Changing Ideals: Ireland in Transition

Tim McMahon is associate professor of Irish history at Marquette University and author of Grand Opportunity: The Gaelic Revival and Irish Society, 1893-1910 (Syracuse University Press, 2008).

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Yew trees leading to the cemetery at St. Patrick’s College, Maynooth

In June I had the opportunity to travel to Ireland for a conference on Modernism, Media and Memory.  The sessions focused on the decade from 1912 to 1922, the centenary of which government and private sponsors are planning to commemorate over the next several years.  And there is much to commemorate as, during that decade, Ireland experienced labor strife, political turmoil, a world war, a guerrilla war for independence from the United Kingdom, the partition of the island into two states (Northern Ireland and the Irish Free State, the latter of which became the Republic of Ireland in the late 1940s), a civil war in the south of the island, and communal violence in the north.

A catalogue of such events can serve as a useful introduction to what people experienced in early twentieth-century Ireland, but it merely points to what I believe were more deeply rooted long-term transformations that shaped the island during the ensuing century.  One of the more fundamental transitions had been underway for years prior to 1912, but it came to a head during the “decade of commemorations.”  I am writing of the Gaelic revival, a movement that has profoundly shaped popular and official understandings of Irish identity down to the present. 

I have written extensively about the revival over the course of my career, but my trip this summer enabled me to visit a site I had not seen before, a beautiful, peaceful place I had longed to see.  The conference took place on the campus of the National University of Ireland, Maynooth, in County Kildare.  Situated less than twenty miles from central Dublin, Maynooth’s origins as a third-level educational institution date to the 1790s when the British government endorsed the foundation of a Catholic seminary, St Patrick’s College.  Walking that campus, one cannot help but be impressed by the beauty of its older (primarily Victorian) buildings as well as its newer structures, including the Iontas Building (a state-of-the-art teaching facility built to the highest standards for energy and environmental design).  The architectural juxtaposition is important, as it exemplifies the present dynamism of this first-rate university, while reminding us that it was at one time an essential cog in producing dedicated clergymen for Irish parishes and, indeed, for Catholic churches throughout much of the English-speaking world.

That final phrase is important as well because it underscores the change in Irish mentalities that resulted from the Gaelic revival.  For much of the late-eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Irish men and women were abandoning their traditional language and cultural practices in order to participate more comfortably in an English-dominated state (the United Kingdom) and economy. That process was catalyzed by the potato famine of the 1840s, which both devastated parts of the island where Irish had remained the dominant language and sped up emigration not only to parts of the British Empire but to the United States as well.  Having English as one’s primary language before emigrating was vitally important to a quick adjustment whether one left for Liverpool or Toronto, New England or New South Wales.  In the closing years of the century, however, a small group of language enthusiasts determined to preserve Irish as a spoken language and worked to transform public attitudes toward Ireland’s cultural heritage.

One of these activists was a young priest, Father Eugene (Eoghan) O’Growney.  A graduate of Maynooth, O’Growney became the professor of Irish at his alma mater in 1891.  Only months earlier, he had assumed the editorship of one of the few journals dedicated to the Irish language and literature, Irisleabhar na Gaedhilge/The Gaelic Journal.  Under his direction, the Journal transformed from an occasional publication with about 200 subscribers into a monthly with five times the readership.  Further, shortly before taking up his post at Maynooth, and with his encouragement, Ireland’s bishops (the trustees of the seminary) agreed to require that all students—and especially those who would work in dioceses with substantial numbers of Irish-speakers—study the language.  O’Growney was responsible for their language classes and for drafting all the teaching materials he would use.  Then, in 1893, he joined with other enthusiasts, including a Protestant folklorist named Douglas Hyde and a Catholic civil servant named Eoin MacNeill, to launch the popular phase of the language revival through an organization known as Conradh na Gaeilge (the Gaelic League).  In classes, concerts, and popular entertainments, the League spread its message throughout the island, and an essential tool in that process was a five-part series of instructional primers, the Simple Lessons in Irish, authored by the modest Maynooth professor.  These volumes became ubiquitous at the turn of the twentieth century and serve as a marker of the League’s impressive growth: by 1903, the organization had sold more than 320,000 copies of Volume 1.

All of that work proved too great a strain for the author’s fragile constitution.  In 1894, exhaustion and the onset of tuberculosis forced O’Growney to leave Maynooth in search of a warmer, drier climate.  He went first to Arizona and then to California.  Although he kept up a steady correspondence with friends and allies at home, he never was well enough to return to his work, and on 18 October 1899, he died in a Los Angeles hospital. He was subsequently laid to rest in a cemetery overlooking the Pacific…until 1903, that is.

News of the priest’s death touched the hearts of his many admirers in Ireland and the USA, and over the next four years, they worked sporadically to raise enough money to bring his remains back to Ireland.  That journey came in late summer of 1903 in “a progress that featured requiem masses in seven cities presided over by nine bishops and concelebrated by dozens of priests.” In Dublin, a funeral procession through the city included some 6,000 mourners, and the Dublin Metropolitan Police estimated that the line of march extended for over a mile and a quarter in length.  They included priests, politicians, skilled workers, and common laborers.  Their number and diversity prefigured the diverse coalition of tens of thousands who rallied across the island just seven years later to demand that the recently created National University of Ireland require knowledge of Irish for every matriculating student.  After much debate, the senate of the university adopted that policy, and it went into effect at the beginning of the academic year in 1913.  Thus, just twenty years after the Gaelic League began its effort to convince the people of Ireland that their language had value, the people demanded its recognition in their new university—a sure sign that mentalities were changing.  (To confirm that change, survey data since the 1980s has indicated that anywhere from 70 to 85 percent of the population in the Republic consider the language to be essential to their nation’s identity.)

It was with such thoughts that I sought out a patch of ground near the back of the Maynooth campus this June.  There, through a stand of yew trees, I entered the campus cemetery, where the mortal remains of O’Growney now rest.  His mausoleum, designed to be reminiscent of a primitive Irish church, features decorated stone work of Celtic knots.  An inscription, in Irish and in Latin, is carved above the door: translated roughly, it asks the visitor to pray for Eoghan O’Growney, who revived the courage of the Irish.  It was a request I gladly embraced.

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