Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The County Radnor

As well as being one of the more familiar Irish premiers to those of us this side of the water Garret Fitzgerald also took time out from his official duties to research  the decline of the Irish Language.  Somehow I can't see Carwyn or Cameron doing something similarly esoteric in their spare hours, but you never know.  Fitzgerald's method was to look at the census figures for the 60 plus age group in order to deduce the linguistic situation in a particular district half a century or more earlier.  You can find his work on the 1911 census here - although without the all important maps.

It says something about the relative strengths of Welsh and Irish at the beginning of the 20th century that if thoroughly "anglicised" Radnorshire had been treated as if it belonged in the list of Irish counties, then it would have been 12th in a list of 32 (11.5% of the oldest cohort speaking Welsh) just ahead of Tipperary (11.4% speaking Irish).  In the Rhayader District Council area - roughly the A470 north of Newbridge-on-Wye and the A44 west of Crossgates - the figure was 28.2%, the majority locally born.  Of course this meant little to the Welsh speaking intelligensia of the day; for them every Radnorshire lass in trouble was further evidence of the moral decay they associated with the English language.

Why Ireland should have suffered such a severe language shift - in Carlow, Dublin, Kildare, Laois, Longford, Offaly, West Meath, Wexford, Wicklow, Antrim, Belfast, Down and Fermanagh Irish speakers were even rarer than Welsh speakers in the Knighton-Presteigne-New Radnor area - has never been that successfully explained.  Clearly a good many had ditched Irish long before the famine. Plantations played a part, a similar 16C plantation in the Llanidloes-Trefeglwys-Llanbrynmair area is remembered now only in surnames like Wigley, Jarman and Peate.  It had no long-term effect on the local language situation, probably because both natives and newcomers were protestants and thus easily assimilated.

Language shift in Radnorshire is similar to that in Ireland, with the language retreating 20 miles in a generation. As for explanations, firstly this from the county's historian Jonathan Williams writing in the early 1800s and speaking of the border parish of Bugeildy:

"An increased intercourse with England, a more general interchange of the commodities and produce of these two countries respectively, and, above all, the introduction of that jurisprudence with which the inhabitants of Wales found it necessary to be familiarized, as well as the diction in which all legal pleadings, deeds, conveyances, processes, &c., are executed, soon undermined that predilection for their mother tongue which was before their distinguishing character, and rendered the study and acquisition of the English language necessary, not only as an accomplishment, but also as a matter of indispensable interest."

Secondly a 19C Irish explanation for language shift in Limerick:

"the growing public feeling that Irish was a dying language, a mark of a degraded people who were not 'decent' - all this combined to produce a new people who from youth were pledged to speak no Irish. And so in West Limerick you had many who persisted in trying to speak a broken English and never again uttered a word in the old tongue they knew so well."


William Dolben said...

Garret's work is excellent. I bought the full paper with maps (published in Proceedings of the Irish Academy in 2003) a few years back. His approach has been less used by Welsh researchers although Siân Rhiannon Williams did some similar analysis for Gwent in her book "Oes y Byd i'r Iaith Gymraeg" and of course the Hanes cymdeithasol yr iaith Gymraeg series looks at Welsh by age in some chapters. Of course census data for Welsh weren't available until 1891 as opposed to Irish which was first recorded in 1851

The significant point is the speed of language collapse or the "tipping" point. In this sense Welsh is quite privileged I feel. Wales was opened up by communications (railway, tourism etc) before Ireland, Brittany etc but large tracts of the west remained overwhelmingly Welsh. Intergenerational transmission collapsed in a very short time in Ireland and Brittany and in other remote areas like Cape Breton (Gaelic) and Patagonia. In Brittany, it seems that the vast majority of parents stopped bringing up their children to speak Breton in the decade that followed WWII. The abandonment of Irish was also very fast in some areas. As a rule of thumb grandparents were monolingual Breton, parents bilingual and grandchildren monolingual French. There has been a lot of research about "semi-speakers" by Nancy Dorian etc but for me a semi-speaker is a clear symptom of language death.

Looking at minority languages and dialect around Europe in France, Italy etc, the 1 or 2 generation collapse of a language after centuries of use is quite normal. So Welsh along with Basque is quite resilient. You could add Catalan, Galician etc but these languages are much closer to their bigger rival: Spanish so easier to learn or understand (although an Occitan supporter in Southern France would tell you that if your language is similar to the dominant one that makes it more likely to be assimilated!)

Clearly some ethnic and linguistic groups decide to survive and I think that in-migration can stimulate this in addition to the damage it does. Wales, The Basque country and Catalonia have a common history of in-migration during industrialization and while this weakened the language in some areas, it probably strengthened the will to survive in others. Basically, speakers became "engaged". Brittany and Ireland were desperately poor and rather like the Highlands shed their language as it seemed to offer no prospects

Since you are an expert on Radnorshire: what was the % for 65+ in Llansantffraid Cwmteuddwr in say 1891??

I also think that just as there has been overstatement of Welsh speaking since probably 1981, the figures probably understated ability in Welsh in earlier censuses. Attitudes towards Welsh were disparaging to say the least in many market towns in Welsh speaking areas until recently. It is hard to imagine the contempt for the local language a hundreds years ago in Radnorshire or Ireland and I'm sure many an enumerator decided that some people ought to be English-speaking to show what "progress" had been made.....

radnorian said...

Re your last paragraph I remember asking a great-uncle born in the Llandrindod area circa 1895 if his mother spoke Welsh - I was pretty sure she did as she was from Carmarthenshire and this was confirmed when the census material was released - I might as well have accused her of being a shoplifter. He was most indignant - Radnorshire people just didn't speak Welsh as far as he was concerned. It was a stigma rather than an accomplishment.

On the other hand in 1901 80% of the locally born population aged over 60 in Cwmteuddwr spoke Welsh. I like to work with the figures for the locally born rather than include incomers. In St Harmon the figure was 51%

Looking at the census figures for rural parishes one thing that strikes you is the impact of the large Victorian families. A handful of families with 9 or 10 children being brought up as English speakers or moving-in from an already "anglicised" parish had a huge impact.

William Dolben said...

Thanks, very interesting

I think extrapolating back from the census probably better reflects the position of Welsh. The maps based on church language which Pryce (I think) produced a few years back were interesting but may have just reflected the Church of England's (as it was then) and the local squire's enthusiasm for Welsh rather than the reality on the ground.
You're right to exclude incomers. There were quite a few all over rural Wales, particularly railway workers, quarry managers and the like. What was remarkable was how many of them managed to be monoglot English even in areas where 70%+ were monoglot Welsh like Penllyn, Bethesda etc in 1891-1901. Again, this shows what little value Welsh had at the time