A new Transatlantic Identity?

By Fiona Lyons

In the latter half of the nineteenth century, many Irish people migrated to the United States [the US hereafter] from Ireland mostly due to the Great Famine of the 1840s-50s. Historians W. E. Vaughan and A. J. Fitzpatrick estimate that roughly 49% came from counties in Ireland where Irish was widely spoken.[i] Some in fact, could only speak Irish. As Karen P. Corrigan suggests, it would be a ‘gross exaggeration of the facts’ to suggest that all Irish who migrated to the US at this time were fluent in English.[ii] Interesting encounters between fluent Irish speakers and other ethnicities in the US at this time can actually be seen below in the newspaper articles from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle and the San Francisco Monitor (see pictures 1 and 2 below). Irish communities sprang up across the US in cities where these Irish resided; in New York, Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco, St. Louis, and Springfield, for example. This led to an interest amongst the Irish in the US to preserve and cultivate the Irish language, their native tongue, on emigrant soil. One way this could be achieved was by creating Irish language columns in print media sources or cultural organisations and by the way the language was presented in these fora, through font, for example.

The first Irish language column created was in the New York Irish American in 1857. Patrick Lynch, the editor, was a man born in Limerick, Ireland, who emigrated to the US at an early age.[iii] Lynch was sympathetic to the language cause[iv] and hoped that by printing an Irish language column, or a ‘Gaelic Department’ as it was called in the Irish American, that this column would:

vindicate the beauty of the Irish tongue, its high culture in ages far remote, and the advanced civilization of the Irish people as compared with any European nation.[v]

Nodes of romanticism and identity conflict are present here. The need to protect Irish language and culture would have been realised and perhaps even more intensified in an emigrant setting. Being an immigrant in the US, as you could say ‘non-American,’ and coming into contact with other immigrants from other countries would have led to the Irish becoming protective of their own identity. It is easier to construct your own sense of Irishness when you are not in Ireland. We see such struggles to project Irish identity in a letter to the editor of the New York Irish World from the correspondent ‘Sigma’ in 1872. Sigma criticised the fact that the Irish in the US were unable to make confession in the Irish language as no priest could be found who could speak it. This led Sigma to compare the Irish situation in the US to the Polish and stated that although there were about eighty-five Irish for every fifteen Poles in the US at this time; it seemed that more Polish sermons were being provided than Irish.[vi] This gives a general picture of the Irish situation in the US at this time, the resources available to them in their native tongue, and their interactions with other immigrants. It also highlights the difficulties which can often occur in the context of migration when immigrants can feel that they don’t belong or are fitting in well to their new emigrant country. This can lead to greater identity projection amongst this ethnic group as they fear that they are losing a sense of who they are after the process of migration. One way the Irish in the US tried to stay true to their Irish roots whilst being resident in their new country can be seen in the question of font.

In old Irish manuscripts the Irish language was written in the Gaelic script. With the evolution of print and the typing press, the Gaelic font was created, which mimicked the old Gaelic script found in manuscripts and ancient Irish texts. The Gaelic font was a clear signifier on the page of Irish language and culture. You could easily distinguish that this language was different to the English language. The Irish language represented an ancient yet valuable language; one which was full of history and scholarship. The Roman font, in contrast, was used when printing the English language.[vii] The printing of the Irish language, therefore, in the Roman font, some believed, was unjust and untraditional. It was another way England was controlling the language. When the Gaelic Department began in the New York Irish American on June 25, 1857, it was ensured that the Irish language would be printed from the outset in the Gaelic font. It was outlined in the paper that type would not be bought from London, the ‘stronghold of the Irish enemy,’ and instead the type founder James Conners & Sons located in New York was chosen. Conners, it was noted, had a name of ‘fine Irish sound’.[viii] The refusal to foster relations or support English businesses is interesting here, and especially so in 1857. No doubt the editors of the Irish American had not forgotten the part England played in the Great Famine of the 1840 and 50s, nor the general history of colonisation between the two countries. The Irish American would continue to print Irish in the Gaelic font throughout its existence, never printing the language in the Roman font.

A slightly different take on font matters, however, can be found in the Boston Irish Echo. When the journal first began in 1886 it was decided by the editors, the Boston Philo-Celtic Society, to first print all articles in English before introducing the Irish language to readers. It was understood that many Irish immigrants in the US at this time were not completely fluent in Irish. It was therefore proposed to educate these immigrants about the worthiness and antiquity of their native language, before any attempts were made to provide teaching and learning materials in the journal.[ix] The Irish Echo also varied from the Irish American in the manner in which it printed the Irish language, which it eventually did in September 1887, twenty one months after its first edition. The Irish Echo first began printing the Irish language in the Gaelic font from their own type foundry they had begun in Boston in 1879. However, the journal began to run the column ‘Instructions for Reading the Irish Language in Roman Characters’ in 1889. This was a stark contrast to the assurance the journal had originally given readers in 1887 outlining that they did not propose to put the journal ‘under English control,’ at this time ie. printing the Irish language in the Roman font.[x] Thomas D. Norris, corresponding secretary of the Philo-Celtic Irish School in Bowery, New York, in July 1889 sent a letter to the editor of the Irish Echo regarding this font change. Norris commented that the Roman font was the ‘only dark spot that ever appeared on its beautiful surface’ and that they should burn everything English, except it’s coal.[xi] An interesting contrast to this was presented by Joseph Cromien, financial secretary of the Philo-Celtic Irish School at Hudson Street in New York, a month after Norris’ letter in August 1889. Cromien questioned when the English race had suddenly acquired a type of their own and inquired as to where it could be seen. Cromien in fact implored that there had been no Irish script since the end of Ogham and asked the journal not to turn anyone away but to provide for everyone.[xii] Such understanding of the universal nature the Roman font offered the Irish language is presented here in Cromien’s arguments. At this time all other languages were being printed in the Roman font and it was easier for readers to read the language in the Roman font. By putting aside the cultural importance associated with the Gaelic font in favour of modernity, it highlights the realisation amongst these Irish immigrants in that they needed to evolve the language to allow it to prosper in an ever-changing world of writing practices and communicative platforms. Font was paving the way for the Irish language to become a global language whilst also being a means for the Irish in the US to express their identity and maintain links to their homeland. A new transatlantic identity was beginning to form resulting from the environment the Irish found themselves in their new emigrant country.


Font is only one example amongst many which shows how transnationalism can result in either the assimilation of immigrant culture in a new country, or in the creation of a new identity – a hybrid identity. Often these immigrants felt that they were in two countries at once, that they were both ‘thall is abhus’ (here and there). They had ties to Ireland with regard to language and culture, yet were projecting their aims and ambitions to revive this native tongue in an immigrant context, and often in the English language. Perhaps the process of migration gave the Irish in the US the freedom to explore what Ireland and the Irish language actually meant to them. The journalistic platform gave them the opportunity to reflect on this whilst giving them a means to express their Irish identity through the printing of the Gaelic font. Many, however, also recognised the benefit of using the English language and the Roman font in the media for advancement in the wider global printing sphere, or to entice, even, beginners to the language; a new generation who would have found the Gaelic font harder to read and study. This would later add dimension and layers to the creation of a new transatlantic Irish psyche which was now both at home and away. This transatlantic Irish mindset would later become key to the success of the Irish revival movement.[xiii]

Fiona Lyons (University College Dublin)

[i] W. E Vaughan and A. J. Fitzpatrick, ed., Irish Historical Statistics: Population, 1821-1971 (Dublin: Royal Irish Academy, 1978), as quoted in Úna Ní Bhroiméil, “American influence on the Gaelic League: inspiration or control?,” in The Irish Revival Reappraised, ed.Betsey Taylor FitzSimon and James H. Murphy (Dublin: Four Courts Press: 2004), 64.

[ii] Karen P. Corrigan, ““I gCuntas Dé múin Béarla do na leanbháin”: eisimirce agus an Ghaeilge sa naoú haois déag,” in The Irish in the New Communities, ed. Patrick O’Sullivan (Leicester and London: Leicester University Press, 1992), 151.

[iii] See Unsigned, “Patrick Lynch,” Irish American, May 30, 1857.

[iv] Matthew Knight, ‘“Our Gaelic Department”: The Irish-Language Column in the New York Irish American, 1857-1896,” (PhD thesis, Harvard University, 2021), 30-31.

[v] Unsigned, “Our Irish Department,” Irish American, July 25, 1857.

[vi] Sigma, letter to the editor, Irish World, August 24, 1872.

[vii] See Brian Ó Conchubhair, Fin de Siècle na Gaeilge: Darwin, an Athbheochan agus Smaointeoireacht na hEorpa (Conamara: Cló Iar-Chonnachta, 2009), 1, 145; Brian Ó Conchubhair, “The Gaelic Front Controversy: The Gaelic League’s (Post-Colonial) Crux,” Irish University Review 33, no. 1 (Spring/Summer 2003): 46-47, https://www.jstor.org/stable/25517213; Liam Ó Dochartaigh, “Cúis na Gaeilge – Cúis ar Strae,” in Léachtaí Uí Chadhain 1 (1980-1988), ed. Eoghan Ó hAnluain(Baile Átha Cliath: An Clóchomhar Tta, 1989), 120; Philip O’Leary, The Prose Literature of the Gaelic Revival 1881-1921: Ideology and Innovation (Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1994), 15-16.

[viii] Unsigned, “The Irish Language,” Irish American, April 25, 1857.

[ix] P. J. O’Daly, M. T. Gallivan, John O’Neill, Timothy Sullivan, Wm. M. Murphy, “Prospectus,” Irish Echo, January 1886.

[x] Unsigned, Irish Echo, September 1887.

