Irish History Live

Cultural nationalism

Gaelic League
Constitution of the Gaelic League; Special Collections, Queen's University Belfast.

Late nineteenth-century Ireland saw a surge in interest in cultural practices that were closely defined with the idea of nationhood.  This paper will examine the aims of cultural nationalist groups in late nineteenth-century Ireland and will specifically concentrate on groups in the fields of language and sports, namely Conradh na Gaelige/Gaelic League and the Gaelic Athletic Association.  It will examine their specific aims in relation to what they saw as the erosion of the native Irish culture.

 Language: The Gaelic League

It can be argued that the catalyst for the establishment of the Irish language movement, the Gaelic League, was Douglas Hyde’s famous speech to the Irish Nationalist Literary Society in Dublin on ‘The necessity for de-Anglicising Ireland’, delivered on 25 November 1892.  Hyde’s mission was to draw attention to what he perceived as the widespread decline of native Irish culture in favour of English culture. In this speech, Hyde emphasised that he wished to show the assembled audience ‘that in Anglicising ourselves wholesale we have thrown away with a light heart the best claim which we have upon the world’s recognition of us as a separate nationality’.  Hyde thought it illogical that Irish men and women were dropping their native language in order to speak English and also translating their Irish names into English.[1]  The Gaelic League was founded in 1893 to promote Irish language and culture in the face of its massive decline amongst the native people.  

Hutchinson argues that cultural nationalism ‘remained the vision of scattered poets, historians and folklorists until the 1890s, when cultural nationalism crystallized to form the Gaelic League’.[2]  The pre-League groups, however, failed to grasp the attention of the wider Irish public. Micheál Mac Giolla Ghunna argues that this was because they ‘had been antiquarian in outlook, viewing Irish not as the language of the future but of the past’.[3]  It is also suggested that the Gaelic League was better organised than previous movements and was inspired by strategies implemented by the Land League, which was adept at building a mass movement and engaging in propaganda work.[4]

As previously mentioned, the major factor driving the Gaelic League was the fear that the native Irish language and culture could be permanently eroded from Irish life.  Language was looked upon as the most fundamental part of self-image and self-definition in relation to the natural and social environment, the collective memory and the carrier of the native worldview.[5]  This fear of loss was articulated in a letter from the Gaelic League addressed to ‘the Irish in America’ in 1905, stating that when the League was founded, Irish culture was in such a dire state that the ancient Irish nation was rapidly degenerating into a West British province, or rather an English shire, and that it would be only a matter of time before Ireland would be referred to as ‘Irelandshire’.[6]  As well as seeing their mission as an urgent one, the Gaelic League also stressed that their mission was non-political; this was due in no small part to the divisive nature of Irish politics. This wish was prominent in the League’s constitution. with the second clause stating that the League shall be ‘strictly non–political and non-sectarian’.[7]  As well as attempting to bring Catholics and Protestants together, it was also hoped that this notion of inclusivity would keep the League sufficiently below the radar of unwanted political attention.  It is also suggested by Garvin that the League appealed to some Protestants who showed an interest in Irish culture and that joining the League was ‘a way of claiming Irish identity without having to pay the heavy price of giving up their religion and conforming to the Catholic faith’.[8]

Sport: The G.A.A.

While the language movement was gathering pace, another movement that drew upon the notion of a distinct Gaelic past was also taking shape, namely the Gaelic Athletic Association (G.A.A.).  This organisation predated the Gaelic League by several years and was, according to Hutchinson, one of ‘no less than three attempts since the 1870s to stage an ethnic revival’.[9]  It is suggested that the organisation was founded as a consequence of an article, 'A Word about Irish athletics', most likely penned by Michael Cusack,[10] which lamented the fact that traditional Irish games had been abandoned because of English rule.  This article argued that the Irish who played sports were degraded by being forced to compete in and be defeated at an English game, and that the only solution was for the Irish to take the management of their own games in their own hands.  It could be argued that the G.A.A. was a perfect example of an organisation that appealed to the separatist ideals of a radicalised population. 

