July 31, 1893—In a brief afternoon meeting at Martin Kelly’s rooms at 9 Lower Sackville Street in Dublin, nine men formed the Gaelic League (Conradh na Gaelige), an organization dedicated specifically to preserving the Irish (or Gaelic) language. Though originally non-partisan and non-sectarian, the group ended up bolstering the cultural revival and sense of pride indispensable to the cause of Irish independence two decades later.
The Irish language had reached a state of crisis at the time of the get-together that included Kelly, Douglas Hyde, Eoin McNeill, Fr. Eugene O’Growney, and five others. The 1851 Census showed nearly 320,000 people whose sole language was Gaelic, while another 1.2 million spoke at least some words. Already, however, several developments were leading to an alarming decline that saw those figures drop to 38,200 and 642,100, respectively:
* The primary educational system introduced by Britain—the so-called “National Schools”—prohibited the teaching and use of Irish. Only English was allowed, with boys caught speaking Irish beaten with “tally sticks.”
* If any Irish were fortunate enough to make it to university, they would have to listen to professors at Trinity College who would say that they “despised Gaelic as a language fit only for helots and corner boys,” or that “there was not a single Gaelic text that was not ‘religious, silly, or indecent.’”
* Even those held in high esteem by the common folk—Daniel O’Connell and the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy, for instance—came to see English as a method of advancement in an environment still viscerally biased against Catholics.
* The Irish Potato Famine led to a depopulation in the Western areas of the country, which had until that point been disproportionately filled with Gaelic speakers.
The efforts of Hyde—the son of a Protestant rector, a man who had learned Irish from local tenant farmers—stemmed the tide of the erosion of the language. As first President of the Gaelic League, he was instrumental in encouraging Irish as a living language. According to biographers Janet Egleson Dunleavy and Gareth W. Dunleavy in their book Douglas Hyde: A Maker of Modern Ireland, he preferred to five people speaking Irish to ten people trying to read it.
In time, learning Irish became seen as a kind of political statement. Many of the signers of the Proclamation of the Republic—notably Padraig Pearse—were members of the Gaelic League. Hyde himself would go on to other firsts—notably, the first professor of modern Irish at University College Dublin, as well as first president of the Republic of Ireland.
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