[xi] Thomas D. Norris, letter to the editor, Irish Echo, July 1889.

[xii] Joseph Cromien, letter to the editor, Irish Echo, August 1889.

[xiii] See Regina Uí Chollatáin “Crossing borders: Transnationalism in Irish language revival and media” (Paper read at the conference Transnationalising the Humanities: Research Perspectives, Approaches, Methodologies), https://youtu.be/h4DrgerNA7k (Date Accessed October 2, 2020); Regina Uí Chollatáin, ““Thall is Abhus” 1860-1930: The Revival Process and the Journalistic Web between Ireland and North America,” in Language Identity and Migration: Voices from Transnational Speakers and Communities, ed. Chloe Diskin, Jennifer Martyn and Vera Regan (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2016), 354.

Further Reading:

Kiberd, Declan and P.J. Matthews, Handbook of the Irish Revival: An Anthology of Irish Cultural and Political Writings 1891-1922. Dublin: Abbey Theatre Press, 2015.

Knight, Matthew. “Forming and Training an Army of Vindication: The Irish Echo, 1886-1894.” In North American Gaels: Speech, Story, and Song in the Diaspora, edited by Natasha Sumner and Aidan Doyle, 163-200. Montreal: McGill-Queens’s University Press, 2020.

Lyons, Fiona. “Irish Diaspora, Cultural Activism and Print Media in Transatlantic Contexts between Ireland and North America c. 1857-1887.” Studi irlandesi. A Journal of Irish Studies 9, (2019), 113-135. https://doi.org/10.13128/SIJIS-2239-3978-25515.

Mac Congáil, Nollaig. “Saothrú na Gaeilge ar Nuachtáin Náisiúnta Bhéarla na hAoise seo caite: Sop nó Solamar?” In Féilscríbhinn Anraí Mhic Giolla Chomhaill, edited by Réamonn Ó Muireadhaigh, 112-191. Dublin: Coiscéim, 2011.

McMahon, Timothy G. Grand Opportunity: The Gaelic Revival and Irish Society, 1893-1910. New York: Syracuse University Press, 2008.

Meagher, Timothy J. The Columbia Guide to Irish American History. New York: Columbia University Press, 2005.

Miller, Kerby A. Emigrants and Exiles: Ireland and the Irish Exodus to North America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.

Miller, Kirby A. Ireland and Irish America: Culture, Class and Transatlantic Migration. Dublin: Field Day, 2008.

Ní Bhroiméil, Úna. Building Irish Identity in America, 1870-1915: The Gaelic Revival. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2003.

Ní Uigín, Dorothy. “An Iriseoireacht Ghaeilge i Meiriceá agus in Éirinn ag Tús na hAthbheochana: an Cúlra Meiriceánach.” In Léachtaí Cholm Cille XXVIII, edited by Ruairí Ó hUiginn, 25-47. Maigh Nuad: An Sagart, 1998.

Nic Congáil, Ríona et al. (ed.) Litríocht na Gaeilge ar fud an Domhain. Cruthú, Caomhnú agus Athbheochan. Imleabhar 1. Dublin: LeabhairCOMHAR, 2015.

Nilsen, Kenneth E. “The Irish Language in New York, 1850-1900.” In The New York Irish, edited by Ronald H. Bayor and Timothy J. Meagher, 252-274. Baltimore and London: The John Hopkins University Press, 1996.

Nilsen, Kenneth E. “The Irish Language in nineteenth century New York city.” In The Multilingual Apple: Languages in New York City, edited by Ofelia García and Joshua A. Fishman, 53-69. New York & Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 1997.

Ó Conchubhair, Brian. Fin de Siècle na Gaeilge: Darwin, an Athbheochan agus Smaointeoireacht na hEorpa. Conamara: An Clóchomhar, 2009.

Ó hAnnracháin, Stiofán. (ed.) In Go Meiriceá Siar. Baile Átha Cliath: An Clóchomhar, 1979.

Ó Suilleabháin, Donncha. Athbheochan na Gaeilge – Cnuasach Aistí. Baile Átha Cliath: Conradh na Gaeilge, 1998.

Ó Tuama, Seán. (ed.) The Gaelic League Idea. Cork: Mercier Press, 1972.

Uí Chollatáin, Regina. ““Thall is Abhus” 1860-1930: The Revival Process and the Journalistic Web between Ireland and North America.” In Language Identity and Migration, edited by Vera Regan, Chloe Diskin and Jennifer Martyn, 353-379. Oxford: Peter Lang, 2015.

Uí Chollatáin, Regina. “Irish Language Revival and “Cultural Chaos”: Sources and Scholars in Irish Language Journalism.” Proceedings of the Harvard Celtic Colloquium 30, (2010): 273-292. https://www.jstor.org/stable/41219664.

Uí Fhlannagáin, Fionnuala. Mícheál Ó Lócháin agus An Gaodhal. Dublin: An Clóchomhar, 1990.

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