After 283 years, the last of the Penal Laws in Ireland has been repealed by proposals to restore power-sharing that was backed by Stormont parties on January 10.
The proposals put forward by Tánaiste Simon Coveney and Northern Secretary Julian Smith will repeal the Administration of Justice Act (Irish Language Act) 1737.
It will establish a Commissioner for the Irish language in Northern Ireland and there will be legal recognition of the language, translation services and speaking through Irish or Ulster Scots in court will be permitted.
Historian, Dr Eamon Phoenix said: “About 36% of the population in the 2001 census in the North said they spoke Irish to some degree…you meet so many people who have a love for the language and now they can say it has parity with the other traditions in the North of Ireland.”
The Penal Laws were put in place after the Battle of the Boyne in order to quiet the Catholic upper and middle class. They were meant to force Irish Catholics and Protestant dissenters to accept the Church of Ireland.
“The Act really said only English could be used in a court of law in the Kingdom of Ireland. It actually didn’t even name the Irish language, which was then by spoken by the vast majority of the people on the island even in Ulster, Irish was widely spoken in the 17th Century” said Dr Phoenix.
They stopped people in Ireland from going to school or university, going to mass publicly, holding jobs in public office or running for parliament. Most of the laws were repealed by Catholic Emancipation between 1766 and 1829.
Dr Phoenix said he feels the executive in Northern Ireland can now get down to the ‘bread and butter’ of what people need: “The Irish Language act has very much been something that has been blocking progress over the last three years.”