The June 13, 1857, issue of Harper’s Weekly ran this short anecdote under “Things and Otherwise”:
A woman a short time since appeared at the lower police court in New York city, and, going up to the judge, addressed him, as nearly as our reporter could understand, as follows:“R-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-r!” The judge at once called the interpreter of the court. “Here, F—, this woman speaks a foreign language.” The interpreter said: “Sprechen sie Deutsch?” “R-r-r-r-r-r.”“Parlez vous Francais?” “R-r-r-r-r-r.” “Habla Espanol?” “R-r-r-r-r-r.” “Parlate Italiano?” “R-r-r-r-r-r.” The lingual accomplishments of the interpreter were now exhausted, and he turned away in despair, when an Irishman present suddenly exclaimed, “Och, yer honor! it’s mesilf can spake with the leddy, sure.” Pat tried his hand, and succeeded to admiration. She spoke the unadulterated Irish language.
Language is rarely counted among the many challenges facing the Irish who arrived here in the 19th century but as this story reveals, for some Irish immigrants, English was a foreign tongue. While the Irish language made a precipitous decline in Ireland by the end of the century (the exact causes of which remain the subject of historical debate ) it was very much alive in the early 1800s. It follows that many such immigrants would have spoken Irish as their primary language. In fact, historians estimate that a quarter to a third of Famine immigrants were Gaeilgeoirí, or Irish speakers, and undoubtedly counted monoglots in their numbers. With English so ubiquitous in Ireland, this may be a bit hard to fathom today but at the time there would have been an appreciable number of Irish immigrants for whom English was as much a foreign language as Italian, French or German.
Unfortunately, traces of this are fleeting given that this was a largely illiterate population. Though there were some exceptions even those who were literate bore anglicized names such as Seán Ó Dreada, a noted stone carver, who was known by John Draddy. Still, geographic connections can provide some insight into identifying an Irish speaker. A good example occurs in this document recording money being sent via the Irish-American merchant firm of Abraham Bell & Son to Bridget Sweeney, of Ardara, County Donegal in 1851. The greatest concentration of Gaeilgeoirí has typically been in areas furthest from the epicenter of English influence around Dublin. This map of Irish-speaking districts suggests that 81-90 percent of those living in that area of Donegal would have spoken Irish, so we can reasonably conjecture that this was a transaction between speakers.
Fleeting glimpses show how the Irish language manifested itself on these shores as well. A researcher using the Children’s Aid Society Records recently pointed out that in writing his “Incidents and Sketches Among the Newsboys,” CAS agent W. Colopy Desmond documented a handful of examples from the Irish boys that he interacted with. In one case, Desmond attempted to capture phonetically the accent of Dennis O’Driscoll, a “tall boy with a rich brogue, and harsh features” of Skibbereen, County Cork. While he notes O’Driscoll’s exclamations such as “Och” and “Gor”, far more interesting is his comparison of a bump on a forehead to a “mealy praty” the latter deriving straight from the Irish prátai, or potato.
In a slightly more curious line, Desmond relates O’Driscoll’s description of Newsboy antics: “Och! see how them divils are puckin’ each other like buck goats.” The combination of “puckin'” and “buck goats” is fitting since Terence Patrick Dolan’s A Dictionary of Hiberno-English defines a puck or pucán as a male goat. There is yet another link to the Irish pooka, according to P.W. Joyce’s English As We Speak It “a mischievous and often malignant goblin that generally appears in the form of a horse, but sometimes as a bull, a buck-goat, &c.” Joyce also offers puck as an associated verb which he defines as “a softened equivalent of playing the devil.”
Taking into account that Skibbereen (a region decimated by the Famine) remained significantly Irish speaking in this era, it’s logical that O’Driscoll’s English is sprinkled with words of Irish origin while hinting at the much greater discussion concerning Irish words that survive in American English. Although many generations of usage and hybridization usually obscure origins, some, such as “slew,” “galore,” and “smithereens,” are well-documented and remain popular today .
This understanding of Irish speaking in 19th-century New York has real value in honing and intensifying interpretations of historical events. A particularly good example is a popular George Templeton Strong’s diary entry describing the singing of laments, or keening, by Irish women at the death of two laborers. He finishes with this comment:
It was an uncanny sound to hear, quite new to me. Beethoven would have interpreted it into music worse than the allegretto of the Seventh Symphony. Our Celtic fellow citizens are almost as remote from us in temperament and constitution as the Chinese.