- "Fiction, Amusement, Instruction":The Irish Fireside Club and the Educational Ideology of the Gaelic League
"'Give me,' says Uncle Remus, 'the youth of a nation.'"1
Through the teachings of the Irish Fireside Club, the largest children's association in Ireland in the late 1880s, thousands of children gained a desire to educate themselves and each other for the benefit of Ireland's future. The Irish Fireside Club's teachings reflected the growing cultural nationalist current in Irish society, focusing on the academic study of the Irish language, history, and literature, along with social instruction concerning equality of the sexes, self-sufficiency, independence, and the need for unity to enable social progress. Although the nucleus of the Irish Fireside Club was a newspaper column (attached for most of its lifespan to the Weekly Freeman and spread over half a page at the height of its popularity), essentially self-governing branches of the club sprung up in rural and urban Ireland and abroad, creating a mass child-driven movement that would later supply the Gaelic League with several young language enthusiasts who would play crucial roles in the new Ireland of the twentieth century. These included, among others, Edward [End Page 91] (Éamon) de Valera, founder of Fianna Fáil and the Irish Press and a long-serving Taoiseach; Agnes O'Farrelly, the first female Irish-language writer, a women's rights activist, and cofounder of Cumann na mBan (the female counterpart to the Irish Volunteers); and Thomas Concannon, a returned emigrant from America, translator, writer, and the Gaelic League's most noted timire (traveling teacher).2 The purpose of this essay is to examine the educational ideology of the Irish Fireside Club and to determine its formative and enduring influence upon the Gaelic League activists already mentioned as well as other significant early twentieth-century figures associated with the League, such as William Rooney, Henry Morris, Edward (Éamon) O'Neill, George Moonan, Máire Ní Chillín, Stiofán Bairéad, and Michael Mullen.
The Irish Fireside Club (IFC) lasted for nearly four decades, from 1887 to 1924. While newspapers had an established countrywide channel of distribution to enable the dissemination of new ideas and trends throughout Ireland during the period, the key factor in the unparalleled success of the club was the inspiring instructor at its helm, who could communicate with, and thus influence, young people on a national scale.3 The children came to know this instructor as the amiable "Uncle Remus," who, in characteristically militaristic language, appointed himself "Commander-in-Chief" of the IFC. However, this familial "Uncle" misled his "nephews" and "nieces" to some extent: his alter ego was initially Rose Kavanagh and later Hester Sigerson, both of whom made good use of their gender mask.
By the turn of the twentieth century, the IFC's influence had begun to wane; at that point, however, the Gaelic League had come of age. According to P.H. Pearse's assessment, membership had reached over fifty thousand by 1904, and the number of branches had nearly tripled in three years.4 While scholars dispute the precise [End Page 92] figures involved, it is apparent that the League had gained widespread appeal among a new generation of Irish-language enthusiasts who readily embraced its ethos of cultural nationalism.5 Young men and women who had grown up alongside the League now joined its founding fathers, Douglas Hyde and Eoin Mac Néill amongst them, at the forefront of a national crusade. The initial aim of the Gaelic League, established in 1893, had been to preserve and promote the Irish language and its literature; however, according to Mac Néill, its founders soon realized "that this movement had bound up with it everything also that concerned the country."6 Thus, by the turn of the twentieth century, the League's remit had expanded, and it was channeling much of its resources into a campaign for the reform of the Irish educational system, the transmission of Irish heritage to schoolchildren being viewed as the best way of securing its future.7 The former "firesiders" who now participated in the Gaelic League brought with them the...