An Ghaeilge i gCeanada – The Irish Language in Canada

The Ireland Canada Monument and Scoil Gaelige Vancouver convey our sincere thanks to Mr. Aralt Tadhg Mac Giolla Chainnigh CD, rmc, BEng, MSc, PhD for providing the documentation below.

Mr. Mac Giolla Chainnigh and others were instrumental in the establisment of the First Gaeltacht (Irish Speaking area) in Canada at Tamworth Ontario.

Refer to the following document




The Irish Language in Kingston Ontaro.  (Date issued – 2005)

 As has been described elsewhere in this booklet, the Irish have historically represented a very large percentage of the Kingston population.   Up until the time of the Great Starvation in Ireland (1846 – 1850), the vast majority of Irish immigrants spoke the Irish language1, 2, 3.  The language had endured in Ireland despite concerted attempts to eradicate it. 

“Be it enacted that every person or persons, the King’s true subjects inhabiting this land of Ireland … to the uttermost of their power, cunning and knowledge, shall use and speak commonly the English tongue and language and shall bring up his children …. to learn the English tongue, language, order and condition.”

                       Henry VIII, 1541 AD4

 “It hath ever been the use of the conquerors to despise the language of the conquered, and to force him by all means to learn his … the speech being Irish, the heart must needs be Irish.”

            Edmund Spenser

            1552 – 1599

By the time of the Great Starvation (1846 – 1850) there were more Irish speakers in Ireland than at any time in the past (approximately 4 million)2, 5, 6.  With the Great Starvation it became manifest that under colonial rule, the English language was a prerequisite not only of prosperity, but also of survival.  The English Imperial government adopted the perspective of “laissez faire” economics, and considered the Starvation as a “righteous punishment from God”.

 “I hope the Catholic priests are making this clear – it is hard upon the poor people to be deprived of knowing that they are suffering from an affliction of God’s providence”7

            C.E. Trevelyan, Assistant Secretary of the Treasury

            to Colonel Douglas, Relief Inspector

            1 February 1847

The Irish speaking population was hardest hit by the Starvation.  They had already been strickened by 300 years of genocidal war, land confiscations, forced relocation, and “penal laws” which denied them rights to hold land, obtain education, hold a profession, or exercise religious freedom.  Approximately 1.5 million people died of starvation and famine related disease8, 9.  It is estimated that of the 2 million people who emigrated from Ireland at this time, approximately 60% were monoglot Irish speakers10.  We may infer that the Irish language was the first language of most Irish immigrants who arrived in Kingston prior to 1847, and in the 50 years thereafter. 

Evidence exists for the extensive use of the Irish language in and around Kingston prior to the Great Starvation (e.g. during the construction of the Rideau Canal, 1828-1834)11.  Less evidence exists following the famine.  Perhaps, as in Ireland, the famine had finally succeed, where overt coercion had failed, to instill a sense of shame and inadequacy in Irish culture and language.  There does not appear to have ever been an attempt to teach the Irish language or to pass it along to the next generation.  It was simply understood that English would be the language of all enterprise.  Proinsias Mac Aonghusa 12 in Reflections on the Fortunes of the Irish Language in Canada, notes that the “the total exclusion of the language dimension from the folk memory is extraordinary”.

 One individual, however, made no attempt to conceal his affection for “Gaelic” (by which we include both Irish and Scottish dialects).  This individual was Thomas Robert McInnes, a senator of the Canadian government and later Lieutenant-Governor of British Columbia.  He introduced a bill to the Senate in 1890 proposing that Gaelic become the third official language of Canada.  He presented statistics indicating that in the 1881 census of Canada, 38 % claimed either Irish or Scottish ancestry (c.f. French 30%, English 20%).  He indicated that 200,000 to 250,000 Canadians “speak the Irish language in their families and transact most of their business in their mother tongue”.  He further pointed out that 20 of the 49 members of the Senate could speak Gaelic, and that equally impressive numbers existed in the House of Commons.  The bill was defeated 42 to 7.13

 In recent years there has been a great resurgence of interest in the Irish Language in Ireland itself (“athbheochan”, renaissance).  In the Republic of Ireland, this renaissance has been made possible by official state sponsorship since 1922 .  The “Celtic Tiger” economy of the Republic, since  ~ 1998, has provided a financial basis upon which the language could be promoted.  Interestingly, despite state opposition, there has also been a great growth of Irish in the North of Ireland.  The Irish speaking community in West Belfast is informally considered the first urban Gaeltacht14.

