The Importance of the Gaelic Revival

By Gerry O’Shea

The growth of nationalism was a dominant theme in 19th century Europe, culminating in the successful unification movements in Germany and Italy. The new nation-state was defined by ethnic and language congruence among the citizenry, leading to near-homogeneity among the vast majority of people in each country. This was continued into the new century: in Nazi Germany in the 1930s, for example, Jews and Roma gypsies did not qualify as German nationals, and thus they became lesser people, identified as sub-humans who could be maltreated and much worse. This kind of xenophobia throughout Europe played a major part in the genesis of two disastrous world wars.

The 19th century was also the apex of the colonial era where all the major European countries had extended their power mostly to faraway territories in Africa, Asia and South America. Great Britain, the king of the colonialists, had expanded its authority to so many places that they claimed that when the sun set in one part of the empire it was rising in another.

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Ireland was part of their possessions, ruled from Westminster, with no parliament of its own. The English overlords considered themselves superior to the native Irish in every facet of life. Their literature, their games, their religion and certainly their language existed at a higher level than anything the locals had to offer. They expected the Irish to recognize their inferiority and behave with appropriate subservience.

So, true to this perception, they made sure that they held all the positions of power and prestige in Ireland. The landlords, the bureaucrats, the judges and top policemen were all from the ascendancy class, and any Catholic who broke through the glass ceiling had to follow the party line coming from Dublin Castle.

The famines of 1847 and subsequent years dealt a serious blow to the self-confidence of Irish people, especially in the counties that suffered most along the western seaboard from Kerry to Donegal. The Irish were a religious people and many felt that their awful travails were due to heavenly dissatisfaction with their prayers and behaviour.

So many died or headed off on coffin ships that the people who survived lived with a sense of foreboding of another national nightmare. How could they argue against a powerful government that preached the laissez-faire doctrine where the market system was sacred and could not be interfered with? This libertarian principle was used as a convenient Westminster rationalization excusing that government from providing relief for starving families.

While the morale of the Irish people was low, this did not preclude an upsurge of nationalism towards the end of the century. A movement stressing nascent cultural pride and achievements took root as Irish people connected again with their long history of local music, dance and storytelling.

In 1884, the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) was founded in Thurles to promote the widely-played Irish sports of hurling and football. The founders rejected the idea that somehow cricket was a better stick-and-ball-game than hurling, or that soccer had more to offer than the local football matches that included the superb skill of high catching in a game where scoring included points as well as goals, enhancing the enjoyment of spectators.

The founders could not have anticipated how successful their organization would become with local clubs starting and competitions growing in every town and city. Since the 1950s, the GAA has become the premier amateur sporting organization in Europe.

The post-Famine years saw a major decline in Gaeltachts, Irish-speaking areas, located almost entirely along the western seaboard. The Irish language was associated with poverty, and emigrants from any of the Gaeltacht enclaves faced major obstacles in learning to speak English in their new homes in London or New York.

In 1893, the Gaelic League was founded by Professor Eoin MacNeill, a strong nationalist, to preserve Irish as a spoken language in the Gaeltachts and to expand its use throughout the rest of the island. It was explicitly non-sectarian and non-political. The first president, Dr Douglas Hyde, was a Protestant from County Roscommon. The top man leading the League in Belfast, Dr John St Clair Boyd, identified himself as a Unionist.

The leadership stressed the importance of thorough organization, and branches of the League were formed all over the country with an estimated membership of 50,000 by 1914. In 1898 there was only one big group in Dublin, but by 1902 the number of branches had exploded to 53. In many cases members were more interested in the social dimension of the get-togethers, including dances, concerts and plays, which provided an enjoyable alternative to the prevailing anglophone entertainment.

Padraig Pearse, who later led the Easter rebellion in 1916, was an ardent member of the Gaelic Lesague and a fluent Irish speaker. He edited their newspaper, An Claidheamh Solais (The Sword of Light), for a number of years, and he was prominent in promoting all the League’s activities. At the behest of Pearse and other members of the League, the authorities allowed the teaching of Irish in national schools.

At the annual conference of the Gaelic League in 1915, held in Dundalk, a motion was passed affirming the goal of Irish political independence. A similar proposal had failed the two previous years. This movement away from its non-sectarian and non-political origins led to the resignation of Douglas Hyde as president and stripped the League of its Unionist supporters. Hyde would later serve as the first president of Ireland from 1938 to 1945.

Another element which was of significance was the role of the Catholic Church, which by the turn of the century enjoyed unquestioning allegiance from the great majority of Irish people outside of the predominantly Protestant areas in the northeast of the country. The church had emerged from the Penal Laws, and with their own seminary in Maynooth, the priests exercised enormous power in their parishes which stretched into every townland in Ireland.

 Lord John Russell, prime minister twice in the 1850s, explained Westminster strategy thus: ‘we tried without success to control the Irish by force and repression, so we decided to work with Rome instead.’

Priests ran the schools and actively supported the important movement for Land Reform. Church leaders celebrated the passage of the Wyndham Act in 1903, the crowning achievement of the powerful Land League which achieved almost all of its ambitious goals centering on tenant ownership. Many priests were vigorous pulpit supporters of local political parties who successfully opposed conscription in 1918.

Overall, the new confidence in the Catholic Church as well as the growth of Gaelic games and especially the proud assertion of a rich and distinctive native language, represented by the Gaelic League, indicated a new and potent combination of forces in Irish life aiming to de-anglicize the prevailing culture. This spirit, rejecting the dominant English ethos, ultimately led to a political revolution and the departure, under duress, of the British from most of the island in 1922.

Gerry O’Shea lives in New York and writes for The Irish Echo and The Irish Voice. He blogs at http://wemustbetalking. com