Celtic Revival in Ireland: Irish Language

From The Lecture Series: The Celtic World

By Jennifer Paxton, Ph.D., The Catholic University of America

The revival of Celtic culture in the 19th century involved different movements in various cultural aspects. In an attempt to bring back their Celtic identity, the Irish engaged in a series of cultural activities to shore up the Irishness of Ireland. One of the main areas was the Irish language.

An Irish peasant family discovering the Blight in their produce.
The Great Potato Famine was one of the reasons for the decline of the Irish language. (Image: Daniel MacDonald/Public domain)

Speaking English for More Opportunities

In the late 19th century, the Irish language was experiencing a decline among the Irish, which had different reasons. The repeal of the Penal Law was one of these causes. According to Penal Laws, Catholics were not allowed to have economic and political activities in Britain and Ireland. When the law was repealed, Catholics were free to join the professions, so they had better opportunities if they spoke English.

Teaching English to children became widely popular among Irish-speaking families as they saw it as a requirement for their progress in life. There were hedge schools in the Irish countryside that taught Catholic children who were unable to attend government schools that were Protestant. English was one of the most requested subjects in these schools. So, the decline of the Irish language is partly the result of the Irish trying to speak like the ruling class.

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Great Irish Potato Famine

There was a more melancholy reason for the decline of Irish—a high percentage of Irish-speakers fell victim to the Great Irish Potato Famine of the 1840s. The famine struck especially severely in the western part of Ireland, which was the more rural, less economically developed area where the people were particularly dependent on potato for subsistence. These were also the areas where Irish remained the everyday language of the peasant classes. When the potato blight hit, these subsistence farmers had very little to fall back on. The lucky ones emigrated, either to England or North America or even to Australia. A map of the regions that were most severely struck by the famine tracks very closely with a map of the decline of spoken Irish.

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The Gaelic League

A portrait of Douglas Hyde.
Douglas Hyde was one of the founders of the Gaelic League. (Image: Maunsel, Dublin, 1917/Public domain)

After the Great Irish Potato Famine, Ireland was too concerned with survival and recovery to be worried about the decline of its language. Only after one generation did movements emerge to revive the Irish language. One organization, in particular, took on the challenge of undoing this linguistic damage: the Gaelic League, founded by Father Eugene O’Growney, Eoin MacNeill, and Douglas Hyde.

Father O’Growney was a Catholic priest who had not learned to speak Irish in childhood. But he learned Irish by spending holidays in the west and became a professor of Irish. MacNeill was a great scholar of early Irish history.

Unlike Father O’Growney, Hyde was a Protestant and an avid cultural nationalist. In his famous speech, “The Necessity of De-Anglicizing Ireland”, he condemned the Irish tendency to learn English to get ahead in life. He believed the Irish could speak English as long as the Irish language and literature were not neglected.

Initially, only members of the urban and bourgeois classes were allowed in the league. Ironically, the league idealized the Irish speakers who had remained in Ireland. They romanticized the pure lifestyle of the rural inhabitants of the west, although most members of the Gaelic League did not know them personally. Douglas Hyde talked about “the piety of the Irish Gael” who “sees the hand of God in every place, in every time, in everything.”

For many people, this romanticizing was meaningless. But for others, this romantic image of an Ireland with Irish speaking rural population was a goal to achieve as a part of the Irish independence agenda.

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The Influence of the Gaelic League

This ideal of an Irish Ireland created by the Gaelic League strongly influenced future nationalists. After 1899 and due to the Boer War between Britain and the Boer rebels in South Africa, the League membership saw an upsurge. As an expression of anti-British partisanship, many Irishmen joined the League to show their support for the Boers. Despite these political sentiments, the League did not have a formal political stand. The League members had disparate political views. Some of them believed that the revival of Irish would help achieve independence by boosting Irish nationalism. But for others, Irish independence was not a real goal.

Finally, in 1915, the League officially supported independence, which led to the resignation of Douglas Hyde. The League also played a crucial role in the Easter Rebellion of 1916 since most of the participants were League members. In this rebellion, members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood and associated groups issued the Proclamation of the Republic and declared Ireland’s independence. The rebels were divided into Irish-speaking and non-Irish-speaking, which created tension among them. At that point, speaking Irish was a sign of Irish nationalist credibility.

Common Questions about Celtic Revival: Irish Language

Q: What were the consequences of the Great Irish Potato Famine?

The Great Irish Potato Famine led to a decline in the Irish population, as many people had to emigrate and those who remained did not survive. It also led to the decline of the Irish language, as most speakers of spoken Irish lived in famine-stricken areas.

Q: Who founded the Gaelic League and why?

The Gaelic League was founded by Father Eugene O’Growney, Eoin MacNeill, and Douglas Hyde. They all founded the Irish League to preserve the Irish language.

Q: Why did the Irish language decline?

The decline of the Irish language was the result of two factors: the Great Irish Potato Famine and the repeal of Penal Laws. The Potato Famine led to a decline in the Irish-speaking population. The repeal of Penal Law made Catholics interested in learning English as a way to get ahead in life.

Q: What did the Gaelic League do?

The aim of the Gaelic League was to revive the Irish language. It romanticized the pure lifestyle of the rural inhabitants of the west and created an ideal for nationalists.

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