Irish language in Newfoundland

The Irish language was once widely spoken on the island of Newfoundland before largely disappearing there by the early 20th century.[1] The language was introduced through mass immigration by Irish speakers, chiefly from counties Waterford, Tipperary and Cork, and Newfoundland subsequently became the only place to have a distinct Irish-language name outside Europe: Talamh an Éisc ("Land of the (One) Fish"). The Irish spoken in Newfoundland was said to resemble the dialect spoken in Munster in the eighteenth century.

Irish immigration

A view of Trinity Bay, Newfoundland and Labrador, where Irish settlers were established by the late 17th century.

The Irish language arrived in Newfoundland as a consequence of the English migratory cod fishery. While Humphrey Gilbert formally claimed Newfoundland as an English overseas possession in 1583, this did not lead to permanent European settlement. A number of unsuccessful attempts at settlement followed, and the migratory fishery continued to grow. By 1620, fishermen from South West England dominated most of the east coast of Newfoundland, with the French dominant along the south coast and Great Northern Peninsula. After 1713, with the Treaty of Utrecht, the French ceded control of the south and north shores of the island to the British, keeping only the nearby islands of Saint Pierre and Miquelon off the south coast.[2]

Irish labourers were recruited for the fishery from southeast Ireland. Irish settlers were reported to be residing at Ireland's Eye, Trinity Bay, by 1675, at Heart's Content in 1696, and at St. John's by 1705.[3][failed verification] Thomas Nash, an Irish Roman Catholic, was one of the later pioneers of Irish settlement in Newfoundland. A native of Kilkenny, he arrived on the Southern Shore in 1765 and eventually settled in the Branch area.[4]

Between 1750 and 1830, and particularly between 1793 and 1815, large numbers of Irish people, including many Irish speakers, emigrated to Newfoundland, known colloquially simply as an tOileán "the Island". An account dating from 1776 describes how seasonal workers from Cork, Kerry, and elsewhere would come to Waterford to take passage to Newfoundland, taking with them all they needed.[5] A description of this enterprise (with a burlesque flavour) was given by the 18th-century Munster poet Donough MacConmara, describing his deep sea-chest filled with eggs, butter, bacon and other necessities:

Do thug an pobal i bhfochair a chéile
Chum mo chothuighthe i gcogadh nó i spéirlinn –
Stór nach g-caillfeadh suim de laethibh,
As cófra doimhin a d-toilfinn féin ann;
Do bhí seach bh-fichid ubh circe 'gus eunla ann
Le h-aghaidh a n-ithte chomh minic 's badh mhéin liom –
Cróca ime do dingeadh le saothar
As spóla soille ba throime 'ná déarfainn ...[6]

The people brought together
So as to nourish me in war or strife -
A treasure that they would not lose for many a day,
And a deep chest that I would like myself;
There were a hundred and forty hens' eggs and birds,
For me to eat as often as I would wish -
A crock packed tight with butter
And a fat joint of meat bigger than I could tell.

Kilkenny's contribution to this emigration was 25%, followed by Wexford (at least 23%), Waterford (at least 20%) and Tipperary (at least 15%), with Cork adding a further 6%. Wexford was the county of origin in which the Irish language was least spoken. The other counties, mostly in Munster, were part of an area in which Irish was widely spoken until at least the middle of the 19th century. An illustration of this is furnished by the estimated percentage of Irish speakers for the decennial period 1771–1781 in the following counties: County Kilkenny 57%, County Tipperary 51%, County Waterford 86%, County Kerry 93%, and County Cork 84%.[7] This is borne out by observations made in 1819 by James McQuige, a veteran Methodist lay preacher in Irish:

In many parts of Ireland I have travelled frequently twenty miles without being able to obtain directions on my way, except in Irish ... I need hardly dwell on the Catholic counties, Cork and Kerry, where even the few Protestants speak their native tongue [i.e. Irish] ... In some of the largest southern towns, Cork, Kinsale, and even the Protestant town of Bandon, provisions are sold in the markets, and cried in the streets, in Irish.[8]

