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Post How Many Irish Immigrants in US Knew English?
Created by John Eipper on 08/28/20 3:01 AM

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How Many Irish Immigrants in US Knew English? (Patrick Mears, -Germany, 08/28/20 3:01 am)

John E was curious about how many Irish Famine emigrants that settled in the US (and in other countries) knew English.

I have never seen any statistics on this. I suspect, however, that not many of them were fluent in the English language. Those that were fluent and lived in the 26 southern counties were likely residing in the large cities, such as Dublin and Cork, and had a better chance of employment in those areas. Failing that, these people may have simply crossed over to England and pursued work opportunities there. I recently came across an estimate that approximately 200,000 Famine emigrants did just that--they sailed on available boats across the Irish Sea, and those that were financially strapped took livestock transports to English ports. During these journeys, these emigrants lacked food and protection from the weather during the crossing to Liverpool and other western ports, even though the livestock were often covered and fed. Upon arrival in Liverpool, for example, many of these emigrants found employment in railroad construction as "navvies" (there was a tremendous railway boom at the time in England), and in the industrial centers of Manchester and Birmingham. They then decided to stay and put down roots in England, Wales and Scotland.

In contrast, I would wager that most Famine emigrants from outside the Pale of Settlement, viz, those that lived along the West and Southwest coasts of Ireland and a good distance eastward from there knew very little English; they were unable to read or write English but could perhaps get by in a basic existence with a rudimentary English vocabulary. Nevertheless, sources that I have read posit that many of these could speak basic Irish, even though the regional dialects were so different throughout the island, such that a Corkman would have difficulty understanding someone from Donegal. And writing Irish for these people was probably a rare feat--Irish is a very complex language to learn for composition purposes, as I am constantly reminded on a daily basis. I know from US Census records that my Mears great-grandparents (Patrick Mears and Catherine Purtle Mears) could neither read nor write English, which has caused son Eddie and me to sometimes tear out our hair when trying to track down key information about these two forebears. I have run across in official records in the US and Ireland that spell my great-grandfather's last name as "Meere," "Mier," "Mear," "Mearis," and "Myers." It appears that the current spelling of my last name was finally settled when my grandfather, Edward Francis Mears, finally adopted the current (and hopefully final) version of my surname after the death of his father.

JE comments:  I learn something from each and every one of Pat Mears's WAIS posts.  US popular imagination, versed in images of Boston cops and The Gangs of New York, assume that all the Irish immigrants spoke English, albeit with that endearing brogue.  The facts were rather different.  We also forget that the Irish arrivals in the US were widely despised, and the first anti-immigration Nativist reaction, the "Know-Nothing Party," arose as a response to the "Irish problem"--crime in the streets, foreigners on the dole, Papist intrigue, etc.  The Know-Nothings were officially called the Native American Party, which shows how meanings can dramatically change over the years.

Returning to the language issue, didn't the hardscrabble tenant-farmers in Ireland need at least a minimal knowledge of English to understand their Anglo-Protestant overlords?  Or did most of these landowners learn some Irish?

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  • "Pale of Settlement": Ireland and Russia (Edward Jajko, USA 08/29/20 3:58 AM)
    I must admit that I'm strong neither in Irish history nor historiography, but is "Pale of Settlement" the term that is used for "the West and Southwest coasts of Ireland and a good distance eastwards," as Patrick Mears, no, Mier, no, Mear (the singular form?), no, Mearis, no, Myers--he's Jewish?--oh, whatever, says in his posting of August 28?

    Is this a borrowing? As far as I know, "Pale of Settlement" (черта оседлосли) (דער תחום-המושב) is a specific term of art that refers to the western areas of the Russian Empire to which the majority of Jews under Czarist rule were confined. I know that the Czars ruled over and stole vast territories of the earth, but the Emerald Isle?

    JE comments:  "Pale" comes from the Latin palus, stake, and (literally) suggests a fenced-off area.  Compare this with the Spanish Palo Alto, "tall stick," which refers to the town's namesake coast redwood.  In the Irish case, the Pale was the area around Dublin always controlled by the English monarch.  The implication was that the lands outside the Pale were barbaric, suitable only for rustic folk with behavior "beyond the pale."

    I sense the Russian and Irish "Pales" arose independently, although the Irish one dates back longer.  The Russian Pale was established under Catherine the Great, in 1791.

    What do we know about the Anglo-Irish Protestants who controlled most of Ireland's land?  Pat Mears, next, follows up.

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    • "Pale of Settlement": Ireland and Russia; from Michael Frank (John Eipper, USA 08/31/20 4:14 AM)
      Reader Michael Frank sent this comment in response to Edward Jajko (August 29th):

      The original Russian term for Russia's "Pale of Settlement" area literally translates "boundary of permanent residence of Jews." This was shortened to "boundary of settlement" in the 1850s.

      I believe the English translation, Pale of Settlement, is attributable to Michael Davitt. Davitt, among his various careers, was a freelance reporter working for the Hearst papers. He was sent to Russia to cover the 1903 Kishinev pogrom. His legacy is an exhaustive journalistic opus, summarized in his book Within the Pale. As it happens, Davitt was Irish, and a Republican. The primary focus of his life was representing the counties "beyond the pale," and more than likely imported the term from his homeland. I'm not aware of any English language citation predating Davitt.

      JE comments:  Michael Frank introduced himself as a lifelong New Yorker and the retired Chief Information Officer of the Bank of New York's institutional brokerage subsidiary.  His contribution here solves the Russia-Ireland riddle.  The Czarist "pale" had nothing to do with Ireland until an Irishman made the connection.

