The hardscrabble Gaels of Scranton

These days you can find in seconds what I used to spend weeks hoping to discover by ruining my eyes by scanning newspaper and microfilm. In a random search on “Gaelic” in an online newspaper archive, several interesting articles in local American newspapers turned up, including one from Scranton, Pennsylvania.

US Vice-President Joe Biden famously said, “I come from Scranton, Pennsylvania. And that’s as hardscrabble a place as you’re gonna find.” There would seem to be little room in this image of working class American industry for Celtic peoples, yet the workers had to come from somewhere. Not only did the substantial Welsh population hold an annual Eisteddfod there for a number of years, but an article from The Scranton Truth (19 December 1904), provides a rare window into the local efforts of Gaels to reclaim and elevate their language in the early 20th century, as parallel efforts were underway in Ireland.

This blog entry is dedicated to my friend Tiber Falzett, a fine Gaelic scholar whose family has at least one of their feet firmly planted in Scranton.

The article reveals not only a keen awareness of the advances then being made in linguistics regarding the Celtic languages (especially by German scholars), but also the cultural and social roles of languages and the damage suffered by those of the Celts as a result of English imperialism. This is not surprising, given that one key teacher in Scranton – Professor J. E. O’Malley — was Irish with strong connections to Dublin, then in the upsurge of the Gaelic Revival.

The article also mentions that Rev. J. J. Hurst, president of the Scranton Irish class, is a personal friend of Douglas Hyde, then President of the Gaelic League and later the first President of Ireland. Little wonder, then, that the ideology of language revitalization as a key aspect of cultural and political reclamation is strongly represented in the article:

It seems to be mainly among men whose ancestors spoke Gaelic that the language is without honor.

The writer once heard a native of Scotland wonder if his ancestral Gaelic were really a language at all. A similar remark has been made by a son of an Irish Gael. As any medium for the expression of thought is a language, it is difficult to understand what they meant. They perhaps regarded the common speech of their ancestors as a patois, a jargon or a gibberish instead of a cultivated language with a vast literature.

Both Irish and Highland Scotch have been foolishly ashamed of their language. Subjected races, they took the estimate of their speech from their ill-informed conqueror. As the slave is constantly conscious of his own presumed inferiority to his conqueror, so have the subdued Gaels felt toward their master’s speech.

Not so the independent Welshman, however. Happily, the time is now come when only the ignorant among the Celts are ashamed of their ancestral speech. And this is quite apparent in the Scanton Gaelic class. The members of the class are mainly members of the professions, lawyers, doctors, teachers, writers.

Although some work has been done on the North American branch of the Gaelic revival, surely much more could now be recovered in the many periodical sources that are now appearing online. A better picture of these efforts and their effect on linguistic consciousness might reveal the transference of linguistic ideologies along social networks, not only amongst and between Celtic communities but with other ethnic groups as well. In the century and more than has passed since this article was written, the loss of language, culture and political sovereignty has become even more pronounced in minoritized communities. The experience of Celtic peoples in Europe and North America in resisting assimilation and critiquing hegemony – those who chose to do so – deserves to be remembered.

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