The Necessity to De-Politicise Cultural Nationalism in Northern Ireland

Douglas Hyde’s reflections on Gaelic. Photo Source: AZ Quotes

Michael McConway, Features Editor.

Why do we immediately associate the Irish language with revolutionary nationalism? For every Sinn Fein MLA who can watch TG4 and understand most of what’s been said, I’ll raise you three who comprehend merely political slogans, speeches written by trained translators and a handful of appropriate Wolfe Tones lyrics. Why do the DUP feel so threatened by the prospects of an Irish Language Act, given that it has been one of the main sticking points for almost two years in the ongoing negotiations with Sinn Fein to re-enter the political arena at Stormont? Douglas Hyde, schooled by his father, a rector in the Church of Ireland, certainly didn’t see the Irish Language as a political tool, to be appropriated by only one political tradition. And we can make the case that as a prolific linguist graduate from Trinity College Dublin, and as the man responsible for the revival of the Irish language in Ireland in the 1890s, he would have supported moves for an Irish language Act. What he would have objected to, and what we should all rally against, is the continual politicisation of the Irish language and cultural nationalism as a whole. How inclusive the Irish Language Act is in reawakening a non-politicised cultural nationalism among both the Nationalist and Unionist traditions in Northern Ireland without threatening their own unique identity is, in my opinion, the deciding factor as to whether we’ll see a Stormont Assembly sitting in another two years.

Young Ireland leaders Thomas Davis, Gavan Duffy and John Blake Dillon launched The Nation newspaper in October 1842 to re-awaken the public consciousness of what they termed Ireland’s distinctive culture and Gaelic Language. This weekly newspaper had an initial print run of 12000 copies, though it claimed a readership of 250000 through its popular dissemination in reading rooms up and down the country. With The Nation, Kee argues that Davis was the first man to construct for Irish national opinion a coherent theory of nationality. Davis wrote of a cultural “nationality which will not only raise our people from their poverty by securing them to the blessings of a legislature, but inflame them with a heroic love of their country, which may embrace Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter.” In the very origins of cultural nationalism and the revival of the Irish language among middle class political thinkers, we see the tradition was intended to embrace all religious and political creeds in Ireland, despite the fact that just a decade before, during the Tithe Wars, Catholic Defenders and Ribbonmen, Orange Societies and the forces of the Dublin Administration in the form of the RIC were in constant confrontation over the payment of Church of Ireland Tithes, which the Tithe Rent Charge Act of 1838 did little to resolve.

Davis’ death in September 1845, the subsequent Young Ireland drift toward revolutionary nationalism in 1848, and the impact of the famine combined to sweep popular cultural nationalism off the political map until after 1850. And here we see a sequence of events that will be repeated for the rest of the century. Societies dedicated to the appeal of Cultural Nationalism for Catholic and Protestant alike see initial success in their common goals but become politicised with the appeal of revolutionary nationalism, which ultimately, we must concede, usually leads to a failed rebellion, a group of martyrs who make a blood sacrifice and serve to inspire the next generation.

The Phoenix Society, founded in Skibbereen in 1856 by a local grocer, Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, was the best known of a number of literary societies operating in County Cork. Attracting shopkeepers, clerks and artisans, these clubs provided a forum for the discussion of advanced nationalist cultural ideas, though they were soon to be swallowed up by the Fenian movement, their members politicised and drawn into the ill-planned Fenian Rising of March 1867, culminating in the underwhelming Battle of Tallaght Hill, a skirmish between 150 rebels and a pocket of the well-armed Tallaght constabulary.

The Clerkenwell prison break in December 1867, devised to spring Fenian activist Richard Burke from Clerkenwell prison, killed twenty innocent Londoners when a Fenian gang made an attempt to blast a hole in the prison wall. Given the spike in Islamophobia in both physical attacks and hate speech recorded by the police force in the aftermaths of the Manchester Arena and London Bridge Attacks in 2017, we can see how contemporary opinion of Irish nationalism across a shocked Britain following the Clerkenwell prison break did not stop to consider making the distinction between condemning revolutionary and cultural nationalism when voicing its outrage.

Cultural Nationalism declines yet again, evidenced by the fact that although the Society for the Preservation of the Irish Language, formed in 1876, and the Gaelic Union, formed in 1880, had enjoyed some small degree of local success in their campaign for the greater use of the Irish language, their appeal was extremely narrow. It was the GAA, founded by Cusack and Croke on 1st November 1884, which saw immediate success in Ireland. The object of the Association was to replace what were perceived as “foreign” games by more “traditional” Gaelic sports and thereby contribute to increasing an awareness of a national consciousness, and within five years, membership had flourished to over 50000. Although the revival of traditional Gaelic sports was a noble ideal and a popular move, again, with the aim to replace Cricket with Hurling and achieve the total de-Anglicisation of Irish sports, the GAA alienated any moderate Protestant opinion which may have been willing to re-engage with cultural nationalism.

