• An bhfuil Gaelige agat? - The Gaelic Revival

    First things first, no, "An bhfuil Gaelige agat?" doesn't mean "The Gaelic Revival" in Irish... Is litterally means "Is there Irish with you?", which then means "Do you speak Irish?" => An bhfuil Gaelige agat? - The Gaelic RevivalAn bhfuil Gaelige agat? - The Gaelic Revival.

    During this semester, I took a seminar about Ireland and did an oral presentation about the Gaelic Revival. I had a partner, Red, who did the part about the use of Irish in modern society, while I talked about the historical aspects of the language, its almost loss and its revival at the end of the 19th century. Our professor insisted on our playing songs and showing Irish dances, so we gladly complied!

    This is the written version of my presentation I handed in. Of course, I am not going to publish Red's work, but I saved some of the videos we used. So, enjoy!




    A Short History of the Irish Language until Irish Independence


    When you think about "Irish music", you probably think about something like this...


    ... but perhaps not something like that:


    Well, I think this proves that Irish is a language that is very well alive and possibly even popular, to some extent. But has it always been the case?


    A. The Irish language

        Gaelic (“Gaeilge” in Gaelic) was introduced in Ireland by the Gaels, a Celtic people, probably during the first millennium BC. This people had not yet mastered writing, yet had a very rich oral tradition of epic sagas. The first Irish inscriptions date back to the 4th century AD. They were written in Ogham, and consisted only of short inscriptions such as names. Only after the introduction of the Latin alphabet along with the development of Christianism in the 6th century, were the Irish epics put into writing. Early Irish literature was thus the first vernacular prose literature in Europe north of the Alps, as well as the most varied and the most extensive one. The texts were mostly written in monasteries by monks who cooperated closely with the filid, the traditional Irish scholars. Therefore, Irish written literature has always been tinged with Christianism.

        During the Middle Ages, Irish literature developed in three main branches according to the social status of the writers: bards wrote about the glory and the death of Irish princes, whereas monks praised the Christ and the Virgin Mary and laics tended to write about more frivolous themes.

        English domination over Ireland brought about the decline of the Irish language, especially from the 16th century and the plantation policy on. Irish speaking poets were repressed and books in Irish never made it to the printer's. Written Irish literature gradually declined until it almost disappeared. This reinforced the Irish oral tradition and freed Irish poetry from its strict rules. Irish poetry thus developed into an oral poetry closer to the people's everyday language.

        During the 16th century, Irish was less and less used in fields such as trade, politics, religion and professions. Those who wanted to make a carrier in those professions had to speak English. People started to think that speaking Irish would not lead them very far, whereas speaking English might. From 1695 on, penal laws prevented a Catholic from running a public school, which means that teaching reading was left to Protestants and schools were run in English. Irish poets became wandering schoolmasters in illegal hedge schools, keeping the spoken language alive.

        According to Philip O'Leary (1994), “up to the middle of the 19th century, Irish was spoken by the majority of the population, but it was little cultivated as a written language”. Indeed, “sophisticated literacy effort demanded an educated readership”, and most of the Irish locutors were very little educated. However, by the end of the century, Irish was only spoken in a few western regions called the Gaeltachta. The main cause for this very quick decline of the Irish spoken language was the Potato Blight, which caused a big drop in the Irish population because of the deaths and emigration. At the time, the Irish themselves wanted their children to speak English, because it would help them rise in the social scale, and it would be very useful for emigration. By 1851, only one fourth of the Irish population could speak Irish (Genet, Fierobe, 1997).


    B. Reviving the Irish culture

        In 1761, the Scottish writer James MacPherson announced that he had discovered an Irish epic written by a third-century bard, Ossian, and published a “translation” of it. Although the authenticity of the raw material was challenged by scholars, the book was very popular and became the start of a European enthusiasm for what was considered as Celtic primitive literature. This coincided with the beginning of Romanticism and the (re)discovery of ruins which led scholars to take an interest in standing stones, what they thought to be remnants of the Celtic civilisation. The Antiquarian movement tried to rediscover the Irish past through its language and literature. In 1785, the Royal Irish Academy was founded and encouraged scholars to study the Irish language as a Celtic heritage. In 1792 took place a big gathering of harpists in Belfast. They wanted “the ancient music and poetry of Ireland” to be born anew. The will or need to find Ireland's roots was enhanced by the Union Act (1800).

