The Irish Language in New Brunswick

By Marilyn Driscoll


Language – for many people it is not just the means by which aspects of their ethnicity are handed down to their offspring, and by them to subsequent generations, but it is the very substance of their culture. In the study of linguistics and anthropology, the first step in the extinction of a language is considered to be when it is no longer spoken by the children of that ethnic identity.

“The overwhelming majority of the millions who reached Canada and the United States from Ireland in the last century [19th] and, of course before that, were Irish speakers on arrival, a large proportion of them being monoglot Irish speakers at that.”[i]

“It appears that in the eighteen-thirties and forties there were many small Irish-speaking communities in isolated areas and along the New Brunswick and Maine frontier but there is hardly a trace to be found of this today.”[ii]

Indeed, as we made our way into the 20th century it was believed that there were no Irish speakers left in New Brunswick at all. However, take one look at the 1901 census of the Province of New Brunswick and quite another story is told. The 1901 census is the only one we have available that specifically asks the question of mother tongue, and further defines it as being a language that is still being commonly spoken in the home at the time. Here we find not one, not two, but several individuals as well as a scattering of families who still list Irish as being the tongue they first learned and is still being spoken in their homes. Other than their language, they have little else in common. A detailed and methodical study of the Irish language issue in New Brunswick is currently being undertaken by noted Irish scholar Dr. Peter Toner.  His findings will be published in the reasonably near future and are sure to hold surprising information for those of us who believed that the Irish language was left behind when our ancestors left their homeland for North America or, at the very least, was dropped as soon as they arrived. 

Time and again history has shown that it is far more likely that immigrants to a new country will retain their old cultural values and customs and will speak their mother tongue when they are part of a larger community of their compatriots, regardless of their level of comfort with the predominant language of their adopted country. With such a support group around them, immigrants are eager to preserve their own heritage, which includes not only customs and traditions but also language. Without it, the goal of every immigrant would have been to master English quickly. “English was the passport to basic status and security; Irish was the badge of foreignness and poverty.”[iii]

‘With the historic British domination of Ireland, Irish was almost lost to English – the language of advancement. Likewise, when Irish-speaking immigrants left for the New World, they essentially left their native tongue behind in their native land and became assimilated into the English-dominated culture, said Concordia history Professor Ronald Rudin.

“English was the language of advancement and if you were going to learn one language, then you might as well learn English. So they may have shared a religion with the French, and they may have gotten along with them because of their shared religion, but the language… they learned was not the language of the majority, but of the minority who held economic power.”

As a result, he said, Irish quickly disappeared in the new world.’[iv]

Not everyone was happy to let the Gaelic languages die in Canada. On Friday, the 21st of February, 1890, Senator Thomas Robert McInnes, a descendent of Highland Scots, introduced to the Senate, a Bill entitled An Act to provide for the use of Gaelic in official proceedings. In support of his Bill, McInnes quoted facts from the 1881 census that showed that “Canadians of Gaelic origin, Irish and Scottish, outnumber those of French origin by nearly 400,000 and constitute more than one-third of the entire population of Canada.”[v]

Although the motion for a second reading of this Bill would be defeated by a vote of 42 to 7, in supporting the Bill through its first reading, McInnes brought forward several interesting arguments:

· of the entire Canadian population of the day (4,324,810), the census figures show the English in third with a population of only 881,301. Canadians of “Gaelic origin” – Irish and Scots tallied together, held first place at 1,657,266, followed by the French at 1,298,929. In a distant fourth place with 254,319 were the persons of German origin. No mention is made of the Welsh who, though of “Celtic origin” spoke a Celtic language as different from the Irish and Scottish Gaelic as French is from German.

· In support of his Bill, McInnes also quoted from a speech given by none other than Sir John A. MacDonald in the House of Commons on the 17th of February 1890, in opposition of a Bill to abolish the language rights of French-Canadians, the sentiment of which could be applied equally to the Gaelic languages in Canada:

“Why, Mr. Speaker, if there is one act of oppression more than another which would come home to a man’s breast it is that he should be deprived of the consolation of hearing and speaking and reading the language that his mother taught him. It is cruel. It is seething the kid in his mother’s milk.”[vi]

· According to Senator McInnes, in 1890 the Canadian Senate contained “ten Highland Scotch representatives…that can speak more or less Gaelic; we have eight Irishmen that can speak more or less Gaelic, making in all over twenty members of this House who are Scotch and Irish Celts, and thirty-two members of the Commons who speak Gaelic and Erse to some extent.”[vii]

While the Bill itself was defeated, this public action by Senator McInnes was an early indication of the change in attitude that was to come in the latter part of the 20th century and continues to swell, not only in Canada, but in all parts of the world affected by the Irish Diaspora. Finally, after centuries of feeling like second-class citizens and renouncing their customs, culture and language in order to fit in, the Irish are embracing their heritage once again – and others are paying attention. Not only is there light at the end of the tunnel, but it appears to be a beacon, attracting more and more people of Irish descent back to a language previous generations had turned their back on.

