Tracing the Geographic Distribution of the Gaelic Language in Ireland, 1821-1926
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Conventional historiography of the Gaelic language in Ireland cites the Irish Famine (1845-1852) as the primary factor which caused the decline of the language, but historical census records of Ireland tell a different story. Using spatial analysis and Geographic Information Systems (GIS) as a methodology, this paper examines language patterns in Ireland in order to trace the prominence and the historical distribution of the Gaelic language in Ireland throughout the nineteenth century, and to determine what factors may have been associated with its decline and redistribution. It was hypothesized that the population exhibited clustering in the West of Ireland throughout the mid nineteenth century and that increasing English populations in Ireland led to a shift in its distribution from the West to the East of Ireland. It was also hypothesized that the decline of the Gaelic language in Ireland began well before the Great Irish Famine and continued at a fairly steady rate. The main conclusion of this research is that the decline of the Gaelic language in Ireland during the nineteenth century was not caused by the massive population loss during the Irish Potato Famine, but that it was the influence of English social, political and cultural pressures in Ireland beginning in the early seventeenth century that affected the decline of the language. By 1831, fifteen years before the Famine, the Gaelic language already only accounted for around 35% of the total population. By 1861, nine years after the Famine, this number had only dropped to around 24%. While Irish Famine did have an effect on the Gaelic language, but it was not the catalyst for its rapid decline; this occurred much earlier. Likewise, this paper concluded that the distribution of the Gaelic language exhibited clustering in the West of Ireland throughout the mid nineteenth century. Though the number of Gaelic speakers did decline to around 18% of the total population by the turn of the twentieth century, the largest clusters of the Gaelic population remained in the West. Although the Famine did have an effect on the sustainability of the Gaelic language, due to the steady nature of the decline, the Irish Famine cannot be cited as the cause of the near extinction of the Gaelic language by the beginning of the twentieth century.
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