The popularity of the organisation can be measured by comparing its membership with that of its two rival organisations at the same time.  Eighteen months after its formation in 1884, the G.A.A. was estimated to have 50,000 individual members. Six months later, there were around 400 affiliated clubs.  The Irish Football Association, founded in 1880, had 124 clubs affiliated to it ten years after it was established. A decade after it was founded, the G.A.A. had 875 member clubs.  Rugby Union also had a much slower growth rate than the G.A.A. Beginning with thirteen clubs in 1874, Rugby Union had yet to reach 100 clubs six years later.  The G.A.A.’s founder Michael Cusack dismissed its rugby rival as 'a denationalising plague [carrying] on through winter the work of ruin that cricket was doing through the summer'.[11]  

The G.A.A. had a clear affinity with Irish nationalism.  The primary patrons of the association were Cusack, Archbishop Croke of Cashel (the most political of the Irish Catholic hierarchy), Charles Stewart Parnell (the leader of the Home Rule Irish Parliamentary Party) and the radical nationalist and founder of the Land League, Michael Davitt.[12]  Individual clubs took on the names of many famous Irish martyrs and heroes.  Evocative acts such as these were described as ‘a deliberate challenge to west Britonism’.[13]  Mandel states that nationalism was so central to the G.A.A.’s popular cultural role that the Irish Republican Brotherhood (I.R.B.) was effectively in charge of running the organisation for some time.

The success of the G.A.A. can be attributed, in part, to the strong political element and affinity of Irish nationalism. Indeed, the G.A.A. was even described as ‘a political organisation ... in which athletics played only a minor role’.[14] This, however, may be deemed a somewhat unfair representation, given that it was extremely popular as a sporting spectacle.  Garnham has argued that in the past, the G.A.A. had been reluctant to permit scholars to study its records and this in turn resulted in an overreliance on records from the Royal Irish Constabulary (R.I.C.).  These sources may have presented the association as a highly politicised and potentially seditious organisation.[15]  This R.I.C. viewpoint may be understandable in the context of the infamous ‘ban’ that barred Crown forces from taking part in the organisation.  Mandel states that a precursor to this infamous ban was instituted as early as January 1885 and that by the 1900s, the ban had been extended to police, jailers and servicemen, even as paying spectators.[16] 

The extent to which the organisation was a vehicle for spreading nationalism can be seen by the militant anti-British elements that made up the membership. As previously mentioned, there have been claims that the organisation was run by the I.R.B. There are also claims that ‘a substantial proportion of those who fought and were gaoled at the time of the Rising, were members of the GAA, [it is] true also that it has been alleged that the bulk of the Irish republican forces came from the ranks of the GAA’.[17]

Conclusion

There can be no doubt that the G.A.A. was looked upon as proto-political body with its links to Irish nationalism and, at times, militant republicanism.  Indeed, studies of the organisation have tended to concentrate on the notion of self-image and the projection of a national identity.  Its popularity can also be explained by the factors that governed the lives of working men in the Victorian era in Ireland.  Garnam has suggested that their behaviour was prescribed by social and economic factors to a far greater degree than political ones.[18] Most had little choice as to how they could spend what little leisure time was afforded to them.   Soccer or rugby was ruled out to those whose only leisure time was on Sundays; therefore the only option open to them was G.A.A. games.  Garnam also suggests that ‘cricket, or athletics under the sponsorship of the Irish Amateur Athletic Association, could not be enjoyed by those whose incomes were low or whose social standing made them unwelcome companions for those in control of these institution’.[19]  

The Gaelic League’s popularity may also be explained in terms other than strong nationalist feeling.  It has been argued that the League appealed not only to those who were interested in gaining political independence but also to people who were in real danger of social decline.  McMahon’s research of different branches reveals that the Gaelic revival achieved its widest support not because those who joined the organisation longed for political independence, but rather because they sought a form of personal independence.[20]  Perhaps, as a result of the immediate needs of the rank and file members, the League attempted to pursue character building strategies for its members. These strategies coupled a new national self-image with a moralistic emphasis. This moralistic self-image then attracted favour from ‘better’ parts of Irish society such as temperance advocates, industrial revivalists and agricultural co-operators. Indeed, many members of these groups, who were only vaguely interested in the linguistic aims of the League, would become its strong allies.

