From An Claidheamh Soluis, September 8, 1906.
The language movement arose in an Ireland in which, generally speaking, ideas had become stereotyped. It was an Ireland in which men followed certain banners by instinct, and shouted battle-cries without thinking of their full significance, and fought sturdily and often heroically without inquiring if their own lives were consistent with the principles for which they fought. Into this Ireland the language movement brought a critical spirit. It taught Irishmen the full meaning and duties of patriotism; it showed them that in their own hearts and minds a struggle must be fought as keen as that which they waged against those who differed from them, that in their own conduct they must show their loyalty and love to the motherland; it placed before them the fundamental meaning of nationality and an ideal of nationality at once intense and comprehensive, above all parties and embracing all creeds.
The natural result of such a new movement is a tendency towards criticism and examination. Men are shaken in their self-belief, they are thrown back upon themselves, they inquire into the logic of the actions and the magnitude of the omissions of themselves and their fellows. Opinions are analysed and ideas are tested. Criticism becomes almost an instinct and unless it is sweetened by a generous enthusiasm there is a danger of its becoming a dominating and unamiable passion. Habits of mind are likely to be undiscriminating in their effects; their influence is radial and not rectilineal. When they are prompted merely by instinct or passion they have an explosive force which acts far beyond, and often contrary to, the wishes of the individual; even when founded upon reason and deliberation they demand vigilance and self-knowledge.
It follows that this critical spirit may frequently be exercised through habit or from an acquired fondness, and too often we fear it is. The “armchair critic” is well known but is not a numerous type in the Gaelic League. We have, however, the people who by devoting all their attention to the defects of others and by an unfortunate readiness to dilate upon the difficulties that occur in other phases of human life make it impossible either to remedy the defects or to deal effectively with the difficulties. What committee has not had some experience of the critic who without ever contributing helpful aid or stimulating energy has dropped a depressing drizzle of criticism – questioning politics, doubting men, and ascribing motives? Are the occasions unknown upon which when an emergency demanded prompt treatment the opportunity has been lost and friction generated through a futile discussion on some side-issue of idiom or grammar? Is the native-speaking critic unheard of who never speaks Irish except to those whom he believes knows less of it than himself. Have we not met the critic whose zeal for Irish has never cost him one half-hour’s real labour or one half-ounce of sacrifice who satisfies his conscience by shouting “Labhair Gaedhilg” in season and (chiefly) out of season with a calm oblivion of time and circumstances?
These, however, are but instances of the abuse of the critical spirit and should not tempt us to deprecate its legitimate use. For legitimate criticism is not only a wholesome and bracing tonic, it is also both an essential to and a symptom of healthy, vigorous life. A too easy contentment with existing circumstances is the fatal enemy of progress in any form. The free play of criticism is the surest stimulant in developing the powers of any organised body of men – he who fears or resents it may be left wailing in the ambulance. Strong, fearless and independent criticism is as much to be desired and developed as vicious and captious criticism is to be denounced and crushed. The Gaelic League is most decidedly not a mutual admiration society or a log-rolling group. The more of healthy criticism that prevails in it the better. Fairly and frankly critical every member of it should be – critical towards himself, critical towards his organisation, critical towards his nation, and critical towards both friends and enemies outside his nation. But such criticism must be characterised by certain qualities. It must be constructive and have a definite and practicable end in view, it must be sincere, and accompanied by a real intention of practical help, it must be generous and sympathetic, calculated to stimulate and energise and not to embitter and depress.