From The Celtic Review, April 15, 1909.

It is safe to say that not since the death of Parnell in 1891 has Ireland been in such a state of excitement as at present. Certainly not since Parnell’s time has any such deep and widespread interest in public affairs been manifested (except perhaps when the Liberal Government introduced their Council Bill) as has been shown over the University question during the last few months. Almost every elective body in Ireland has been thrown into excitement and forced to decide one way or another upon a question which would à priori appear to be the very last one in the world to arouse the interest of public bodies. For it is after all an academic question which has created all this trouble, namely, what sort of entrance examination is the new University going to have, and is the Irish language to be an essential subject in it.

I have said that this is an academic question, and at first sight it appears, to the outsider, to be nothing more. But the instinct of the Irish people has discerned, and I think rightly discerned, that under an academic disguise there really lies involved a national question of the first magnitude, a question in its own way as fraught with weighty possibilities for the future of the Irish nation as the land question or even the question of Home Rule itself.

Every one knows in a general way that the Catholics and Nationalists of Ireland have always been practically deprived of university education, or rather that they never had any university to which they could go without sacrificing their principles or running counter to their bishops. Trinity College (also called Dublin University), with a splendid income, was for over two hundred and fifty years the only university in Ireland, and no Catholic was admitted to a degree in it (although it was largely financed by the rents of land taken from the Catholic Irish) until 1793, nor could a Catholic obtain even a scholarship in it until the year 1873, when the Test Act was repealed. In 1845 Sir Robert Peel created a second university of three colleges, one each in Belfast, Cork, and Galway, and called it the Queen’s University. He meant thereby to solve the Catholic difficulty, and probably went as far as public opinion for the moment would let him, but the Colleges were almost from the outset dubbed the godless Colleges and were rejected by the Irish Catholics, for whom two at least of them had been intended. This Queen’s University having failed to solve the difficulty was dissolved in 1879, and the Royal University of Ireland was established to take its place. This new University, however, was only an examining body. Candidates from the Queen’s Colleges, or from any school that wished, or from private study, came up to Dublin once a year, and passed, if they could, the examinations held in the Royal Buildings. A degree of the Royal University of Ireland did not carry with it any assurance that its owner had ever attended lectures, had ever come under the guiding eye of a professor, had ever mixed with fellow-students, or, in a word, had ever absorbed into himself that finer essence of university education which is not to be expressed in terms of marks at an annual examination. And now in 1909 Irish university education is once more thrown into the melting-pot, and two new Universities have taken or are to take the place of the old Royal, which will expire before next year. The College at Belfast has been enriched and converted into an independent University, chiefly designed for Presbyterians, while the Colleges of Cork and Galway are to have a new and richer sister added to them in Dublin, and these three are to form the National University of Ireland. This is to be a real University, which will give no degrees without attendance at lectures, and it is a University which will be national in the sense that it will be open to everybody and contain no tests, and it has been accepted by the spokesmen of the Catholic Church, and the Catholic Archbishop of Dublin has just been elected its Chancellor. It appears at first sight, and no doubt will turn out to be, a thoroughly satisfactory solution of the university difficulty, for though the first Senate has been nominated by the Crown, the next Senate, which will supersede the present one in five years’ time, will be an academic Senate, on which the Crown has reserved to itself the power of appointing only four nominees out of thirty-five, and one of these four must be a woman. In other words it is the biggest piece of Home Rule ever conceded by England to Ireland since the establishment of Local Government. At the present moment a statutory committee, also appointed by the Crown, but consisting of men both trusted and reliable, are busy drafting statutes, considering what the site of the new College will be, deliberating what chairs are to be founded, what professors appointed, how much money will be spent upon various subjects of learning, and so on, while the Senate meets occasionally to keep in touch with the Committee.

