Born 160 years ago in Cork, Francis Maginn, who lost his hearing aged five, spent his life campaigning to promote Sign Language, say Graham O’Shea and Dr Noel O’Connell

THE ISL Act 2017 recognises that Irish Sign Language is the native language of the deaf community in Ireland. The fact it was implemented in December, 2020, presents a positive step for deaf people.

It has been a long campaign for deaf people’s right to use the language. The movement to its recognition began in the late 19th century with the work of a Cork-born deaf liberator, Francis Maginn, an iconic figure in the deaf community in Ireland and Britain.

One of his biggest achievements was his role in the founding of the British Deaf Association in 1890, an organisation that still exist today. It was established in response to concerns about the oralism movement, which sought to eradicate sign language all over the world.

Oralism is an educational ideology that upholds the belief in the superiority of spoken language (e.g. English) over sign language. This ideology also outlawed sign language in schools for deaf children.

Born in 1861 in Johnsgrove, near Castletownroche in north Cork to a Protestant family, Maginn was known for his missionary work in Cork and Belfast during British colonial times. When he was five, he lost his hearing as a result of contracting scarlet fever.

Maginn’s father, Charles, the Rector of Killanully, sent him to Margate Institution for the Deaf in London, for his education. When he finished school, Maginn worked as a teacher of deaf children there for a number of years.

In 1884, he moved to the U.S to embark on full-time study at Gallaudet Callege in Washington DC. Gallaudet University (as it is now), was and continues to be the world’s only higher education institution delivering courses through the medium of American Sign Language. Francis was unable to complete his courses due to his father’s ill health and subsequent death. He returned home to Cork to be with his father before he passed away.

fierce opponent of oralism, he was notably opposed to the resolutions passed at the International Congress on the Education of the Deaf in Milan, Italy, in 1880, which endorsed the prohibition of sign language.

In 1880, an education conference in Milan led to the widespread promotion of oralism as the best way to educate Deaf children and the banning of sign language in the classroom and ultimately from Deaf schools in general.

Maginn’s own educational experience placed him in the unique position of knowing what worked best. A fierce supporter of sign language for Deaf people, he submitted many articles and letters to the press outlining this.

In a letter to the Daily News in 1881, he explains his educational journey thus: “When I first went (to school), I had hardly an idea of language, and my notions of the world were erroneous. For instance, I used to fancy that two of the stars were the souls of my two sisters then deceased. I could not spell one word, and was put in the lowest class in the establishment. I began to converse with signs and learnt words of one syllable. When I went home for the first time, my mother, being anxious to see if I had gained any ideas, took me upstairs and got a book and pointed out the word ‘God’, and I spelt it with my fingers. She then made a sign as if to know what it was. I understood her wish, and pointed towards heaven. She kissed me fondly, and tears came into her eyes and I recognised that she was glad. In process of time I gained more knowledge, thanks to the French system (teaching through sign language); and the mountains that my mother thought were in my path have been levelled.”

In 1889, Maginn submitted a report to the Report of the Royal Commission arguing a case for sign language. Instead it invited Alexander Graham Bell to give a presentation on deaf education. The inventor of the telephone, Bell championed the cause of oralism. His ideas convinced the Royal Commission to approve it in all schools for deaf children in Britain and Ireland. Maginn nevertheless continued his missionary work, meeting conference delegates in Britain, the U.S and France.

He was involved in religious missionary work for Deaf people and reported on this in the Cork Constitution newspaper and Our Little Messenger which he founded. 

The reports featured a large public meeting held at South Mall Hall in 1884 where Maginn presented a paper, entitled Is there any need for a Special Agency for the Deaf and Dumb in Cork and South of Ireland?’ The event was presided over by the Lord Bishop of the diocese and a large gathering of Deaf people were in attendance. Maginn’s speech inspired clergyman and lay people to ‘take great interest in mission work amongst the deaf and dumb and aid in helping it.’

At this time, Maginn’s activism for the Deaf community began in earnest. He spent time in Cork and Belfast connecting with the Deaf Protestant communities in both cities. He advocated for employment for Deaf people, and in Belfast he was instrumental in breaking down barriers for Deaf manual workers such as joiners and sheet metal workers, resulting in Deaf tradesmen securing work in companies such as Harland & Wolff. Deaf workers may even have helped build the Titanic.

Maginn helped establish the Deaf and Dumb Christian Association in Cork and organised prayer meetings and Bible classes at the Library, Christ Church School Room on South Main Street. In 1898, the Association relocated to more permanent premises at 15, Marlboro Street. As well as conducting Bible classes and religious services, Maginn and his missionary service travelled the country visiting deaf people living in isolation.

He organised an annual reunion day in July for Protestant deaf people living in Cork and neighbouring counties. Deaf people travelled to Cork for the reunion, which involved a religious service followed by a picnic outing. They took the train from Cork city to places like Youghal, Crosshaven, Kinsale, and Monkstown. These occasions helped deaf people come out of isolation.

By the turn of the 20th century, Francis was married to Agnes, living in Belfast, and working in close collaboration with the Ulster Institute for the Deaf and Dumb and Blind on Lisburn Road. They did not have any children.

In 1900, he was awarded an honorary degree of Bachelor of Divinity by Gallaudet college in recognition of his achievements. In 1913, he was appointed officer of the French Academy by the French government in recognition of his work for deaf communities in Europe.

Francis’ last days were spent doing mission work in Belfast where he helped deaf people find jobs and social housing. He died in 1918 and was buried in Belfast, leaving a legacy that lives on. Part of this is that most of the national signed languages in Europe have received legal recognition. This month marks the 160 anniversary of his birth.