By Joe Brennan

dh_clip_image001Within twenty years of Parnell’s death Home Rule became just a memory in the minds of the Irish people. During this time the Conservatives were in power and not even Gladstone’s Liberal government “could force Home Rule through a hostile House of Lords” [1]. This led the people to turn away from the Home Rule cause. It is not surprising, that a new type of nationalism began to grow in the 1890’s and early 1900’s…. cultural nationalism.  As McGuire said in his book History of Ireland “ politically the period was devoid of glamour.  Culturally it was vibrant” [2]. This cultural nationalism took many forms including the growth of the G.A.A. (which had been set up in 1884), the setting up of the Abbey Theatre and Anglo-Irish writing in general.  However, one of its most important aspects was the attempt to revive the Irish language by the establishment of the Gaelic league.


In the nineteenth century English cultural influence had increased rapidly in Ireland.  This influence had started in the seventeenth century and most Irish people spoke English by the time of the Union.  The nineteenth century saw this influence spread to the country through education and the cheaper and thus more accessible English books which were available. “Traditional Irish customs and pastimes suffered a decline” [3].  Archbishop Croke of Caiseal had lamented the decline in Irish games and this had lead to the establishment of the G.A.A.  At the same time Collins inAn Outline of Modern Irish History says, “The disappearance of Irish games and customs was paralleled by the decline in the use of the Irish language.  In 1851 it (Irish) was spoken by twenty-three percent of the population; by 1901 the proportion had fallen to fourteen percent” [4].  Most of the areas with Irish speakers were found in inaccessible areas around the coast.  Some people, like the Fenians, regretted the passing of Irish and in the 1870’s and 1880’s they had formed some societies to preserve the Irish language.

These societies did not last long as people saw English as a more attractive language as it was seen as the language of power as landlords, police and politicians spoke it while Irish had the image of being the language of the poor and ignorant.  Parents encouraged the schools to teach their children as the possibility of emigration made English a more attractive language than Irish.  The lack of Irish language books was to lead to Irish children being illiterate in Irish.

Scholars like Eugene O’Curry and John O’Donovan who spoke Irish were the only people who knew the riches of Irish mythology and legend. In 1888 Standish O’Gorady became the first person to publish an English translation of the legends of Finn, the Fianna, Cuchulainn and the Red Branch Knights. This led to an influx of translated Irish legends, myths, songs and poems. Douglas Hyde (who would go on to become the first president of Ireland) was son of a Church of Ireland rector and rose in an Irish speaking area of Roscommon. He grew a great love for the language, especially its stories and songs.

On the 31st of July 1893, Conradh na Gaeilge was founded. But there is no doubt now that the founding of Conradh na Gaeilge brought a radical change in those working for the Irish Language. And the ideas which brought about this change were expressed by the man who became the first president of the Gaelic League, and later Uachtarán na hÉireann, Dr. Douglas Hyde.

Dr. Hyde was born in Sligo Man, son of a Church of Ireland Minister. While still a boy he wrote poetry in Irish for the Dublin newspapers. He got a Law Degree in Trinity College and then devoted himself to writing and lecturing on Irish literature.

The ideas which led to the founding of the new organisation were put forward by Dr. Hyde in a lecture he made on the 25th of November 1892, which was titled The Necessity for De-Anglicising Ireland. He said:
“When we speak of ‘The Necessity for De-Anglicising the Irish Nation’ we mean it, not as a protest against imitating what is best in the English people, for that would be absurd, but rather to show the folly of neglecting what is Irish, and hastening to adopt, pell-mell, and indiscriminately, everything that is English, simply because it is English.”
He asked his listeners to compare the Ireland of that day with what it had been. He suggested that from one of the most classically learned and cultured nations in Europe it had become the least studious and most un-literary. A similar change had taken place in other aspects of nation life.

