This article will feature in Issue 38: Language and Culture

The Gaelic revival refers to the revival of interest in the Irish language and Irish Gaelic culture. While this broad movement emerged as early as the 1840s, it rapidly gained traction in the late nineteenth century. A variety of organisations espoused this revival, for example by promoting Gaelic literature or traditional sports. 

The Gaelic League, in many ways the vanguard of the revival, was formed in 1893, arising from an address given by its first president Douglas Hyde entitled ‘The Necessity for De-Anglicising Ireland’. This gives insight into perhaps the primary motivation behind the Gaelic revival: the assertion of Irish exclusiveness from English imperial influence, in the face of the decline of Gaelic language. Before the Famine, it had been spoken by half of the population, but rapid social change had seen its usage plummet. 

The revival has particular interest given the context of the rising tide of Irish nationalism in the years preceding the establishment of the Irish Free State. Although the Gaelic League initially claimed to be apolitical, there is an inherent link between Irish nationalism and an organisation aimed at reviving Gaelic tradition at a time of pervasive British imperial oppression. This was evident in many of the League’s members being involved with nationalist organisations – it was links formed through the League that laid the foundation for groups like the Irish Volunteers. The Gaelic League arose at the same time as the birth of Sinn Féin and the growth of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, and most of the signatories of the 1916 Proclamation were League members. 

Thus, a post-colonial approach is key to the study of the Gaelic revival, and raises many questions – firstly, whether the movement was synonymous with cultural nationalism and the Home Rule movement, or a separate celebration of culture. Douglas Hyde himself rejected his contemporaries’ attempts to pit Ireland against England, claiming neutrality. For him, the Irish had willfully “broken the continuity of Irish life” by losing their language, and his patriotism was not reactionary nationalism but concerned with preserving what he saw as a distinctly Irish culture. For others, the Gaelic revival movement symbolised a conscious effort to consolidate indigenous culture in the face of colonial domination, and was entwined with nationalist insurgency. The growth of a national Irish consciousness could not have been lost on the elites at the forefront of the revival movement, many of whom were embroiled in separatist discourse. It seems almost impossible to separate the Gaelic revival entirely from its historical context of anti-colonial dissent, in spite of Hyde’s own views. 

Secondly, questions of nationhood are pertinent. If the Gaelic revival is viewed as a form of cultural nationalism at a time of nationalist insurrection, the work of revisionist historians becomes relevant. Anderson’s modernist idea of the nation as a “cultural artefact” envisions nationalism as a modern, imagined phenomenon, which calls the causes of the Gaelic revival into question: is the culture it revives in some ways imagined? Revisionist historians have criticised Irish nationalists for presenting themselves as descendants of the ancient Gaelic nation to legitimise their struggle against the English. Yet revisionists have themselves been criticised for a failure to acknowledge that nationalism cannot emerge from nowhere, without cultural and symbolic elements which predate the modern nation. Surely then, the Irish language is an example of this kind of ancient, unifying element. The revival could not purely reflect cynical nationalist interests; idealists like Douglas Hyde demonstrated a genuine enthusiasm for the revival of traditional Irish language and culture in the face of Anglicisation. Elements of shared culture must have existed, to have been

harnessed by the movement. Yet, perhaps cultural nationalism was in some ways a device used for the purpose of developing a strong national identity, as “different” from the English colonists. Shakir Mustafa argues that this cultural decolonisation was a considerable achievement in that it helped form a spiritual centre for a national unity, mobilising resistance, but also provided a dominated consciousness with creative opportunities to move beyond the feeling of inferiority created by the material supremacy of the English. 

Further controversy arises in this notion of the Gaelic revival as an aspect of cultural decolonisation. Some have viewed it as an elitist project, and although it was a small group of intellectuals who accelerated this process of a move towards native culture, they did not work in a vacuum. Despite the revisionist depiction of this elite structure unrelated to a grassroots base, evidence suggests there was significant popular support for the Gaelic League’s brand of cultural decolonisation. Seamus Deane has argued that the Gaelic Revival reflected the vulnerable political position of the Irish as colonised, describing it as “a strategic retreat from political to cultural supremacy”. Building or even inventing cultural tradition perhaps became important as more was lost materially to colonisation. Other historians have celebrated the Revival for empowering Ireland as a site of cultural creativity. 

What engendered the Gaelic revival is clear: it was an attempt to revive the declining aspects of Irish tradition, language and heritage. Its growth reflected a growing national interest in Ireland’s past – its language, sport and folklore. Yet asking why reveals a myriad of further issues, questions of Irish nationalism, nationhood and historiography. The picture remains complex, and questions of patriotism and cultural nationalism are extremely pertinent when studying colonial resistance across the world.

By Erin Kilker