From The United Irishman, January 12, 1901
“What,” exclaimed the orator, “will you give up the language of Patrick, Brigid, and Colmcille for the tongue of Poynings, Strafford, and Cromwell?” And the audience cheered. Its cheers warmed my breast, and the light on the brave young faces made my heart jump like the sun on Easter morn. For the moment I forgot the fallacy and danger underlying the orator’s rhetoric. Walking home with him afterwards I asked him mildly would he care to give up the language of Sarsfield and Tone, of Emmet and Davis for the tongue of Diarmuid MacMurrough, Owen Connolly, and Shaun na Sagart. He stared up blankly at the tower of Patrick’s Cathedral, and then turning and gazing down the Coombe where the marigolds are golden remarked that I was a West-Briton. His inconsequence delighted me. The man was an enthusiast, and his enthusiasm for a language with which he is unacquainted, and his delicious bigotry are the strongest proofs of how firmly the Gaelic movement has rooted itself in Ireland. Years ago an ignoramus would have sneered at the language. Now the ignoramus yells out in bad English that all we who do not speak it are mere Englishmen. This is a sure sign that the Gaelic League is going to achieve its object. A movement that at the same time is supported by the man of intellect and the profound jackass cannot fail.
I am young enough to hold it possible that I may live to hear the soft, sweet murmur of the musical Irish tongue on the lips of the young girls who pass me by in the streets of my native Dublin, and listen to its joyous martial tones singing manfully from the gallant young men of the city of Tone and Emmet. I hope to see the day when in shop and salon our grand old language will be spoken. And I hope to see this, not because Irish was the acquired language of the lowland Scot, Patrick, and the native tongue of the pious, Brigid, and the father of Ireland’s misfortunes, Colmcille, but because it is our own language. If our Gaelic Leaguers think it is not enough to tell the people they should speak their own language because it is their own – if they will insist on telling them to speak it because noble personages spoke it – why not instance the truly Irish heroes and heroines whose tongue it was – Finn and Cuchullain, Fergus, and Cormac, and Conor, and Diarmuid, and Maebh, and Macha. I would, too, they would exercise a little thought. English is certainly the tongue of Strafford and Poynings and Cromwell, but it is as certainly the tongue of Shakespeare and Sidney and Milton. Irish has been in the past the tongue of sages and poets, of just law-givers and unblemished heroes, of queenly women and kingly men, yet it has also been the tongue of fools and tyrants, of traitors and cowards. A man may know the Irish language and sell his mother. When propagandists talk nonsense they do not advanced the cause they desire to serve. The English language is not debasing, but the English spirit is. If we return to our own language the English spirit cannot affect us so much, because it cannot so readily interpret itself to us. But affect us it always must while the English flag flies over us.
I can understand and forgive the use of silly and absurd arguments of the “Patrick, Brigid, and Colmcille” type, when addressed to the more debased of the Irish people, that section which feels shame at speaking the beautiful Irish tongue. The plea of expediency excuses the immorality of the means used to regenerate the sunken. When O’Connell, a bitterer enemy to the Irish language, by the way, than Poynings or Strafford or Cromwell himself, damnably iterated in the ears of the Irish peasant that that peasant was the finest fellow in the world, he probably meant to raise the peasant in his own estimation. But the peasant laid down and died of hunger in the midst of plenty after forty years of O’Connellism. I would advise the Gaelic League to avoid the blarney and insincerity introduced into Irish life by O’Connell. Let it base its case for the revival of Irish on a foundation that will not expose it to the attacks of its enemies.
“No Language, no Nation” – how often have I heard my friends of the League quoting this ridiculous tag. “Who said so, Friend Leaguer?” “Oh! Schlegel, a great philosopher.” “Indeed, and what was the philosophy of the great Schlegel?” And lo! My Leaguer is gravelled. Why is it, men – intelligent men – will pin their faith unthinkingly to a verse or a line of prose written by some person of celebrity? I know an Irishman who has an intense hatred of the Teuton. In his youth he read a couplet –
France, with her soul beneath the Bourbon’s thrall,
And Germany who hath no soul at all.
This couplet has firmly convinced him that the land of Goethe, Schiller, Richter and Korner is soulless. No less ridiculous is the position of the fanatics who, with the example of Switzerland and the United States before their eyes, parrot-like repeat silly Schlegel’s thoughtless words. Every Irish Nationalist desires the restoration of his country’s independence and his country’s language. But if our independence were to be gained only by destroying our language, I would take a hatchet myself and go forth to destroy. Nor would any Irish Nationalist hesitate a moment to choose between an independent Ireland, with its own Government, its own flag, its own army and its own fleet, speaking English, and an Ireland bringing forth Irish-speaking fusiliers to do England’s bloody will. Fortunately, there is no need to make a choice. Irish Nationalism and the Irish language go hand-in-hand. It is only when Ignorance yells out that the English-speaking men of Wexford were not Irish while the Irish-speaking scoundrels of the North Cork Militia were, and tells us in its funny way that Emmet and Tone and Davis are not Irish, and that O’Grady and Yeats can never write a line that will touch the heart of a single Irish ignoramus, one feels compassion for the Gaelic League and trusts it may be saved from its illiterate friends.
Poor Ireland has need of her language, to resanctify her hills and plains and streams. The cause of the Irish language is a noble and national one, but it can be injured by allowing fools and hypocrites to pose as its champions. In Dublin of the wine cups the Gaelic will yet be in esteem, and in the more esteem for intelligent preachers.