The 1737 Act: New book reveals how language act targeting Gaeilgeoirs destroyed lives

In the opening scene of Ken Loach’s Irish civil war film The Wind that Shakes the Barley, a group of young Cork men are arrested by the Black and Tans for playing hurling. One 17-year-old boy gives his name as ‘Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin’ and refuses the officer’s request to change it into English. He is promptly dragged into a farmhouse and killed as an example to the others.

As Mary Phelan shows in this brilliantly researched slice of Irish legal history, Loach’s melodramatic storyline was based on a certain truth. For centuries, Britain believed that one key element of cementing its rule over Ireland was to suppress the natives’ original language. “Those who did not acquire English were left behind,” Phelan writes, “as Irish became associated with being poor, uneducated, old and dispossessed.”

In 1737 (shortly before a famine that killed at least 300,000 people), the British-controlled parliament on Dublin’s College Green took a key step towards making Irish speakers feel like foreigners in their own country. The Administration of Justice (Language) Act decreed that from then on, all court proceedings would be carried out in English and English only. Gaeilgeoirs were entitled to an interpreter, but only if they could prove to the judge’s satisfaction that they did not have more than a few words of the ‘correct’ tongue.

What did this mean in practice? Phelan answers that question with extensive reference to jury records, newspaper reports and Dublin Castle correspondence. Her narrative may be a little for academic for general readers, but it certainly proves the truth of an astute observation by the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu: “A language is worth what those who speak it are worth.”

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Some of the stories Phelan has dug up are surprisingly comical. In one case at Limerick assizes, a man was accused of assault with a “cleith ailpín”, which the judge misheard as a “clean napkin”. He praised the prisoner’s “humane tenderness” and told the jury to acquit, whereupon the courtroom erupted in laughter. One of the lawyers had to explain that a “cleith ailpín” was in fact a shillelagh or cudgel and “would have felled an ox”.

Mostly, however, the 1737 Act operated as a blunt instrument of power that almost certainly led to many miscarriages of justice. There was no proper training for interpreters and no written code of ethics to guide them on how the law should work. Any Irish-speaking witness suspected of being really bilingual, Phelan writes, “faced a hostile environment where they could be intimidated, bullied, threatened that they would not be allowed expenses, charged with perjury and even imprisoned for contempt of court”.

In 1842, the English novelist William Makepeace Thackeray (best remembered today as the author of Vanity Fair) visited Ireland and wrote about a trial at the Waterford assizes. When he asked why one interpreter had told the Gaeilgeoir defendant to shut up, he was told: “Sure he’s said all he has to say and there’s no use in any more.” “The poor devil shut his mouth at the admonition and was found guilty with perfect justice,” Thackeray concluded, irony dripping from his pen.

Perhaps the most pitiful victim depicted here is Myles Joyce, one of three men tried in 1882 for allegedly murdering a family of five at Maamtrasna on the Galway-Mayo border.

His court ordeal is condemned by Phelan as “the ultimate Kafkaesque experience – an innocent man on trial for his life who cannot understand a word of the evidence against him, given in English even though an interpreter is present”.

According to one Irish MP in the House of Commons, “the judge was to him as much a foreigner as if he were a Turk trying the case in Constantinople.” Joyce duly died at the end of a hangman’s rope, but received a pardon last year from President Michael D Higgins who has a long-standing interest in the case.

Of course, this system was also wide open to bribery. Daniel O’Connell once turned down 10 guineas from a man whose son was on trial for his life and recommended another lawyer instead.

“You took my advice then?” O’Connell asked later after the boy had been acquitted. “Begor no!” came the father’s reply. “I didn’t waste it – I gave it to the interpreter.”

Above all, this is a study of social prejudice and how it can destroy lives. Since Irish speakers were often illiterate and had a mostly oral culture, they were easy to dismiss as fundamentally dishonest. “The common Irish are naturally shrewd but very ignorant and deficient in mental culture, from the barbarous tongue in which they converse,” a Cork-based rector called Horatio Townsend wrote in 1816. “They are addicted to pilfering and have very imperfect notions of moral rectitude.”

Like most good history books, Phelan’s also tells us something about the present. The 1737 Act, she points out, is still operational in Northern Ireland where political squabbling over Irish has helped to leave citizens without a parliament for almost three years.

If anything, the use of Gaeilge as a political weapon by unionists and republicans is actually getting worse – and that’s bad news in anyone’s language.

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