Former ambassador links language and technology to Ireland’s emergence

By Andy Owens
Published Dec. 5, 2013

Ireland’s emergence as a high-tech hub in the late 20th century came about because of a decision by Catholic bishops more than 175 years ago, said a former U.S. ambassador and Irish history expert Wednesday night in Charleston.

Edward Brynn, a former foreign service officer who served as a U.S. ambassador to six African nations, told the World Affairs Council of Charleston that Irish bishops’ decision in the 19th century to teach English instead of Gaelic was pivotal in paving the way for the country’s economic prosperity.

Edward Brynn (Photo provided)
“[The Catholic bishops] laid out a manifesto at the end of 1836 that ‘God speaks English. All Irish children will be raised speaking English.’”

— Edward Brynn, former U.S. ambassador and Irish history expert

Ireland came out of the second World War with several desirable economic assets, he said, including a well-educated, English-speaking workforce that wasn’t expecting to be paid a lot.

Today, Ireland is commonly known as the Internet capital of Europe, partly because the country is known as a tax haven for businesses. Companies such as Google, Facebook, Microsoft, LinkedIn, Intel, Apple, HP and Twitter have all chosen to base international operations in Ireland.

But Brynn said the economic surge in technology and innovation in Ireland came as a direct result of schools led by Catholic bishops who mandated strict education in English.

“In 1836, the British Parliament, exasperated and overwhelmed by times of troubles in Ireland, passed legislation that placed in the hands of the religious leaders in Ireland full control of education,” Brynn said.

In that moment, the bishops decided how 78% to 82% of Ireland’s students would be educated, Brynn said. He called it the single most important decision affecting Ireland today.

“They mandated that all education of Irish-Catholic children would take place in English,” he said. “They laid out a manifesto at the end of 1836 that ‘God speaks English. All Irish children will be raised speaking English.’”

He said that a lot of linguistic heritage and tradition was lost in that decision, even though there have been attempts to bring some of it back. Road signs in the country are printed in both English and Irish, for example, and some families are using the Gaelic spelling of family names.

The bishops couldn’t see nearly 200 years into the future, of course, but they were looking toward a future where the American Catholic church would be led by young people who were being educated in Ireland, and they needed to be able to speak English, he said.

Brynn said the global recession that began in 2008 has hammered the Irish economy, and a lot of the economic gains have been lost as leaders struggle to turn the economy around. But Ireland’s position as a high-tech capital that began in the 1970s could help the country weather the recent issues, he said.

“It meant that in the 1970s and ’80s, when you moved into the age of technology and you moved into the age of computer programming and you were looking for a well-educated workforce that wasn’t going to cost you a whole lot but who could work in one of the world languages ... where did you put your investments?” he said. “You put them in Ireland.”

Reach Andy Owens at 843-849-3142.

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