 In the North, the thwarted civil rights movement of the sixties and early seventies demanded language rights.  The Good Friday Agreement (10 April 1998), which curtailed the subsequent violence, incorporated language concessions, including a Cross-Border language institution (An Foras Gaeilge).  Many of the language articles of the Good Friday Agreement have not been honored.  Little effort has been made to provide media programming in the Irish language.  The latest state contracts with providers of cablenet service have not included the Irish language television service from the Republic (TG4)15.  A recent initiative to provide Irish Language Radio in Belfast (Radio Fáilte) was terminated when it was judged that providing this amount of Irish language programming violated the condition of providing “alternative and innovative programming which reflects and enriches the diversity of the Belfast community; promoting equality and social inclusion”16.

Other issues of Irish language rights in the north include: the prohibition of the use of the Irish language in the workplace17; refusal to provided police service in both English and Irish; reluctance to post street signs in Irish in communities where requested by a majority of residents; refusal of the Royal Mail to deliver letters with Irish written on the face18; restriction of financial support to Irish language schools; refusal of government agencies to acknowledge correspondence in Irish; refusal to register births when names are spelt in Irish; refusal to provide translation services to and from Irish in the courts; reluctance to recognize the Irish language in the Northern Irish Parliament.  The United Kingdom is currently under pressure from the European Union to fulfill its commitments with respect to “Minority Languages”.

From the point of view of the Irish language in Kingston, it is extremely fortunate that many Irish immigrates came to Canada between 1950 and 1980.  It is largely through these people that we have been able to participate in the renaissance of the Irish language.  Denis Ó Driscoll, a Professor of Economics at Queens University began teaching night school classes at Kingston Collegiate and Vocational Institute in the early 1980s.  These classes were held in conjunction with the Kingston Gaelic Society, which included people with interest in the Irish language (Irish Gaelic) as well as Scots Gaelic.  The classes continued for four or five years.  Students would attend an Scots Gaelic “feis” each year in Toronto, to sing in Irish.  They won a number of prizes for their performances.

The Kingston branch of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann has been offering weekly classes since 1993.  Irish born members who have assisted in teaching include: Tom Campbell from County Sligo who grew up with Irish in the home; Pádraig Rafteri from Galway City who learned Irish from family members in Conamara; Eithne Dunbar from Athlone who spent most of her early childhood in the Conamara Gaeltacht; and Tony Dunbar (Limerick) and Neil McEvoy (Dublin), who were educated in all-Irish institutions under the Christian Brothers. 

Currently, Irish language classes in Kingston are run at the beginner and intermediate levels with 5 – 10 attendees in each class.  Approximately 80 individuals have studied Irish through these classes over the past 10 years.  Once a month, an Irish language “social evening” is run at the “Brew Pub”. 

Eithne Dunbar has run classes at St Lawrence College in Brockville on several occasions over the past few years.  Dudley Hillier has run informal classes in Belleville at different times over the past 20 years.  This year he succeeded in offering a more formal night-school course at a local college.

Other locations have also benefited from immigrant Irish speakers.  In the Eastern United States, Ethel Brogan from Armagh founded Daltaí na Gaeilge (“Students of Irish”) and began running Irish Language Immersion Weekends in New York State in 1981.  In 1995 a delegation from Kingston (Tom Campbell, Aralt Mac Giolla Chainnigh, Jack Hickman) attended one of these weekends, and began preparations to offer a weekend in Kingston.  Inspiration for the Kingston weekend were also drawn from Cumann na Gaeltachta (“Society of the Gaeltacht”) in Bolton, just north of Toronto, and Comhrá (“Conversation”) in Montreal.  Irish immigrants played key roles in founded both of these organizations: Gus Ó Gormáin, Seán Ó Treasaigh, and Pádraig Mac Lochlainn in Montreal; Séamus Mac Con Carraigh in Bolton.  Both organizations run Irish Language Immersion Weekends: Cumann na Gaeltachta since 1994; Comhrá since 1995.