The Irish, once relegated to the worst lots of land and the worst jobs available, are now seen in every walk of life, at every level of society. In a complete reversal of pre-20th century attitude, in 1997 Dr. Gus Gorman, the head of radiology at the Montreal Children’s Hospital, and a teacher of Irish, is quoting as saying:

“Ireland’s most authentic badge of honour is its language. “I suppose that the only distinctive thing about us is that we have a language other than English, because we all basically look the same and we’ve all given up whatever religion we had. There’s not much to distinguish us, unless you identify the music, the dancing, and, of course, the most authentic badge of Irishness is really the language.”

While the Irish language may have disappeared quite quickly in the New World, it was not before it left its mark on the English language. Dr. Gorman said Irish people have practically “re-invented” the English language.

“It’s far more entertaining and it has far more flair and inventiveness as a result of how things are said in Irish.”

“Putting the kibosh on something,” for example, comes from the Irish phrase which means “cap of death.” Slew comes from the Irish word for crowd. And of course, whiskey comes from the Irish for “water of life.”

“The Irish way of speaking English was one of the richest gifts brought to Canada by any immigrant group.”

“…Irish syntax, carried into English, is capable of far greater precision than that of standard English, and may help to explain why so many of the greatest writers in English in the past three centuries have been Irish.”[viii]

The renewed interest in the Irish language is clearly shown by the number of language classes that are offered in most major cities in North America. No matter which of the three Irish dialects a person may be interested in learning: Ulster; Connacht (also sometimes referred to as Connemara); or Munster, there are lessons available, either on-line or through books and tapes, locally or directly from Ireland. So, if you’ve always wondered about the language of your ancestors, there’s no time like the present to start learning it yourself. The Irish culture will surely thrive when Irish descendents around the world pay tribute to their ethnicity by proudly wearing that most “authentic badge of honour” – the language of their ancestors.

So, on a somewhat related topic, with the renewed interest in all things Irish, perhaps this essay should end by answering the one question that is most frequently asked: “Is it pronounced [K]eltic or [S]eltic?”

According to the website at, the term “Celtic” came from the Greek word for “barbarian”: Keltoi.

“It is from the greek Keltoi that Celt is derived. Since no soft c exists in Greek, Celt and Celtic and all permutations should be pronounced with a hard k sound [underlining added for emphasis].

It is interesting to note that when the British Empire was distinguishing itself as better and separate from the rest of humanity, it was decided that British Latin should have different pronunciation from other spoken Latin. Therefore, one of these distinguishing pronunciational differences was to make many of the previously hard k sounds move to a soft s sound, hence the Glasgow and Boston Celtics. It is the view of many today that this soft c pronunciation should be reserved for sports teams since there is obviously nothing to link them with the original noble savagery and furor associated with the Celts. [underlining added]

This could explain why the soft s pronunciation is far more common among those of Scottish ancestry who, by very definition, have their pasts rooted more firmly in the British Empire whereas the Irish, even after nearly of century of self determination, still feel strongly about retaining the original pronunciation.

Irish Forever!

[i] The Untold Story: The Irish in Canada, Volume II:– Edited by Robert O’Driscoll and Lorna Reynolds: Pg 711 – Reflections on the Fortunes of the Irish Language in Canada, with some reference to the fate of the language in the United States – by Proinsias Mac Aonghusa

[ii] Ibid, pg 712

[iii] Ibid, pg 712

[iv] Out of Ireland series published by the Saint John Times Globe from June 9th to July 25, 1997- Issue 11: Irish stalwarts determined to teach ‘this weird and wonderful language’ – by Mia Urquhart

[v] The Untold Story: The Irish in Canada, Volume II:– Edited by Robert O’Driscoll and Lorna Reynolds: pg 720 – An Attempt to Make Gaelic Canada’s Third Official Language – by John Ward

[vi] Ibid, pg 721

[vii] Ibid, pg 721

[viii] The Untold Story: The Irish in Canada, Volume I:– Edited by Robert O’Driscoll and Lorna Reynolds: pg 184 – Newfoundland and the Maritimes: An Overview – by Kildare Dobbs


O’Driscoll, Robert, and Reynolds, Lorna, The Untold Story: The Irish in Canada, Volumes I and II, Published by Celtic Arts of Canada, Toronto, 1988. Printed in Canada by John Deyell, Willowdale, ON


Urquhart, Mia, Irish Stalwarts Determined to Teach This ‘Weird and Wonderful Language’ [online], Retrieved 22 February 2008 from: