A Demographic Perspective on the Shift from Irish to English
From the fifth to the twentieth century, the expansion of English in the British Isles has been concomitant with the decline of the Celtic languages in the same region (see Durkacz, 1983). In the case of Ireland, English has been the sole language of most people for well over a century, but before that was a period of widespread bilingualism, especially from about 1750 to 1850. Scholars interested in the languages of the British Isles have generally recognized the importance of that bilingual period, but the usual explanation offered for the growth of the bilingual population is in some ways questionable. This chapter reviews evidence indicating that this explanation exaggerates the role of schooling. This evidence is found in literacy statistics which suggest that relatively few children in rural areas attended school in the first half of the nineteenth century, when a major language shift took place in the western counties of Ireland.
In the Tudor era nearly everyone in the country spoke Irish. English became more widely used with the slow but steady increase in colonists from Britain toward the end of the fifteenth and into the sixteenth century, but even by the time of Cromwell, the majority of the population still spoke Irish as their primary language and the majority may well have been monolingual speakers ( De Fréine, 1977). However, during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries more people did become bilingual, especially in the eastern and northern counties. The decline of Irish in western and southern counties happened later but followed essentially the same trends from about 1750 to about 1900. In Connacht and Munster (that is, the western and southern