From An Claidheamh Soluis, 5 October, 1907. Extracts from a speech given at Belfast Training College. Words in italics are Pádraig Pearse’s, who was then-editor of the newspaper.
Eoin Mac Néill is always careful to explain that he is not an orator. There are some, nevertheless, who hold him to be the finest orator in the League. At his worst he is always worth listening to: at his best he is an inspiration. Every sentence he utters stands for an idea, and the only trouble is that the sentences which he utters are so few. There come to him, however, moments when he ‘let himself go,’ when he throws back, or unconsciously drops, his habitual mask of reserve—and then you see into the most interesting mind in Ireland. He was in such a mood on Friday evening last when he went down to Beal Féirste to open the session of Coláiste Chomhghaill. So, at least, we gather from the enthusiastic private accounts we have received of his address. Even the bald newspaper report before us makes stimulating reading.
Starting from the fact that Comhghall, whose name the Northern Irish College so fittingly bears, was not a Gael, or even a Celt, Eoin proceeded to show that nationality was not a question of race.
‘Those,’ he said, ‘who are grossly ignorant of history are accustomed to deal with Irish questions as questions of race. It is all a pure figment, serving no purpose except the rekindling of insane animosities. There will always be a repugnance between the race of cats and the race of dogs, and the less civilised at heart men are, and the nearer they are to the brute, the more they will exalt racial antagonisms. Nationality stands on a higher plane. It belongs to rational and spiritual man, to the sphere of mind; and the chief thread of its continuity is the chief embodiment of mind, namely, the spoken and written word. That is why we, who believe in the value and virtue of nationality, are resolved to maintain this historic thread in Ireland strong and unbroken. It is not because we hate any other nationality. If we do, we are fools. It is because we appreciate what nationality has done for many countries and for the progress of mankind, changing people from being mere herds pasturing on the world’s face into conscious and organic forces for the betterment of the human kind; because we see how the love that subsists within the household does good even to those outside. The nation is a great household, a brotherhood of adoption as well as of blood, and the love and passion it commands are designed by the Almighty to raise mankind to higher things. The name of Comhghall brings before us not alone our national history, but our ancient ideals, faith, learning, generous enthusiasm, self-sacrifice—the things best calculated to purge out the meanness of the modern world—and of that meanness we have adopted a great deal more than our proper share. This college is the outgrowth of the Gaelic League, one of the many proofs of the inexhaustible fertility that always resides in a simple idea, a single sound principle.’
Then Eoin went on to make this interesting declaration:
‘Many people, and most of all my colleagues in the Gaelic League, would be inclined to differ strongly from me if I were to assert that the Gaelic League has already successfully achieved the greatest part of its work. And, yet, upon reflection, I think I could persuade them to accept the statement. The Gaelic League has yet a great deal to do and many obstacles to surmount; nevertheless, what it has achieved is greater than what it has yet to achieve. It has succeeded in proving to absolute demonstration, so as to command the assent of everybody in Ireland, friendly, hostile, and indifferent, that the restoration of our national language is possible, practicable, and even easy. Nearly 300 years ago, an Irish writer, Theobald Stapleton, already spoke of his language as quenched and blotted out. Our poets then and since found a constant theme in lamenting its decay… Well, we have, certainly succeeded, to the utmost hope, in proving the possibility of success and in showing the way.’
On the schools question Eoin was strong and uncompromising:
‘I say here without fear of contradiction that if a parent desires his child to learn the language and the history of his country, it is the duty of the school to comply with that desire. I go further and say that even if the parent is indifferent, nay, even if he is hostile, it is still the duty of the school to provide these elements of the child’s proper education. For the school must act not as the individual parent may chance to wish, but as the right-thinking parent would naturally wish.’
His final appeal was to the patriotism of the Irish-speaking parent:
‘I do not think that 10 per cent of the parents who know Irish speak Irish to their children, in other words, 90 per cent of the children of these parents are cut off from the natural, the easiest, and the only sure way, in most cases, of learning the use of Irish. It is not that the parents want to kill the Irish language. It is simply that they do not recognise their responsibility; they never think that in thus cutting the throat of the Irish language they are doing anything unpatriotic. They have not been taught to think it. It never occurs to them how strange the position is of a father or mother who can look back as far as history reaches and say: ‘Through all these ages this language has come down from parent to child until it came to me, but I will make an end of it.’ If it were some old rusty weapon, some lifeless relic of antiquity that had remained a quarter of the time in the possession of a family, it would be treated with veneration and passed on proudly and faithfully to the generations to come. But it is the immemorial language of a nation, the certain emblem of a nationality, that daily undergoes this thoughtless murder. Now… we are all converts. Let us not imagine that we are a congregation of the elect of Ireland. We are just the same material, good and bad, as the rest are. The cottier farmer and the fisherman are just as capable of understanding the claims of patriotism, of nationality, and of a national language as the leading lights of the Gaelic League are. They understand these things instinctively in other countries, and act up to what they understand. I believed before there was a Gaelic League, and put my belief in print, and I still hold to it—that the patriotism of the people, however poor and struggling, who have preserved the Irish language, is the sure and only hope of its future preservation. Their instincts have been perverted: they have not been extinguished. Believe me, if the Irish-speaking people will not do their duty for principle, they will never do it for fashion. Fashion may put many a one wrong. It never yet put anybody right. We have, therefore, to find out the best means of awakening the true instinct of patriotism in some half-million of Irish people, and if we do find it out the advancing wave of the Irish language over Ireland in the 20th century will be a still more remarkable phenomenon than its receding wave in the 19th century.’