Gaelic Revival

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Gaelic Revival

The Gaelic Revival, which aimed to extend the use of Irish Gaelic as a spoken language and a literary medium, was at the height of its popular influence in the first decade of the twentieth century and reached its artistic peak during the 1920s and 1930s. The revival drew together older men and women whose first language was Gaelic, and younger intellectuals, primarily from urban Ireland and from communities in Britain and the United States, who hoped to learn Gaelic because of a romantic notion of their linguistic heritage. Among this latter group were many who became leaders in the campaigns for independence from the United Kingdom between 1916 and 1922, and the cultural programs they instituted in the Irish Free State reflected one significant line of thought that emerged out of the revival. Moreover, the creative and philosophical tensions between Gaelic enthusiasts and Irish artists who wrote in English had infused Gaelic and Anglo-Irish literature with vigor, sparking debates about the proper role of art in society and revealing the insular vision of some leading revivalists.

Throughout the nineteenth century, Gaelic had continued the decline that had begun before the Great Famine. Few postfamine writers or poets produced new literature in Irish, though recent research suggests that Gaelic literature was not as moribund as contemporaries believed. Until the last decades of the nineteenth century, however, publishers printed little Gaelic matter aside from the proceedings of antiquarian bodies and the translations of Gaelic works into English by scholars such as Eugene O'Curry and John O'Donovan. By the 1891 census fewer than 700,000 people out of a population of 4.7 million even claimed a knowledge of Gaelic, and only about 38,000 of them were monolingual Irish-speakers.

Three events prefigured the nascent revival. The first, in 1877, was the foundation of the Society for the Preservation of the Irish Language (SPIL). In the following year the SPIL enlisted support from members of Parliament to make Gaelic a voluntary subject for intermediate-school students, though few availed of the opportunity for two decades. Second, between 1878 and 1880, Standish James O'Grady published his multivolume adaptation of ancient Gaelic epics, The History of Ireland: The Heroic Period, a work that attracted readers and later writers to an array of indigenous sources. Finally, another important fillip came in October 1881 in Brooklyn, New York, when the Galway native Michael Logan (Ó Lócháin) founded An Gaodhal, the first periodical published substantially in Gaelic.

The Gaelic Union and Gaelic League

What sparked the revival was a split in the ranks of the SPIL when some active members formed a new group, the Gaelic Union. In 1882 the Union founded what was until 1909 the most important bilingual publication devoted to Irish literature, Irishleabhar na Gaedhilge (the Gaelic Journal). Edited by a succession of enthusiastic scholars including David Comyn, John Fleming, Father Eugene O'Growney, Eoin MacNéill, Joseph Lloyd, and Tadhg Ó Donnchadha, the Journal published original works, manuscript material, folklore, and news about Gaelic and Celtic movements in Ireland and abroad. Significantly, in 1894 it became the property of the most important organization associated with the revival, the Gaelic League.

Eoin MacNéill founded the League in July 1893, eight months after Douglas Hyde's impassioned speech "The Necessity for De-Anglicising Ireland" had inspired Eoin MacNéill to establish a popular linguistic movement. The organization gained footholds in urban centers such as Dublin, Belfast, and Cork, as well as in towns and villages in the western and southern Gaeltachts, districts that had native Irish-speaking majorities. At its peak between 1906 and 1908 the League included more than 670 Irish branches and several hundred more in émigré communities, and it claimed nearly 50,000 individual members at any given time. Although sympathy for Gaelic became widespread, the ability to speak and write Irish remained the possession of a relative few.

Literature of the Revival

The League did, however, play a critical role in encouraging new literature and Gaelic drama. Its publications committee produced the monthly Gaelic Journal, the weekly bilingual newspaper, An Claidheamh Soluis (The sword of light), and hundreds of pamphlets, books, and one-act plays. Individual branches, meanwhile, published ephemeral journals such as Loch Léin in Killarney and An Craobh Ruadh (The red branch) in Belfast. Annual competitions, particularly those at the national literary festival, the Oireachtas (founded in 1897), elicited folklore collections, historical essays, translations, and original poems, short stories, and plays. Much of the original work lacked merit, but older folk poets (such as Colm Wallace and Robert Weldon) and noteworthy emerging writers enjoyed success in Oireachtas competitions.

Revival writers faced complex issues as they established a modern literature after nearly a century with little innovation. Among the most important questions were: What relationship should they have with Irish writers using English? What use should be made of translations? Should authors subsume their artistic freedom to approach subjects from a specific political viewpoint? How should they overcome the dearth of indigenous models of novels and dramas? And which, if any, existing genres should they emphasize? Most revivalists were students of the language and drew on familiar English literary tropes or deferred to self-proclaimed native authorities. At times, such as when theater patrons rioted over John Millington Synge's dramatization of peasant life in The Playboy of the Western World in 1907, Gaelic enthusiasts displayed an overweening provincialism, but revivalist writers tended to be open-minded toward their Anglo-Irish counterparts.

