From The Gaelic American, August 11, 1923.

When, a few weeks ago, our poet Senator, W. B. Yeats, pleaded warmly for the housing of Ireland’s new Parliament (Oireachtas) in the “Old House in College Green,” which had so often re-echoed to the thunders of Grattan and Flood and Plunkett, he must, I think, have been somewhat chagrined to find that his eloquent pleading awoke so slight an echo. Why was this? It would not have been so in Parnell’s or even in Redmond’s time. Why is it so now? The reason, although subtle, is not far to seek. I imagine that no Englishman, and by no means all Irishmen, understand it. It is because the movement which has resulted in the establishment of our own Government is the descendant of the Gaelic League, and the Gaelic League goes back to Gaelic Ireland, to ancient Ireland, for its inspiration. But Gaelic Ireland was a thing which the “Old House in College Green” knew nothing, and for which it cared less. If it took cognisance of it all it was only to despise it.

That is how the matter always appeared to me, and in 1892 I brought forward this view of the case before the National Literary Society, of which I was President, in a lecture entitled “The Necessity for de-Anglicising Ireland,” in which I pointed out clearly that “the continuation of our national life centred not in the Cromwellian or Williamite landholders who sat in College Green and governed the country, but in the mass of the people whom Dean Swift considered might be entirely neglected and looked upon as hewers of wood and drawers of water, the men who, nevertheless, constituted the real working population.” This doctrine at the time seemed to evoke no response whatever. But when, in 1893, the Gaelic League was founded, we openly preached the doctrine of an “Irish Ireland,” as distinguished from an Anglo-Irish Ireland, which we stigmatised as third-rate and vulgar. The Gaelic League grew up and became the spiritual father of Sinn Féin, and Sinn Féin’s progeny were the Volunteers who forced the English to make the treaty. The Dáil is the child of the Volunteers, and thus it descends directly from the Gaelic League, whose traditions it inherits. And these are not the traditions of Grattan’s Parliament, but of something outside and beyond it. Hence the coolness with which the proposition of our gifted Anglo-Irish poet was received.

The great outstanding feature in the Ireland of today as compared with the Ireland of my youth is that the descendants and the correlatives of the men of Grattan’s Parliament are becoming fewer, weaker, poorer, and diminishing in prestige; while the “hewers of wood and drawers of water” – in other words, the old O’s and Macs – are once more in possession of the land. The future is theirs. If Anglo-Ireland can boast of Grattan’s Parliament, these men are proud of an immemorial history and a race-heritage in which any people might well feel pride. The future Irish Nation, so far as the twenty-six counties are concerned, is going to be built upon a Milesian foundation, not upon the traditions of undertakers, planters, and colonists, and I say this without in any way disparaging this section of the population. An Irish development was certain – thanks to the Gaelic League – so soon as Land Purchase – thanks to the Irish MPs – was carried. No one, I hope, in the Ireland of today desires to make little of the splendid commercial and organising capacities of the Anglo-Irish part of the population. But they are now in a great minority, they have ceased to own the land, and have no very inspiring, certainly no ancient, traditions to fall back upon, as have the Milesians. Thomas Davis tried over seventy years ago to convince the Anglo-Irish that they would suffer nothing from throwing in their lot with the Irish, and what he said then is true today. At that time his words fell upon the stony rock; today they fall upon good ground, ready ploughed and harrowed.

“What matter that at different shrines
We pray unto One God,
What matter that at different times
Your fathers won this sod?
In fortune and in name we’re bound
By stronger links than steel,
And neither can be safe nor sound
But in the other’s weal.

We do not hate, we never cursed,
Nor spoke a foeman’s word
Against a man in Ireland nursed,
However we thought he erred;
So start not, Irish-born man,
If you’re to Ireland true,
We heed not race, nor creed, nor clan,
We’ve hearts and hands for you.

Thomas Davis alone of all the Young Irelanders had a good word for the Irish language, though he never dreamt, nor did anyone else, of the enormous dynamic force a language movement can be made to generate. But to understand what happened in Ireland, and how and why it happened, it will be necessary to go into the history of the Irish language movement, and I apologize the less for doing this because, so far as I know, it has never been done before.


Of the many linguistic miracles which the world has to show, few are more extraordinary than the snuffing out of the great Irish language which was spoken by, or at least known to, everybody of Milesian race down to about the year 1750, or even 1800. At the time of the Great Famine in 1847-48 it was the ordinary language of about four millions of people in Ireland. The famine knocked the heart out of everything. After that it just wilted away until little more than three-quarters of a million, and the bulk of these aged people, knew anything about it. No one cared, no one troubled, except perhaps Dr. McHale, the Archbishop of Tuam. It just withered off the face of Ireland.