Most Irish settled on the Avalon Peninsula, with many in the main port and present capital of St. John's.[9][failed verification]

Some Irish immigrants to Newfoundland moved on, and many others were part of an annual seasonal migration between Ireland and Newfoundland. Most landed in the Newfoundland ports of St. John's and Harbour Grace, and many moved on to smaller outports on the coast of the Avalon Peninsula. By the 1780s, the Irish had become the dominant ethnic group in and around the St. John's area, in a population of about 3,200. Many were engaged in fishing and had little formal education. Many were servants who came to Newfoundland alone, but others had families, in which the labour of women and children was essential. Most families had a small plot of land.[10]

By 1815 the Irish in Newfoundland numbered over 19,000. Emigration was encouraged by political discontent at home, overpopulation and impoverishment. It was also aided by the fact that legislation of 1803 designed to regulate conditions on British passenger vessels, making the passage too expensive for the poorest, such as the Irish, did not apply to Newfoundland, which was viewed as a fishery rather than a colony.[11]

Language and culture

The coast of the Avalon Peninsula, in the province of Newfoundland and Labrador

The use of the Irish language in Newfoundland was closely tied to the persistence of an ancestral culture preserved in scores of enclaves along the coast.[12] That culture, in the Avalon Peninsula and elsewhere, included feast days, holy wells, games, mumming, poetry, faction fighting, and the game of hurling. Church services were often conducted in the Irish language.[13] The post-1815 economic collapse in Newfoundland after the Napoleonic Wars caused many of these Irish-speaking settlers to flee to the nearby Maritime colonies, taking their language with them.[14]

Court records show that defendants sometimes required Irish-speaking interpreters, as in the case of an Irishman in Fermeuse in 1752.[15]

Ecclesiastical records also illustrate the prevalence of Irish. In the mid-1760s the Reverend Laurence Coughlan, a Methodist preacher, converted most of the North Shore of Newfoundland to Protestantism. Observers credited the success of his evangelical revival at Carbonear and Harbour Grace to the fact that he was fluent in Irish.[citation needed] There are references to the need for Irish-speaking priests between 1784 and 1807.[15] In letters to Dublin, the Catholic Bishop James Louis O'Donel, when requesting a Franciscan missionary for the parishes of St. Mary's and Trepassey, said that it was absolutely necessary that he should be able to speak Irish.[citation needed] O'Donel himself was an Irish speaker, and the fact that his successor Bishop Patrick Lambert (a Leinsterman and coadjutor bishop of St John's from 1806) had no Irish may have contributed to the mistrust shown towards him by Irish-speaking Newfoundlanders.[10]

Last traces

The identities of the last speakers of Irish in Newfoundland are largely unknown. There is a lack of information of the sort available from the adjacent Province of New Brunswick (where, in the 1901 Census, several individuals and families listed Irish as their mother tongue and as a language still spoken by them).[12] The question of how far Newfoundland Irish evolved as a separate dialect remains open. Irish left traces in Newfoundland English, such as the following: scrob "scratch" (Irish scríob), sleveen "rascal" (Irish slíbhín) and streel "slovenly person" (Irish sraoill), along with grammatical features like the "after" perfect as in "she's already after leavin'" (Irish tá sí tar éis imeacht).[1]

The most notable scholar of the Irish language in Newfoundland after it had disappeared, sometime early in the 20th century, was Aloysius (Aly) O'Brien, born in St. John's on 16 June 1915. He died there on 8 August 2008. O'Brien's paternal grandmother, Bridget Conway, had spoken Irish (which she had learned growing up in Ireland) but his father did not speak it. O'Brien taught himself Irish by means of language records, cassette tapes, and the booklets of Eugene O'Growney, a notable figure in Ireland’s Gaelic revival. O’Brien was thus enabled to become an authority on the many Irish words in the local English of the area and became a tutor at the Memorial University of Newfoundland. He claimed, despite this, that he was not fluent in Irish, lacking opportunities for immersion.[16]

Current status

There is no evidence of any attempt to revive a specifically Newfoundland form of Irish. There is some interest in the language generally, as indicated by the fact that Memorial University, St. John’s, Newfoundland, employs one of the Irish language instructors appointed every year by the Ireland Canada University Foundation to work in Canadian universities and support the Irish language in the wider community.[17]

