Journal Volume 1 1992

Old Greystones and Ancient Rathdown (continued/10)

Many rumours of recent Irish in Co. Wicklow exist, in spite of the emphatic denial of the Statistical survey of 1801 that such existed even then. Andrew and Hanna Byrne of Glenealy, who both died in 1830, are the last absolutely authentic native speakers I can find (any account of) in that area. A Mr S. Burke in Glenmalure spoke Irish until his death in 1884, but his parents immigrated from Connacht. ... ln the Aughrim area Irish seems to have lasted nearly to the famine (63).

Piatt had no information to impart about Irish in north-east Wicklow; but Samuel French's statement that 'Greystones fishermen were well known in Peel, Isle of Man' (64) set me thinking that, in pre-Union times at any rate, these Wicklowmen and Manxmen may well have conversed with each other in their common ancestral tongue, whose dialects differed only slightly. I've had to discard that theory for want of any bit of firm evidence.

Robert Fraser who compiled the Surveys of Wicklow and Wexford was a Scotsman, a son of the manse, a graduate of Glasgow University and a Fellow of the Royal Society (65). So patently honest was he and so spirited was his defence of the Greystones fishermen that one can hardly regard him as a hostile witness when he comes to comment on the Irish language. Fraser wrote in 1800:

It is very remarkable that although the Irish language is common in all the counties around, in the county of Wicklow the Irish language is unknown. Nor did I find any of the natives of this county, even in the most remote vales in the midst of the mountains, accustomed to speak the Irish language (66).

Wright of the guide-books, who would, I think, have been no less well-disposed than Fraser, wrote in 1827 of the total extermination of the Irish language: ‘... in most other counties', he said, ‘the peasantry converse in their native language only' (67).

In the census of 1851 (after the famine) there were one hundred and thirty-five people scattered throughout the county who acknowledged that they spoke Irish. They were all bilingual (68). The number admitting to being Irish-speaking rose to one hundred and seventy-six in the census of 1891 (69), that is fifteen years after the Society for the Preservation of the Irish Language was founded and two years before the Gaelic League was established.

Can anybody explain to me why the older native Greystonians always call the ten Strand Cottages by the obviously Gaelic name of ‘The Bawn’? My own theory is that there may have been a bábhún (walled enclosure, bawn, bailey) extending from Rathdown Castle to here; or else a bábhún in the secondary meaning of that term - a bulwark or breakwater. Perhaps the latter is the more likely explanation. I've heard that the original official name was ‘Fish Row’ and a resident, Patrick Doyle, said he had title-deeds which proved this to be so (70). The local authority erected at considerable expense a nameplate in Irish and English for Strand Cottages. The plate was removed from its frame soon after its erection.


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