It has become customary to distinguish between two principal stages in the external history of the English language in Ireland: medieval and modern (see, e.g. Hogan 1927/1970; Bliss 1977a, 1979; Kallen 1994). This distinction is a convenient starting-point for our discussion, too, although it does not do full justice to the importance of the nineteenth century as a period which marked a drastic change in the dominance relationships between Irish and English (see the discussion in sections 2.2 and 3.3.3).
The introduction of English into Ireland started with the Norman invasion in 1169. As Bliss (1979: 11) points out, this led to the establishment of English and Norman French as vernacular languages spoken in Ireland alongside Irish. Despite the fact that within the next hundred years or so the Normans managed to take over nearly all of the province of Leinster and parts of Munster and Ulster, Norman French began to decline rapidly, and the Norman population soon became gaelicised in their language and customs (Bliss 1979: 12). English, which was the language of the tenants of the Norman lords, was at first more fortunate than Norman French, gaining some ground during the thirteenth century, but gradually the pressure of Irish pushed it into a steady decline in the following centuries. According to Hogan’s vivid description of the developments in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries
Irish came down again into the plains and up to the walls of the towns. With the exception of those who carried on the Dublin government, or lived in or near the Pale, the great Norman families, never having been English, now became thoroughly Irish. The English yeomen and small freeholders steadily forsook the land, going to England or the Pale.
(Hogan 1927/1970: 23)
That the English language was indeed under growing pressure in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries is also shown by the various attempts made by the English rulers to halt the process of gaelicisation. Among these, the Statutes of Kilkenny became particularly well known: originally written in Norman French and passed by a Parliament held in Kilkenny in 1366, these statutes sought to turn the tide by imposing heavy penalties on those who were found using Irish. They, as well as other similar measures, turned out to be of no effect, and Irish continued to encroach upon the position of English not only in rural areas but also in towns, including even Dublin (Bliss 1979: 13).