A League of extraordinary gentlemen
Gaelic League was breeding ground for rebels, writes Richard McElligott
Published 27/11/2015 | 02:30
Reflecting on the rebellion that had given him his first taste of military action, Michael Collins lamented that the Easter Rising was hardly the "appropriate time for memoranda couched in poetic phrases, or actions worked out in similar fashion". This assessment encapsulates the generational gulf between the romantic idealism of the revolutionaries of 1916 and the military efficiency of those who would successfully lead the Irish independence struggle five years later.
But perhaps the idealism of the rebels of 1916 is understandable. The Rising was precipitated by a generation who had come of age amidst the heady optimism of Ireland's Gaelic Revival - a moment when the possibilities for fundamentally reshaping Irish political, social and cultural makeup seemed endless.
Realising that the myriad of cultural organisations emerging across Ireland could provide a valuable stream of potential recruits, a newly reenergised IRB began to systematically infiltrate them in the years after 1900. Thus participation and membership in these societies helped bring Irish men and women into contact with the revolutionary republican tradition. Little wonder that many would experience what one veteran of 1916, Padraig O'Kelly, described as "a kind of natural graduation" from cultural nationalism to republican violence.
Foremost among these new cultural associations was the Gaelic League.
The Gaelic League was undoubtedly the formative nationalist organisation in the development of the revolutionary elite of 1916.
With the rapid decline of native Irish speakers in the aftermath of the Famine, many sensed the damage would be irreversible unless it was halted immediately. In November 1892, the Gaelic scholar Douglas Hyde delivered a speech entitled 'The Necessity for de-Anglicising Ireland'. Hyde pleaded with his fellow countrymen to turn away from the encroaching dominance of English culture before they lost forever their sense of a separate nationality.
He observed how "Irish sentiment sticks in this half-way house - how it continues to apparently hate the English, and at the same time continues to imitate them". Hyde's remedy was to rediscover as much as possible from Ireland's past - its language, its customs, its traditions. Hyde's speech offered the blueprint for the emerging cultural nationalism that the likes of Arthur Griffith's Sinn Féin would subsequently develop into political theory.
In July 1893, Hyde and Eoin MacNeill launched the Gaelic League, a society which aimed to preserve and revive the Irish language. More than this, the Gaelic League aimed to reconstruct a populist rural Gaelic civilisation. In the process they hoped to recover Ireland's perceived Gaelic golden-age.
The Gaelic League quickly turned into a powerful mass movement. By revitalising the Irish language, the League also began to inspire a deep sense of pride in Irish culture, heritage and identity. Its wide and energetic programme of meetings, dances and festivals injected a new life and colour into the often depressing monotony of provincial Ireland.
Another significant factor for its popularity was its cross-gender appeal. The League actively encouraged female participation and one of its attractions lay in the opportunities it provided for romantic and sexual contact. The League also developed close ties with the GAA and both would become the supporting pillars of the Gaelic Revival. In particular, the League was instrumental in the early development of camogie and women's formal participation in Gaelic games. Within 15 years the League had 671 registered branches.
Hyde had insisted that the Gaelic League should be strictly apolitical. But he never fully accepted the radical political implications of his warning that Ireland needed to be de-Anglicised. Many others would. The League would soon provide a valuable breeding ground for revolutionary republicanism. In the decade before the Rising, British intelligence reports repeatedly noted that the Gaelic League had come under the influence of men "of extreme views".
It was Patrick Pearse who would personify the direct link between cultural and physical force nationalism. Having joined the Gaelic League as a 17-year-old in 1896, within two years Pearse had been co-opted onto the League's Ruling Executive Committee. In 1903 he succeeded MacNeill as the editor of the society's newspaper, An Claideamh Soluis.
For Pearse, the language was seen as the essence of Ireland's separate national identity. He warned that if the Irish allowed their language to die, they "would go down to their graves with the knowledge that their children and their children's children cursed their memory". Pearse was prominent in the League's successful campaign to get Irish included as a compulsory subject in the national school system.
For IRB men like Thomas Clarke and Seán Mac Diarmada, the League represented the perfect platform to help spread their republican doctrine. Both became enthusiastic members of the organisation, using it as conduit to recruit its more radical members into the IRB.
It was through their shared membership of the Gaelic League in Dublin that Mac Diarmada indoctrinated Pearse and Éamon Ceannt into the Brotherhood. Meanwhile Thomas MacDonagh wrote of how his first Gaelic League meeting became his "baptism in nationalism". Through him, his close friend Joseph Plunkett also joined.
In the two years before the Great War, the Gaelic League became increasingly associated with the militant developments within Irish nationalism. In particular, Eoin MacNeill was warming to the political expediency of physical force. In response to the emergence of the Ulster Volunteers, MacNeill used the pages of An Claidheamh Soluis to publish his celebrated article, 'The North Began' in which he argued that Irish nationalists needed to similarly arm to protect their right to secure Home Rule for Ireland.
Once the Irish Volunteers were established, local Gaelic League branches were instrumental in spreading the movement. In September 1914, Republicans chose the League's library at 25 Parnell Square, Dublin, as the venue for their conference which agreed that the Great War offered an opportunity to mount a rebellion against British rule.
Throughout 1915, Pearse and the IRB's Military Council were also able to use the nexus of control and influence that the Brotherhood enjoyed among nationalist organisations such as the Gaelic League and the GAA to plan their insurrection.
Furthermore by 1915, members of a radical group of Irish language activists with strong IRB connections, known as 'The Left Wing', had staged a coup among the Gaelic League's leadership. The group which included O'Rahilly, Ceannt and Thomas Ashe managed to take effective control over the League's ruling Executive Board.
At its Ard Fheis in August 1915, they passed a resolution declaring: "The Gaelic League... shall devote itself to realising the ideal of a Gaelic-speaking and free Irish nation, free from all subjection to foreign influences." This radical pledge of support for Irish sovereignty marked a definite break with the non-political policy of the League's founder Douglas Hyde who subsequently stepped down as president, being succeeded by Eoin MacNeill.
Dozens of Gaelic League activists were among the 1,500 rebels who marched into history on Easter Monday. In the aftermath of the rebellion, the British authorities were quick to identity the League as one of four "anti-British bodies" which had supplied the rebel's entire leadership.
Under the terms of Martial Law, which was declared across Ireland in the aftermath of the Rising, the League was officially supressed for several weeks. Yet by then its contribution to the revolutionary generation had clearly been made.
Dr Richard McElligott lectures in Modern Irish History in UCD. He is the co-ordinator of the Uncovering 1916 and the Irish War of Independence courses which are being hosted by the National Library of Ireland in the spring of 2016