‘The work of Douglas Hyde will live after him. It is not now possible that Irish can die, as but for him it would most assuredly have died. Even should it become extinct as a spoken language, reams of Irish literature have been preserved which but for Hyde would have perished.’ – An Craoibhín Aoibhinn, Diarmuid Coffey, 1917.
The 1851 Irish population census, the first census post-Famine, would also be the first conducted by the British authorities that included a question on the Irish language. In the eastern provinces of Leinster and Ulster, the language had been almost entirely supplanted by English, yet remained widely spoken in Connacht and Munster, it was as if east and west now comprised two separate nations.
In the city of Galway, Irish was still spoken by an overwhelming majority of the population (61.4%), with almost half the population (46.6%) being monolingual. By contrast, in the city of Dublin, only twenty-seven people were monolingual and a little over one percent of the population Irish-speaking. In mostly Protestant Belfast, monolingual Irish-speakers had become extinct and less than three hundred, out of a population of 100,000, Irish-speaking.
In County Roscommon, nestled in the Midlands, at this newly established vantage point between the Gaeltacht and the Galltacht, just over a quarter of the population was Irish-speaking. It was here, on 17 January 1860, in the town of Castlerea, where Douglas Hyde was born, the son of a Church of Ireland Protestant rector. He grew up in nearby Frenchpark, where the young Hyde first encountered spoken Irish:
‘Crossing meadow and bog on these daily rambles, he often stopped for a cup of tea and a biscuit in the thatched cabins that dotted the countryside. His welcome was warmest in those in which Irish was the primary language, where it was a matter of some amusement that the master’s boy had an ear for the language and liked to try his few phrases on willing listeners.’
Fascinated with Irish, Hyde dedicated his spare time to learning it. Many months passed until Hyde was able to write a short and simple narrative in Irish, longer still before he could spell in Irish. Hyde was particularly acquainted with Seamas Hart, a local gamekeeper and seanchaí who died when Hyde was fourteen years old, a tragedy that remained with him for the rest of his life.
In a diary entry written the day after Hart’s death, Hyde wrote of his friend:
‘A man so decent and generous, alas, so true and honest, alas, so friendly, alas, never will I see again. He was sick about a week and today he is gone. Poor Seamas, I learned Irish from you. A man so good with the Irish, never will there be another like you.’
At the age of seventeen, Hyde first met members of the Society for the Preservation of the Irish Language in a Dublin bookstore and it was here, at this juncture of his life, that he committed himself to a lifetime’s work of saving the Irish language, turning away from the family tradition of serving in the Anglican clergy.
By 1891, the proportion of the Irish-speaking population had declined to just 14% (680,174 persons), an almost two-thirds decline from the one and a half million speakers forty years earlier. Worse still, the language was almost extinct amongst children:
‘How fast the language was dying at this time is shown by the fact that out of 11,344 persons in Cork City who could speak Irish, only a shade over 4 per cent, were under twenty years of age. In Waterford City, out of 2,482 people who could speak Irish, only 102 were under twenty years of age. The case was still worse in Limerick City, for out of 2,746 Irish speakers only 52 were under twenty.’
There were several Gaelic societies that published material in the Irish language, but were purely of an academic, antiquarian nature, uninterested in the living tongue. Similarly, there was no weekly newspaper published in the Irish language, and many Irish nationalists and republicans were generally defeatist about the future of the language:
‘The most literary and in many ways the most striking of them (the Fenians),1 when he came back to live in Ireland after his exile, made a speech in Cork, widely circulated as a pamphlet, in which he advised his hearers not to bother about Irish. ‘I begin by a sort of negative advice,’ he said. ‘You are most of you not destined to be scholars, and so I should simply advice you—especially such of you as do not already know Irish—to leave all this alone.’
In Hyde’s travels to the Irish-speaking districts, he saw first-hand the consequences of anglicisation. In one instance in his native Roscommon, just six miles from his home, he asked a schoolboy questions on those who lived in the neighbourhood in Irish, while the boy replied in English. When Hyde finally enquired as to whether the boy could speak Irish, the boy answered, confused, ‘And isn’t it Irish I’m speaking?’ The boy understood spoken Irish, but could not speak it himself, and could not even distinguish Irish and English as being two separate languages.
