Accounts of the decline of Irish and the concomitant rise of English generally emphasize the role that schools played in the development of bilingualism. However, estimates of literacy and bilingualism in County Galway indicate that schools could not have played such an important role in the acquisition of English. Space does not permit discussion of similar estimates for County Mayo, which also show large numbers of illiterate bilinguals. Moreover, further work on census data for certain other counties will probably show the same pattern (especially for Counties Clare, Kerry, Cork, and Waterford).
If naturalistic second-language acquisition was more important than English instruction in schools, the question arises as to what induced people in the rural areas of Ireland to try to pick up English. In all probability, the growing poverty of Ireland in this period was the most important factor. Freeman ( 1957) provides one estimate of the population in 1780 of about three million; by 1840 the population had risen to over eight million. Freeman suggests that this massive increase made even subsistence farming all the more difficult and that seeking outside employment became imperative. In this context, learning English no doubt helped the rural poor of Ireland to seek work in towns and other areas where English was spoken.