In 1760 Irish was so universally spoken in the regiments of the Irish Brigade that Dick Hennessy, Edmund Burke’s cousin, learnt it on foreign service. In 1825 the Commissioners of Education in Ireland in their first report laid before Parliament estimated the number of those who did not know any English at half a million, while a million more might know a little for trading purposes. Between 1861 and 1891 the language died out with such rapidity that the whole island contained in 1891, according to the census, less Irish speakers than the small province of Connacht had done thirty years before – that was something over three-quarters of a million.


There had been several societies concerned with the Irish language and literature in the early nineteenth century, but they had been purely academic. They never dreamt of speaking the language, and they appealed only to scholars. The principled of these were the Gaelic Society of 1807, which published one volume; the Ibero-Celtic Society, 1818, which published one volume; the Irish Archaeological Society, founded in 1840, which five years later became the “Archaeological and Celtic Society,” which between them did a splendid work and published some thirty volumes in the forties and fifties of the last century. The leaders of this great literary activity were the native scholars O’Donovan and O’Curry, and the Anglo-Irish Dr. Todd of Trinity College. This great outburst of academic scholarship was not supported by the common people – it was beyond their reach and understanding – but by the peerage and great gentry of Ireland. I was much struck in looking back over these volumes to find that in 1842, a year or two after its foundation, the Irish Archaeological Society contained on its directing committee a Duke, an Earl, a Viscount, and a Lord alongside of Todd, Petrie, and Hardiman, whilst amongst its 260 members it numbered three dukes, five Marquises, fourteen Earls, ten Viscounts, seven Lords, a Primate, an Archbishop, and eight Bishops, several Baronets, and many Right Honourables. I think this a remarkable piece of history, for these were men belonging to a class that has never been credited with any feeling for nationality and not much for literature. I have little doubt that their beneficent activity must be largely ascribed to the amazing influence of Moore’s Irish melodies, which he finished producing seven years before the foundation of the society, and which had found their way into every drawing-room in the land. They had rendered the past of Ireland sentimentally interesting without arousing the prejudices or alarming the fears of the upper classes.

These societies, after splendid work, came to an end in the early sixties. They did not survive the real workers, O’Donovan and O’Curry, who died in 1861 and 1862 respectively, but the support which their members gave these great native scholars should never be forgotten to them. It is a chapter in the history of the Anglo-Irish gentry not generally known, but it ought to be known, for it is of good augury, since it gives, hope that their descendants – such of them as are left – may be found ready to imitate in a new and better Ireland this one thoroughly praiseworthy and satisfactory example of their grandfathers.

In 1853 another excellent society was started for the publication of “Ossianic” literature. It published six excellent volumes of more modern Irish texts, and came to an end in 1861. At the close of the seventies another society arose called the “Society for the Preservation of the Irish Language,” which by publishing cheap booklets for the teaching of Irish tried, for the first time, to get into touch with the people. These little booklets, though they would hardly stand the critical tests of modern times, may be hailed as the advance guard of the enormously successful series published afterwards by Father O’Growney. The society also re-edited several texts required for the intermediate schools, and it exists to the present day.

Owing to an internal quarrel this society split, and gave up in March, 1880, a sturdy offshoot which called itself the Gaelic Union, and which proceeded to take the unheard-of step of publishing a monthly journal chiefly in Irish. The present writer, then very young, was one of those who left the older and joined the newer society, and contributed to the first number of the Gaelic Journal, as the new venture was called. The modern cultivation of the Irish language may be said to have started with this journal. The London Times sniffed, and in a long article on October 4, 1882, was kind enough to point out to us our extreme foolishness.

“To lavish ardour,” it said,

“..on bribing teachers and school-children to learn a language which can teach them nothing and by which they can teach nothing is like endowing a day labourer with a machine to test gold….

The predetermined futility of the enterprise will not the less induce a sense of disappointment and vexation. Many creatures, vegetable and animal, are most interesting as specimens, which are neither desirable nor possible subjects of cultivation.”

The disapprobation of the Times was, however, no detraction in our eyes, but the Council felt it necessary in their annual report, three or four months afterwards, to express themselves in the following manner “for the enlightenment of our reviewers,” as it said.

“The preservation of the Irish language never included and does not include the supplanting of English in Ireland by the general use of Gaelic as a spoken tongue. The members of the Gaelic Union are fully aware that the achievement of such an object would be not only impolitic but impossible; it would be injurious to commercial interests; it would be opposed to the advantages of international communication; it would deprive Irishmen of the share of government and position of emolument to which their political right and power of intellect justly entitle them.”