Another example Hyde recalls whilst in Sligo, waiting for a train, talking to a young girl by a fireside in Irish. The girl, although at first hesitant, eventually entered into a long conversation with him, that was until her brother interrupted with a nasty comment in English.
‘Not a word could I get out of Mary from that time on. You laugh, gentlemen, and, God forgive me, I laughed, too; but when I went home and thought over it, I swear to you that I cried, because I saw it was the tragedy of a nation in a nutshell.’
In an 1886 article ‘A Plea For The Irish Language’ for the Dublin University Review, Hyde had stated his case for preserving the spoken tongue:
‘We are told that the keeping alive a language spoken by so small a number of the community is a barrier to progress and to the free play of thought, but for one idea, probably a vulgar Philistine idea, which would permeate us were we to adopt English exclusively, we would, as I have shown, lose multitudes of memories endeared to us by the traditions of five hundred years, lose all that beautifies humanity, all that makes us love our race, all that makes our life most worth living.’
It would be on 25 November, 1892 however, in a famous lecture to the Irish National Literary Society in Dublin, titled ‘The Necessity for De-Anglicising Ireland’, arguably one of the most historic speeches in Irish history, where the language question would be launched to the forefront of Irish life.
‘If we take a bird’s-eye view of our island to-day, and compare it with what it used to be, we must be struck by the extraordinary fact that the nation which was once, as every one admits, one of the most classically learned and cultured nations in Europe, is now one of the least so; how one of the most reading and literary peoples has become one of the least studious and most un-literary, and how the present art products of one of the quickest, most sensitive, and most artistic races on earth are now only distinguished for their hideousness… I do think that the time has now come to make a vigorous protest against this continued West-Britonising of ourselves, and that our people ought to have a word in season addressed to them by their leaders which will stop them from translating their Milesian surnames into hideous Saxon, and help to introduce Irish instead of English Christian names. As long as the Irish nation goes on as it is doing I cannot have much hope of its ultimately taking its place amongst the nations of the earth, for if it does, it will have proceeded upon different lines from every other nationality that God ever created.’
Gareth W. and Janet E. Dunleavy, in their 1991 biography of Hyde, A Maker of Modern Ireland, would summarise Hyde’s thesis of de-anglicisation in the following terms:
‘The essential point of Hyde’s address was that national identity was not something that had to be awaited through long and patient suffering or seized by violence but was available to every Irish man or woman who would simply deanglicize—that is, give up imitating the English. It was foolish, he declared, to express a hatred of the English and at the same time adopt English names, English customs, and English culture… In discarding what was their own, he pointed out, the Irish had thrown away their best claim they had to the right to be recognized as a separate and equal nationality.’
The address lit a fire underneath Nationalist Ireland. The author of a December 2 editorial in United Ireland commented that it was ‘one of the best, and, what is better, one of the most practical lectures on a National topic I have heard for a long time.’ In the Gaelic Journal of March 1893, Eoin MacNeill would publish a manifesto, which proposed the formation of a Gaelic movement on a broader and more national basis than any of the antiquarian societies that had come before it.
‘The language cannot live at all that does not live in the homes of the people. However important the teaching of Gaelic may be, its importance is therefore only secondary. Our primary object should be to make the Gaelic language live in the homes of the people. To attain this object, we must directly appeal to the common people.’
Several months later, on July 31, at 9 Lower Sackville Street, Dublin, the Gaelic League (Conradh na Gaeilge) was established with Hyde elected as its President. Its objects being ‘the preservation of Irish as the National language of Ireland,’ and ‘the study and publication of existing Gaelic literature, and the cultivation of a modern literature in Irish.’ Pádraig Pearse would later write of that great occasion that ‘the Irish Revolution really began when the seven proto-Gaelic Leaguers met in O’Connell Street… The germ of all future Irish history was in that back room.’
