Irish Sign Language: History + Culture

Dia dhuit, lovely people! (translated: Hello or literally, God to you in Gaelic)

Come in and sit down to have cuppa and biscuits with me! Lemme regale you with stories about the Deaf people’s language, history and culture.

Beautiful cliffs in Ireland.
Beautiful cliffs in Ireland.
Image by wirestock on Freepik.

The History of Irish Sign Language

According to Wikipedia, the origins of Irish Sign Language (ISL) are not well-documented, but it is believed to have developed in the early 19th century. It emerged as a natural means of communication among Deaf people in Ireland, and its vocabulary and grammar were influenced by French Sign Language (LSF).

The Irish Deaf Society asserts that ISL originated within Deaf communities, was created by Deaf individuals themselves, and has existed for centuries. Ethnologue states that the language has been influenced by LSF, British Sign Language (BSL), signed French, and signed English, with BSL being introduced in Dublin in 1816. 

The first school for Deaf children in Ireland was founded in 1816 by Dr. Charles Orpen and was called The Claremont Institution. The Claremont Institution, being Protestant, used BSL or a version of signed English based on BSL for education, considering Ireland’s affiliation with the United Kingdom.

The Oralism Movement in Ireland Deaf Schools

It mentioned that both Catholic and Protestant institutions in Ireland did not teach children to speak until 1887 when Claremont transitioned from a manual to an oral approach. Catholic schools adopted oralism later, with St. Mary’s School for Deaf Girls shifting in 1946 and St. Joseph’s School for Deaf Boys in 1956, although it only became official state policy in 1972. 

Sign language usage was heavily suppressed, and religion was employed to further stigmatize the language, such as encouraging children to give up signing for Lent and confessing if caught signing.

The History of Irish Gendered Sign Variations

The segregation of Catholic schools by gender contributed to the development of a gendered-generational variant of Irish Sign Language, which still persists to some extent today.

Catholic missionaries introduced ISL to Australia, Scotland, and England. Some variants of BSL, particularly in Glasgow, still show traces of ISL. Even today, elderly Auslan Catholics continue to use ISL.

In South Africa, the Dominican nuns recognized the need for a school for the Deaf but lacked the resources to establish one immediately. They reached out to their Mother House in Cabra and requested an experienced Deaf teacher.

Bridget Lynne, a Deaf teacher, responded to their request. It is believed that remnants of gendered generational Irish Sign Language can still be observed in certain dialects of South African Sign Language, which can likely be attributed to Lynne.

A Right to Irish Sign Language

The Irish Parliament, known as the Oireachtas, successfully passed the “Recognition of Irish Sign Language for the Deaf Community Bill 2016” on 14 December 2017.

This bill was later signed into law by President Michael D Higgins on 24 December 2017, under the revised title of The Irish Sign Language Act 2017. The Act officially came into effect on 23 December 2020 and mandates that public services must be accessible through Irish Sign Language (ISL).

Additionally, the Act emphasizes the importance of providing greater educational opportunities through sign language.

Prior to this legislation, Deaf individuals did not have an automatic right to an ISL interpreter, except in criminal court proceedings. The recognition of ISL brings about more legal rights and improved access to public services such as education, healthcare, media, and banking for the Deaf community.

Preservation Efforts for Irish Sign Language (ISL) – Chime

The National Association for Deaf People was founded in 1964 with the aim of advancing the well-being of its members within the Deaf community.

Over the years, this organization has achieved significant milestones such as publishing the first ISL dictionary, establishing Family Support Services, and officially recognizing ISL as the language of the Irish people.

In 2018, the organization underwent a name change and is now known as Chime. Their current mission is to enhance accessibility, foster supportive communities, and empower individuals to make personal choices and actively participate in their communities, all with the goal of minimizing the impact of Deafness and hearing loss. Leading the organization as chairman is Declan Keane, a parent of a Deaf child.

Irish Deaf Culture, Community, and History

Certainly, we must not overlook the vibrant Deaf culture that thrives throughout our lush island, can we? 

From the remarkable annual festival organized by the Cork Deaf Club to the magnificent gatherings held at Deaf Village Ireland in Dublin, the Deaf community here knows how to enjoy themselves in a remarkable manner.

With a shared passion for storytelling, dancing to the rhythm of music, and engaging in lively conversations, the culture of the Irish Deaf serves as a testament to the resilience and spirit of our people.

It is a community brimming with exceptional storytellers and talented dancers, uniting individuals to celebrate the sheer delight of life, Irish style. Indeed, there is nothing quite like it! Be sure to visit the Deaf Village Ireland website for more information.

Irish Deaf Society

The Irish Deaf Society (IDS) was established on January 13, 1981, by a group of Deaf individuals who were passionate about ensuring equality for Deaf people.

The IDS is committed to advocating for equal rights and opportunities for Deaf individuals in Ireland, while also promoting the vibrant Deaf culture through the use of ISL. The core values of the IDS encompass ISL, human rights, social inclusion, equal opportunities, improved living conditions, and empowerment.

Currently, Lianne Quigley serves as the Chairperson of the IDS, bringing her extensive experience as the former treasurer of the Irish Deaf Youth Association and co-chairperson of the ISL Recognition Campaign, as well as her work as a Deaf interpreter.

Deaf Irish History

Lastly but not the least, preserving the tales and stories that have been passed down through generations is of utmost importance. 

The history of the Deaf community in Ireland serves as a remarkable illustration of this. Just as the sun rises over the Emerald Isle each morning, the stories and legends of our people have been transmitted from one generation to another since time immemorial. 

It is believed that some of the ancient tales were first whispered in the Giant’s Causeway itself, or sung by the fairies in the glens and meadows. Safeguarding this rich heritage holds a special place in our hearts. The history of the Deaf community here demonstrates how a people can steadfastly hold onto their stories, even in the face of famine or displacement. 

Despite attempts by the English to suppress their culture, they clung to their traditions and kept the legends alive through their language of signs. Therefore, we must follow their example and continue to cherish our tales, even as the modern world threatens to overshadow them. For within these stories resides the very essence of Ireland itself. Here are the links for further information.

As we gather here today, let us celebrate the beauty of Irish Sign Language, the rich history of the Deaf community, and the vibrant culture that surrounds us. In this moment, let us reflect on the significance of inclusivity and the value of embracing our differences. It is these unique qualities that weave together the fabric of our society, creating a masterpiece worth cherishing.

Whether you are well-versed in the art of sign language or simply intrigued by the wonders of our community, I extend a warm invitation for you to join me in raising a glass to the spirit of Ireland’s Deaf. Together, let us unite in solidarity and express our gratitude for all. Remember, there is always a place for everyone at this table.

Sláinte! (Cheers in Gaelic)
Slán go fóill (Goodbye for now)!

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