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Reviewed by:
  • Catholic Churchmen and the Celtic Revival in Ireland, 1848–1916
  • Frank A. Biletz
Catholic Churchmen and the Celtic Revival in Ireland, 1848–1916. By Kevin Collins. (Dublin: Four Courts Press. Distributed in the United States by ISBS, Portland, Oregon.2002. Pp. 203. $50.00.)

Historical accounts of the Celtic, or Gaelic, cultural revival in Ireland, which occurred during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, have generally emphasized the significance of secular organizations, such as the Gaelic Athletic Association (founded in 1884) and the Gaelic League (1893), while suggesting that the Roman Catholic Church was, despite the participation of many priests in the movement, largely indifferent and, at times, even hostile to the cause of preserving traditional Gaelic culture and reviving the Irish language. Such narratives tend to locate the origins of Irish cultural nationalism in Thomas Davis, who as one of the leaders of the non-sectarian Young Ireland movement of the 1840's coupled advocacy of Irish political independence with calls for preserving the Irish language. Kevin Collins's useful and lucidly written study convincingly establishes a central and ongoing role in all phases of the Celtic revival for the Catholic clergy, including many prominent bishops, and argues that an unbreakable bond between Gaelic culture and the Catholic faith began to emerge in the writings of the historian Geoffrey Keating and other post-Reformation Irish Catholics as early as the seventeenth century.

Despite continuing differences about political tactics, the Irish Catholic clergy and revolutionary nationalists had come, by the time of the Easter Rising in 1916, to conceive the Irish nation as being necessarily rooted in Gaelic cultural traditions and also inherently Catholic. Collins argues convincingly that clerical involvement in the Celtic revival was decisive and that, ultimately, the activities of Catholic bishops and priests were far more influential in instilling a sense of pride in the national cultural heritage among the masses of Irish people than such elite movements as the Anglo-Irish literary revival. Rather than following the familiar line of descent for the ideal of an "Irish Ireland," which runs from Davis through Douglas Hyde and D. P. Moran and culminates in Padraic Pearse, one of the martyrs of 1916, Collins details contributions of equal or even greater significance made by such Catholic priests as Father John Lanigan (1758-1828), Canon Ulick Bourke (1829-1887), Father Peter O'Leary (1839-1920), Father Patrick Dinneen (1860-1934), Father Michael O'Hickey (1861-1917), and Father Eugene O'Growney (1863-1899). While Lanigan was an antiquarian and church historian of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the others were all active in the Irish language movement during the Celtic revival.

Collins also highlights the strong support given the Irish language and Gaelic culture by Archbishop John MacHale (1791-1881) of Tuam, who translated much of The Iliad into Irish, Archbishop Thomas William Croke (1823-1902) of Cashel, who served as a patron of the Gaelic Athletic Association, and other bishops. Especially revealing is Collins's treatment of Paul Cardinal Cullen (1802-1878), commonly regarded as an enemy of the national cause because of his firm opposition to the revolutionary Fenians. Collins points out, however, that Cullen strongly supported an Irish identity that was both Catholic and Gaelic, and regarded the "golden age" of "saints and scholars" in early medieval Ireland as the foundation of a continuous national historical tradition, the strength of which had allowed the Irish people to endure such subsequent traumas [End Page 331] as the Penal Laws of the eighteenth century and the Great Famine of the 1840's without sacrificing either their national identity or their faith.

Although their mutual participation in the Celtic revival provided clerical and lay cultural nationalists in Ireland a common perspective on the nature of Irish identity, they still had very significant differences about particular issues. A controversy erupted in 1909, for instance, over the status of the Irish language at the new National University. Contrary to Gaelic League demands, the Catholicbishops opposed making it mandatory for matriculation. Father Michael O'Hickey, professor of Irish at the seminary at Maynooth, was dismissed because of his outspoken support of the League. Although Collins rightly balances this...


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