Missionary linguistics in seventeenth century Ireland and a North American Analogy
Accounts of Christian missionary linguists in the 16th and 17th centuries are usually devoted to their achievements in the Americas and the Far East, and it is seldom remarked that, at the time when English Protestant missionaries were attempting to meet the challenge of unknown languages on the Eastern seaboard of North America, their fellow missionary-linguists were confronted with similar problems much nearer home – in Ireland, where the native language was quite as difficult as the Amerindian speech with which John Eliot and Roger Williams were engaged. Outside Ireland, few historians of linguistics have noted the extraordinarily interesting socio-linguistic situation in this period, when English Protestants and native-born Jesuits and Franciscans, revisiting their homeland covertly from abroad, did battle for the hearts and minds of the Irish-speaking population – nominally Catholic, but often so remote from contacts with their Mother Church that they seemed, to contemporary missionaries, to be hardly more Christian than the Amerindians. The linguistic problems of 16th-and 17th-century Ireland have often been discussed by historians dealing with attempts by Henry VIII and his successors to incorporate Ireland into a Protestant English state in respect of language, religion and forms of government, and during the 16th century various official initiatives were taken to convert the Irish to the beliefs of an English-speaking church. But it was in the 17th century that consistent and determined efforts were made by individual Englishmen, holding high ecclesiastical office in Ireland, to convert their nominal parishioners, not by forcing them to seek salvation via the English language, but to bring it to them by means of Irish-speaking ministers preaching the Gospel and reciting the Liturgy in their own vernacular. This paper describes the many parallels between the problems confronting Protestant missionaries in North America and these 17th-century Englishmen in Ireland, and – since the work of the American missions is relatively well-known – discusses in greater detail the achievements of missionary linguists in Ireland.