Standing alongside Sinn Fein in the campaign for an Irish Language Act there is a Gaelic language organisation named Conradh na Gaeilge. It is an influential organisation with a long history but most people, especially unionists, will know almost nothing about it. I had thought that in view of its current and prominent role there might be a series of background pieces in all media outlets, but in fact I haven’t seen any, which is really rather surprising.
The organisation, which is also known as the Gaelic League, was founded in Dublin in 1893 and so preceded Sinn Fein. I say preceded because the histories of the two organisations are interwoven.
At the centenary of the GAA in 1984 the historian Dr Eamon Phoenix wrote: “In Ulster, as in the rest of Ireland, there was established early on a close relationship between the GAA, the Gaelic League and the revolutionary movement which was to sweep the country after 1916.”
A few Protestants joined the Gaelic League in the early years, but many of them were already Irish nationalists and most of the remainder soon became nationalists.
If the number of Protestants in the Gaelic League was small, the number of unionists was even smaller and as it became clear that the Gaelic League had an Irish nationalist agenda even they drifted away.
The ‘architect, organiser and philosopher’ of the Gaelic League was Eoin MacNeill and right from the start this was more than a language movement; it was nationalistic as well as linguistic.
In October 1913 MacNeill wrote an editorial in the Gaelic League magazine, not to promote the Gaelic language, but to propose the formation of the Irish Volunteers to support Home Rule.
The following year Patrick Pearse openly stated that: “The Irish revolution really began when the seven Proto-Gaelic Leaguers met in O’Connell Street.” The Gaelic League claimed to be non-political but the reality was very different.
We often accuse Sinn Fein of politicising and weaponising the language, but in truth they were merely following the example of their forefathers.
When Patrick Pearse spoke at the graveside of the republican O’Donovan Rossa in August 1915 he declared that their vision for Ireland was: “Not free merely but Gaelic as well; not Gaelic merely but free as well.”
That paved the way for the Irish Republican Brotherhood to take over the league and change the constitution to reflect that demand for Irish ‘freedom’ or independence.
Conor Cruise O’Brien once observed: “Pearse knew, by Rossa’s grave, that in Ireland there is no better platform than a hero’s coffin.” Of course, ‘the Cruiser’ was right and that is why Sinn Fein built their Irish language strategy around the coffin of Bobby Sands.
The 1916 Easter Rising was fomented by the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) and six of the seven members of the IRB military command were members of the Gaelic League.
Four of them were actually on the central committee. Two years later the journal of the Gaelic League admitted that “the majority of language workers happen to be Sinn Feiners”.
According to the Irish Times journalist Dick Walsh: “The Gaelic League in the early years of the century was a forcing ground for nationalist leaders and activists, producing about half of those who served as government ministers or as senior civil servants in the first 50 years after independence.”
During much of the 20th century, the Gaelic League maintained its Irish nationalist ethos and in 1962 the Belfast District Committee of the Gaelic League passed a resolution calling for the release of Irish republican prisoners.
Then during the recent Troubles, the Gaelic League demanded the withdrawal of the British Army from Northern Ireland, while in 1992 the president of the Gaelic League urged people in west Belfast to vote for Gerry Adams.
Those few glimpses of Conradh na Gaeilge reveal an organisation with a long history at the heart of Irish nationalism and republicanism, and today that organisation is at the forefront of the demand for a standalone Irish Language Act, alongside Sinn Fein.