        Paradoxically, this first movement, which was fueled by the development of the feeling of belonging to an Irish nation as opposed to the United Kingdom, did not advocate going back to speaking Irish. On the contrary, people believed that the Gaelic past which was the soul of Ireland and the Irish people should be translated into English in order to survive and be revived. English lyrics were written for traditional ballads by poets such as Thomas Moore (1779-1852). For instance, The Croppy Boy (1798) was based on the traditional air Cailín Óg a Stór. Irish songs were translated into English. Charlotte Brooke (1740-1793) was the first poet to write extensive verse translations. Such translations were always published with the original text.

        During the 19th century, many societies were founded in order to study and translate the old Irish literature. For instance, the Gaelic Society was created in 1807, the Hiberno-Celtic Society in 1818, the Celtic Society in 1845 and the Ossianic Society in 1853. The Celtic languages and cultures, including Gaelic, were also studied on the continent. For instance, Henri d'Arbois de Jubainville founded the Revue Celtique in France. Standish James O'Grady wrote several books about the History of Ireland, such as History of Ireland: the Heroic Period (1878) and The Story of Ireland (1894). He was considered by Yeats as the father of the Irish Literary Revival, and inspired many authors of this generation, such as Yeats and Lady Gregory.

        Literary engagement was often linked to political engagement. For instance, Aubrey de Vere published English Misrule and Irish Misdeeds in 1848. Lady Wilde, Oscar Wilde's mother, wrote many nationalist poems. Samuel Ferguson (1910-1886) was a protestant from Ulster in favour of the Union who wanted to collect all Irish traditions in one national identity. His posthumously published Lays of the Red Branch (1897) is considered as one of the most important works of the Irish Literary Revival. His work was a great source of inspiration for Yeats and encouraged him to discover the poetic heritage of his country.

        William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) was one of the most famous figures of the Irish Literary Revival. He was born in an Irish protestant family and spent much time in London during his youth. Authors such as Samuel Ferguson awakened him to the very rich material of Irish mythology, towards which he turned in his poetry in order to escape reality – his first works used Arcadia and India in quite the same way. He co-founded the Irish Literary Society in London in 1888, the National Literary Society in Dublin in 1892, the Irish Literary Theatre in 1897 and the Abbey Theatre in 1904. In his early years, he was a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood. As the years went by and the fight for Irish independence tightened up, he wrote political poems, such as Easter 1916, The Second Coming and Nineteen Hundred Ninteen, but also took some distance from the core of independence movement after the Easter Rising. His 1893 book The Celtic Twilight gave its nickname to the Literary Revival. Here's an extract from "Into the Twilight":

                    Out-worn heart, in a time out-worn,
                    Come clear of the nets of wrong and right;
                    Laugh, heart, again in the gray twilight;
                    Sigh, heart, again in the dew of the morn.
                    Thy mother Eire is always young,
                    Dew ever shining and twilight gray,
                    Though hope fall from thee or love decay
                    Burning in fires of a slanderous tongue. [...]

        Yeats's benefactress was Lady Gregory (1852-1932). She was a dramatist, folklorist and theatre manager. At first a unionist, she became later a nationalist and denounced the atrocities commited by the Black and Tans around Gort in anonymous articles sent to The Nation. She co-founded the Irish Literary Theatre and believed that theatre could help educate the people. She wanted the Irish people to know about their culture and learnt Irish, in order to translate Irish literature into English, but also into Kiltaranese, the peasant dialect of Kiltaran. She wrote forty plays in Kiltaranese and many more in English.

        But literature was not the only part of the Irish culture to be revived in the 18th and the 19th century. For instance, shamrock became the symbol of Ireland, in the same way that rose is England's, thistle is Scotland's and daffodil is Wales's, during the 18th century, as a reference to Saint Patrick who allegedly used it to explain the concept of Trinity. Moreover, Ireland was one of the very few countries in Europe to have native field games which were – and still are – more popular than international games such as soccer and rugby. The foundation of the Gaelic Athletic Association “may have been responsible for bringing the very word Gaelic back into common usage and giving it a positive gloss”, according to Alan Titley (2000).


