Anglicisation and De-Anglicisation

Contributors: TOR, FM.


    Two aspects of the questions are treated here, games and the revival of the Irish language.


    Michael Cusack and Maurice Davin, on 27 October 1884, invited a small group to a meeting to form an association for the preservation and cultivation of national pastimes and for providing amusements for the Irish people during their leisure hours. John Wyse Power, John McKay, J. K. Bracken, P. J. Ryan and St George McCarthy attended the meeting on 1 November 1884 in the billiard room of Hayes’s Hotel, Thurles, Co. Tipperary, . At this meeting, Michael Cusack founded the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA). He had campaigned for a decade for the revival of hurling and for the reform of rules of Irish athletics so that working men might compete. He was convinced that the spread of English games was destroying national morale. Cusack was an energetic and effective organiser and laid strong foundations for the GAA throughout rural Ireland. Even in its first year it spread ‘like a prairie fire’, as Cusack himself said. It concentrated on athletics initially rather than on the field games, hurling and Gaelic football. Its aims were to promote Irish games and pastimes, to encourage local patriotism, and to inspire an uncompromising hostility to foreign games. It was very successful in reviving and in codifying the rules of the ancient game of hurling. The rules for Gaelic football were also codified and it became a widespread and popular field game. It has been suggested that hurling was popular in areas with large fields, and Gaelic football where the fields were smaller.

    From the start, the GAA attracted substantial Fenian support and some have claimed that Cusack was, in fact, a front for the IRB. By 1886 Fenians dominated the executive and Cusack had been ousted as secretary. The Catholic clergy were hostile to Fenian prominence in, and domination of, the GAA especially when the GAA supported Parnell in 1890–1. Membership declined seriously as a result in the 1890s. From 1901, however, a new generation of competent nationalist officers rebuilt the GAA as an openly nationalist but not explicitly revolutionary movement that could attract clerical and broad support. Rules excluded from the association anyone who played or even watched foreign games; and all members of the police and British armed forces. These were quietly dropped during the difficult 1890s but were reinstated in 1902–3. The GAA was thus part of the exclusive ‘new nationalism’ of the years before 1916. Up to 300 GAA members fought in the 1916 rising and many fought in the War of Independence. Michael Collins and Harry Boland, for example, were GAA members and officials.

    Bibliography. T. F. O’Sullivan, The story of the GAA (Dublin 1916). Mark Tierney, Croke of Cashel. (Dublin 1976). Liam P. Ó Caithnia, Scéal na hiomána: ó thosach ama go 1884 (Dublin 1980). Liam P. Ó Caithnia, Micheál Ó Cíosóg (Dublin 1982). Marcus de Búrca, Céad bliain ag fás: Cumann Lúthchleas Gael, 1884–1984 (Dublin 1984). Marcus de Búrca, The GAA: a history (Dublin 1980; 2nd ed. 1999). W. F. Mandle, The Gaelic Athletic Association and Irish nationalist politics, 1884-1924 (London 1987). Marcus de Búrca, The story of the GAA to 1990 (Dublin 1991)

    Revival of the Irish language

    Irish, the Gaelic language, declined rapidly in the second half of the nineteenth century. About half the population spoke Irish in 1841; less than a quarter (23.3%) did by 1851; and by 1891 only 14.4% claimed to do so. Very few were literate in it. Irish became more and more a language of the home while English was the language of public discourse—church, law, politics, the press including the nationalist press, the national school system and the education system in general, and business and commerce. Literacy in English was required for all jobs in the civil service, the army, and the police force; and it was a decisive advantage for Irish emigrants who went mainly to English-speaking countries. Even Irish-speaking emigrants wrote their letters home in English because very few were literate in Irish. There were serious gains to be made by learning English and Irish people did so with enthusiasm.

    Irish-speaking parents insisted that their children learn and speak English. The cost in cultural terms was high, as it usually is, in the case of linguistic change in a whole community. There were the obvious losses of songs, stories, folklore, poetry, and prayers, which are handed down from generation to generation. Traditional knowledge and culture was lost with the language and this resulted in great cultural impoverishment. The community lost the words, and the knowledge and ideas that accompanied them, for many kinds of natural phenomena—plants, flowers, trees, grasses, birds, animals, and insects, types of pasture, landscape and many other aspects of nature. The education system failed to make up the deficit. The same was true in many other areas of life, particularly in work, trades, crafts, farming, boating, and fishing. The terms for emotions and the whole affective area of life were also lost and replaced by a very impoverished vocabulary in English. In time, and with education, people acquired English-language culture but linguistic change impoverished the lives of many and for more than one generation.