Dr. Hyde said the Anglicisation of Ireland had begun in recent times. It had resulted in Irish people hating the English and at the same time imitating them. Irish sentiment was stuck in this halfway house. He went on to ask that should a series of Cromwell’s rule the Empire for the next hundred years and make Ireland a land of wealth and factories, and at the same time stamp out every thought and idea that was Irish, what would be the reaction of Irishmen.

He asked how many Irishmen were there who would purchase material prosperity at such a price. Yet this awful idea of complete Anglicisation had been making silent inroads upon them for nearly a century. Europe, he said, owed a debt of gratitude to ancient Ireland. The Ireland of his day was the descendant of the Ireland of the seventh century, then the school of Europe and the torch of learning. Through the centuries Ireland had assimilated all its invaders, except for the settlers in the Northeast. But what the invaders had been unable to perform, the Irish were then accomplishing themselves. They had at last broken the continuity of Irish Life. They were cut off from the past without being in touch with the present.

Dr. Hyde described how in the 19th century the Irish language and literature had been cast aside by the people. But the Irish Language is worth knowing,” he said, “or why would the greatest philologists of GermanyFrance andItaly be emulously studying it. And it does possess a literature, or why would a German savant have made the calculation that the books written in Irish between the eleventh and seventeenth centuries, and still extent, would fill a thousand octavo volumes.” He said it was a thousand-tongued reproach to their leaders and statesmen that young men and women blushed and hung their heads when overheard speaking their language. He finished by saying that if Ireland got Home Rule they would insist that Irish be taught in all the schools and used by officials in the Irish-speaking areas. With the help of the foremost foreign scholars it should be possible to create a climate, which would make it disgraceful for an educated Irishman to be ignorant of his own language.

Dr. Hyde’s one hundred and fifty listeners on the occasion, a meeting of the National Literary Society, proved stony ground for his new ideas. Many of them dismissed his lecture as nonsense. Hyde’s lecture was printed as a pamphlet. A few months later he travelled to Cork where he spoke on the importance of Irish. In this he contradicted the chairman of the meeting there, Denis Leyden, who said if they had to have a foreign language they could have none better than English.

At this time Eoin Mac Neill, then a young Irish scholar sent out a circular calling together the first meeting of Conradh na Gaeilge. It took place on July 31, 1893. The minutes record that it was agreed that a society be formed under the name of the “Conradh na Gaeilge for the purpose of keeping the Irish language spoken in Ireland. At the third meeting of the new society the members decided that they would have Irish conversation, story telling, poetry and songs after each meeting. In September it was decided to circularise people throughout the country with an interest in Irish. It was hoped that they might help found branches or advise on how the new movement should progress.

The gospel, which the new organisation of Condradh Na Gaeilge brought to Irish people everywhere was: “Speak Irish.” Its president, Dr. Douglas Hyde, and the many able men and women, who worked with him, preached day after day: “Speak Irish among yourselves.” In a talk in New York in 1891, before the Gaelic League was founded, Dr. Hyde, told Irish people: “Speak English only when they don’t understand you in Irish.” There were many societies in the nineteenth century for the promotion of Irish studies, but none of them had emphasised the importance of speaking Irish. Most of the members of these societies spoke English when they met to discuss Irish Literature.
The new attitude towards the use of the language led Pádraig Pearse to say in later years: “Don’t praise the Irish Language; speak it.”

Later on the Gaelic League would cross as “not quite the mother that Pearse had made it out to be, the Gaelic League had been at least the nurse to the political revolution”[5]. If the League had never been founded, conceivably there would have lacked the cultural meaning given to it by men who were convinced that they had re-entered into their mystical through the Gaelic League.

Collins, M.E., An Outline of Modern Irish History
McGuire, D., History of Ireland
De Paor, L., Milestones in Irish History
The Gaelic League… Internet source

[1] Collins, M.E, An Outline of Modern Irish History, page 154
[2] McGuire, D., History of Ireland, page146

[3] Collins, M.E., An Outline of Modern Irish History, page 154

[4] Ibid, page 156

[5] De Paor, L., Milestones in Irish History, page 127