Language and Liturgy: The Relationship between Religion and the Irish

Celtic languages have declined significantly in the last millennium despite once dominating the British Isles. The Irish language especially has diminished significantly despite once covering the whole of Ireland. Many scholars have attributed this decline to political, economic, and social factors, but the role of religion remains underexplored. The 16th through 18th centuries in particular are indicative of the influence of religious institutions as, in the wake of the Protestant Reformation, religion motivated many policies towards Irish language speakers. Throughout this period, the Irish language was constantly affected by pressures from religious institutions. However, even before the Protestant Reformation, Irish was at the center of a multitude of struggles occurring in Ireland.

John Cary’s map of the Ireland depicted the provinces and counties in 1799. From Wikimedia Commons.

The 1169 Norman invasion of Ireland brought new languages like early English to the island and was the start of the pressures against the Irish language. However, English control of Ireland was limited to the east around Dublin. By the 14th century, English control had waned and a Gaelic resurgence began. Many of the Anglo-Norman settlers in Ireland had become Gaelicized, and spoke the Irish language. To combat this de-anglicization, King Edward III of England issued the Statute of Kilkenny in 1366 to ban the Irish language within English-controlled areas. The statute did not seek to suppress the Irish language among the Irish, but rather among the English in Ireland. Until the early 16th century, there were few other attempts to control the Irish language. 

When King Henry VIII took the throne, however, he wanted to reestablish control over Ireland both politically and religiously as part of the English Reformation. He hoped that by anglicizing the Irish people in language and culture, he could also bring them into the Protestant Church of Ireland and make them loyal English subjects. Towards this end, he passed An Act for the English Order, Habit, and Language in 1537 prohibiting the use of the Irish language, ordering education in English, and requiring religious preaching in English. An important element of this act was the implication that language was tied to political loyalty. The king’s insistence that speaking Irish, not English, was an indication of disloyalty would continue to influence linguistic policy in Ireland in the coming centuries.

After the Protestant Reformation, most of the population of Ireland remained Catholic. Because of this, the Irish language became tied to Catholicism, aligning it with not only political but also religious disloyalty. Protestantism as a movement believed in the importance of worship in vernacular languages. The desire to use vernacular languages inspired many within the Church of Ireland to try using the Irish language in worship as a means of converting Catholics. However, this aim was frustrated by the limited number of Protestants who had learned the Irish language in addition to a lack of religious texts in Irish. These texts would be necessary in order to ensure uniformity of worship among any converted Irish speakers. To this end, the first religious text printed was Séon Carsuel’s 1567 Foirm na nUrrnuidheah, a book of common order. However, because Carsuel was a Presbyterian, the Anglicans in the Church of Ireland printed their own text in 1571, an Irish alphabet and catechism. These texts began the process of Protestants using the Irish language.

Throughout the 17th century, religious institutions further attempted to use Irish in order to reach Irish speakers. Following the 1607 Flight of the Earls, bards, the traditional keepers of the language, lost their influence and the Irish language began to change. This period of language instability allowed priests to try taking control of the language in order to use it for their religious goals. Even the Catholic Church, which hadn’t taken advantage of vernacular printing in the 16th century, began printing religious texts in 1611, but because they were published by exiled Catholic priests on the European continent, they rarely reached Ireland. In Ireland, however, members of the Anglican Church of Ireland began working on a translation of the Bible into Irish and published the New Testament in 1602. After significant delays, the church also published an Old Testament in 1685 with a full Bible following in 1690.

By the start of the 18th century, changes in the political and religious situation throughout Britain greatly affected the Irish language. After the Glorious Revolution in 1688, Great Britain was confirmed as a Protestant kingdom. In Ireland, this led to the penal laws punishing Catholics and Dissenters, non-Anglican Protestants. Because many Catholics had rebelled against the new king, Catholics were branded political enemies, and since many Catholics still spoke only Irish, this affirmed the idea that speaking Irish was a mark of disloyalty. Religion became increasingly tied to culture and language, leading to greater influence of religion on the Irish language.