For the next twenty-two years, Hyde would guide the Gaelic League to an immensely influential position in Irish social and political life. The movement grew rapidly throughout the country with branches established the length and breadth of the island, rising from just 43 in 1897 to 900 by 1905, with a total membership of 100,000 activists. In 1898, the League established a weekly bilingual newspaper, Fáinne an Lae, which would later become An Claidheamh Soluis. Its leading English editorial, ‘Sinn Féin’, began with acknowledging the gravity of its own achievement:
‘The present generation of Irishmen are privileged to witness the establishment of a newspaper in their national language, a project which has been the dream and hope of Irish scholars and workers for nearly a century.’
An Claidheamh Soluis, under the editorship of Pearse, would reach a peak circulation of 174,044 in 1904, with a readership likely greater still, owing to the fact that copies were probably shared amongst households and local branch meetings. The Young Irelander Charles Gavan Duffy wrote of The Nation that its readers likely exceeded a quarter of a million, at its peak the most popular weekly in the country, owing to the Nation being read aloud at weekly Repeal meetings, meaning that ‘each copy served from a fifty to a hundred persons.’ This could very well suggest that An Claidheamh Soluis, particularly in Irish-speaking districts of the west, was one of the most popular weeklies in the country at its peak.
The Gaelic League campaign to introduce Irish in the schools was also gaining rapid momentum during this period. From 1900 to 1903, the number of National Schools in which Irish was taught as a subject grew from 88, less than one percent, to over 2,000, or almost a quarter of all schools. In Intermediate education, 39% of boys and 28% of girls were now taught Irish. By the following year, the British Government introduced a bilingual programme permitting primary education in both Irish and English in Irish-speaking districts, acquiescing to one of the Gaelic League’s key educational demands.
The fight moved onto the universities. In 1908, the British Government passed the Irish Universities Act, which established the National University of Ireland (NUI). The Gaelic League, celebrating its establishment, demanded that Irish be made a compulsory prerequisite for matriculation. Hyde argued that a ‘little gentle pressure is necessary’ for the restoration of the Irish language, and that the reforms would have little long-term effect, pointing to the fact that around 85% of Catholic students who took intermediate examinations in 1908 already studied Irish, and that only a small minority would be adversely affected.
Although meeting fierce resistance from much of the Catholic hierarchy, the campaign culminated in a mass rally attended by more than 100,000 in Dublin in September 1909. The following year, the Senate of the National University of Ireland announced that from 1913, Irish would be obligatory for entrance.
Although the language continued to decline in real terms in both the 1901 and 1911 censuses, it had begun to gain ground in urban centres such as Dublin, where the Irish-speaking population grew from 9,452 in 1901 to 11,870 in 1911, a testament to the success of the League’s activism.
When it came to literature, the League not only republished anthologies of the classical Irish literature from writers and poets such as Seathrún Céitinn, Dáibhí Ó Bruadair and Aogán Ó Rathaille, but laid the foundations for a modern literature in Irish through the works of Pearse, Peadar Ua Laoghaire and Pádraic Ó Conaire.
The objectives of the League, with each success, continued to broaden. In a 1906 speech during his American tour in the city of San Francisco, Hyde spoke of the increasing scope of the League’s work:
‘We are going to build an Irish nation that shall be the rational continuation of the nation as it once was. We founded the Gaelic League a dozen years ago as a linguistic movement, a movement concerned with the ancient language of Ireland; but as that movement progressed, and as it grew and grew under our hands, nobody was more astonished than myself to find it turning out a great national movement, and not a linguistic one.’
The industrial and temperance movements became closely entwined with the language movement, with Hyde at the forefront of the temperance movement during St. Patrick’s Day celebrations in Dublin, boasting in the same speech that they had managed to get 60% of publicans in the city to close on St. Patrick’s Day in just a few years.
But as the Gaelic League broadened its horizons, the rank and file of the movement began to agitate more forcefully for what was to many the ultimate question: the national question. Upon its foundation, the League was a non-political and non-sectarian movement, and Hyde was at pains to prevent the League from becoming a nationalist organ.
Hyde’s opposition to the League’s politicisation has often been misconstrued as a personal aloofness towards or rejection of nationalism. In fact, Hyde was himself a nationalist publicly in favour of Home Rule, supportive of the Irish Volunteers and who had been sympathetic to the Fenians as a young man. In a private letter in 1910, he wrote to a friend: ‘Most of us want to produce in Ireland a race of spirited Nationalists who’d go as far as Mitchel or Wolfe Tone if the opportunity offered.’