    C. Reviving the Irish language

        As the Antiquarians started studying the Irish language, some individual initatives tried to revive it throughout the 19th century. For instance, at the beginning of the century, Philip Baron opened a short-lived Gaelic school in County Waterford. The archbishop of Tuam, MacHale, promoted the use of Irish in his diocese, in the churches as well as the schools. Easy Lessons or Self-Introduction in Irish by MacHale's cousin, Ulick Joseph Bourke, was serialized in The Nation from 1858 to 1862. In october 1881, the first truly Irish magazine, An Gaodhal (the Gael), was founded in Brooklyn by Michael Logan, who may have been a pupil of MacHale's. This bilingual paper was a “monthly Journal devoted to the Preservation and Cultivation of the Irish Language and the Autonomy of the Irish Nation”. Logan was a single man who financed his paper at his own expense and operated from his own house during his spare time. The following year was created the first bilingual newspaper in Ireland, Irisleabhar an Gaedhilge (the Gaelic Journal). It was more scholarly that The Gael and featured fiction and articles.

        On 25th October 1892, Douglas Hyde made a famous speech before the Irish National Literary Society in Dublin, Necessity for De-Anglicising Ireland, in which he advocated the revival of the Irish language as a national pride and bond, regardless of politics.

    "When we speak of 'The Necessity for De-Anglicising the Irish Nation', we mean it, not as a protest against imitating what is best in the English people, for that would be absurd, but rather to show the folly of neglecting what is Irish, and hastening to adopt, pell-mell, and indiscriminately, everything that is English, simply because it is English."

    "This is a question which most Irishmen will naturally look at from a National point of view, but it is one which ought also to claim the sympathies of every intelligent Unionist, and which, as I know, does claim the sympathy of many."

    "[…] the nation which was once, as every one admits, one of the most classically learned and cultured nations in Europe, is now one of the least so […]"

    "It has always been very curious to me how Irish [...] continues to apparently hate the English, and at the same time continues to imitate them"

    "for an educated Irishman […] to be ignorant of his own language – would make it at least as disgraceful as for an educated Jew to be quite ignorant of Hebrew..."

    This led to the foundation of the Gaelic League (Conradh na Gaeilge) in 1893. The League organised language classes, sent teachers in villages, organised social gatherings and entertainment, and created an annual festival in 1897. It promoted both the Irish language and culture. It created its own Irish paper in 1899, An Claidheamh Soluis (the Sword of Light). By 1908, the League had equiped itself with its own press and had opened 600 branches throughout the country. It also urged that Saint Patrick's day be declared a national day.

        One of the most famous writers in Irish at the time was Peter An tAthair Peadar Ua Laoghaire (Peter O'Leary, 1839-1920). This parish priest from County Cork was a contributor to the Gaelic Journal and wrote Séadna, which is considered as the first major work of modern literature in Irish. He wrote in “caint na ndaoine”, the “language of the people” (as opposed to a more literary form).

        Another famous writer was Pádraig Mac Piarais (Patrick Pearse, 1879-1916), who is considered as the first modernist writer in Irish. He wrote poems, short stories and plays, also in a language close to that spoken by the people. He was a contributor to The Sword of Light, founded a bilingual college in Dublin, St Enda's, founded the journal An Barr Buadh to promote revolutionary nationalism. He also took part in the foundation of the Irish Volunteers and was a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood. He died during the Easter Rising, of which he was one of the revolutionary leaders.

        There were of course dissentions among the revivalists. For instance, people did not all agree as to which Irish should be used. Should writers pick up where the written tradition had stopped in the 17th century, or stick to the spoken language which had gone on evolving for two centuries? Most of the scholars and writers committed themselves to “cainnt na ndaoine”, the “language of the people”. For instance, O'Leary wrote in a letter in 1900: “How I detest Keating's big words! I tell you, with all due respect to him Keating is a fraud. His Irish is not true Irish. It was not the living Irish of his time. A single particle of the true raciness of the language is not to be found in him.”, whereas Pearse rejected the imposition of “dead linguistic and literary forms on a living language”.

        Moreover, one may discern two possible attitudes for the revivalists towards the Irish language and culture. The nativists would focus inward and look back to the past in order to try to revive a glorious past, whereas the progressivists would accept the reality of the discontinuity of the Irish language and culture and look forward to the future, assimilating whatever was lacking in the current state of the culture. But most revivalists cannot be simply said nativist or progressivist, since most of them shared both views, depending on the topic.


        Thus, the question of the Irish language was not only a catholic nationalist issue, since many protestant and/or unionists also promoted its revival. Yet, it was very closely tied with political considerations.