      Thanks for writing in, Michael!  Here's Wikipedia on your fellow Michael (Davitt; 1846-1906).  A fascinating figure, who was both an Irish Republican and an advocate of Zionism.  Read more:


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  • Anglo-Irish Landlords and Language (Patrick Mears, -Germany 08/29/20 4:36 AM)
    In his comments to my post of August 28th, John E asked to what extent Irish tenants of Anglo-Irish Ascendancy landlords were able to communicate in English with those landlords concerning leasing arrangements, payment of rent and the growing and harvesting of crops raised on the leased parcels.

    From what I have read over the years, many of these landlords, especially those that were "super rich" for their times, were not overly engaged with the operation and economy of their Irish estates. Many of them had residences in England and spent a great deal of their time away from "John Bull's Other Island." Nevertheless, these landlords, when they visited their holdings, lived in great comfort in their "Big Houses"--the large manor houses on their estates. Some of these houses are still owned and occupied by members of this Aristocracy, and probably the most notable of these owners are the Dukes of Devonshire, who have owned Lismore Castle in northern County Waterford since 1753, and which anchors holdings of approximately 8,000 acres nearby. Birr Castle in the small town of Birr in County Offaly continues to be owned and occupied by the Parsons family, one of whose members built at the time of the Great Famine the world's largest telescope, that still graces the grounds of the castle. However, many more of these Big Houses are now in the hands of later owners, e.g. Lissadell House in County Sligo, which was formerly owned by the Anglo-Irish Gore-Booth Family. One famous resident of this house was Constance Gore-Booth (1868-1927), better known to the world as Constance Markievicz. The current owners of Lissadell are two married lawyers from Dublin. Other Big Houses have been converted to commercial use, e.g. Bantry House in the town of Bantry, West Cork, A portion of this beautiful manor house on Bantry Bay is dedicated to B&B use and the remaining areas are occupied by the descendants of Richard White, the Earl of Bantry.

    For a useful mental picture of the life and times of these noble owners, one should read the significant number of novels and short story collections have been written over the years concerning these landed estates in Ireland during English rule and their occupants. Some suggested readings are (i) Castle Rackrent (1800) and The Absentee (1812), both of which were penned by Maria Edgeworth; (ii) The Irish R.M. (1899/1908), a collection of related short stories co-authored by Edith Somerville and her second cousin, Violet Martin (a/k/a "Martin Ross"); and The Last September (1929), by Elizabeth Bowen.

    Practically speaking, although some agricultural tenants of the Big Houses of Ireland, particularly those who leased large portions of these estates and then relet certain areas to subtenants, likely had a good command of English and could interact with estate owners on a somewhat-equal basis, most tenants possessed little accumulated wealth and, especially in areas beyond the "Pale of Settlement," these tenants were not likely to have possessed a working knowledge of the English language. However, those tenants who could only communicate in Irish were likely to have been able to understand their duties and to discharge them through interactions with bilingual land agents retained by the Big House owners. Undoubtedly, owners with many tenants speaking only Irish likely hired only those agents who were fluent in at least spoken Irish, so as to enable this important communication. Again I have not seen any statistics that would give us a sharper picture of how many of these bilingual land agents there were in the days prior to 1885, which was the date on which the first Irish Land Purchase Act was passed by the English Parliament. That year marked the beginning of the demise of the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy in Ireland, triggered by the constant sale of portions of their estates to tenants. Pursuant to this statute and similar legislation that followed, the British government advanced loans and other financial incentives to these tenants, which enabled them to purchase their plots on these estates and also provided certain financial incentives to the Ascendancy landlords to sell large portions of their estates to their tenants. Other than the precious few members of the Ascendancy that still own and occupy significant estates and Big Houses in Ireland, such as the Earls of Devonshire of the Cavendish family, most of these large estates have disappeared.

    Finally, for a good overview of the Landed Estates system of land ownership in Ireland, see the following article: http://www.askaboutireland.ie/reading-room/history-heritage/big-houses-of-ireland/welcome-to-the-cork-archi/background-to-landed-esta/

    JE comments:  Pat, I'll always inundate you with questions on this topic, as your posts show me how little I know of Irish history.  Please tell us about the Irish Land Purchase Act of 1885.  What was the inspiration for loosening the grip of the Anglo-Irish (Protestant) landlords?  Was the Act a cause, or more of a symptom, of the rising nationalism among the Irish Catholics?  I'm also curious if any of the purchases were made with "remittances" sent home by members of the Irish diaspora.

    Finally, it's interesting that the books you cite all have female authors.  Was the domesticity of estate life considered the "pale" of women only?

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    • Decline of the Anglo-Irish Aristocracy (Harry Papasotiriou, Greece 08/29/20 8:00 AM)

      A very comprehensive and dispassionate book on the fall of the
      aristocracy across the United Kingdom is David Cannadine's The Decline
      and Fall of the British Aristocracy
      (Anchor Books, 1990).

      It has much
      to say about the decline of the aristocracy in Ireland.  A key measure
      was the Irish Local Government Act of 1898, passed by the conservative
      Salisbury government to ameliorate the worst aspects of absentee
      landlordism and stem the Irish drive for Home Rule. It contributed to
      the selling by aristocrats of their estates in Ireland but did not end
      the Irish nationalist drive for independence.

      JE comments:  Interesting:  London believed that reining in the absentee landlords would pacify the restive Irish.  The opposite seems to have occurred.  Empires rarely found the Goldilocks Mean of providing "just enough" autonomy.  Too little and you have rebellion.  Too much and you get pretty much the same thing.  The moral:  avoid empires.

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