From An Claidheamh Soluis, September 30, 1905.
The writings of Conscience awakened many unseen fires in Flanders. Desolate country places became vocal with song, and peasants began to produce literature. Jan Frans Willems, declaring himself a follower of Conscience, exercised an influence second only to that of the master himself. Ledejanck celebrated the Three Sister Cities of Antwerp, Ghent, and Bruges in strains which will live as long as the Flemish language. Tony Anton Bergmann attracted European attention by his “Ernest Straas, Advocaat.” The sisters Rosalie and Virginie Loveling wrote tales full of a sweet and fresh simplicity as of country ways and gardens. Jan van Beers, a poet, showed that Flemish could be tender and pathetic as will as virile and rugged. Bloomaert, Van Ryswyck, Delecourt, Van Duyse, Snellaert, Snieders, De Laet, Dedecker, Vervier, David, Bormans, combined much eager propagandist work with the production of not a little pure literature. Dramatists arose, none commandingly great, it is true – perhaps the age of great dramas, like the age of great epics is past – but many respectable, and some few excellent Flemish theatres were built in all the cities; Flemish clubs, “cercles,” reading-rooms sprang up in the towns and villages; Flemish newspapers began to issue from the press; the Flemish Academy came into existence.
In a remote country place, a priest and a man of the people, Guitto Gezelle, commenced to produce a new and distinctive poetry. He was at first ignored, and later on laughed at, for he wrote not in literary Flemish but in the dialect of his countryside. Today he is acknowledged, not merely in Flanders but in Holland, as the greatest poet that the Low Countries have produced. His nephew, a working baker who lives near Courtrai, is the most considerable literary figure in contemporary Flanders. He writes poetry, and a rich and striking prose which has been compared to Carlyle’s.
Such a movement as this could not and did not long continue a literary movement pure and simple. Flemings, now that they had poets, and dramatists, and journalists amongst them, began to demand official recognition for their speech. Forming a majority of the population, and intellectually as vigorous as their Walloon fellow-citizens, their demands could not long be resisted. By successive steps Flemish established itself in the law courts, in the civil service, in the Houses of Parliament. Fifty years ago the whole administration of public affairs in Belgium was as French in tone as the administration of public affairs in this country is English.
Today a knowledge of Flemish is compulsory for every civil servant, for every municipal official (at least in the Flemish country), for every post office clerk. No judge who does not know Flemish may sit on the bench in Belgium, and no advocate ignorant of Flemish need hope for a lucrative practice. In the Walloon country French is the language of the courts, in the Flemish country Flemish. In the High Courts in Brussels cases are conducted in French or Flemish according as the one or the other is the vernacular of the litigants.
In the Chambers, French is still heard oftener than Flemish, but many of the Flemish deputies and senators uniformly speak in their native language. All public documents are bilingual. In the churches, Flemish is used as the vernacular in Flemish districts, French in Walloon. In the large cities both French and Flemish-speaking priests are attached to every parish. Briefly, Flemish has gained substantiative equality with French – in five or ten years more it will have gained absolute equality. It has taken the Flemings exactly three-quarters of a century to accomplish this. How long will it take Ireland to reach a corresponding stage?
We do not know; but this we do know, that in twelve years we have travelled well-nigh as far as the Flemings – notwithstanding the immense initial advantage of a Flemish-speaking population which actually outnumbered the non-Flemish-speaking population – had travelled in twenty-five.