Gaelic Revivalism: The Gaelic League

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Gaelic Revivalism: The Gaelic League

Founded in July 1893 by Eoin MacNéill to preserve and extend the use of Irish as a spoken language, the Gaelic League was the most important organization associated with the Gaelic revival of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Although the League failed to convince a significant percentage of the population to use Irish as their everyday medium of social intercourse, it raised public consciousness of Gaelic culture, engaged in campaigns to include Irish in school curricula, inspired a modern literature in Gaelic, and energized the nationalist movement in the years before 1916.

MacNéill's emphasis on spoken Irish appealed to many younger members of existing antiquarian societies, who felt that organizations such as the Society for the Preservation of the Irish Language and the Gaelic Union lacked the dynamism necessary to safeguard Gaelic as a living language. Among these earliest adherents were the poet and folklorist Douglas Hyde, who had made a similar plea for spoken Irish during the previous year in a seminal speech to the National Literary Society in Dublin ("The Necessity for De-Anglicising Ireland"), and Father Eugene O'Growney, the professor of Irish at Saint Patrick's College, Maynooth. From 1893 until 1915, Hyde would serve as president and leading spokesman for the League, while O'Growney's five-part series of primers, the Simple Lessons in Irish, became important teaching tools in Gaelic League classes.

Growth and Activities

From its Dublin base the organization expanded quickly to other large cities and towns. By 1898, however, it could claim just eighty branches, and only a few of these were in the western and southern communities where Irish remained the primary language of home life. Thereafter, several factors combined to encourage more rapid expansion at the turn of the century, including growing anti-English sentiment fueled by the centenary celebrations of the 1798 rebellion and the outbreak of the Boer War; the hiring of paid timirí (organizers) to promote the language cause, and the advocacy of journalists such as Alice Milligan, Arthur Griffith, and D.P. Moran.

By 1906 enthusiasts had established more than 600 craobhacha (branches) within Ireland and several hundred more abroad. The League maintained at least one branch in every Irish county, but the highest concentrations of domestic branches were in counties with significant native-speaking populations and in the larger cities and towns, such as Dublin, Belfast, Cork, and Galway. Ironically, in those counties with high concentrations of native-speakers the League relied primarily on English-speaking town elites to lead their cause, and the organization only sporadically established lasting outposts in which native-speakers comprised the bulk of members. Similarly, outside of the Gaelic-speaking districts the vast majority of people joining craobhacha were English-speakers with an interest in learning some Irish and otherwise participating in what they called the "Irish-Ireland" movement.

Precise estimates of total membership are difficult to calculate, but based on average branch size, it is likely that the highest annual total was about 47,000. Because most members participated actively for only a year or two before being replaced by new recruits, it is nevertheless likely that the overall membership was significantly higher—perhaps more than a quarter of a million—in the years prior to 1910.

Within their branches members engaged in a wide variety of social and intellectual activities. Typically, they held general meetings on Sunday afternoons, at which they discussed historical or contemporary topics, and on weekday evenings interested members also attended classes in language instruction, history, dancing, or singing. Leaguers engaged in numerous public campaigns to press educational authorities to incorporate Irish classes in the national and intermediate schools; and between 1908 and 1910 they coordinated a successful island-wide effort to force the senate of the new National University of Ireland to adopt a strict standard requiring all matriculating students to have some familiarity with the Gaelic language. At other times members also promoted causes that were apparently unrelated to their linguistic mission, including temperance crusades and efforts to "buy Irish" products crafted by native hands or in factories at home.

Craobhacha regularly sponsored an array of amateur entertainment, such as concerts, ceilidhs, and plays, in which members took leading parts. The largest such gatherings were regional feiseanna (festivals) and the Oireachtas (national literary festival), which included competitions in storytelling, oratory, poetry, prose, singing, and dancing. Festival prizewinners often attained local or even national celebrity as instructors and entertainers at branch functions. Some Irish-Ireland purists such as Moran lamented that many of these events mirrored the entertainment provided by music halls and popular theater, but they provided townspeople with amusement during an era when town life was otherwise quite drab.

