Language, Class, and National Identity in Irish Literature

The development of national identity is a product of a worldview born relatively recently. In the following article, Elizabeth Gilmartin discusses linguistic identity and reclamation, while Markus Kornprobst discusses the role of the social and economic elite in the development of nations. In conversation with one another, the two pieces highlight the tensions between English and Irish, the lower classes and the elite, and tradition and modernity in both the 19th and 20th centuries.

In “The Anglo-Irish Dialect: Mediating Linguistic Conflict,” (2004) Elizabeth Gilmartin maps the tension between the Irish and English language during the Victorian era, the period where the most common language spoken at home in Ireland transitioned from Irish to English. Gilmartin argues that this linguistic tension resulted in the “Anglo-Irish” dialect, which was “‘sufficiently Irish’ [enough] to give appropriate voice to the identity of the new Irish nation that was emerging early in the twentieth century” (Gilmartin 2). This “new Irish English,” termed “Hiberno-English or Anglo-Irish,” followed distinctly Irish syntax and accent while using English vocabulary (Gilmartin 2-6). This dialect became the result and marker of class, as Irish-speaking parents encouraged their children to learn English so that they could access social and economic status that would otherwise be denied to them (Gilmartin 4). This trend is representative of “auto colonization,” a process in which the “punishment for using the native language does not come from the colonizer but from the colonized themselves” (4). Therefore the dialect that emerged from Irish speakers imposing English on their own children was distinctly Irish in syntax and accent (Gilmartin 4). Anglo-Irish therefore gave authors a language adequate for describing the culture of the Irish Renaissance, as it was an english adapted for the use of the lower class Irish (Gilmartin 13).

In discussing the linguistic trends of the lower classes, Gilmartin also describes the linguistic nationalists and english-supporting modernists elites who were debating the linguistic path of the nation during the Victorian period, and who gave Anglo-Irish legitimacy through their works. In “Episteme, nation-builders and national identity: the re-construction of Irishness,” Markus Kornprobst focuses on these literary and political elites, analyzing their desire to create a national identity and the process of doing so. Kornprobst presents Foucault’s understanding of “the episteme [as] an ideational force that makes us interpret the world in a certain way, often without an active interpretation process,” and expands upon it, drawing on similarities to “theory” as a whole (Kornprobst 408). Episteme becomes important in delineating “which identity narrative is plausible,” therefore validating the elite’s understanding of nation (Kornprobst 409). Kornprobst connects strategies of episteme to Eamon de Valera, revolutionary and later Taoiseach (Prime Minister); and literary figures William B. Yeats and Douglas Hyde directly (410). For these early elites “gaelic language and culture, Roman Catholicism and the rejection of modernity were constitutive to identity” (417). Kornprobst argues that immediately following British occupation, Irishness was created with the understanding that to be a nation was to be homogenous, unique, and fighting against intervention by colonialists, however the elites of the nation began to see plurality in identity and motivation as non-threatening to the Irish state beginning in the 1970s (417)

The useful past of Kornprobst argument in conversation with Gilmartin, is his belief that elites recognized the “uniqueness” and “difference” of the Irish population to the English colonizers. The elites therefore inact rhetoric reinforcing this difference, even though the Irish population had taken aspects of English culture and restructured them to make them distinctly Irish—as Gilmartin argues that the lower classes did with the english language. These articles highlight the importance of language and commerce in the creation of culture, yet challenge the concept of a “worldview” that is central to the nation-state. Both pieces present academic elites who wish to impose an episteme on the greater population, without understanding the full nuances of local identities. Moving forward, their works will be useful in understanding how this tension gets translated to the page, using language not created for or by the literary elite.


Gilmartin, Elizabeth. “The Anglo-Irish Dialect: Mediating Linguistic Conflict,” Victorian Literature & Culture, vol. 32, no. 1, 2004, pp. 1-16

Kornprobst, Markus. “Episteme, nation-builders and national identity: the re-construction of Irishness,” Nations & Nationalism, vol. 11, no. 3, 2005,  pp. 403-421.