Through apps such as Duolingo, Irish is making a marked return to the province’s Irish descendants.[citation needed]

The disappearance of Newfoundland Irish may be contrasted to the continued use of Scottish Gaelic in Cape Breton, though the survival of Gaelic there is not assured.[citation needed]

See also


  1. ^ a b Language: Irish Gaelic, Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage website.
  2. ^ "Newfoundland Settlement and the Migratory Fishery", Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage website.
  3. ^ Newfoundland: The Most Irish Place Outside of Ireland, Brian McGinn, the Irish Diaspora Studies scholarly network, quoting Thomas F. Nemec, "The Irish Emigration to Newfoundland", pp. 16-17
  4. ^ Memorial University, Intangible Cultural Heritage Branch
  5. ^ Young, pp. 131–132: "October 17 [1776]. Accompanied Lord Tyrone to Waterford; made some inquiries into the state of their trade... The number of people who go as passengers in the Newfoundland ships is amazing: from sixty to eighty ships, and from three thousand to five thousand annually. They come from most parts of Ireland, from Cork, Kerry, etc. Experienced men will get eighteen to twenty-five pounds for the season, from March to November. A man who never went will have five to seven pounds and his passage, and others rise to twenty pounds; the passage out they get but pay home two pounds. An industrious man in a year will bring home twelve to sixteen pounds with him, and some more. A great point for them is to be able to carry out all their slops, for everything, there is exceedingly dear, one or two hundred per cent. dearer than they can get them at home. They are not allowed to take out any woollen goods but for their own use. The ships go loaded with pork, beef, butter, and some salt; and bring home passengers, or get freights where they can; sometimes rum".
  6. ^ Quoted in Corkery 1925, p. 268–269
  7. ^ Fitzgerald (1984)
  8. ^ Quoted in de Brún 2009, pp. 11–12.
  9. ^ Newfoundland: The Most Irish Place Outside of Ireland, Brian McGinn, the Irish Diaspora Studies scholarly network, quoting John Mannion, "The Irish Migrations to Newfoundland", Summary of a Public Lecture delivered to The Newfoundland Historical Society, October 23, 1973, p. 3, and Kevin Whelan, "County Kilkenny Priests in Newfoundland" in Old Kilkenny Review, Vol. 3, No. 3 (1986), p. 243.
  10. ^ a b "Creed and Culture, 1784 to 1830: Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage", Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage website.
  11. ^ "Immigration", Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage website.
  12. ^ a b Driscoll, Marilyn, 'The Irish Language in New Brunswick'
  13. ^ O’Grady 2004, p. 56
  14. ^ O’Grady 2004, p. 57
  15. ^ a b Kirwan 1993, p. 68
  16. ^ J. M. O'Sullivan, "Aloysius O'Brien, 93: Agronomist", in The Globe and Mail dated 13 October 2008
  17. ^ Irish Language Instructors


  • [1] Corkery, Daniel (1925). The Hidden Ireland: A Study of Gaelic Munster in the Eighteenth Century. M.H. Gill and Son, Ltd.
  • De Brún, Pádraig (2009). Scriptural Instruction in the Vernacular: The Irish Society and Its Teachers 1818-1827. Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies.
  • Fitzgerald, Garrett, ‘Estimates for baronies of minimal level of Irish-speaking amongst successive decennial cohorts, 117-1781 to 1861-1871,’ Volume 84, Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy 1984.
  • Kirwan, William J. (1993). ‘The planting of Anglo-Irish in Newfoundland’ in Focus on Canada, Sandra Clark (ed.). John Benjamin's Publishing Company. ISBN 90-272-4869-9
  • O’Grady, Brendan (2004). Exiles and Islanders: The Irish Settlers of Prince Edward Island. MQUP.
  • [2] Young, Arthur (1780). A Tour in Ireland.

Further reading

  • Ó hEadhra, Aogán (1998). Na Gaeil i dTalamh an Éisc. Coiscéim.

External links

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