[1] D. Hyde, ‘The Necessity for De-Anglicising Ireland’ (1892).

[2] J. Hutchinson, The dynamics of cultural nationalism: the Gaelic revival and the creation of the Irish nation state (London, 1987), p. 115.

[3] Micheál Mac Giolla Ghunna, The Gaelic League in Belfast, 1895-1899 (Belfast, 1998), p. 4

[4] Micheál Mac Giolla Ghunna, The Gaelic League in Belfast, 1895-1899 (Belfast, 1998), p. 5

[5] Gearoid Denvir, ‘Decolonizing the mind: language and literature in Ireland’  in New Hibernia Review/Iris Eireannach Nua, i, no. 1, (1997), pp 44-68.

[6] Gaelic League (Ireland), A letter to the Irish of America from the Executive Committee,  Dublin, 1905, p. 2, Special Collections Library, Queen’s University Belfast.

[7] Gaelic League (Ireland), The constitution of the Gaelic League: as amended by the Árd-Fheis (Dublin, 1903), Special Collections Library, Queen’s University Belfast.

[8] T. Garvin, Nationalist revolutionaries in Ireland, 1858-1928 (Oxford, 1987), p. 80.

[9] J. Hutchinson, The dynamics of cultural nationalism: the Gaelic revival and the creation of the Irish nation state (London, 1987), p. 117.

[10] W. F. Mandel, ‘The I.R.B. and the beginnings of the Gaelic Athletic Association’ in Irish Historical Studies, xx, no. 80 (1977), pp 418-38.

[11] W.F. Mandel, ‘The I.R.B. and the beginnings of the Gaelic Athletic Association’ in Irish Historical Studies, xx, no. 80 (1977), pp 418-38.

[12] N. Garnam, ‘Accounting for the early success of The Gaelic Athletic Association’ in Irish Historical Studies, xxxiv, no. 133 (2004), pp 65-78.

[13] W.F. Mandel, ‘The Gaelic Athletic Association and Popular Culture 1884-1924’  in O. MacDonagh, W.F. Mandle and Pauric Travers (eds), Irish culture and nationalism, 1750-1950 (Dublin, 1983), p. 106.

[14] W.F. Mandel, ‘The I.R.B. and the beginnings of the Gaelic Athletic Association’ in Irish Historical Studies, xx, no. 80 (1977), pp 418-38.

[15] N. Garnam, ‘Accounting for the early success of The Gaelic Athletic Association’ in Irish Historical Studies, xxxiv, no. 133 (2004), pp 65-78.

[16] W.F. Mandel, ‘The Gaelic Athletic Association and Popular Culture 1884-1924’   in O. MacDonagh, et al, Irish culture and nationalism, 1750-1950 (Dublin, 1983), p. 105.

[17] W.F. Mandel, ‘The Gaelic Athletic Association and Popular Culture 1884-1924’  in O. MacDonagh, W.F. Mandle and Pauric Travers (eds), Irish culture and nationalism, 1750-1950 (Dublin, 1983), p. 108.

[18] N. Garnam, ‘Accounting for the early success of The Gaelic Athletic Association’ in Irish Historical Studies, xxxiv, no. 133 (2004), pp 65-78.

[19] N. Garnam, ‘Accounting for the early success of The Gaelic Athletic Association’ in Irish Historical Studies, xxxiv, no. 133 (2004) pp 65-78.

[20] T. G. McMahon, Grand opportunity: the Gaelic revival and Irish society 1893-1910 (New York, 2008), p. 128.  

 

This entry was written by Barry Sheppard. At time of writing, Barry is a part-time student, studying History and Social Sciences.  He is interested in social and cultural history, in particular the study of Irish cultural nationalist groups.  He is currently working on his dissertation.

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