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ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF CONRADH NA GAEILGE GEARÓID DENVIR douglas hyde, Eoin Mac Neill and eight other gentlemen met in the rooms of one Mártan Ó Ceallaigh at 9 Sackville Street, Dublin, one hundred years ago on July 31, 1891, and founded Leug na Gaedhilge, as Hyde called it, “to keep the Irish language alive amongst the people,”1 and it is no exaggeration to claim that the Irish-speaking community of the day paid little attention to their revolutionary cultural proclamation.2 For most Irish speakers the Irish language was a cause for shame, an impediment to progress, a sign of utter poverty and deprivation and, above all, the language of a defeated race and class which was better abandoned. There were approximately three million Irish speakers with very little English in Ireland in the year 1800, and, moreover, the number of Irish speakers was at its greatest before the tragedy of the Great Famine. Yet, by the year 1891 there existed in the whole of Ireland a mere 38,121 monoglot Irish speakers . But if the majority of the Irish-speaking community remained almost totally oblivious to Hyde’s vision, his own community and class—the assimilated middle class of Ireland in the main—also had precious little regard for his message according to Hyde’s own description of reaction to his famous lecture, “On the Necessity for De-Anglicising Ireland,” delivered to The National Literary Society in November, 1892. This lecture can be regarded as one of the milestones on the way towards the founding of Conradh na Gaeilge and indeed of the modern Ireland which was to emerge in the years following its foundation. “Rubbish” was how one person present at the lecture described Hyde’s ideas, and another ‘sensible’ gentleman, a barrister and friend of John Redmond, claimed they were “idiotic and nonsensical.”3 Hyde, Mac Neill, and the other founding fathers of Conradh ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF CONRADH NA GAEILGE 105 1 Dubhglas de hÍde, Mise agus an Conradh (Baile Átha Cliath, 1937), p. 36. 2 A version of this paper was delivered under the title “Conradh na Gaeilge 100 Bliain ag Fás?” as the keynote lecture at Oireachtas na Gaeilge, 1993, in Galway. 3 Mise agus an Conradh, pp. 34–35. na Gaeilge had a vision which changed the course of history in Ireland and they left their own deep imprint not only on the Ireland of their own generation, but on the Ireland of many generations after them. This essay concerns the genesis and development of that vision and its relevance, if any, to the Ireland of today. The canon of nationalist history gives the following reasons for the demise of Irish in the nineteenth century: the Great Famine; the National Schools; the indiVerence of politicians, business people, and the Roman Catholic Church; the rapid urbanization of Ireland in the nineteenth century ; and the fact that the ruling and administrative classes spoke only English. No doubt each and every one of these factors contributed to the demise of Irish, but no one factor among them, nor indeed the totality of all these factors added together, can explain such an intense and rapid language shift. Although much research remains undone in this area, I would like to make the following suggestions as an opening statement. Ireland of the nineteenth century, as I see it, is a classical colonial situation as described by Albert Memmi in The Coloniser and The Colonised.4 The language shift of that period must, I believe, be described as the cultural assimilation of the native ruling classes into a provincial version of the colonizer ’s culture. The leaders of the Irish nation, especially during the development of the concept of nation in Ireland during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, consciously or unconsciously accepted the psychocultural superiority of the colonizing culture, and took upon themselves many of its basic thought patterns, its social mores, its worldview, and, above all, its language. One of the best examples of this assimilated Irishman is the giant of the nineteenth century—Daniel O’Connell himself, the prototype in this context of the middle-class Catholic who came to the fore in...


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