The population of Ireland at this time mainly belonged to three religious denominations: the Church of Ireland, the Catholic Church, and the Presbyterian Church, the latter of which was concentrated in Ulster. Although both Catholics and Dissenters were punished under the penal laws, Catholics were considered political enemies in a way that Protestant Dissenters weren’t. Additionally, because most Presbyterians came from Scotland as part of the Ulster Plantations, they spoke English, so they were not enemies linguistically or culturally. However, the Presbyterian Church did briefly proselytize in Irish starting in 1716, but within a few decades, few clergy used the language. Likewise, the Catholic Church used Irish minimally. Although it had printed a few religious texts in Irish in the 17th century, few copies reached Ireland from the continent. Moreover, because Latin was the church language, Catholic clergy did not use Irish in their services. By 1795, when the Catholic seminary at Maynooth was founded, English was the only language of instruction.

As for the Church of Ireland, there were many members that believed in using Irish for conversion and advocated for vernacular preaching and printing. While the church did allow Irish preaching starting in 1634, there were limited Irish-speaking Protestant clergy. There were hopes to train Irish-speaking clergy at the newly founded Trinity College in Dublin, but that program saw little success. Despite these efforts, the Church of Ireland never fully embraced most of the suggested Irish language programs. Many believed that using the Irish language would reinforce the divide between the English and Irish culturally, politically, and religiously. Some priests disagreed, claiming that using Irish to convert would actually lead to the eventual adoption of English culture and language by the Irish people. However, even these men usually reinforced the idea that the ultimate goal of using Irish was to remove it in favor of English. ​​By 1800, the Church of Ireland had largely abandoned the use of the Irish language, much like the Presbyterian and Catholic churches.

Religious institutions significantly influenced the Irish language from the sixteenth  through eighteenth centuries. As the 19th century began, education became the arena of change for Irish, but it should be noted that churches played a huge role in education at this time. The Irish language was deprioritized if not outright banned in most schools. Many Protestants attacked the Irish language for its association with Catholicism, hoping to defeat the language through neglect. When Ireland gained its independence, many in the government blamed the decline of the Irish language on the national school system, which was founded in 1831 and used only the English language. However, this claim ignores the fact that even before the national schools, religious institutions, even the Catholic Church, largely ignored the Irish language in both education and worship. Within the religious sphere, many individuals had aims to either preserve or destroy the Irish language, but neither goal fully succeeded by the modern era. Instead, the language entered an era of revitalization rather than preservation that continues today. While religious institutions in Ireland are still influential, especially in education, they will never again hold the sway over the Irish language that they did before the 19th century.


Works Cited

  • Crowley, Tony. The Politics of Language in Ireland 1366-1922: A Sourcebook. Edited by Tony Crowley. Routledge, 2002.
  • Crowley, Tony. Wars of Words: The Politics of Language in Ireland 1537-2004. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.
  • Durkacz, Victor Edward. The Decline of the Celtic Languages: A Study of Linguistic and Cultural Conflict in Scotland, Wales and Ireland from the Reformation to the Twentieth Century. Edinburgh: John Donald Publishers, 1983.

About the Author

Rowan Bianchi is currently a master’s student in the History Department at Boston College. Their initial interest in Irish history was sparked when they studied at Trinity College Dublin and now they are interested in early modern Ireland with a particular focus on religion. Rowan is also learning the Irish language and hope it will further their historical understanding of Ireland.

The Fraught Relationship between Reproductive Justice and State Power

Her name was Eliza Cobb, and even though she was born at the onset of emancipation in 1866 her life was composed of very little that resembled anything close to freedom. At the age of twenty-two Eliza was raped, became pregnant, and later that year was arrested by police and sentenced to work at the Du Bois sawmill camp on the unproven charge of infanticide. After working at the sawmill camp for a few years, Eliza was transferred to Milledgeville State Prison Farm in Georgia where she, along with hundreds of other imprisoned Black women, once again experienced the horrifying intersection between pregnancy, race, violence, and criminalization. Sadly, these crossings would not end at the turn of the twentieth century, but instead have continued to haunt the evolution of the American prison system and state-led violence against maternal health and reproduction. 