How far we have travelled since then!


It was small wonder that the Gaelic Union people thus expressed themselves, for there seemed to be about as much possibility of Irish supplanting English at that time as of the moon falling from heaven. The Gaelic Union themselves numbered hardly a dozen active spirits, and some of themselves, like their generous friend and patron, the Rev. Maxwell Close, did not know Irish. The Young Irelanders of thirty years earlier, a national and popular body, never gave any sign of any desire to do anything for the language, with the exception of the chivalrous Davis, and he did not know it. The Fenians who succeeded them in the sixties never seemed to recognize in any official way that there was an Irish language at all. The most literary and in many ways the most striking of them, 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 this attitude he was faithfully followed by all his adherents until the language movement had become a power. I will remember the night upon which Arthur Griffith first acknowledged that he would give allegiance to it.

How little hope there then seemed for the language may be inferred from the fact that only nineteen students of Irish presented themselves at the examinations of the then recently founded Intermediate Board. When the bill establishing this Board was going through Parliament, the O’Conor Don persuaded a jaded House of Commons to assent to the inclusion of “Celtic” (a nice neutral word!) as a subject for examination with other languages. This patriotic move of his had the most far-reaching consequences later on. In 1880 we in the Gaelic Union were able to offer £30 in prizes for intermediate students who took Irish, and the number rose to 117, but we could not continue to raise among ourselves even this poor pittance, and the numbers fell again to 72. 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.


Things were in this condition when, on July 31, 1893, a modest meeting took place in a small Dublin room, at 9 Lower O’Connell Street, which was destined to have a profound effect upon the future of Ireland, for it resulted in the formation of the Gaelic League. The Gaelic Journal, published by the Gaelic Union, refers to it thus in its issue of November the same year:

“The idea of making our movement more popular and practical has long been in the air. It was put forward by Dr. Hyde in New York two years ago. Since that time it has been touched upon more than once in the Gaelic Journal

A number of gentlemen have resolved themselves into a society for the sole purpose of keeping the Irish language spoken in Ireland. It was agreed that the literary interests of the language should be left in other hands, and that the new organisation should devote itself to the single object of preserving and spreading Irish as a means of oral intercourse.”

This was the programme of the League, and it was itself chiefly composed of members of the Gaelic Union. The present writer was elected President, Mr. John MacNeill (now Minister of Education in the Free State) was Secretary, and Mr. J. H. Lloyd, Honorary Treasurer. It was soon after this that Father Eugene O’Growney began publishing in the Weekly Freeman his popular Lessons, which then published in little booklets sold in enormous numbers. At this time out of eight or nine thousand primary school teachers there were only thirty-three who had certificates or qualification to teach Irish.

In a couple of years’ time the Gaelic League had absorbed the Gaelic Union. In May, 1895, the League formally took over the Gaelic Journal. In this year Irish had crept into 63 National Schools, and 737 pupils passed in it. The next year saw an increase on this of 20 per cent, but the Commissioners of Intermediate Education took fright and reduced the number of marks allowed for Irish in their examinations, a step which made the numbers fall again. In this year, when Mr. John Dillon and other Irish members raised the question of teaching Irish at the annual debate on the Irish Estimates, Mr. Gerard Balfour, the Irish Chief Secretary, Lord Balfour’s brother, and in many ways an excellent Secretary, said in answer that:

“There might be an idea that because it (Irish) was the language of Ireland it should be restored. But he was bound to say that any anticipation of that kind was absolutely chimerical, and he doubted whether it would be of any advantage to the Irish people themselves. They must really take a practical view of these matters.”

He ended by saying that, anyhow, he had no power over the Commissioners, “and he would not, if he had the power, insist upon the Commissioners encouraging the study of Gaelic, which was only a dying tongue.” Balfour was right in saying he had no power over the Commissioners. He took care not to have. The politics of every Commissioner were scrutinised closely before he was appointed. Ireland, to use Birrell’s graphic phrase, was “always under the microscope,” and as the Castle held a dossier relating to every person of importance in the country who was in any way suspected of national activities, it may well be supposed that they never made a mistake in their educational appointments; and having first made sure of their men they left their hands free by disowning all responsibility for them.

We may now chronicle events more rapidly. On May 17, 1897, the first Oireachtas was held on the lines of the Welsh Eisteddfod, and was a great success. It continued to be held ever year. This was our first milestone in a long road. In the same year a weekly journal, Fainne an Lae, or the Ring of Day, was started. This was of enormous service. Owing to some quarrel the Claidheamh Soluis, or Sword of Light, was started as the official paper. The pair ran concurrently until August, 1900, when they were merged in the official paper which, under varying names – it was suppressed by the Black and Tans – has continued ever since. The Boer War gave us a further impetus. It raised the status of small nations. Then, too, a great many Unionists, mostly ladies, were attracted by the movement, and began to study the Irish language. A year or two of this study usually ate away their Unionist tendencies like an acid and left them convinced Nationalists.


