As many commentators have pointed out, the improperia levelled by Miss Ivors against Gabriel Conroy in ‘The Dead’ are directed at representative sins against the Gaelic League. Gabriel writes for the Unionist Daily Express, he spends his holidays in foreign countries, and is more interested in speaking their languages than in learning Irish: in short, he is a cosmopolitan West Briton.
The League had been set up in 1893 with the purpose of preserving the Irish language, which, in the aftermath of the Famine, seemed to be in serious danger of extinction. The impetus for founding the movement came from Douglas Hyde, the son of a Protestant clergyman, who became its president. In an influential address to the National Literary Society in Dublin in 1892, he had spoken of ‘The Necessity For De-Anglicizing Ireland’.1 Hyde deplored the fallen state of Irish culture, asking:
how one of the most reading and literary people has become one of the least studious and most un-literary, and how the present art products of one of the quickest, most sensitive, and most artistic races on earth are now only distinguished for their hideousness.2
This state of affairs had come about ‘by the race diverging […] from the right path, and ceasing to be Irish without becoming English.’3 What Hyde proposes is a reform primarily of all of those aspects of Irish life — from literature to personal names — touched by language. In other words, the solution is seen as cultural and not political.
After the death of Parnell, and the bitter faction fighting that followed it, belief in the Irish Parliamentary Party and in constitutional politics declined strongly and political nationalism gave way to cultural nationalism, so the role of the League was seen by many of its founders as a non-political force for cultural renewal. This distinction between politics and culture was in fact deceptive, but there were reasons why moderates such as Hyde himself were anxious to uphold it. In Hyde’s view, the definition of the new Ireland should be inclusive. Turn-of-the-century Ireland was a mixed salad of racial genes, consisting of [End Page 66] Scottish Presbyterians (concentrated in the North East), the Anglo-Irish ascendancy, the Gaelic-Catholic majority, as well as some English; all reflected in various Irish dialects. A love of Ireland, however, had apparently transcended these classifications. After all, many of the founding fathers of cultural renewal, such as Hyde himself, were Protestant and Anglo-Irish, and they could look to the great Anglo-Irish tradition leading back to Thomas Davis, Wolfe Tone, and Henry Grattan. By taking the Irish language and a love of Irish culture as their rallying points, differences in religion could be bypassed.
Yet it was religion that defined the crucial demographic split between the culturally dominant Anglo-Irish minority and the Catholic majority that made up their target audience. Hyde’s de-Anglicizing paper was essentially an extension of the Anglo-Irish revivalist programme. Its professed apolitical stand was of course a political one. Near the beginning of his essay, Hyde lists the various political movements in recent Irish history — Young Irelandism, Fenianism, Landleaguism and Parliamentary obstructionism — only to dismiss support for them as anti-English begrudgery.4
Hyde’s integrative view consequently was not likely to win over the majority Catholic population, and many League members realized that ‘it was in the power of the priest to kill a branch of the League in his parish in a few months.’5 An alliance with the Catholic Church, on the other hand, would allow the League to blossom. By 1908 there were 600 branches; Irish was now successfully established as part of the national curriculum and by 1909 compulsory for matriculation to the National University. But this pact with the Catholic hierarchy could no longer be reconciled with the idea of a cultural fusion of Catholic Gael and Anglo-Irish Protestant. Attempts by the moderates to continue the illusion of a non-sectarian movement which united all comers under a loosely defined number of banners such as the revival of the Irish language and of Irish...