Presbyterians and the Irish Language

This is an edited version of the text of an article An lahhrann tú Gaeilge? by Jim Stothers, Deputy Clerk of the General Assembly, that appeared in the Presbyterian Herald October 2015.

It is often thought that Presbyterians neglected to evangelise Ireland, and they shunned the Irish language. Jim Stothers looks back at history to refute this assumption.

Sharing the Gospel in Irish

In 1836 the Church of Scotland received the Presbyterian Synod of Ulster into its communion. A leading minister from the Synod addressed the Assembly in celebration and, in a speech sprinkled with Irish words and phrases, shared a key aim of the Synod: to share the gospel with those who “speak exclusively or generally in the native Irish tongue”.

He told the Scots of the Irish schools the Synod had established and then told of an Irish speaker who came to him to borrow a shilling to buy a book. He gave an Irish Bible to the visitor to see if he could read it. The man was able to read, translate, and comment on it intelligently, so he gave him five different books. He went on: ‘For advancing and perpetuating this part of our work, the Synod has lately enacted, ‘...that all her students must study the Irish language’ (hear, hear)...And trust you may yet be spared to see the day, when on visiting the Synod of Ulster, you may adopt the tongue of your native hills in addressing us, and not be necessitated to enquire at any of us, An lahhrann tu Gaeilge? [Do you speak Irish?]’

The Influence of the Rev Dr Henry Cooke

Who was this Ulster Presbyterian so free with and supportive of the use of the Irish language? None other than the great Henry Cooke. He was born 48 years earlier as Henry McCook at Grillagh, near Maghera and grew up in an Ireland where Irish was the majority language. By the time of his speech it no longer had that status, yet it had three million speakers and was growing. He went on to make an appeal for Scots Gaelic-speaking ministers to come to Ireland: ‘The Earse of your Highlands is so nearly akin to the Gaeilge of Ireland, that a few months would enable many of you preachers to proclaim the gospel to our countrymen...We will receive you into the heart of our humble hospitality, brotherly kindness and gratitude, and the cead mile failte romhat [hundred thousand welcomes] with which Ireland will meet you, will flow as warm from her heart as from the spirits of your Highland clansmen.’

Two years later the Synod met in Belfast. After it thanked God for the success of the home mission, Rev. Robert Allen introduced three of the Synod’s Irish Scripture readers. They read out Matthew 13, first in Irish, then in Irish with English translation. They then answered questions and members of Synod were impressed by their knowledge of the Scriptures. Cooke announced that: ‘Every student might expect that a part of a chapter of the Irish New Testament would form a portion of the examination before the Theological Committee.’

Cooke’s possession of an ability to read and speak the language of several Irish books, including a Bible, probably the Psalter (1836) and Shorter Catechism (1837); his desire to evangelise in Irish, and to require students for the ministry to attend Irish classes was typical of many. The Irish schools he mentions were located from the Glens of Antrim through Tyrone to Kerry and taught Irish speakers of all ages to read and write their own language with the Bible as the textbook. Meeting in houses and barns, they peaked in the 1840s at 300 with 16,000 enrolled.

Early Links with Irish

Our link with Irish goes back much further. At the Plantation speakers of Scots Gaelic (pronounced ‘Gallic’) and Ulster Irish easily understood each other. A proportion of the settlers spoke Gaelic - and not just those from the Highlands. They came to the most Irish part of Ireland and shared the gospel with their neighbours. The session minutes of Templepatrick from 1646-96 yield such native Irish surnames as O’Quin, O’Donnelly, O’Connally and O’Mony, while in 1647 ‘bonds of marriage’ were given for a couple called Shan O’Hagan and Shillie O’donally [sic].

In 1647, only five years after Presbyterianism was first organised in Ireland, the first native speaker was ordained as a minister - Jeremiah O’Quin in Billy, Bushmills. He became the first Presbyterian missionary in the Irish language, going to Connacht in 1654. The beginning of the next century saw a deepening in commitment to evangelism in Irish, with 12 ministers identified as being able to preach, not just speak, in Irish.

Presbyterian worship was regularly taking place in Irish as it - or Scots Gaelic - was still the native language of some. In Ballybay the service one week was in English, the next in Irish. Other places with Irish preaching included Markethill, Aghadowey, Dundalk and Cushendall. There may have been more for it wasn’t something to be remarked on. Through the 18th century Irish died out among Presbyterians, lingering until 1818 at Ballymascanlon, Dundalk, where there was a settlement of Highlanders.

So if you thought that the Irish language was something foreign or alien to Presbyterians through their history, or that it was only of interest to the liberal merchant classes of Belfast around the turn of the 19th century think again! It certainly was of interest to them and they collected and preserved ancient Irish manuscripts; ran Irish language classes in places as varied as Pottinger’s Entry and Royal Belfast Academical Institution; and organised a harp festival, where the music of the last of the old Gaelic harpers was noted down.

Can we reclaim the Irish language as part of our heritage back from those to whom we have surrendered it?

Rev. William Neilson grew up as a son of the manse in Kilmore, Co. Down, and in 1808 produced An Introduction to the Irish Language based on Co. Down Irish. This was also the time of the United Irishmen. It’s not surprising that there was an interest in the Irish language among them, but the fact that revolution and the Irish language weren’t inextricably linked is proved by the continued, if not intensified interest in the language in Belfast well into the 19th century.

If you thought that our Presbyterian ancestors developed a Church that was only for the colonists then you will be surprised again! From Jeremiah O’Quin right up to the 1850s - when the Great Famine changed Ireland utterly and the number of Irish speakers plummeted - the work done, and the resources put in to communicate the gospel to Irish speakers demonstrates that Presbyterians had a genuine desire to reach out with the good news of Christ to others who had no access to it. Remember, the Bible was a forbidden book to the majority. After the famine the work continued but in a different form - English was taught instead and young people were given basic skills that would help them to find employment.

Irish continues to be used on a small scale in the life of our Church. Some congregations’ noticeboards proclaim them to be part of Eaglais Phreispitireach in eirinn (The Presbyterian Church in Ireland); a small number of our ministers speak and can preach in it; and a group meets monthly under Presbyterian auspices to study Scripture and worship in Irish - appropriately, it’s called An Tor ar Lasadh (The Burning Bush).

Can we reclaim the Irish language as part of our heritage back from those to whom we have surrendered it to be used for their own ends? Can we regain the zeal with which our ancestors reached out to those who did not know Christ whatever language they spoke? I find myself approving the sentiment of those who advertised Irish classes in Belfast in 1795: ‘By our understanding and speaking it we could the more easily and effectually communicate our sentiments and instructions to all our Country-men; and thus mutually improve and conciliate each other’s affections’. Irish was the vehicle for that then - I ask myself what is the equivalent vehicle today?

Recommended reading:

Presbyterians and the Irish Language by Roger Blayney 1996. It draws heavily on Jim Stothers’ 1981 M.Th. thesis: ‘The use of the Irish language by Irish Presbyterians with particular reference to evangelical approaches to Roman Catholics’. (A copy of this book is available for consultation in the library of the Presbyterian Historical Society of Ireland at 26 College Green, Belfast.)

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