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Delving into the past to discover language barriers

9/3/2014

Today, we have many immigrants, especially from Hispanic areas. Communication might be a problem for us all. The push for newly arrived people is they speak English, not their native language. This is not a new occurrence as our German, Irish, European immigrant ancestors and others also were faced with this problem.

Today, we have many immigrants, especially from Hispanic areas. Communication might be a problem for us all. The push for newly arrived people is they speak English, not their native language. This is not a new occurrence as our German, Irish, European immigrant ancestors and others also were faced with this problem.

According to an 1831 Canadian census, my great-great-great grandfather, Thomas Grace, and family had left Kilkenny, Ireland, before the great famine. They crossed the sea and came down the St. Lawrence River (before it was the seaway of today) into Quebec, Canada. After 25 years in St. Columban, Quebec, they then relocated to Jackson County, Iowa. I wondered what language they initially spoke and the difficulties they might have encountered. As I searched many sources and read early histories, I did not find any that helped me with information about their language and the problems they might have encountered in communication.

As I sat down to write this, I found myself at a loss for words. But one word kept recurring in my thoughts: Babel -- an interesting word with a fascinating history. The Bible in Genesis 11 states, "The whole world had the same language and the same words." I am not a biblical scholar but in my words, the people got rather full of themselves and started building a tower that really would set themselves up as the greatest. The Lord did not appreciate their attitude and reasons for building the tower. Scripture says, "When the Lord saw this, He went down, confused their language so they did not understand the speech of another, and scattered them all over the earth."

So if we now find the use of many languages difficult to understand, we can just say, "It's all Babel to me." This, however, did not help me with my question of how my ancestors communicated in a strange country. Did they speak Gaelic, an Irish dialect, or had they been exposed to English in their homeland when the English took over their lands and crops? Or did they pick up French in Quebec?

My helpful source, Fergus Keyes, who helps keep history alive in St. Columban, Quebec, answered my question: "I'm talking off the top of my head here, but if I remember, the very earliest census for the St. Columban indicated that many families include their language as 'Irish'. As the census moves to later years, it seems that it was becoming Irish and English. Later census showed mostly English and little Irish was indicated as their main language; and later on the census show more of them speaking either just English, or English and French. So my best guess is the earliest immigrants considered their native language to be 'Isish' (I guess Irish Gaelic), but most also seemed to be able speak English. I also seem to remember when Father Phelan was chosen to come to Montreal to help the Irish Catholics, one reason was because he had been born in Ireland and spoke 'Irish.' He had trained in France and spoke French and he had been in Boston where, of course he spoke English. I think he was likely tri-lingual."

Kilkenny, Ireland, censuses showed in 1831, population was 193,000. In 1835, the number of native Irish speakers was estimated at 4 million. Because of the effects of "emigration and the great famine, only 53,000 remained by 1851 in Kilkenny. Today throughout Ireland, there are over 5 million people, while it is estimated there are upwards of 70 million people of Irish descent throughout the world."

British Prime Minister Tony Blair, on the eve of the 150th Famine commemoration in 1997, said, "The famine was a defining event in the history of Ireland and of Britain. It has left deep scars. That 1 million people should have died in what was then part of the richest and most powerful nation in the world is something that still causes pain as we reflect on it today."

I do not know the exact reason my ancestors left their home in Kilkenny before the great famine, but conditions were deteriorating for the Irish. For many, the only alternative to disease and starvation, and the only option to eviction from their tenant lands, was emigration. A majority of famine victims would die from malnutrition-related diseases such as dropsy, dysentery, typhus, scurvy and cholera, rather than directly from starvation.

As we consider the immigration problems in the United States today, many of the same problems do exist throughout our world. Regardless of our personal feelings, we are all from immigrant heritage, unless we are American Indians. Our ancestors most probably experienced the same difficulties in language barriers they experience today. Difficulties of communication then were overcome and can be overcome today if we help each other; and yes, we must be legal in our efforts.

Let us all help each other to be good citizens worthy of our benefits as Americans. And thank you to our servicemen, women and families who help to keep us "the land of the brave and the free." God bless America.

Ruth Moriarity is a member of the Generations advisory committee.