For Ourselves To Achieve It
Work of Gaelic League and Sinn Féin
The freedom which has been won is the fruit of the national efforts of this generation and of preceding ones, and to judge the merits of that fruit it is necessary to recall those efforts. It is necessary to look back, and to see each one arising out of each loss which the nation sustained. We see them working along their separate but converging lines—some mere trickling streams, others broad tributaries, but all which had sufficient strength and right direction reaching, becoming merged in, and swelling the volume of the river which flows on to freedom.
Up to the Union English interference in Ireland had succeeded only in its military and economic oppression. The national spirit survived. The country had been disarmed after the Treaty of Limerick. The land of Ireland had been confiscated. Native industry and commerce were attacked and had been crippled or destroyed, but Gaelic nationality lived on.
The people spoke their own language, preserved their Gaelic customs and ways of life, and remained united in their common traditions. They had no inducement to look outside their own country, and entrenched behind their language and their national traditions, they kept their social life intact. Ireland was still the Ireland of the wholly distinctive Irish people.
The efforts of resistance made by the nation were the expressions of what had been robbed from the nation. There were military uprisings to resist some new oppression, but these were also the unconscious protests of a nation’s right to defend itself by force of arms. There were also peaceful attempts to recover economic, or political, or religious freedom through the Parliament in Dublin.
With Catholic Emancipation and the ‘right’ to have representatives of the Irish people to sit in the foreign parliament, the national spirit was at last invaded. People began to look abroad. The anglicization of Ireland had begun. Side by side with this peaceful penetration, the Irish language decayed, and when the people had adopted a new language and had come to look to England for Government, they learned to see in English customs and English culture the models upon which to fashion their own.
The ‘gifts’ wrung for Ireland (always wrung by agitation more or less violent in Ireland itself, and never as a result of the oratory of the Irish representatives in the British Parliament), Catholic Emancipation, Land Acts, Local Government, were not actually destructive in themselves of the Gaelic social economic system, helped in the denationalisation process.
These things undoubtedly brought ameliorative changes, but the people got into the habit of looking to a foreign authority, and they inevitably came to lose their self-respect, their self-reliance, and their national strength. The system made them forget to look to themselves, and taught them to turn their backs upon their own country. We became the beggars of the rich neighbours who had robbed us. We lost reverence for our own nation, and we came very near to losing our national identity.
O’Connell was the product of the Ireland which arose out of this perversion. Prompted by the Young Irelanders, and urged on by the zeal of the people, stirred for the moment to national consciousness by the teaching of Davis, he talked of national liberty, but he did nothing to win it. He was a follower and not a leader of the people. He feared any movement of a revolutionary nature. Himself a Gaelic speaker, he adopted the English language, so little did he understand the strength to the nation of its own native language. His aim was little more than to see the Irish people a free Catholic community.
He would have Ireland merely a prosperous province of Britain with no national distinctiveness. Generally speaking, he acquiesced in a situation which was bringing upon the Irish nation spiritual decay. The Young Irelanders, of whom Thomas Davis was the inspiration, were the real leaders. They saw and felt more deeply and aimed more truly. Davis spoke to the soul of the sleeping nation—drunk with the waters of forgetfulness. He sought to unite the whole people. He fought against sectarianism and all the other causes which divided them.
He saw that unless we were Gaels we were not a nation. When he thought of the nation he thought of the men and women of the nation. He knew that unless they were free, Ireland could not be free, and to fill them again with pride in their nation he sang to them of the old splendour of Ireland, of their heroes, of their language, of the strength of unity, of the glory of noble strife, of the beauties of the land, of the delights and richness of the Gaelic life.
‘A nationality founded in the hearts and intelligence of the people,’ he said, ‘would bid defiance to the arms of the foe and guile of the traitor. The first step to nationality is the open and deliberate recognition of it by the people themselves. Once the Irish people declare the disconnection of themselves, their feelings, and interests from the men, feeling and interests of England, they are in march for freedom.’
