An Irishman’s Diary on Douglas Hyde and changes in the Gaelic League

IRB infiltration of movement

 Douglas Hyde. Photograph: Hulton Getty

Douglas Hyde. Photograph: Hulton Getty

 

Had he not been composing his oration for O’Donovan Rossa in the final days of July 2015, it is likely that Patrick Pearse would have attended the ardfheis of the Gaelic League in Dundalk. He had been a member of the League’s executive committee since 1898, and had served as editor of its weekly paper, An Claidheamh Soluis, for six years. Apart from the usual business, the convention of 1915 would have held a special interest for Pearse, as one of the resolutions passed was to change the nature of the Gaelic League radically.

When the League was set up in 1893, one of its guiding principles had been that it should not engage in political activity. The idea was that it would thus succeed in attracting various groups in Irish society at the time, from separatist republicans to moderate unionists. Douglas Hyde insisted on maintaining this policy even after 1900, when the IRB began to infiltrate the movement. As late as 1906, Hyde’s friend James Hannay could write that “I claim to be a loyalist . . . my principles . . . have made no difference whatever to my position in the League”.

Radical wing

An Claidheamh Soluis

Not everybody in the League was in favour of total separation from Britain. Hyde employed fiery rhetoric in support of Home Rule, but regarded physical force as undesirable. After the outbreak of the first World War, the Gaelic League split between a majority who saw the war as Ireland’s opportunity, and a more moderate minority. Hyde found himself torn between the two groups. For much of his life he had thought of himself as a Gael and a nationalist, but when the sons of his friends began to die in Flanders, he discovered that he still identified with the Ascendancy. From August 1914 until July 1915, he tried to steer a middle course, insisting again and again that the League was above politics.

By the spring of 1915, the IRB faction was growing impatient with the neutral stance of the League. In June a group met privately at Thomas Clarke’s request. At this meeting, it was decided to propose a change in the constitution, so that Rule 2 would read as follows: “that the Gaelic League shall be strictly non-political and non-sectarian, and shall devote itself to realising the ideal of a Gaelic-speaking and independent Irish nation, free from all subjection to foreign influences”.

When the motion was read out to the delegates in Dundalk, Hyde objected to it, even when the words “from all subjection to foreign influences” were dropped. He walked out of the conference room after the vote, and the next day sent a letter of resignation to the executive committee.

After the 1915 ardfheis, nobody really believed that the Gaelic League was still “non-political and non-sectarian”. As the late Proinsias Mac Aonghusa put it: “Nationalism had triumphed over the Gaelic spirit.” The IRB was now firmly in control of the executive committee, and many Leaguers took an active part in the War of Independence. The men of action had little time for linguistic niceties, being more preoccupied with explosives than plosive consonants. Michael Collins and Cathal Brugha may have spoken Irish occasionally, but they carried out their military operations in English.

Alienated

A 100 years later, the Gaelic League is still with us. Since 2008, the controversial words about “a free and independent Irish nation” are no longer in its constitution. With loyalists softening in their attitude towards Irish, and with the whole island commemorating the first World War, I assume that unionists and (neo)-Redmondites would now be welcome. We can only hope that Douglas Hyde would be happy with the reconstructed Gaelic League.