In 1892 WB Yeats, along with Douglas Hyde, founded the National Literary Society; writing in English, but drawing their inspiration from ancient Celtic myths and legends, Yeats and his followers sought to promote a more subtle sense of Irish identity that would stress an inclusive nationalist culture. Hyde’s inaugural lecture as the President of the National Literary Society, delivered in November 1892 under the title of “The Necessity to De-Anglicise Ireland”, provided the inspiration for the revival of the Irish language in the 1890’s. Hyde orated “we do not mean this as a protest against imitating the best in the English people, but rather to show the folly of neglecting what is Irish and hastening to adopt, indiscriminately, everything that is English.”

The Gaelic League, established in July 1893, soon elected Hyde as President and sought to revive Irish as a spoken and literary language. By 1900, it had 200 branches, and was on course to enlist nearly 900000 members in the early years of the new century. However, while the Gaelic League was non-political in motive, it could not help having a political influence. Hyde’s Gospel proclamation to re-invigorate cultural nationalism undoubtedly spread among both Catholics and Protestants, but Hyde’s aspiration to embrace the entire Unionist tradition was received unsympathetically at a time when the question of home rule appeared to threaten their very existence in Ireland. The eventual infiltration of cultural nationalism by the IRB thwarted Hyde’s hopes for a non-political movement, just as it had done since the publication of Davis’ Nation in 1842. On 30 July 1915, Douglas Hyde resigned from the presidency of the League in protest at the organisation’s shift to a more overt political stance. For some time important figures in the IRB movement, Tom Clarke and Sean McDermott, had been exerting pressure on the League to identify with the aim of political freedom, and by July 1915 they had achieved success, for the movement’s constitution was amended to state that the Gaelic League should also ‘devote itself to realising the ideal of a free speaking Gaelic Ireland,’ whilst the election of two-well known revolutionary nationalists, John McDermott and John Hegarty, to the League’s Coisde Gnotha (Governing Body), despite the fact both were recently charged with the possession of offensive weapons, had finally convinced Hyde that revival of cultural nationalism had been finally outstripped by the politicisation of the League.

Not only does Hyde construct the perfect ideal of inclusive cultural nationalism to embrace both the Nationalist and Unionist tradition in his address on “The Necessity to De-Anglicise Ireland”, he provides the ultimate justification for why this province could have an Irish Language Act today without endangering any DUP voters’ British identity. If we strive to respect and learn more about the culture of Ulster-Scots tradition, which from my own experience I am ashamed to say has been oft unjustly painted as merely an accentuated Ballymena twang, a Grassmen DVD Sales ploy or a Willie Frazer invention among nationalist satirists even on BBC platforms such as The Blame Game, surely DUP voters can consent to and even engage with the revival of state funded Irish education. An Irish Language Act is not designed to reject Unionist culture, but to deliver a non-politicised scheme of Irish language education inclusive to both Nationalists and Unionists in Northern Ireland, supported by the precedent of a shared inclusive cultural nationalism established by Davis, Yeats and Hyde.

The aim of an Irish Language Act should not be to promote the cause for a free speaking united Gaelic Ireland, not as Arlene Foster sees it as the ploy of the Sinn Fein crocodile to swallow the clock and then come back for Captain Hook’s hand. It should be the attempt to fulfil Hyde’s ideology, to educate our children in a way that does not neglect the impact of the Irish language and cultural nationalism upon Irish identity, for in doing so, we create a barrier not only between young nationalists and Anglicised Unionist culture, but also between young nationalists and their own cultural heritage. And the sectarian divide in Northern Ireland is reduced to exchanging half-formed political slogans and insults across a table without understanding what any of it actually means. A bit like the Nolan Show in many ways, I suppose.

Without an awareness of cultural nationalism, the sectarian divide is formed by nature then, not by nurture. And if we can de-politicise the Irish language, why can Protestant schools not take advantage of monetary provision for Irish language classes? Is it so totally unthinkable that the sons and daughters, or grandsons and granddaughters of DUP MLAs who identify strongly as British be taught about the work of Douglas Hyde and the shared history of cultural nationalism without threatening their identity? The politicisation of cultural nationalism and Ulster-Scots unionism in Northern Ireland has meant that our education is intolerant of reflecting multiculturalism, something which in London or in Manchester would receive an outcry, but in the province is the given status quo.

It must change. We must stop thinking of cultural nationalism in terms of a narrow appeal to one community. Go away and read Hyde. If you haven’t got a word of Irish, but have a strong opinion on the Irish Language Act, then get yourself down to an Irish language class at the QUB Language Centre. Don’t fear the history of cultural nationalism; our forefathers were in places far more progressive than ourselves.

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