Photograph of Eliza Cobb printed in No Mercy Here: Gender, Punishment, and the Making of Jim Crow Modernity by Sarah Haley, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 2016), 19. Courtesy of the Georgia Archives, Morrow, Georgia.

Most people tend to think of pregnancy and motherhood as special, sacred even. And while this idealism is certainly compelling, it’s also far from the lived reality that untold numbers of predominantly Black and Brown women have experienced since the moment the photo of Eliza Cobb was taken.* Indeed, throughout the twentieth century pregnancy, maternal health, and reproduction have become increasingly intertwined with state policies that are dictated not by public health and social welfare, but instead by power, violence, and the criminalization of non-normative pregnancies and families. Reproductive bodies have literally become the state’s business. 

It’s highly unlikely that when Eliza was sent to work at the saw mill camp in 1889 she was aware that Southern lawmakers a were “institutionalizing gendered racial terror as a technology of white supremacist control.” This “institutionalization” was a way of exploiting gendered forms of labor to help create the “New South” following the destruction wrought by the Civil War. Female along with male convict laborers were forced to work in coal-mines, on railroads, brickyards, sawmills, and plantations. They were often contracted out by the state to private companies and individuals in a practice known as “convict leasing.” Although convict leasing was eliminated in 1908 its replacement was no better. On the chain gang, imprisoned men and women continued to be a main source of labor as the South sought to rebuild its infrastructure, encourage economic development, and reinstate the fear and gendered-racial ideologies that supported white supremacy. 

The “New South” was undoubtedly created by every brick that was laid, railroad track that was put down, and lumber that was sawed to build new homes and businesses. But the South, and, by extension, parts of the state and federal government were refashioned on something even stronger than brick and steel. The mythologies of Black female deviance, sexual monstrosity, and inability to achieve the ideal of white motherhood was the mortar upon which state-sponsored violence and the criminalization of Black women’s pregnancies were kept together. By controlling the forced labor of Black women, disproportionately arresting Black and Brown women compared to white women, relying on sexual violence and terror to maintain order, and providing little if any support for women who were already pregnant or became pregnant while incarcerated, states reinforced the reproductive-carceral logic that idealized white feminine sanctity and white supremacy. As Sarah Haley writes, “through policing, legislation, and judicial enforcement, Black women were made juridical inverts,” or bodies that were undeserving of protection, reproductive care, and socio-cultural acceptance. 

Of course, one of the most unfortunate aspects about these mythologies, erroneous beliefs, and prejudices (beyond the obvious human rights violations), is the degree to which they persist and shape-shift according to their respective time and place. Given that lies based on fear and self-interest are often the hardest ones to dispel, the narrative of Black women’s reproductive deviance combined with state violence continued to inform state and federal policy well into the mid-late twentieth century. 

Take, for example, the energetic proposals in the early 1990s of using Norplant, an implantable form of birth control, as a way of limiting the number of children born to women receiving welfare or who were on Medicaid. Lawmakers in certain states actively went beyond just making Norplant more accessible to low-income women. Numerous bills were designed to pressure women by offering financial incentive or “requiring implantation as a condition of receiving benefits.” In Kansas, Connecticut, and Louisiana, state representatives Kerry Patrick, Robert Farr, and former-Klu Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke respectively all either proposed or encouraged legislation that would give women on welfare money to have the device implanted and then a set amount of cash each year the woman kept using the device. Although by 1997 no state legislature had passed a bill either mandating Norplant or offering financial bonuses for its use, legal scholar Dorothy Roberts ellucidates how state welfare rhetoric combined with persistent cultural myths “blames Black single mothers for transmitting a deviant lifestyle to their children.” 