Broadly speaking, two philosophical camps developed. Some, such as Father Patrick Dinneen and Father Peadar Ó Laoghaire, adopted a "nativist" viewpoint—looking almost exclusively to indigenous models and approaching subjects from generally conservative, Catholic, and nationalist perspectives. Others, such as Pádraic Ó Conaire, were open to a more "progressive" outlook—searching for themes and models that might challenge conventional perspectives. Within these categorizations further divisions emerged. Thus Dinneen's advocacy of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century forms resonated with poets like Tadhg Ó Donnchadha ("Tórna") and Osborn Bergin, and Ó Laoghaire infused his prose with the peasant idiom of his youth (the socalled "caint na ndaoine," or speech of the people).

Ó Laoghaire's ubiquitous presence as an essayist, translator, playwright, and novelist virtually ensured that most prose writers copied his style. Publication of his Faustian peasant tale Séadna (Words, 1904), the first Gaelic novel, should be viewed in this light as a landmark. Less influential but equally important for its incorporation of gritty realism into the novel was Ó Conaire's Deoraidheacht (Exile, 1910). With its urban setting and vivid attention to detail, it stood as a largely solitary achievement until well after independence. It was Patrick Pearse (an admirer of Ó Laoghaire while editor of An Claidheamh Soluis and later the leader of the 1916 Easter rebellion) who anticipated the form in which experimental prose proved most successful in short stories, in his Iosogán (1905).

After 1922 leaders of the Irish Free State, including MacNéill, then minister for education, fostered the language through sometimes misdirected initiatives. The government imposed compulsory Gaelic instruction in schools, set up the publication office An Gúm, and endowed theatrical enterprises such as the Taibhdhearc na Gaillimhe. Much of what appeared in print or on stage, however, was derivative. Some original novels were published, such as Edward MacLysaght's Cúrsaí Thomáis (The story of Tomás, 1927) and Séamas Mac Grianna's Caisleáin Óir (Golden castles, 1924), but An Gúm also delayed potentially controversial works, such as Seosamh Mac Grianna's An Druma Mór (The big drum, written in the 1930s, but not published until 1972). Meanwhile, Ó Conaire, Liam O'Flaherty, and Máirtín Ó Cadhain, among others, explored the short-story form, and playwrights such as Micheál Mac Liammóir infused the theater with creative energy, albeit drawing heavily upon translations. Perhaps the most lively literature of the 1920s and 1930s appeared in Gaeltacht autobiographies inspired by those revivalists who had sought out "authentic" representatives of the Gaelic tradition. Among the best known were those written or dictated by residents of the Blasket Islands—Muiris Ó Súilleabháin's Fiche Blian ag Fás (Twenty Years A-Growing, 1933), Peig Sayers's Peig (Peig, 1936), and Tomás Ó Criomhthain's An tOileánach (The Islandman, 1929).

Assessing the impact of the Gaelic Revival is a matter of perspective. If the yardstick applied was whether Irish became the universal language of the people in Ireland, then it must be judged a failure. If, however, one also considers the symbolic importance of Gaelic to people in southern Ireland (and to a minority in Northern Ireland) and recognizes as significant the creation of a modern literature with a limited readership, then the revival was a defining period in modern Irish cultural history.

SEE ALSO Antiquarianism; Arts: Modern Irish and Anglo-Irish Literature and the Arts since 1800; Gaelic Revivalism: The Gaelic League; Hyde, Douglas; Language and Literacy: Decline of Irish Language; Literature: Anglo-Irish Literature in the Nineteenth Century; Literature: Gaelic Literature in the Nineteenth Century; Primary Documents: From "The Necessity for De-Anglicising Ireland" (25 November 1892); Letter on the Commission on the Gaeltacht (4 March 1925); "The End" (1926); "Pierce's Cave" (1933); "Scattering and Sorrow" (1936)


Caerwyn Williams, J. E., and Patrick K. Ford. The Irish Literary Tradition. 1992.

Kiberd, Declan. Inventing Ireland. 1995.

McMahon, Timothy G. "The Social Bases of the Gaelic Revival, 1893–1910." Ph.D. diss., University of Wisconsin–Madison, 2001.

O'Leary, Philip. The Prose Literature of the Gaelic Revival, 1881–1921: Ideology and Innovation. 1994.

Ó Súilleabháin, Donncha. Scéal an Oireachtais, 1897–1924. 1984.

Ó Tuama, Seán. Repossessions: Selected Essays on the Irish Literary Heritage. 1995.

Ó Tuama, Seán, ed. The Gaelic League Idea. 1972, 1993.

Timothy G. McMahon

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Gaelic Revival

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