        Irish became an official language of Ireland when the Constitution was written in 1937. Article 8 states:

        • The Irish language as the national language is the first official language.

        • The English language is recognised as a second official language.

        • Provision may, however, be made by law for the exclusive use of either of the said languages for any one or more official purposes, either throughout the State or in any part thereof.

       The Constitution itself is written in both languages, and in case of conflict, the Irish version takes precedence. However, the Irish version is often a translation of the English one. Irish thus became a compulsory subject in government-funded schools and was mandatory to enter civil service.


    D. The limits of the Gaelic Revival

        The main limit encountered by the Gaelic Revival was that the people did not necessarily want to speak Irish again. As we have said above, speaking English offered better options in life and many people did not see the point of learning the language. Even after Irish independence, most people went on speaking only English, and view learning Irish at school as rather folkloric and not very useful. With time, resentment arose from the fact that failing the Irish paper of the Leaving Certificate meant failing the whole exam, or that speaking Irish was a requirement for entering the civil service. Those rules were abolished respectively in 1973 and 1974.

        Thus, there was a real gap between the ideals of the learned scholars and writers and the reality experienced daily by the people. For instance, no market research was done before publishing books in Irish. Some of them sold to thousands, but other issues did not sell ten copies. Indeed, the authors did not write what the public wanted to read, but rather what they felt they should write, what they thought was lacking.

        Moreover, most of the Irish locutors were very little educated and did not necessarily read English literature either. As O'Leary wrote in a letter in 1900, It is easier to write Irish dialogue than continuous Irish prose. The reason is not far to seek. Irish has lived for the past 2 or 3 centuries, only in the people's mouths and in the utterances of the poets... It is a speech addressed by a speaker to a listener, not by a writer to the general public. A writer of Irish has really, as yet, no general public to address himself to.”

        Some Irish authors also criticised and denounced the condescending ideals of the revivalists, in opposition to the reality of Irish daily life. For instance, in Ulysses, James Joyce has an old woman supposedly allegorically embodying the Irish nation answer “Is it French you are talking, sir?” to an English student who talked to her in Gaelic. In An Béal Bocht (The Poor Mouth) in 1941 by Flann O'Brien, when the main character is asked his name by the schoolmaster, he answers following the Gaelic customs “Bonaparte, son of Michelangelo, son of Peter, son of Owen, son of Thomas' Sarah, grand-daughter of John's Mary, grand-daughter of James, son of Dermot.” and is harshly scolded by the master who replies “Yer name is Jams O'Donnell.”




    Nowadays, people learn Irish at school, the road signs are bilingual, there are TV channels and radio stations in Irish, or partly in Irish...

    There are websites where you can learn Irish and read about the Irish culture. For instance, here's my [very short] selection of phrases in Irish you can learn on Gaelic Matters:

    - Blessing: Beimid ag ól! (Let's be drinking)

    - Toast: Sláinte chugat. (Good health to you)

    - Saying: Is fearr Gaeilge briste, ná Béarla clíste. (Broken Irish is better than clever English.)

    - Curse: Go n-ithe an cat thú is go n-ithe an diabhal an cat. (May the cat eat you, and may the devil eat the cat.)


    Some young people are proud of their heritage and have decided to take a step further: they sing in Irish!! An bhfuil Gaelige agat? - The Gaelic Revival

     OMG! Now I so wish I could speak Irish!! An bhfuil Gaelige agat? - The Gaelic Revival

    Although it sounds like a quite difficult language...


    Also listen to this... Aren't they so talented?


    There are also Youtube channels in Irish and/or about Irish:



    Also try this one: can Irish people tell Irish from the Sims language?


    So, who said going to college has to be boring? We sure had a lot of fun preparing this presentation... Hope you enjoyed it! An bhfuil Gaelige agat? - The Gaelic Revival





    Fierobe, C., Genet, J. (1997). La littérature irlandaise. Paris: A. Colin.

    Mikowski, S. (2001). La place du gaélique dans le roman irlandais contemporain. in dir. Jacquin D. La langue gaélique en Irlande hier et aujourd'hui. Villeneuve d'Ascq: Presses universitaires du Septentrion.

    O'Leary, P. (1994). The Prose Literature of the Gaelic Revival. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press.

    Titley, A. (2000). A Pocket History of Gaelic Culture. Dublin: O'Brien Press.





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