Of course, this leveling of blame, guilt, and shame doesn’t just stop at racial and class boundaries. All women are impacted by it, whether they are white or BIPOC, educated or uneducated, rich or poor. Whether a group of women is being used as the social “ideal” of what motherhood should look like or its foil, the reproductive lives of all women become bound up with the goals of the state. Throughout the mid-late twentieth century women who failed to meet the political and socio-cultural “standard” of reproductive and maternal health could expect at best a lack of support and at worst coercion, surveillance, and violence through the form of state-sponsored agencies and an imbalanced criminal justice system. Given the current threat to reproductive justice once again at both state and federal levels, this issue has sadly not simply remained a “thing of the past.”

If we are going to continue fighting these injustices and ensure that pregnancy ceases to be punitive, then we must not only elect legislators who truly represent our communities but also advocate for a social welfare system that is fully equipped to meet the needs of all women, wherever they are in their lives. We can no longer continue to rely on a system that medical anthropologist and OBG-YN Carolyn Sufrin refers to as “jailcare,” or the “disturbing entanglement of carcerality and care” for pregnant people who find that the only place they can receive even basic prenatal care is behind bars. Although many of these women are in jail because of drug abuse or other low-level crimes, to use their offenses as a way to deny responsibility for their and their fetus’ welfare is an unfortunate example of focusing so much on individual trees that you lose sight of the forest. That poor, oftentimes homeless pregnant women sometimes choose to go back to jail for prenatal care is a symptom of “a historical tragedy that is peculiar to the United States . . . defined by the whittling away of public services for the poor, coupled with an escalation in the number of jails and prisons serving as sites for the care of that same population.” To dismiss people who are pregnant, drug addicted, poor, homeless, and in jail as weak, immoral, or somehow deserving of their situation is blind and short-sighted. While personal responsibility is important, if it is not also balanced by an understanding of how all of our choices are shaped or limited by larger circumstances then we miss crucial opportunities for compassionate change that can offer hope, dignity, and a better way forward. 

What good is our history to us if we do not use it in ways to make lives better for our friends, family members, and communities today? We know that how our legislative, criminal justice, and welfare system have operated together in the past hasn’t always worked, to say the least. And to have this dysfunction and violence, whether intentional or not, inflicted on pregnant people is to miss how we have the ability to change these systems. They were created by human beings and so there is always the potential for change. I have hope that those elected to state and federal positions who bring energy, passion, and new ideas will continue to, however incrementally, push for legislation that cares for, protects, and celebrates reproductive and maternal health. Such a reality was inaccessible for Eliza Cobb, but we can honor her and so many other women’s stories by making it real for us. 


Works Cited

  • Haley, Sarah. No Mercy Here: Gender, Punishment, and the Making of Jim Crow Modernity. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 2016.
  • Roberts, Dorothy. Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty. New York: Pantheon Books, 1997.
  • Sufrin, Carolyn. Jailcare: Finding the Safety Net for Women behind Bars. Oakland: University of California, 2017.

*I acknowledge the implicit error that comes with using the pronoun “she” when talking about pregnancy and motherhood, as I realize that not every pregnant person or mother identifies as female. My use of specific pronouns is in no way meant to ignore or deny the multiplicity of people who can become pregnant and act as mothers. I also recognize the inherent complexity that accompanies the word “experience” and the myriad factors that comprise a person’s perceived reality; due to the length of this post I have chosen not to explore these factors here.


About the Author

Meghan McCoy is currently a master’s student in the History Department at Boston College. Meghan’s research interests are focused on the history of maternal health, childbirth practices, and midwifery in the United States from the late nineteenth century to present day. She hopes that by delving into this history while engaging with other individuals and organizations committed to maternal health care, she can contribute to the work needed to eliminate disparities and ensure equitable treatment.

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