That was the true National Gospel. ‘Educate that you may be free,’ he said. ‘It was only by baptism at the fount of Gaelicism that we would get the strength and ardour to fit us for freedom.’ The spirit of Davis breathed again in those who succeeded to his teaching, and who, directed by that inspiration, kept the footsteps of the nation on the right road for the march to freedom.
The Union was accompanied by both economic and national decay, and the movements of the nineteenth century were the outcome of those two evils. But one was more a political than a national movement, unconscious of, or indifferent to, the fact that the nation was rapidly dying. Its policy was to concentrate on England and agitate for measures of reform and political emancipation. It was pleading to the spoilers for a portion of the spoils they had robbed from us.
But those who had succeeded to the teachings of Davis saw that if we continued to turn to England the nation would become extinct. We were tacitly accepting England’s denial of our nationhood so useful for her propaganda purposes. We were selling our birthright for a mess of pottage. They saw the nation could only be preserved and freedom won by the Irish people themselves. We needed to become strong within our nation individually as the self-respecting, self-reliant men and women of the Irish nation; otherwise, we would never get into the ‘march for freedom.’
The new movements were distinct, yet harmonious. They were all built on the same foundation—the necessity for national freedom. They all taught that the people must look to themselves for economic prosperity, and must turn to national culture as a means to national freedom. They reached out to every phase of the people’s live, educating to make them free. No means were too slight to use for that purpose. The Gaelic Athletic Association reminded Irish boys that they were Gaels. It provided and restored national games as an alternative to the slavish adoption of English sport.
The Gaelic League restored the language to its place in the reverence of the people. It revived Gaelic culture. While being non-political, it was by its very nature intensely national. Within its folds were nurtured the men and women who were to win for Ireland the power to achieve national freedom. Irish history will recognise in the birth of the Gaelic League in 1893 the most important event of the nineteenth century. I may go further and say, not only the nineteenth century, but in the whole history of our nation. It checked the peaceful penetration and once and for all turned the minds of the Irish people back to their own country. It did more than any other movement to restore the national pride, honour, and self-respect. Through the medium of the language it linked the people with the past and led them to look to a future which would be a noble continuation of it.
The Sinn Féin movement was both economic and national, meeting, therefore, the two evils produced by the Union. Inspired by Arthur Griffith and William Rooney, it grew to wield enormous educational and spiritual power. It organised the country. It promoted what came to be known as the ‘Irish-Ireland Policy.’ It preached the recreation of Ireland built upon the Gael. It penetrated into Belfast and North-East Ulster, and was doing educational work, and was making the national revival general when the World War broke out in 1914.
If that work could have been completed, the freedom which has been won would have been completed. Until Ireland can speak to the world with a united distinctive voice, we shall not have earned, and shall not get, that full freedom in all its completeness which nations, that are nations, can never rest until they have achieved. The Sinn Féin movement was not militant, but the militant movement existed within it, and by its side. It had for its advocates the two mightiest figures that have appeared in the whole present movement—Tom Clarke and Sean MacDermott.
The two movements worked in perfect harmony. Rooney preached language and liberty. He inspired all whom he met with national pride and courage. ‘Tell the world bravely what we seek,’ he said. ‘We must be men if we mean to win.’ He believed that liberty could not be won unless we were fit and willing to win it, and were ready to suffer and die for it.
He interpreted the national ideal as ‘an Irish State governed by Irishmen for the benefit of the Irish people.’ He sought to impregnate the whole people with ‘a Gaelic-speaking Nationality.’ ‘Only then could we win freedom and be worthy of it; freedom—individual and national freedom—of the fullest and broadest character; freedom to think and act as it best beseems; national freedom to stand equally with the rest of the world.’
He aimed at weaving Gaelicism into the whole fabric of our nation. He wished to have Gaelic songs sung by the children in the schools. He advocated the boycotting of English goods, always with an eye to the spiritual effect.