    While Irish people were abandoning the Irish language with alacrity scholars were re-discovering it. German, French, and Italian scholars were busy publishing Irish literatute that survived in the medieval manuscripts, many preserved in libraries outside Ireland. Across Europe, in the nineteenth century, there was an awakening of a sense of nationality and these ideas influenced nationalists in Ireland. Some sought to curb English influence and recover as much as possible of Ireland’s Gaelic past: its language, its abundant literature, its manners and customs, its games, its place names, its surnames and personal names, and its history. In 1877 the Society for the Preservation of the Irish Language was formed. Some who felt that it lacked dynamism founded the Gaelic Union which published the journal, Irisleabhar na Gaedhilge (1882–1909). This is recognised as the starting point of the Irish language revival and the forerunner of journalism in Irish. Eoin Mac Neill was appointed editor in 1894.

    In November 1892 Douglas Hyde delivered a lecture to the National Literary Society, entitled ‘The necessity for de-anglicising Ireland’. It was a plea to Irish people to turn aside from things English before they lost completely a sense of a separate nationality. Hyde believed that by imitating the English in their ‘dress, literature, music, games and ideas only a long time after them and a vast time behind’, and by abandoning the Irish language, ‘we have at last broken the continuity of Irish life’. He encouraged Irish music and Gaelic games as fostered by the Gaelic Athletic Association. However, he considered virtually everything that existed in his youth as Irish even though it might well have been an earlier import from England, and he denounced virtually every development during his adult years as anglicisation.

    It was Eoin MacNeill who first proposed te establishment of the Gaelic League to preserve and to promote spoken Irish and to publish and to make available for Irish speakers a literature in Irish. The Gaelic League, founded in 1893 by Eoin MacNeill with the help of Hyde and others, would take the language to the people and it was to be by far the most important of the many Irish language organisations devoted to the preservation or revival of the Irish language in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Douglas Hyde was its first president and remained in that office until 1915. He was the League’s most persuasive publicist. Father Eugene O’Growney, professor of Irish at Maynooth College, was an early supporter and his five-part primer, Simple lessons in Irish, was used widely in Gaelic League language classes.

    Though the objects of the Gaelic League were taken up with enthusiasm and branches were founded throughtout the country, it failed in its objective of persuading the majority of the Irish people to use Irish in their everyday lives. Nevertheless, it campaigned successfully to have the Irish language taught in schools; it encouraged the publication of a modern literature in Irish; it re-invigorated and inspired a sense of cultural nationalism; and it provided an intellectual basis for a new and urgent sense of nationality, the basis of nationalism. This sense of cultural nationalism was to be transmuted into political nationalism in the case of many of its members and into revolutionary nationalism in the case of some.

    Unlike earlier movements concerned with antiquarian studies and folklore (such as the Irish Archaeological Society and the Celtic Society), the Gaelic League sought to revive Irish as a spoken and literary language by organising language classes, by studying and publishing existing Gaelic literature (and here its achievements were remarkable), and by cultivating modern Irish literature. It published a newspaper, An Claidheamh Soluis, and among its editors were Eoin MacNeill (1899–1901) and Patrick Pearse (1903–9). It sponsored the publication of contemporary verse and prose.

    Hyde insisted that the movement should be non-political and significant numbers of Protestants and unionists became Gaelic Leaguers in the early years, a trend that never entirely disappeared.

    The membership of the League was particularly strong in towns and cities where it served social needs as well as those of nationality. It never had much success in the Gaeltacht (the Irish-speaking areas). There was a tendency to idealise the culture and way of life of the surviving Gaeltacht areas and it provided a stable base of identity for many in a rapidly changing world.

    Public awareness of the League’s work was heightened in 1899 when it opposed attempts led by John Pentland Mahaffy, provost of Trinity College Dublin, to have Irish removed from the list of subjects for the Intermediate Examination. Mahaffy, classical scholar and wit, was contemptuous of Celtic Studies (the study of the Celtic languages, ancient and modern—Irish, Scottish Gaelic, Manx, Welsh, Breton, Cornish and Gaulish) and argued that Irish literature and language were of little value and not suitable as matriculation subjects. In answer to the question, ‘In your opinion, viewing it [Irish] as a living language, has it any educational value?’, Mahaffy stated:

    None. I am corroborated by the experts … one of whom finds fault with the text books at present used, or one of them, on the grounds that it is either silly or indecent. I am told by a much better authority than any in Irish, that it is impossible to get hold of a text in Irish which is not religious, or which does not suffer from one or other of the objections referred to. … It [Irish] is often useful to a man fishing for salmon or shooting grouse in the West. I have often found a few words very serviceable.

