. Deprived of the opportunity to write their own his^pry in^any a^demic fashion; people substituted certain over-arching myths to satisfy their need for knowledge about their past.

Every people uses this resource of mythology, and the Irish cultivated their soul dream of who they were and what had happened to them, with passionate attention.

This added a further dimension to their cultural orientation. Mythology about patriotism, religion and leadership is the common man's substitute for the learning denied him, and those who rail against the distortions of Irish history due to popular myths must comprehend that it is fundamental to human psychology, though historians may revile it.

Hence, as the excellent works of scholarship concerning the Irish in Ireland and America continue to be published, documenting the organized forms of achievement and effort of the group, it is important to emphasize that there is a cultural root system beneath the formal and institutional activities in the history books. That system is the psychological legacy of the people, the intimate details of their families and memories, and the everyday consciousness that more than any formal factor shapes their consciousness of themselves.

Dr. Dennis Clark is author of The Irish in Philadelphia and The Irish Relations: Traces of an Immigrant Tradition.