Historian says Ireland owes its freedom to spread of English

Prof John A Murphy ‘intrigued’ by paradox of growth of nationalism in 19th century

Professor John A Murphy said he had always been intrigued by the paradox of the growth of Irish nationalism through the spread of the English language. Photograph: Domnick Walsh/Eye Focus Ltd

Professor John A Murphy said he had always been intrigued by the paradox of the growth of Irish nationalism through the spread of the English language. Photograph: Domnick Walsh/Eye Focus Ltd

 

Ireland owes its freedom to the spread of the English language which allowed for the spread of Irish nationalist ideals by writers such as Thomas Davis in a way that would not have been possible through the Irish language, according to historian, Prof John A Murphy.

Emeritus Professor of History at UCC, Prof Murphy said he had always been intrigued by the paradox that the growth of Irish nationalism in the 19th century was exclusively through the English language.

“It’s arguable that the advance of English literacy from the 1830s onwards was a good thing for Irish nationalism - we are reluctant to acknowledge that we owe the growth of Irish nationalism and essentially our freedom to the English language,” he said.

Speaking to the Mallow Field Club to mark the bicentenary of Thomas Davis’s birth in the town in 1814, Prof Murphy said Davis was the most important disseminator of Irish nationalist ideals which he did exclusively in English.

“Davis repeatedly asserted that the Irish language was central to Irish nationality and he composed facile maxims which were widely quoted in Gaelic League days and after and he did all this in eloquent English while failing to learn Irish himself,” he said.

Prof Murphy said there was no doubt regarding Davis’s influence as founder of The Nation and writer on Irish matters as Ireland’s “most comprehensive philosopher of nationality” whose views of what it means to be Irish continued to resonate today.

“On the one hand, he appealed to Patrick Pearse as an uncompromising evangelist of separatism, while impressing Arthur Griffith as a flexible thinker whom he could invoke to argue for the Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1921,” said Prof Murphy.

Prof Murphy pointed to the popularity of Davis’s stirring songs such as A Nation Once Again and The West’s Awake with successive generations but said many have inherited Davis’s unwillingness to confront some hard facts regarding divisions on the island.

“In some important respects, Davis’s concerns - and confusions - are still ours today. His passion for the alliance of orange and green, and his eagerness to get his fellow-Protestants to accept the Irish nation, blinded him to some hard facts,” said Prof Murphy.

“As a not very serious Protestant himself, he failed to appreciate the strength of religious feeling among his fellow-country men. The sentiments expressed in some of his best-known verses are admirable but naive,” he said.

According to Prof Murphy, Davis ignored the sectarian antagonisms which informed much of the ongoing conflict over the land question from the early 17th century when first a Catholic gentry and later a Catholic peasantry were in dispute with a mainly Protestant landlord class.

“And people prayed to Catholic and Protestant gods respectively, conceived in mutually hostile images. Later on, for example, the god invoked in the Ulster Covenant of 1913 was hardly the same deity whose patronage was sought by the 1916 insurgents,” he said.

Like many subsequent and modern day Irish nationalists, Davis, the son of a Welsh father and an Irish mother, found it difficult to accept that many of the Protestant faith gave their political allegiance to London rather than to Dublin.

Indeed, according to Prof Murphy, Davis seemed oblivious to the fact that the “harsh militancy of his endless verses about ‘the brutal Saxon’” was unlikely to appeal to the very Protestants that he was “anxious to coax into a harmonious union of Irishmen.”

“Davis found it hard to accept that the political allegiance of most Protestants lay elsewhere just as subsequent nationalists denied the reality of two nations in Ireland,” said Prof Murphy.

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