Belfast Telegraph

Misuse of the Irish language spawned by Gaelic League

Nelson McCausland

We are living in a "decade of centenaries", from the Ulster Covenant of 1912, through to partition and the formation of Northern Ireland in 1921. However, some organisations, some centenaries and some anniversaries seem to have slipped under the radar with barely a mention in the media.

The Order of Knights of Saint Columbanus was formed in Belfast in June 1915. However, this centenary seems to have been ignored by the media - in spite of the fact that the Knights had an extremely controversial role in the history of the Irish Free State and then the Irish Republic.

Another centenary that is passing almost unnoticed is the centenary of the 1915 annual conference - or ard fheis - of the Gaelic League.

The Gaelic League (Conradh na Gaeilge) was established on July 31, 1893 to preserve and promote the Irish language and its principal founder was Douglas Hyde, the son of a Church of Ireland minister from Co Roscommon.

He was an Irish nationalist, as was his co-founder Eoin MacNeill, and they believed that an Irish language revival would help to create a stronger national spirit in Ireland.

Culture and nation were brought together in what was cultural nationalism.

The Gaelic revival, a cultural nationalist revival, had started with the formation of the Gaelic Athletic Association in 1884, but the formation of the Gaelic League in 1893 added another important dimension.

At first a small number of unionists joined the Gaelic League, but that was not to last. It soon became clear that this was a nationalist organisation, with culture as the driver, and there was no place in it for unionists.

The Gaelic League and the Irish language became a means of drawing people into cultural nationalism and some went that extra step by joining organisations such as Sinn Fein and the Irish Republican Brotherhood, a secret oath-bound organisation that was committed to achieving an independent Irish republic, using violence and terrorism if necessary.

The republican leader Patrick Pearse joined the Gaelic League in 1896 at the age of 16, and in 1903 he became editor of its newspaper, An Claidheamh Soluis (The Sword Of Light).

In November 1913 he wrote The Coming Revolution and said: "We went to school in the Gaelic League. It was a good school... but we do not propose to remain schoolboys for ever... To every generation its deed. The deed of the generation that has now reached middle life was the Gaelic League: the beginning of the Irish revolution. Let our generation not shirk its deed, which is to accomplish the revolution."

The Gaelic League newspaper (November 1, 1913) carried an article by Professor Eoin MacNeill, entitled The North Began, in which he proposed the formation of the Irish Volunteers. There was no doubting the fact that the Gaelic League was a nationalist organisation and, when it held its ard fheis in Dundalk on July 29, 1915, the executive committee was taken over by the Irish Republican Brotherhood.

Diarmuid Lynch, a prominent Gaelic Leaguer, was also a member of the Supreme Council of the IRB and he mobilised IRB members and sympathisers to be there.

As a result they were able to pass a motion that stated "the previous Gaelic League rule, that it be non-political, be abolished and a clause inserted stating that a free Ireland be included in the aims of the league".

The Gaelic League was not simply an Irish language organisation. It was officially a separatist organisation and was controlled by militant republicans.

That was hugely significant, both for the Irish language movement and as another step on the republican road to the 1916 Easter Rising.

For us today it is a reminder that the use, or rather misuse, of the Irish language by Irish republicanism is nothing new.

Sinn Fein is simply doing what its forefathers in the IRB did all those years ago.

Nelson McCausland MLA is chair of the Assembly's culture, arts and leisure committee

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