From An Claidheamh Soluis, December 26, 1914. Speech given at Cork, December 15, 1914.
Now there can be no doubt that the Gaelic League, like everything else in these countries, has suffered severely from the state of the times during the last few months. I don’t believe, however, that the Irish language itself (and that is the only thing that really matters) has suffered, except from the inability of the Gaelic League to keep its full complement of organisers and teachers in the field.
Up to last April or last May there was never a year yet when the Gaelic League commanded more respect and sympathy and received better pecuniary support inside of Ireland itself than it did this year. Then, however, the formation of volunteer corps all over Ireland, and the efforts to equip them, naturally diverted into these obvious physical channels a certain proportion of the funds which before that had been contributed to the moral and intellectual purposes of the League’s teaching and propaganda. But I should not have minded this in the least, as the renewed feeling of racial pride and nationhood engendered by the rise of the volunteers would, I knew very well, all turn in the long run to the benefit of the language movement; since nationality divorced from language is absurd and impossible. And the stronger the general national feeling of the country the greater the support the national language is bound to receive. So that, personally, instead of fearing that the volunteer movement would divert support from us, I hailed it with enthusiasm.
Then, however, as you all know, came the lamentable disagreement among the volunteers themselves, and I have no hesitation in expressing the opinion that this has done us a real harm. People took opposite sides, people grew hot, people grew angry, then bitter biting recriminating words began to fill the air, and soon a movement which had begun under such glorious auspices, and promised so much for Ireland, began to fill all lovers of our country with deep concern. The thing which has pleased me best in my visit to Cork (and I never visit Cork without being pleased), has been the way in which both parties of volunteers have shaken hands over this turn out of the Gaelic League, and done me the unprecedented honour of accompanying me as one body to this great meeting, and I hope and feel that this may be the precursor of a coming and real unity between the volunteers of this great county and of this city. It would indeed be a pleasure and an honour to the Gaelic League if it could be in any way helpful or instrumental in bringing about this unity.
And this leads me to point out clearly that the volunteers could never have come together in amity to support this great cause of the language of Ireland if they had really believed what is being said against us, namely, that the Gaelic League is at heart a political society masquerading under the shadow of the language movement, but secretly intent upon ulterior objects of its own. Now it is perfectly true, and I do not seek to deny it for a moment, that many supporters of the Gaelic League are strong politicians, politicians of what I may call an advanced type. These men because they are active and often before the public, and because they have organs of their own in the press which support both advanced politics and the Gaelic League at the same time, have given some people the idea that all Gaelic Leaguers are of the same views as themselves. There never was an opinion more erroneous.
The great bulk of Gaelic Leaguers through the country are pretty much of the ordinary type of politics current in their respective counties. I may call them the moderate men, whose ideas on political matters are much the same as those of their own County Councils. It is to these moderate men, and to the County Councils of Ireland, that we must look for support. When all is said and done, and in the last analysis, it is (in my opinion) in the hands of the rank and file of the tenant farmers, and the shopkeepers of Ireland who elect the present County Councils (and who will, please God, if all goes well, soon be electing the members of the first Irish Parliament since the Union) that the Government of this country will lie. And unless I am utterly wrong I foresee that these men will be of a moderative and possibly even a conservative type, rather than of an extremist or revolutionary one. It is the goodwill and the well-wishing of these men that we have gradually after twenty years hard work, secured and it is upon them we rely to make an Irish Ireland through the medium of Irish education, so soon as the power to do so is placed in our hands. I say deliberately that in my opinion we have their good will to-day, just as we have the good will of both sections of volunteers here to-night, and God forbid that we should ever forfeit either one or the other.
But mark my words, we who consider the revival of the national language as of paramount importance to the Irish soul, can only keep the good will of the public by eschewing the politics of the moment, namely, those things which split up that public into sections as a log is split with an axe. Of course the Gaelic League has always kept politics out of its councils, but each individual Gaelic Leaguer has a perfect right, outside of the Gaelic League, to take part in any politics he wishes. The fact that a man is a Gaelic Leaguer does not, I hope, deprive him of his right, as a citizen, the right to say what he likes, and the right to do what he likes, either on one side of politics or on the other so long as he does it outside of the Gaelic League. We must have fair play for our language revivalists in the public life of Ireland. But with regard to our officers and teachers I would say that the public takes its ideas of the Gaelic League largely from them, not having always the wit to distinguish the personality of the individual from the cause with which he is identified, and if they were to go about parading their own private politics either as Parliamentarians or O’Brienites or Tories or Sinn Féiners, or recruiters or anti-recruiters, or anything else, they would only be doing untold damage to the Irish language, by alienating and frightening away from the League those who do not agree with them when they hear them talking on the streets or in trains or hotels or wherever it may be.
Almost all sound Gaelic Leaguers through the country, no matter how they may feel themselves, all desire (to judge from the scores of letters I have received) to keep the Gaelic League out of politics, and on its present independent and dignified plane, for it is a dignified plane, and the movement is a dignified movement. God knows we who see in the Irish language the real soul of Ireland have enough to do in trying to save that soul without complicating this Herculean task by grappling with any other problem.
Looking round the branches of the League and seeing the havoc that politics have played in their ranks, and I have better means of knowing this than most people, I would conjure you most earnestly to act up to the spirit as well as the letter of the Gaelic League in this matter. When any man holds a prominent position, even though a voluntary and unpaid position, in the League, I would urge him, except in very special instances for the good of what we all have at heart, to allow other people (and indeed there is no lack of them) as far as possible to do the fighting and the talking in the political parties.
So strongly do I feel in this matter that when I was asked the other day whether in the event of a special Ardfheis being called to consider if the Gaelic League might not now become a political body, whether, I say, in the event of it so deciding, I myself would wish to continue as President of it under those circumstances. I most unhesitatingly said No, I will never attach myself nor allow myself to be attached to any body of men which I might think wished to use the Irish language as a cloak for politics, I don’t care what kind of politics, or which might try to grab for political ends an apparent monopoly of the Irish language, in order to secure the prestige and the sympathy which must always follow it. I take this line because I am convinced that it would be the very worst thing that could happen to the language itself, to let any group of men, even the Gaelic League, pose as having a monopoly of this movement. And furthermore, I wish to say that the notes or marks of our separate nationality, our language, games, music, and customs, are the soul of Ireland, and these are not in the keeping even, as I said, of the Gaelic League. Naturally I have a higher opinion of the Gaelic League than most men have. I have been identified with it from the day of its foundation over 20 years ago, but I have always said, and I say again that the language is not the monopoly of this League, but the possession of the nation, and I look forward to the day when we may cease from our arduous voluntary labours and hand over the language of the nation—all of it that we have been able to save in this time of storm and stress—into the sympathetic and kindly hands of a National Government.