His reasons for maintaining apoliticism were rather more pragmatic than anything else, according to the Dunleavys:
‘Challenged to ‘go political’ with the league, he argued eloquently that most branches were run by officers and secretaries, National School teachers, and customs and excise officers—Irish women and men filled with national feeling who were precluded from taking any part in political activity. For them the league provided an acceptable outlet for their energies… Self-evident to anyone intimately acquainted with league affairs was what Hyde did not explain: that the league’s nonpolitical stance had won and held the support of hundreds of younger clergy and their bishops while successfully warding off such clerical imperialists as Father Patrick Dineen; that by keeping national politics out of the struggle he had secured the support of Redmond and his Parliamentary party at a critical juncture during the fight to establish mandatory Irish in the university; that he had written endless letters, mediated quarrels without number, smiled when he was seething inside, and balanced, juggled, temporized, and conciliated to the point of exhaustion.’
Nonetheless, Hyde was beginning to lose ground. Pearse, one of Hyde’s longest-serving allies, would famously declare: ‘I have come to the conclusion that the Gaelic League, as the Gaelic League, is a spent force; and I am glad of it.’ By the League’s Ard-Fheis in 1915, to be held in Dundalk, republican activists, led by the Irish Republican Brotherhood who had been slowly infiltrating the rank and file of the League, planned to introduce a motion which would in effect transform the Gaelic League into a nationalist political party:
‘Connradh na Gaedhilge shall be strictly non-political and non-sectarian, and shall devote itself solely to realising the ideal of a Gaelic-speaking and independent Irish nation, free from all subjection to foreign influences.’
The motion was carried, and Hyde, after twenty-two years as President, resigned, having been effectively ousted from his own movement. Despite this personal defeat, Hyde was held in incredibly high regard by nationalists and republicans alike for his disinterested and dutiful service to the language, and Hyde himself did not deny that ‘the Gaelic League grew up and became the spiritual father of Sinn Féin, and Sinn Féin’s progeny were the Volunteers.’
After a brief stint in academia as Professor of Irish at University College Dublin, he was inaugurated as the first President of Ireland in 1938, reciting the Presidential Declaration of Office in Irish, by which most Irish people today remember him for.
The extent to which the post-independence Irish state remained faithful to Hyde’s thesis of de-anglicisation is a matter of intense debate. Regardless of one’s opinions on that particular issue, Hyde’s legacy remains undeniable. He was one of the finest statesmen of his day, arguably the successor figure of Parnell, certainly the successor of Davis, reconstituting the ‘Irish Party’ to serve not only as a political movement, but as a cultural force that swept aside the humbugs of the past century and gave to Ireland its authentic and true nationality. It was that authentic nationality that spoke to him as a young boy in his native Roscommon, that nationality that he devoted the rest of his life to preserving from the clutches of Anglicisation, that nationality which, thanks to his service, lives today.
‘Seasfaiḋ muinntir na tíre seó arís gan slaḃra ar ċorp ná ar anam, ċoṁ saor agus ḃíodar ariaṁ, i láṫair Dé agus na ndaoine. Agus ní fada uainn an t-am sin, ‘Is goirid go ḃfillfiḋ an Ḟiann.’ – Filleaḋ na Féinne.
‘They will stand without chains on body or mind, free in the presence of God and the people. And this time is not far off. It is a short time till the coming of the Fenians.’ – The Return of the Fenians.
Douglas Hyde: A Maker of Modern Ireland (1991), Gareth W. Dunleavy and Janet E. Dunleavy.
Patrick Pearse: The Making of a Revolutionary (2010), Joost Augusteijn.
An Craoibhin Aoibhinn (1917), Diarmuid Coffey.
‘Frankly and Robustly National’: Pádraig Pearse, the Gaelic League and the Campaign for Irish at the National University (2014) by Brendan Walsh, Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review, Vol. 103.
1 John O’Leary, in a lecture entitled ‘What Irishmen Should Know’, February 1886. O’Leary nonetheless was supportive of the Gaelic Revival and its associated movements in his final years.