    This led to a great public controversy in which European and Irish scholars gave decisive evidence about the worth of the Irish language and its literature. Irish became a subject for the Intermediate Examination and membership of the Gaelic League increased as a result of this much publicised victory.

    By 1914 the IRB had taken control of the Gaelic League and Hyde resigned as president in 1915. William Rooney (a tireless worker for the revival of Irish, founder of the United Irishman, and a friend and supporter of Arthur Griffith) said that it was a mistake for an organisation ‘that had charged itself with the promotion of Irish nationality’ to avoid politics. Pearse described the Gaelic League as ‘a school for rebellion’ and advocated an Ireland that was ‘not only free but Gaelic as well; not only Gaelic but free as well’. Many of the leaders of the 1916 rising and the War of Independence came to nationalism by way of the Gaelic League. These included Patrick Pearse, Thomas MacDonagh, Éamonn de Valera, Michael Collins and many others. Collins declared that when the history of the Gaelic League came to be written it would be found to have been the most important movement of all. It has often been said that the Gaelic League provided the officers and the GAA provided the men for the revolution. The Gaelic League itself was declared an illegal organisation in September 1919.

    Bibliography. Dubhglas de hÍde, Mise agus an Connradh (go dtí 1905) (Dublin 1937). Dubhglas de hÍde, Mo thurus go h-Americe (Dublin 1937). Diarmid Coffey, Douglas Hyde, President of Ireland (Dublin 1938). Myles Dillon, ‘Douglas Hyde’, in Conor Cruise O’Brien (ed), The shaping of modern Ireland (London 1960) 50–62. Brian Ó Cuív, ‘The Gaelic cultural movements and the new nationalism’, in K. B. Nowlan (ed), The making of 1916: studies in the history of the Rising (Dublin 1969) 1–27. Seán Ó Tuama, The Gaelic League idea (Dublin 1972; 2nd ed. Cork 1993). F. X. Martin & F. J. Byrne (ed), The scholar revolutionary: Eoin MacNeill, 18671945, and the making of the new Ireland (Shannon 1973). Proinsias Mac Aonghusa (ed), Oireachtas na Gaeilge,1897–1997 (Dublin 1977). S. P. Breathnach, Saor agus Gaelach: dearcadh an Phiarsaigh ar chultúr náisiúnta (Dublin 1979). Michael Tierney, Eoin MacNeill: scholar and man of action, 1867-1945 (Oxford 1980). Donncha Ó Súilleabháin, An Piarsach agus Conradh na Gaeilge (Dublin 1981). Máire Ní Mhurchú & Diarmuid Breathnach, Beathaisnéis, 1782–1982 (6 vols, Dublin, 1986–99) [essential, succinct, and scholarly dictionary of biography, especially of Celtic scholars, Gaelic Leaguers and Irish authors]. Tom Garvin, Nationalist revolutionaries in Ireland, 1858–1928 (Oxford 1987). Donncha Ó Súilleabháin, Cath na Gaeilge sa chóras oideachais, 1893–1911 (Dublin 1988). Donncha Ó Súilleabháin, Conradh na Gaeilge i Londain, 1894–1917 (Dublin 1989). Proinsias Mac Aonghusa, Ar son na Gaeilge: Conradh na Gaeilge, 1893–1993, Stair Sheanchais (Dublin 1993). Georg Grote, Torn between politics and culture: the Gaelic League 1893–1993 (Münster & New York 1993). Donncha Ó Súilleabháin, Athbheochan na Gaeilge: cnuasach aistí (Dublin 1998). Seán Ó Lúing, ‘Douglas Hyde and the Gaelic League’, in Celtic Studies in Europe and other essays (Dublin 2000) 77–94. Tony Crowley, The politics of language in Ireland, 1366–1922: a source book (London & New York 200). Risteárd Ó Glaisne, De bhunadh protastúnach: nó rian Chonradh na Gaeilge (Dublin 2000). Betsey Taylor FitzSimon & James H. Murphy (ed), The Irish revival reappraised (Dublin 2004). Pádraigín Riggs (ed), Dineen and the Dictionary (London & Cork 2005).

    Fidelma Maguire