1 December 2013 Edition

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The Hidden Ireland in Liverpool

The fascinating historic and enduring Irish connection with Merseyside

A Hidden History – Irish in Liverpool – An Ghaeilge i Learpholl

By Tony Birtill

Reviewed by Mícheál Mac Donncha

I HAD the privilege this year to address a commemoration in Liverpool marking the centenary of the founding of the Irish Citizen Army. It was organised by Cairde na hÉireann in that city and during my visit I learned of the fascinating Irish heritage and enduring Irish connection with the Merseyside metropolis.

Tony Birtill’s book tells what has been, up to now, the truly hidden history of the Irish language in Liverpool. He argues convincingly that the extent to which 19th century Irish emigrants to Liverpool and other cities in Britain and the communities they founded were Irish-speaking has been greatly underestimated.

Wave upon wave of Irish exiles in Liverpool spoke Irish and continued to speak their native language. However, as in Ireland, the dominant political, social and economic forces were English-speaking and  soon overwhelmed the Irish language. Yet traces of Irish remain in the Liverpool dialect of English; for example the word ‘wack’, a term of familiar address to people you meet and deriving from the Irish phrase ‘a mhac’ (‘son’).

Birtill chronicles this Liverpool story but his book does much more.

This little volume is in itself a potted history of the decline of the Irish language in the 19th century and its revival at the start of the 20th. There are many interesting sidelights on Irish history and many interesting characters. It is worth having alone for the appendix arguing why it is right to describe the Great Hunger as attempted extermination of the mass of the Irish-speaking peasantry by the British system in Ireland.

The Irish language is still alive in Liverpool today and it was a pleasure to speak it with Tony and others when I was there this year. Go néirí leo cois Mersey i gcónaí.


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