Way, way back to the Anglo-Norman King Henry II, who wrested it from the Vikings in 1069, Ireland was dominated by England. Henry VIII declared himself king of the island nation in 1541.
While the English upper class owned the land and their language became the dominant tongue in the cities, the tenant farmers in rural communities held on to the language known as Irish or Gaelic.
“Although the late 16th century was marked by the destruction of Gaelic civilization in the upper levels of society, it was preserved among the ordinary people of the northwest, west, and southwest, who continued to speak Irish and who maintained a way of life remote from that of the new landlord class,” according to Wikipedia.
The Great Famine of 1845 started a wave of emigration that would cut the population in half by the turn of the 20th century. That and the establishment of a national education system would help to diminish the use of the traditional spoken language and its use was forbidden at times.
After centuries of English domination and several rebellions, a constitution for the independent country called “Eire” was ratified in 1937 and Irish (Gaelic) became the official language for all but Northern Ireland, which remained a British country. But English was so long established in all of Ireland that few citizens speak Irish as their primary language today.
The interest in reviving Irish is thriving in Ireland and America, however. In Bucks County, Doylestown native Seán Handy has 55,000 followers on Facebook for the Irish Language Learners website he founded. Handy, who holds dual U.S. and Irish citizenship, had a financial accounting job with Merck & Co., when he ”got hooked” on the Irish language. Handy left that job when his department moved to Costa Rica — now Irish Language Learners is a full-time job.
“After receiving the official Foreign Birth registration, I said to my wife that I was Irish now and should learn to speak the Irish language,” he said in an interview for his fraternity at the University of Arizona. Encouraged by his wife, Estelle, who speaks Greek as well as English, he began learning, then teaching Irish. Estelle is now part of the efforts of Irish Language Learners LLC.
In the beginning Seán Handy participated in an Irish language immersion week held in upstate New York, Daltaí na Gaeilge (Students of Irish).
“I started a presence on various social media platforms, and I decided to begin using the Irish language every day in any way that I could,” he said. He imagined he could help people around the world connect with and learn Irish.
And that’s what he did.
He started teaching Irish at the Perkasie Library branch. The early efforts evolved into Irish Language Learners, which has followers anywhere descendants of the millions who fled Ireland are living.
Last year, The Irish Echo gave Seán Handy its Community Champion Award “for his efforts to promote, teach and support the learning of the Irish language globally.” Established in 1928 and published in the United States and Ireland, The Irish Echo is the oldest and most widely read Irish American Newspaper.
“Irish Language Learners promotes this beautiful language through irishlanguagelearners.com, social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, presentations and participation in Irish/Celtic festivals and Irish immersion events,” Handy said on achieving the Irish Echo award. “We support the learning of Irish by building relationships and sharing resources with other Irish language programs and advocacy groups.”
Seán and Estelle, now residents of Perkasie, travel to Ireland frequently to promote the study of the Irish language. “It is our ongoing hope to bring the Irish language to more and more Irish festivals and to set up various excursions to Irish speaking areas of Ireland Seán Handy said.
It’s pretty clear where the language division stands today. If you’re driving from Omagh (Northern Ireland, part of the United Kingdom) into Donegal (Republic of Ireland), the road signs change — from English to English and Irish.