Irish History Live

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]

[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] Ibid, 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.


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.


To read a longer entry about cultural nationalism written by Barry Sheppard, please click here.

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