Stair na Gaeilge i Meiriceá scéal scaipthe atá agus a bhí ann. Scéal mór é ó thaobh na tíre seo ach scéal é ar fíorbheag an taighde a dearnadh air . . . Ní féidir a bheith ag trácht ar ghluaiseacht mhór, ar fheachtas tréan nó ar iarracht leanúnach maidir le hiarrachtaí a dearnadh an Ghaeilge a choinneáil beo i measc Éireannaigh i Meiriceá . . . [ach] bhí cuid acu nár fhoghlaim riamh [an Béarla]. Casadh orm féin daoine i Ros Muc a raibh os cionn scór bliain caite i Meiriceá acu agus a bhí fós gan Béarla . . .”
-Proinsias Mac Aonghusa, “An Ghaeilge i Meiriceá,” Go Meiriceá Siar (1979), p. 13
Some Irishmen declare that 35,000 people in New York City can speak Gaelic. Others fit the number at double that. It is all a matter of estimates, but when it is remembered that Irish is still spoken all through the west of Ireland, in Donegal and Galway, Sligo, Mayo, Cork, Kerry, Clare and most of all in the Isle of Aran, and that Irish immigration to America is still going strong at the rate of 10,000 a year, it is not strange that the old tongue still lingers in the streets of New York, the largest Irish city in the world.
–Hartford Courant, 6 January 1910
If, as scholars have complained, the history of the Irish language has too long been treated as peripheral to the creation of modern Ireland, the story of Irish among its far flung emigrants around the world has been even less visible. In the United States, for example, where historians have uncovered clear evidence of Irish speakers as far back as the seventeenth century, only a limited sense exists of the full magnitude of the language’s presence within the many Irish communities across the country from Boston and New York City to Butte and San Francisco. Over the years, several histories concentrating on the Irish language in the United States by Jeffrey Kallen, Proinsias Mac Aonghusa, and Kenneth Nilsen have confirmed the need to take a closer look at Irish and perhaps, by analogy, a whole host of minority languages that spread globally in the wake of large-scale migrations of peoples in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.1
In New York, it has been established that a range of new arrivals in the city’s early years, from servants on up to to elites such as the United Irishman and physician Dr. William James MacNeven (1763-1841), were fluent speakers of Irish.2 This population continued to grow as large-scale Irish immigration changed the urban landscape, bringing, by some estimates, the total number of Irish speakers to 70,000 in New York by 1900, just under 20% of speakers in the United States as a whole.
In 1910 census takers began recording the mother tongue, if other than English, spoken by anybody they encountered who was born outside the United States. A one-percent sample from the national count, available thanks to the IPUMS USA data repository, indicates that these claimants of Irish as a mother tongue were spread throughout the city, even as the inevitable concentration of Irish speakers in certain neighborhoods took place where overall Irish presence was strong.3 The map to the right gives a sense of where these individuals lived in the five boroughs.
But many questions remain as to how these native speakers compared to those raised only with English. Were they found among a similar range of occupations as others born in Ireland? What year did they arrive in the United States, on average? What financial circumstances did they find themselves in, having established themselves in the city? Student researchers will try to answer these and other questions as the data builds and a picture of the native speakers of the language emerges.
1 Jeffrey L. Kallen, “Language and Ethnic Identity: The Irish Language in the United States,” in Language Across Cultures ed. Liam Mac Mathúna and David Singleton (Dublin: Irish Association for Applied Linguistics, 1984), 101-12; Proinsias Mac Aonghusa, “An Ghaeilge i Meiriceá,” in Go Meiriceá Siar ed. Stiofán Ó hAnnracháin (Baile Átha Cliath: An Clóchomhar Tta, 1979); Kenneth E. Nilsen, “The Irish Language in New York, 1850-1900” in The New York Irish ed. Ronald H. Bayor and Timothy J. Meagher (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1996).
2 Nilsen, “Irish Language,” 254.
3 Steven Ruggles, J. Trent Alexander, Katie Genadek, Ronald Goeken, Matthew B. Schroeder, and Matthew Sobek, Integrated Public Use Microdata Series: Version 5.0 [Machine-readable database] (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2010).