And here it is that the country has suddenly, to the intense astonishment of those who did not know the popular feeling, sprung to its feet, galvanised as it were into an absorbing interest in the proceedings of the Senate. The question now fiercely debated in the newspapers, in the County Councils, in the Boards of Guardians, in the District Councils, in branches of the Gaelic League, in debating societies, in branches of the United Irish League, as well as at great public meetings in Dublin, Cork, Belfast, Limerick, Galway, and scores of other towns is this, ‘What is the Senate going to do about the Irish language? Is it going to be merely an optional subject, or will they make it an essential?’ That, of course, is what we do not yet know.

The Gaelic League, while laying stress upon the fact that this is really a great national question and not a Gaelic League question at all, has of course thrown itself altogether upon the side of making Irish an essential for matriculation, and hundreds of thousands of people who have never joined the Gaelic League have taken the same side. Their argument is that now, at last, Ireland has got a real University of her own, which she can mould after her own fashion, and that she does not wish it to be a mere Catholic replica of Trinity College or a University to rear people for export, but a self-centred national institution, far more interested in raising Irishmen for home consumption than for colonial posts, and almost as much interested in turning them out good Irishmen as good scholars. They argue that if their University, for which they have made such unheard-of sacrifices in the past (generation after generation growing up without any university education whatever, and thus voluntarily condemning themselves to obscurity and poverty rather than go to Trinity College), is to be only an imitation of an English institution. Irishmen will be greatly distressed, and indeed violently indignant. They point out that in the long-run the money for this University will come out of their own pockets, and that consequently the people who pay for it have the right to make their voice heard as to the kind of University they desire. They insist that in spite of all the battles fought with the Boards of Primary and Intermediate Education, and all the concessions wrung from them during the last fifteen years, the old Irish nation must yet go down and Ireland become an English province—an unhappy, second-hand, second-rate English province—unless she now succeeds in nationalising her higher education also, and thus continuing the national language and tradition.

In order to do this they put forward a very simple and at the same time a very far-reaching demand, which is that a knowledge of the Irish language should be essential for entrance into the new University. They point out that little or no hardship can be caused by this regulation, because of the six thousand or seven thousand Catholic students who went in for the intermediate examinations last year about eighty-five per cent, took up Irish. This shows that the Catholic secondary colleges have really and truly the machinery at hand for teaching Irish to every one, and that they do in fact teach it to all who go in for the intermediate examinations except some fifteen per cent. There can therefore be no difficulty for the Catholic schools and secondary colleges, which are the institutions which will naturally supply the new University with students, in making Irish one of the essential subjects for examination for entrance.

It is being freely said in print in Ireland by Catholic laymen, many of them men of position and approved loyalty to the Church, like Colonel Moore, C.B., of Moore Hall, commander of the Connacht Rangers in the late African War, and Mr. Edward Martyn of Tullira Castle, who has given thousands of pounds towards the establishment of a Palestrina choir in the Catholic Cathedral in Dublin, that the reason for opposing Irish as an essential for matriculation is probably the desire on the part of certain authorities and orders to create in Dublin (ultimately of course at the expense of the Irish taxpayer) a great Catholic University for all the English-speaking Catholics of the British Empire. Certain it is that the Standing Committee of the Catholic Bishops have gone out of their way to publicly disapprove of making Irish an essential, and the person who first led the campaign against it was the Jesuit Father who is the most celebrated educationalist in Ireland.

It is needless to say that if this be really the desire of the ecclesiastical authorities, upon which subject I express no view, it is not that of the people. The people care nothing about the wants of the Empire, but very much indeed about the wants of Ireland, and they think that nothing in the world could be better for those snobbish Catholics who have been hitherto educated in utter ignorance of their country—and I fear not seldom in absolute hostility to it—than to make them at long last learn something about their own land, at least sufficient to let them know that they had a history, a language, and a country. The demand that Irish should be an essential for entrance is made with the intention of Irishising the secondary schools of the country. Boys and girls, over eighty per cent, of whom are already taught the language in those institutions, will then be all taught it, and taught it much better and more carefully; and those superior people who either really despise or affect to despise the language and country of their ancestors will then have to fall into line with their humble or more patriotic brothers and sisters. Again, if Irish is made an essential for matriculation, it will ensure that Irish-minded people enter the University but it will not handicap anybody whatsoever inside the University itself, for it can, if the student wishes, be dropped by him the moment he begins to specialise.