An ill-timed attempt by certain professors and Fellows of Trinity College in 1899 to get the Irish language struck off the Board of Intermediate Education was defeated by its own want of moderation. The late Dr. Mahaffy, who afterwards became Provost, assured a Viceregal Commission that all Irish texts were either indecent or silly where they were not religious. Another professor said,

“It would be difficult to find a book in which there was not some passage so silly or so indecent as to give you a shock from which you would never recover during the rest of your life.”

If these people had succeeded in this desperate throw of the dice there would have been an end of the Irish language in the schools, and without the schools as a basis to work on there would probably have been an end of it altogether. I immediately sent this evidence of theirs with urgent letters to all the Celticists in Europe, and the powerful and indignant and reasoned repudiations of men like Zimmer, Thurneysen, Windisch, Stern, Pedersen, Dottin, Kuno Meyer, Alfred Nutt, York Powell, and others tore the case made by them into flitters, and saved the language. We had after this little more trouble from that quarter, and after several severe fights we got increased fees for the teaching of Irish, and the students increased by hundreds every year. Our great trouble was with the primary schools, their Board refusing to pay fees for teaching the language unless when taught outside school hours.

At the close of 1905 I went to the United States, and guided by my friend Mr. Quinn, of New York, spoke in some fifty cities, and brought back over £11,000 for the language fund. On my return in 1906 I found myself a member of the Fry Royal Commission, which ended after some six months’ sittings by recommending a University for the Catholics and Nationalists of Ireland. We only carried this by a majority of one. This University was subsequently brought into being by Mr. Birrell, and then began a mighty struggle as to whether Irish was to be a compulsory subject for entrance. Huge meetings were held all over Ireland, culminating in a gathering of something like 100,000 people in Dublin, and enthusiastic resolutions were passed in favour of “compulsory” Irish, as its opponents called it, but essential Irish, according to the nomenclature used by its friends. In spite of all efforts we would probably have lost, had not the General Council of County Councils appeared before the Senate, with the late Mr. M. A. Ennis as its spokesmen, and given that body to understand that the counties would not support it by giving county scholarships unless it consented to make Irish a necessary subject for matriculation. Amid breathless silence, and after a long and heated debate, a vote was taken in the Senate, and Irish was carried, but only by the casting vote of the Chancellor, the late Archbishop Walsh.

This was the last great fight that had to be waged, and since then the cause of the language has made steady progress. In 1913 the Oireachtas was held for the first time not in Dublin but in Galway. The next year it was held in Killarney, the next year (1915) in Dundalk, where I resigned the Presidency, which I had held for over twenty-one years. The formation of the Volunteers, the Rising of 1916, the Black and Tan terror, all distracted attention from the language question, but the action of the Dáil in making Irish the language of its first meeting, and afterwards decreeing that Irish was the official language of Ireland (English was also allowed) raised immeasurably the status of the Gaelic tongue.

Despite the troubled conditions of the time an Irish literature is being written, which to say the least of it, reflects no discredit upon the movement or the country. The late Canon Ó Laoghaire, of Cork, was the first really able and popular writer. His Seadna is sure to live. In Connacht Pádraic Ó Conaire, in the South Pádraig O Siochfhradha are probably the leading writers. Any scholar who wishes to see what kind of things are being written in modern Irish will find an excellent selection in Professor Pokorny’s “Die Seele Irlands, Novellen und Gedichte aus dem Irlach-Gaellschen,” published by Max Niemeyer, Halle (Saale).

As for the schools, the Free State is doing all it can to Gaelicise them. Last year they established 250 centres, about five in each county, where Irish was taught to the teachers. They spent £80,000 on this. About 10,000 teachers attended these centres for eight weeks. Irish may be said to have found its way by now into every primary school, more or less – often, of course, less, Protestants and Catholics are all learning it, and this would be much more the case but for the troublous times. One thing, I think, is certain – that the cause of the Irish language cannot now die. If any attempt were made to slur it over or snuff it out, it would certainly be made a political question, and the supporters of Irish, other things being equal, could in almost every county carry their candidate at a general election. At least I believe that no candidate opposing Irish would have a chance, even we the Emeriti of the language struggle would once more don our armour against him! I do not desire to prophesy, but vestigial nulla retroraum.