Irish Language Immersion Weekends have been run in Kingston since 1997.  They began at the Providence Manor, but have since moved to the Vimy Officers Mess on CFB Kingston.  Attendance this year was 104.  Teachers are drawn from among the attendees.  This year for the first time, a family from the Gaeltacht in Ireland was brought to the weekend to assist with teaching and to provide a link to the living tradition.

Plans are underway to purchase a parcel of land and develop an Irish Language “Camp” at which individuals can spend holidays in an Irish speaking atmosphere.  A site near Calabogie in the Ottawa Valley is being considered.  This project will require participation from Irish language organizations across the country.

In 2000 an Irish Language high school course was offered at Kingston Collegiate and Vocational Institute (KCVI), as part of a Celtic Studies “focus program” (21 students).  In a “focus program” students throughout the district, both Catholic and Public, are eligible to be bussed to the hosting school.  This is the first time ever, of which we are aware, that an ordinary credit course in the Irish language has been offered in an Ontario high school.  The program was run for the second time in 2002 (18 students).  The KCVI program may act as a template to organize similar courses at other Ontario high schools.  Since Irish is classified as a “heritage language” in Ontario, classes must be offered wherever there is a sufficient demand (typically 15 students).

1                     Wall, Maureen, The Decline of the Irish Language,  in A View of the Irish Language, ed. Brian Ó Cuív, The Stationary Office: Dublin, 1969, p. 83.

2                     Ó Murchú, M, The Irish Language, Government of Ireland: Baile Átha Cliath, 1985, p.26, 27.

3                     Mac Aonghusa, Proinsias, Reflections on the Fortunes of the Irish Language in Canada, in The Untold Story: The Irish in Canada, ed. Robert O Driscoll and Lorna Reynolds, Celtic Arts of Canada: Toronto, 1988., p. 711.   

4                     Ó Fiach, Father Tomás, The Language and Political History, in A View of the Irish Language, ed. Brian Ó Cuív, The Stationary Office: Dublin, 1969, p. 103.

5                     Medbh, Mághréad, The Irish Language – An Overview, Local Ireland: Baile Átha Cliath, 1998.

6                     IRISH, Facing the Future, ISBN 1 870675, European Bureau for Lesser Used Languages: Baile Átha Cliath, 1999.

7                     When Ireland Starved, Part III, Celtic Video: New York, c.1992.

8                     Wall, Maureen, The Decline of the Irish Language,  in A View of the Irish Language, ed. Brian Ó Cuív, The Stationary Office: Dublin, 1969, p. 87.

9                     Quigley, Michael, Presentation to Canadian Parks Service Public Hearings, Action Grosse-Ile: Toronto, 1993, p.6.

10                 University of Arizona, Critical Languages Program, 1230 North Park Avenue, Suite 214, Tucson, AZ 85719, tel:602-621-3387.

11                 Neil Patterson, President, Chaffey’s Lock and Area Heritage Society, private communication, 2001.  “An Irish speaking officer was required to deal with conflicts between people who didn’t understand English.” 

12                 Mac Aonghusa, Proinsias, Reflections on the Fortunes of the Irish Language in Canada, in The Untold Story: The Irish in Canada, ed. Robert O Driscoll and Lorna Reynolds, Celtic Arts of Canada: Toronto, 1988, p. 713.  

13                 Ward, John, An Attempt to Make Gaelic Canada’s Third Official Language, in The Untold Story: Irish in Canada, ed. Robert O Driscoll and Lorna Reynolds, Celtic Arts of Canada: Toronto, 1988, pp. 719-722.

14                 At the time of writing, there is a serious proposal being considered for a district of West Belfast to be classified as part of the Gaeltacht.  Liam Ó Cuinneagáin, Chairman of Údarás na Gaeltachta, and a member of Foras na Gaeilge has expressed support for this proposal.

15                 Ó Pronntaigh, Ciarán, Beag Bogadh ar Chúrsaí Teilifíse, in , 11 April 2002.

16                 Ó Liatháin, Concubhar, Ní Chiúnófar Sinn Raidió Fáilte, in Lá, 14 February 2002.

17                 Impleachtaí Tromchúiseacha le Cosc ar Labhairt na Gaeilge, in Lá, 9 May 2002.

18                In 1999 the Northern Irish “Royal Mail” refused to deliver application forms send out by Oideas Gael, a language school in Donegal, in the Republic.   Similar letters sent out around the world, and even in England, were delivered without difficulty.