‘We shall need to turn our towns into something more than mere huxters’ shops, and as a natural consequence wells of anglicisation poisoning every section of our people.’
Only by adopting our own resources, by linking up our life with the past, and adopting the civilization which was stopped by the Union could we become Gaels again, and help to win our nation back. As long as we were Gaels, he said, the influence of the foreigner was negligible in Ireland. Unless we were Gaels we had no claim to occupy a definite or distinct place in the world’s life.
‘We most decidedly do believe that this nation has a right to direct its own destinies. We do most heartily concede that men bred and native of the soil are the best judges of what is good for this land. We are believers in an Irish nation using its own tongue, flying its own flag, defending its own coasts, and using its own discretion when dealing with the outside world. But this we most certainly believe can never come as the gift of any parliament, British or otherwise; it can only be won by the strong right arm and grim resolve of men.’
‘Neglect no weapon,‘ he urged, ‘which the necessities and difficulties of the enemy force him to abandon to us, and make each “concession” a stepping-stone to further things.‘
Rooney spoke as a prophet. He prepared the way and foresaw the victory, and he helped his nation to rise, and, by developing its soul, to get ready for victory.
A good tree brings forth good fruit—a barren one produces nothing. The people represented by O’Connell, Isaac Butt, and John Redmond ended in impotence. The freedom which Ireland has achieved was dreamed of by Wolfe Tone, was foreseen by Thomas Davis, and their efforts were broadened out until they took into their embrace all the true national movements by the ‘grim resolve’ of William Rooney, supported later by the ‘strong right arm’ of the Volunteers.
All the streams—economic, political, spiritual, cultural, and militant—met together in the struggle of 1916-21 which has ended in a Peace, in which the Treaty of Limerick is wiped out by the departure of the British armed forces, and the establishment of an Irish Army in their place. In which the Union is wiped out by the establishment of a free native Parliament which will be erected on a Constitution expressing the will of the Irish people. With the Union came national enslavement. With the termination of the Union goes national enslavement, if we will. Freedom from any outside enemy is now ours, and nobody but ourselves can interfere with it. Complete national freedom can now be ours, and nobody but ourselves can prevent us achieving it.
We are free now to get back and to keep all that was taken from us. We have no choice but to turn our eyes again to Ireland. The most completely anglicised person in Ireland will look to Britain in vain. Ireland is about to revolve once again on her own axis. We shall no longer have anyone but ourselves to blame if we fail to sue the freedom we have won to achieve full freedom. We are now on the natural and inevitable road to complete the work of Davis and Rooney, to restore our native tongue, to get back our history, to take up again and complete the education of our countrymen in the North-East in the national ideal, to renew our strength and refresh ourselves in our own Irish civilization, to become again the Irish men and Irish women of the distinctive Irish nation, to make real the Freedom which Davis sang of, which Rooney worked for, which Tom Clarke and Sean MacDermott and their comrades fought and died for.
The British have given up their claim to dominate us. They have no longer any power to prevent us making real our freedom. The complete fulfilment of our full national freedom can, however, only be won when are ‘fit and willing’ to win it. Can we claim that we are yet fit and willing? Is not our country still filled with men and women who are unfit and unwilling? Are we all yet educated to be free? Has not the greater number of us still the speech of the foreigner on our tongues? Are not even we, who are proudly calling ourselves Gaels, little more than imitation Englishmen?
But we are free to remedy these things. Complete liberty—what it stands for in our Gaelic imagination—cannot be got until we have impregnated the whole of our people with the Gaelic desire. Only then shall we be worthy of the fullest freedom. The bold outline of freedom has been drawn by the glorious efforts of the last five years; only the details remain to be filled in. Will not those who co-operated in the conception and work of the masterpiece help with the finishing touches? Can we not see that the little we have not yet gained is the expression of the falling short of our fitness for freedom?
When we make ourselves fit we shall be free. If we could accept that truth we would be inspired again with the same fervour and devotion by our own ‘grim resolve’ within the nation to complete the work which is so nearly done.