27 August 2006

Irish Irelanders

An edited extract from an address to the Merriman Summer School yesterday by John A Murphy, Emeritus Professor of Irish History at University College, Cork appeared in today’s Sunday Independent . I have set out below an edited extract of this extract if for no other reason but for me to ponder the legacy of the 19th century nationalists in a modern and vibrant society. I am not sure what they would make of today’s Ireland though.

From “the subtle and everyday legacy of Irish-Irelanders”

'IRISH-IRELAND" was the name given to the cultural side of the Irish nationalist revival in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Essentially it advocated the revived Gaelic nation with its own language, manners and customs and a distinctive literature. The Gaelic League (1893) and the Gaelic Athletic Association (1884) were two prominent manifestations of Irish-Ireland which became the official ideology of the Irish state post independence.

Douglas Hyde

Among its chief exponents was Douglas Hyde; his appointment in 1938 as first President of Ireland was a recognition of his role as founding cultural father. DP Moran popularised the term "Irish-Ireland" and his paper, the Leader, was hugely influential in nationalist circles.
Irish-Ireland propagandists varied in the intensity but all were agreed that the Gaelic tradition was the essential and superior feature. In Moran's words, "the foundation of Ireland is the Gael, and the Gael must be the element that absorbs". And the nation was perceived as primarily a Catholic nation. The Leader played a positive role in stimulating discussion, promoting an Irish industrial revival and fostering radical nationalism.

Irish-Ireland views ranged from the eccentric (a preoccupation with devising distinctive modes of dress) to the censorious (severe disapproval of "vulgar" and "vicious" English popular publications). Irish-Irelanders romanticised and glorified the Gaelic past (where they did not invent it) and were vague about how it could be restored. When Michael Collins asserted the need to restore "Gaelic civilisation" and undo the cultural conquest, he hadn't a clue what he was talking about.

The central anomaly of Irish-Ireland propaganda was its dependence on the English language to advocate the revival of Irish language and culture. Paradoxically, English was the indispensable medium of Irish nationalism. If Irish-Irelanders had used Irish, their readership would have been minuscule. Thus, in the general matter of using Irish, there was a tinge of hypocrisy about Irish-Ireland.

The Irish-Ireland philosophy has had mixed fortunes over the years: the prevailing opinion today is that the revival of Irish as a spoken language is a failure. Two other features have been remarkable successes, however. Gaelic sports remain extremely popular while the traditional music scene is extraordinarily vibrant – more because of its sheer attractiveness, than being an expression of nationalism. The original Irish-Irelanders would probably have welcomed the manifestations of their philosophy in certain features of that state (for all its flaws). These would include such distinctive expressions as foreign policy when practised at its best; the peace-keeping role of our army; and the institution of the presidency, as personified particularly by the two incumbents since 1990.


Duffy said...

Hi. I have an off topic request. I just signed up for the 2,996 project and was wondering if you'd be interested in switching with me. I wanted to remember Sean as he was a friend of mine from college. Thanks.

jams o donnell said...


Duffy said...

Thanks Jams. Much obliged.

Here's the info:

Donald Robson, age 52.

Place killed: World Trade Center. Resident of Manhasset, N.Y. (USA).

mullet said...

it's tribal....that's the be all & end all

jams o donnell said...

The natinalists tried to recreate a tribe, mullets, but failed yet succeeeded. An irish citizen will almost certainly be very comforatable about being Irish, may well enjoy hurling (camogie if female) and enjoy the craic. On the other hand he or she will still be speaking English.

I am not trying to prasie or denigrate.. the whole issue made me stop and tink.

Pēteris Cedriņš said...

Interesting extract, Jams. I often ponder the parallels between early Latvian and Irish nationalism in the 19th C, esp. since guiding the poet Desmond Egan through Latvia in 1993 and discussing some of the similarities he saw.

What remained of Latvia's "comely maidens dancing at the crossroads" phase is coming to an end more quickly since the restoration of independence than during the occupation, methinks; despite Sovietization, a "Latvian Latvia" (latviska, not latviešu in Latvian -- the former adjective refers to the cultural, as opposed to the latter with its ethnopolitical connotations) was not cut off from its roots so long as the agrarian character of the country survived. The Young Latvians, some of whom were similar to your cultural revivalists (down to inventing/re-inventing the "ancient" in some cases) had more to work with. Though their leading role diminished before the socialist New Current became the major movement in the 1890s, their legacy lives (in the Song Festival, for instance).

One Donncha Ó hÉallaithe concluded: "It is an absolute indictment of successive Irish Governments that at the foundation of the Irish State there were 250,000 fluent Irish speakers living in Irish-speaking or semi Irish-speaking areas, but the number now is between 20,000 and 30,000."

By contrast, the Latvian language is now in a better position than it has been in for decades (even if it is rather corrupt; a recent survey showed that ca. 40% of the words used in newspapers were not of Baltic origin). Though I realize that the Irish language is not healthy (even by contrast to Welsh, it seems -- though Wales is not a nation-state), there are obviously not a few people who are fervently devoted to its revival... otherwise Irish wouldn't be becoming an official language of the EU this coming January. (Where Brussels will find interpreters who can hack Irish-Maltese -- or Irish-Latvian -- is beyond me!) My question for you, Jams -- are those who won't give up on Irish merely hopeless romantics, or do they have a cogent programme?


jams o donnell said...

Glad you like it Peteris. I can't speak for the parallels between Latvia and Ireland but their existence would not surprise me in the least - Not that I would pretend Ireland's situation under British rule would have come close to that of Latvia's under Stalin

As for the language and keeping it going? The Irish Irelander plan to create a gaelic speaking nation has been a total failure. A lot of resources have been expended on maintaining the language. The end result? a few tens of thousands of regular speakers. Had it not expended the resources would there be any left? We will never know. That said, virtually everyone in the Republic has at least have some knowledge of Gaelic (recent immigrants excepted).

Are the Irish government hopeless romantics? a point to consider well Peteris. Personally I don't think the Irish Government can do anything other than support the language even if that support does only a little to prevent it from becoming a historical curiosity. It is locked into doing what it currently does to support the language withn no politically acceptable alternative.

Perhaps there was a lack of will to go the whole hog and create a gaelic state: while Irish remains a compulsory language in school and it used to be (I dont know if it still is) a pre requisite for employment in the state sector, the language of government business remained English from the nation's very inception.

Perhaps some politicians would like to see the language quietly disappear, but I don't see that happening even if it is not "cost effective" (how does one quantify one's heritage?)the Irish Government will continue to support the language. This isn't necessarily just sentimentalility; I get the feeling that the Irish people would not be too happy if Gaelic was left to wither on the vine even if most would never use it in their day to day life.