From An Claidheamh Soluis, 8 April, 1899
“The spread of Irish in Ireland is impossible” is a cry which one often hears from responsible people, and, no doubt, that cry keeps many away from the movement, and damps the ardour of many already in it. Most old people think that new ideas are impossible of realisation, and persons out of sympathy with a movement are apt to persuade themselves that it is altogether absurd as they are not in it. Putting by these two classes on the shelf, now can any reasonable man conclude that the aims of the Gaelic League are impossible? If he can convince himself that there are any permanent forces in Irish human nature running counter to the objects of the movement, he is entitled to his opinion. If he can not do that he should, if he be a sensible man, hold his tongue and wait.
One of the principal elements that go to make success is that a man, or men, should fight to win. Being in the thick of a forlorn hope is probably glorious, but it only suits highly-strung and romantic people, and even they get tired of one particular kind of forlorn hope, and are tempted to drop it after a while for another; whilst ordinary folk, except when they are very young and foolish, keep clear of them altogether. A forlorn hope is one of the things which the Gaelic movement is decidedly not, and the sooner sympathisers rid themselves of the contrary view the better for the effectiveness of any work they may be able to do.
Let us brush aside for the present all consideration of the conscious patriotism, national and moral forces that are behind the League, and examine the movement in its relation to the lighter and more irresponsible side of the Irish people. One finds at once that there are several lighter elements Irish human nature that are on the side of success. There is not much commendable national pride at present, but Irish people are bursting with a desire to be proud of something. The Irishman who cannot deceive himself, or persuade himself, that he belongs to a country that has finer things to boast of than no other country has, is one of the most unhappy creatures imaginable. The Gaelic League has got this force ready at hand, all it has to do is to alter its course in the Gaelic direction. The Irishman will have something to be proud of then which no outsider can claim a share in; and considering the absurd things which we allow ourselves to be proud of now. I cannot think that the changing of the current, though it may be a long, can be a very difficult task. It is not even necessary that the average man should clearly know why he is proud of having a language and literature of his own; once the passion gets hold of him it will stick, and the quips of Professor Mahaffy and the libels of Dr. Atkinson will only make it stick all the more, “if for nothing else, just to spite them.”
Another lighter element of Irish human nature on the side of success is the love of sport. Only the big towns have music-halls and similar delectable excitements. The people in the small towns and villages would sink into a permanent state of melancholy were it not for a bit of back-biting, an odd fight, a political meeting – all the better if it is proclaimed – and the yearly visit of the travelling circus. But the branches of the League have already revolutionised things in many places in this respect. By providing Gaelic entertainments they have thrown in abundance of racy colour into the lives of the people, and have thereby tapped into a fund of inexhaustible support.
Snobbery and anti-snobbery may both be useful forces. In districts where the “highly respectable” people take the movement up, the others will follow as a matter of course, in accordance with a well-known tendency in Irish and other life. But where the honest people, who cannot wear their Sunday clothes on a week day, are the first in the field, the state of affairs, I should say, will be even better; for when corduroy is set against broadcloth in a fight where the former has an irresistible force at its back, things – in Ireland – become intense and hum accordingly.
Another great element making for success is that – for good or ill – we are a fighting race. The French fight for glory, the English for pay, but we fight because the man against us instantly assumes in our minds the form of a devil incarnate, and ought to be smashed up. I remember, after the Parnell split, speaking to an enthusiastic politician – on which side he was it does not matter – whom I regarded as a man with serious convictions. I was surprised, however, to hear him wind up a series of arguments with this. – “Do ye know what it is, now – I declare to ye I don’t care tuppence about Home Rule or Rome Rule so long as we smash the d-n——–” The Gaelic movement will have this peculiarly Irish force on its side – indeed, it has it already, but it will come on like a flood later. When men point their fingers at others in derision, because the latter know no Irish, and cry “Sassanach” – as, indeed, to my own knowledge, they are already doing – the idea of Sassanach becomes in the hot Irish mind a thing almost with horns, and must be smashed at any cost. A Sassanach will not be tolerated in any spirited society. On the other hand, no Irishman can hit back in the cause of the Sassanach. If they would only call him a scamp, a villain, or any other name, he could fight his corner, but Sassanach will tie him up, tongue and all. He might go on for ever fighting as this kind of –ite or that kind of –ite in the name of nationality, but he will have to capitulate before the first vigorous Gaelic attack. I don’t suppose there is a man on the Coal Quay in Cork who would sleep easily of nights if he was called a Sassanach often enough by a determined few of his comrades. In the near future it will be a terrible thing to hang over the head of a man. Men won’t stand it. When they hear the ugly word they will start off on the road to become real or, perhaps, only shouting Gaels. There will be a lot of these shouting, nominal Gaels, but they may safely be left in the evolution that time will carry with it. But wait till the schools of the country have their leaven of Gaelic boys – that is, boys who have been told by their fathers and other big people to stand up for the Gael – and we will witness an interesting development. I almost think I hear the shrill-voiced abuse already going on, and I see two fierce little faces too near one another to be pleasing to the angel of peace. When a new boy makes his appearance the first question will be, “Is he a Gael or a Sassanach?” If he says the latter, —! There will be eating of words and blubbering by and bye. Cannot you see the serried ranks of small Gaels, with sally twigs for pikes over their shoulders, marching to vanquish the skulking Sassanachs, if unhappily there are any of that ilk left to vanquish. The little chaps may not know much more than Cionnus ‘Tá Tú at present, but nevertheless, send them off with a cheer – they will be full-fledged Gaels before they are many years older. The movement will have reached an acute sentimental stage by this time, and there may be plenty of bloody noses painting the play-grounds red. One could wish that the movement might go on unaccompanied by that. It is a consolation, however, to think that amongst Irish boys there would be bloody noses in any case.
Thus, amongst other ways, will the cause go forward, gaining more intense life as it grows, until it will sweep everyone worth sweeping into its current. For a movement of this kind once set going amidst a people such as we are, will have to run its course to the end. If, therefore, after looking only at a few of the lighter and whimsical elements of the Irish character, we see that they have in them so much that assures us of the success of the Gaelic movement, we need not trouble, when we consider the many deep and profound forces that are behind it, to take any notice of those who cry “impossible.” Let them cry away. What do they understand?