The League, moreover, was instrumental in encouraging the publication of literature, news, folklore, and drama in the Irish language. At the time of MacNéill's overture in 1893, O'Growney was editor of the most important Gaelic-related publication in Ireland, Irisleabhar na Gaedhilge (Gaelic Journal), which he put at the League's disposal. Until it ceased publication in 1910, this monthly offered Gaelic poets and authors an outlet for their productions. Beginning in 1898 with Fáinne an Lae (Dawn of day) and continuing with An Claidheamh Soluis (The sword of light), the League published weekly bilingual newspapers, which provided another platform to propagate the language cause. In addition, the League's publications committee produced numerous original works, albeit of mixed quality, ranging from school histories and conversation guides to essay collections and novels. Thus many writers associated with the revival of Gaelic literature in the twentieth century, such as Father Peadar Ó Laoghaire and Pádraic Ó Conaire, published their early works under League auspices or received their first public recognition at League festivals.

All Creeds and All Classes?

Early League leaders hoped that their cultural program would bring together the fractious elements of Irish society, and they determined to keep their organization nonpolitical and nonsectarian in order to overcome the political and social divisions of the Home Rule era. But this aim seems in retrospect to have been merely a pious hope. Scholars believed traditionally that the organization consisted initially of upper-middle-class romantics, including both Catholics and Protestants, but that as the League grew, its increasingly politicized lower-middle-class Catholic membership discouraged Protestants from joining League ranks. Some have even concluded that the organization should be remembered primarily as a "school" for the nationalist revolutionaries who engaged in the Irish war of independence. Indeed, many revolutionaries were active in the League, including Patrick Pearse, who served as editor of An Claidheamh Soluis from 1903 until 1909. Also, members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood did engineer a takeover of the League in 1915, prompting Hyde's resignation from the presidency and ensuring that the League would be an important component of republican efforts in the push for independence after 1916.

Recent research, however, has qualified this portrayal. For example, McMahon has determined that the membership of the League was more broadly based across class lines from its foundation than had previously been thought, and a committed minority of Protestants continued to participate in Gaelic activities until the mid-1910s. Furthermore, although nearly all members professed loyalty to some form of political nationalism, and although ardent revolutionaries were inspired by their association with the language cause, one should not overstate the politicization of the organization until after the takeover by the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) in 1915. Prior to that point efforts by politicians to use Gaelic platforms were usually rebuffed by League leaders and regular members alike.

When the IRB did capture the organization, the League had long been in decline, though it experienced a brief resurgence during and immediately after the war of independence. By the mid-1920s, however, the League had lost much of its earlier energy, and membership again tapered off as officials in Northern Ireland were intent on stamping that new state with a British identity, and as their counterparts in the Free State believed that the language should receive official sanction.

Although the League has kept a watchful eye on state policy toward the language since then and has continually encouraged Gaelic literature and arts through the annual Oireachtas, its major achievement belonged to the preindependence decades, when it secured a place of symbolic importance for the Gaelic language and Gaelic culture in modern Ireland.

SEE ALSO Blasket Island Writers; Gaelic Revival; Gaelic Revivalism: The Gaelic Athletic Association; Hyde, Douglas; Language and Literacy: Decline of Irish Language; Language and Literacy: Irish Language since 1922; Literacy and Popular Culture; Pearse, Patrick; Politics: 1800 to 1921—Challenges to the Union; Raiftearaí (Raftery), Antaine; Primary Documents: From "The Necessity for De-Anglicising Ireland" (25 November 1892); Letter on the Commission on the Gaeltacht (4 March 1925)


Garvin, Tom. Nationalist Revolutionaries in Ireland, 1858–1928. 1987.

Mac Aonghusa, Proinsias. Ar Son na Gaeilge: Conradh na Gaeilge, 1893–1993, Stair Sheanchais. 1993.

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

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

Timothy G. McMahon