There have, however, been objections raised by the opponents of essential Irish which are worthy of the deepest consideration. The first is that Protestants would be prevented from going to the University because Irish is not taught in the Protestant schools, or is taught in very few of them. In answer to this it is said that the new University was not established for Protestants, who can go to Trinity College or Belfast if they will, and it is not fair to frustrate the desire of the nation for the sake of a possible handful of Protestant students. My own opinion on this point is that if the University be made frankly Irish it will absorb every national Protestant in the country, and gain in the long-run perhaps ten times as many Protestant students (many of whom are very national) as if it pursued a contrary course.

A second objection is that there are many good Irishmen in England in the Civil Service and elsewhere, and that it would not be fair to demand a knowledge of Irish from their children. The answer is that there is a branch of the Gaelic League in every big city in England, where Irish can always be learnt, and that though there may be a residuum who could not so learn it, still they, like the Protestants, are few in number, and it is not worth while to warp the University in order to please them only. It has also been suggested that such students could be admitted to the university without a knowledge of Irish, provided they took out an Irish course before their degree.

A third objection is that it would shut out the Colonial and American Irish. But the American Irish have already held many meetings of their own in many parts of the States, and protested loudly that no Irish American would dream of turning his back upon the splendid universities of the United States except for the one thing alone—the hope of a real Irish education. Besides special exceptions might be made in favour of Colonials and foreigners. This is a matter of detail. It seems certain that the University will attract many more Irish-Americans by making Irish an essential than by not doing so.

The general objection against Irish as an essential is, as we have said, that it will drive away students from the new University and send them into Trinity College, Belfast, or London University. But nobody has yet specified, so far as I know, what students exactly, other than the classes I have mentioned, will be driven away. In my opinion the new University would not lose more than a few dozens for the first few years, and none at all after that; but on the other hand it would attract to itself after five years hundreds who would never have gone to it had it remained a West British institution with Irish as a mere optional subject, as in the present Royal University.

I believe, and this is the last word, that as the Irish language did not die naturally but was killed by force, so a little gentle pressure is necessary for its restoration. I am sure that this can be applied without the smallest difficulty, or the slightest injustice to any one whatever, provided only that nothing be unduly rushed or hurried. I am persuaded that nothing less than making the national language essential in the national University can convince the Irish-speaking population that they really and truly possess in their language a great asset of the highest national importance, and that nothing short of this will bring home to the mind of the Gaelic Irishman that after three or four hundred years of oppression he is at last ceasing to be the underdog in Ireland, and I firmly believe that until he loses the sense of inferiority that has been so long and so sedulously impressed upon him the Irish nation can neither thrive nor prosper.

That the country at large is of this way of thinking is shown by the fact that nineteen County Councils, including the whole of Munster and Connacht, two of the provinces that will most largely feed the University, have passed resolutions calling on the Senate to make Irish an essential… Several of these County Councils have gone further and pledged themselves to raise no rates for the University (they have the statutory power to raise a penny in the pound) unless this be done. About one hundred and thirty District and Urban Councils and Boards of Guardians out of about one hundred and seventy have adopted the same resolution. The General Council of County Councils (the nearest approach to an all-Ireland representative body) have adopted it also with only one dissentient. The great national convention held last February, at which two thousand delegates were present from County Councils, Borough Councils, District Councils and branches of the United Irish League from all over Ireland, passed the Gaelic League resolution by a majority of three to one, although Mr. John Dillon, M.P., in a most powerful speech tried to dissuade them from doing so. On no other subject except that of Home Rule has the country been so unanimous. If the Senate consider themselves as in a fiduciary rather than a didactic position, and consequently bound to administer Irish education in the way demanded by the Irish people, then the result has been already decided.

But the Senate may not take this view.