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Trying Irish in the Free State
Cover Image. From the dust jacket of An Cliathán Clé by Tadhg Ó Murchadha, published 1932.
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From the dust jacket of An Cliathán Clé by Tadhg Ó Murchadha, published 1932.

The Irish Free State, initiated by the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921, resulted from the War of Independence of 1919–21, and was inspired in no small part by the cultural-nationalist revival of the preceding decades. Once established, the new democratically elected legislature aggressively pursued a project of cultural nationalism designed to reinforce and solidify the very cultural aspects that underpinned its claims to a unique identity and therefore justified its political independence. The preservation and extension of the Irish language as a modern spoken vernacular both in its traditional heartlands—officially recognized in 1926 as An Ghaeltacht—and its revival, use, and popularization throughout the remainder of the state—defined as An Ghalltacht—were core elements in the fledgling state’s nation-building project. An Gúm was established in 1926 as a subsection of the Department of Education to supply textbooks, fiction, and nonfiction in Irish for the educational and recreational needs of the newly independent Ireland that over time would emerge as a bilingual society as a result of spontaneous synchronicity.

This initiative was a landmark event that would dominate Irish-language publishing until the 1950s. An Gúm, as a nation-building project, sought to provide reading material—professional, educational, and popular—for the citizens of the new state and the bilingual first generation. The 1930s saw a slew, in a uniform size, of hardback translations of European—predominantly British—classics, produced by An Gúm and published by Oifig an tSoláthair (the Stationery Office). Such translations not only provided financial benefits for aspiring Irish-language authors but also offered a literary apprenticeship. [End Page 7] Between 1926 and 1964 An Gúm produced 1,465 publications comprising 1,108 general literary works, 230 pieces of music, and 127 textbooks.

As the embodiment of the Free State’s Irish-language revival project, these books were designed and produced as impressive, weighty, and sturdy tomes destined for longevity and prominent display. The dust jackets and covers, however, rarely if ever contained any visual clue to identify An Gúm as the publisher. Unlike the contemporary publishing house, Penguin—established in 1935 by Allen Lane—An Gúm never developed an identifiable visual brand. Interested artists wrote to An Gúm seeking work, and on the basis of the portfolios they supplied, were commissioned at a set rate for specific covers. Such artists included Miss Devereux, Patrick Gallivan, Sean Slattery, Seán MacManus, Ann Sheehy, Olive Cunningham, Austin Malloy, Caitlín Ní Bhroin, Caroline Scally, P. Lyons, E. Lyn Hope, W. J. Spencer, and Mrs. H. L. Pilkington.

Published by An Gúm in 1932, An Cliathán Clé tells of pranks, adventures, and misadventures in an all-boys boarding school in Dublin where rugby not only expressed but exemplified the school ethos. An Cliathán Clé’s author, Tadhg Ó Murchadha, was born in Kerry on 10 October 1899 into a bilingual family. Having attended Rockwell College (founded in 1864 by the Congregation of the Holy Ghost) since 1914, he was accepted by that order as a seminarian in 1919. Ó Murchadha earned a B.A. in 1922 and taught in Blackrock College from 1922 to 1923 before he abandoned his ambitions for the priesthood in 1924. He began teaching in 1928 in Belvedere (a Jesuit college founded in 1832), located in the city center, in 1928, and earned an M.A. from UCD in 1930. Portraits: Belvedere College Dublin, 1832–1982, recalls Ó Murchadha’s ability as a teacher of Irish:

What Tadhg succeeded in doing was in building for his pupils a massive infrastructure of understanding of Gaelic civilization and culture in the modern period. He could convert the most philistine of his charges by the elegance of his sarcasms, and the industry he put into the explanation and dissemination of idioms carried its own infection. He was clever also in getting Irish to the younger boys by opening the Irish debating society to them. English debate was restricted to...