restricted access The Dynamics of the Clerical-Lay Relationship in the Roscommon Gaelic League
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The Dynamics of the Clerical-Lay Relationship in the Roscommon Gaelic League

Present-day debates about the role of the Catholic church in modern Ireland color our understanding of clerical-lay relations in the past. Unquestionably, in the modern era the Catholic church has played a central place in Irish society, and as revelations about abuses of children have come to light, politicians and the public have been compelled to recognize how much power was ceded, almost reflexively, to the clergy, particularly in the various branches of education. These overarching debates have had a particularly resonant echo for scholars of one of independent Ireland’s central cultural projects, the revival of the Irish language prompted by the work of the Gaelic League (founded in 1893). Some scholars, including Tony Crowley, John Hutchinson, and Tom Garvin, have pointed out that many clerical and lay supporters of the early Gaelic revival, including Gaelic League co-founder Eoin MacNeill, considered the Irish language and Catholicism to be intimately linked.1 Crowley, for instance, cited a representative essay contributed to the League’s first newspaper as saying that “Irish is pre-eminently the language of prayer and devotion. Its dignity and impressive majesty admirably suit the themes of religion …; it has for Catholics an altogether peculiar interest in common to themselves alone.”2 A corollary of this position was [End Page 129] that Catholic clerical advocates of language revival sought to dictate policy to the League, a body founded ostensibly to appeal to “all creeds and all classes” in Ireland. In his study of the revival, however, McMahon has argued that although attempts by some clerics to control the League’s message were entirely in keeping with the powerful roles played by priests in secular and spiritual affairs in nineteenth-and twentieth-century Ireland, advocates of a nonsectarian vision pushed back against clerical dictation.3 What light might an examination of the early history of the Gaelic League in County Roscommon shed on these divergent interpretations of the relationship between priests and people in the Gaelic revival and more broadly on that relationship in modern Irish history?

We propose to address this question through an intensive look at the language movement as it took root in the county town of Roscommon, where a series of priest officers were important advocates of the Gaelic movement. Specifically, we will address how the ongoing process of sorting out the power dynamics of the clerical-lay relationship affected the development of the revival in a particular locality and how the transfer of clerical personnel within the diocese of Elphin affected branch activity. Furthermore, we will contrast the approaches of the two most important priest activists in the early years of the branch—Fr. (later Canon) Thomas Cummins and Fr. Michael O’Flanagan—in order to highlight the importance of individual activists in shaping local understandings of the revival. Ultimately, three themes will emerge: first, that the views of priests—while influential—were not determinative in revivalist activities; second, that priest activists persisted in supporting the revival even when occasionally rebuffed over their understanding of its intent; and third, that laypersons were not the only ones to espouse a nonsectarian ideal through the League. Indeed, the evidence from County Roscommon creates a far more variegated picture of the clerical-lay relationship than the simplistic scenario espoused by Crowley and others. In our view laypeople relied on the power of priests to ensure that the revival attained status in their community, but this reliance did not imply unquestioning deference to clerical authority. [End Page 130]

During the years of its most rapid expansion between 1898 and 1905, national promoters of the Gaelic League pragmatically looked to bishops and priests as local leaders with whom they should collaborate when founding branches. Throughout most of the nineteenth century Catholic leaders had been ambivalent about the decline of spoken Irish, but that attitude began to change largely through the work of staunch clerical supporters of the language—including Cardinal Michael Logue, Fr. Eugene O’Growney, and Fr. Michael O’Hickey—in the 1880s and 1890s. The latter two men played a special part in encouraging...