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How Irish Died Out In North County

Irish Language

Some three hundred years ago a language shift took place in Fingal. This shift saw a trend emerge over the course of a two hundred year period, across three local languages, with English emerging as the victor.

The first of these languages to be affected was ‘Fingallian’. A poorly documented local descendant of Middle English spoken between 1600-1700. Despite pressure at first from Irish, Fingallian survived as an isolated language in North County Dublin, until the mid-nineteenth century, when it eventually succumbed to local English.

Unfortunately we have so little information on Fingallian, that we do not know exactly how far its area of use extended. Remnants of it are noticeable in the twentieth century English of Swords, Lusk, Rush, Skerries and Naul.

Irish loan-words in Fingallian are of particular interest as it shows they must have been borrowed directly from the local Irish dialect at the time. We have no direct information on whether or not Fingallian speakers also knew Irish, but given the extensive nature of borrowings from Irish, it seems most likely.

Between 1600 and 1700 Irish was holding its own in the area, spoken and understood not only by the poor but also by the rich. After approximately 1750, however, evidence for Irish-speaking in North County Dublin begins to appear very mixed. There are reports of both Irish and English terms used by the fisher folk of Skerries, Rush and Portrane. Some of the terms were clearly corrupt Irish, others perfectly good Irish. It is thus clear that at that time, English was making significant inroads into traditionally Irish-speaking areas.

By the early nineteenth century English was essentially ascendant in Fingal, but Irish was still widely spoken at Stamullin townland in the far north of the county. At the time of the Ordnance Survey letters of 1836, older people in the Stamullin area still had Irish of some sort, as late as 1893. The final stronghold of Irish in North County Dublin in 1899, was in fact to be found about seven kilometres to the west at the Naul, also on the Meath border. Tradition has it that the Naul area, just west of Balbriggan, preserved Irish until very recently, a family of Kirwans, locally “Karvan,” being said to be the last speakers, until 1899.

Skerries, Rush and Portrane people ceased passing on their Irish relatively early, around 1790. Local Irish likely ceased to be the community language of rural areas around Balbriggan by about 1810. What caused this rapid abandonment of traditional speech in North County Dublin remains unclear, but it is worth nothing that, of the North County areas listed, Stamullin was situated closest to other surviving Irish-speaking areas in Meath. Irish had ceased to be the majority community language of any place in North Co. Dublin by 1830, even isolated semi-speakers are not recorded after 1893-1899.