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Introduction

Rebecca Anne Barr
Affiliation:
National University of Ireland Galway
Sarah-Anne Buckley
Affiliation:
National University of Ireland Galway
Muireann O'Cinneide
Affiliation:
National University of Ireland Galway
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Summary

Nineteenth-century Ireland has long been cited as an instance of a ‘literacy transition’. From an apparently predominantly illiterate populace whose lack of reading and writing competencies was quantified by the 1841 census, literacy in Ireland increased dramatically within a century: the catalyst – or product – of seismic educational, political and linguistic changes. Yet the processes, and the full cultural significance, of this transition remain somewhat unclear – as does its implications for broader questions of how nineteenth-century Irish readers engaged with text and language. This volume of essays seeks to contribute to the understanding of how literacy, in its various forms and languages, functioned in nineteenthcentury Ireland, and how reading and writing allowed an increasingly literate Irish populace to participate in print communities at home and abroad. In general, discussions of literacy in nineteenth-century Ireland have tended to position themselves in relation to developments in education and state institutions, a trend that has problematic repercussions, as we discuss below. As Mary E. Daly and Eugenio F. Biagini highlight in the introduction to The Cambridge Social History of Modern Ireland, a focus on people rather than institutions is to be welcomed. Moreover, they argue that ‘Irish history is best understood in a wider European and indeed global context’ rather than as an insular exception. Writing of nineteenth-century Ireland, Ciarán O’Neill has stated that ‘the expansion of literacy has been read as a product of colonially-motivated mass schooling […] a colonial imposition aimed at eliminating both a “real” Irish culture and the Irish language’, and thus it ‘has become difficult to separate the literacy debate from the educational and the colonial’. These long-held assumptions have been challenged by scholars such as Nicholas Wolf, whose An Irish Speaking Island has illuminated the complex landscape of literacy in Ireland, complicating the sense of linguistic displacement and colonial dominance from the eighteenth to the nineteenth century. Wolf 's work attempts to extricate the languages of Ireland from an over-determined nationalist narrative in which the ‘forces for Anglicization’ attack and marginalise the indigenous language: a narrative in which ‘the primary feature’ of Irish is ‘its endangerment and political extinction’ and in which literacy features as an agent of colonisation.

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Publisher: Liverpool University Press
Print publication year: 2019

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