Medievalism and the Gaelic Revival

As I prep for my Irish history class next semester, I’ll share with you the paper I presented at the medievalism conference last fall at Georgia Tech. No notes, as it was a conference paper – apologies!

It is a truth generally acknowledged that nineteenth-century medievalism went hand-in-hand with nineteenth-century nationalism. The Roman Empire was universal, but European nations had their origins in the Middle Ages, and nationalists saw great value in illuminating those origins by means of buttressing their nations’ identities and distinguishing themselves from their neighbors. Such scholarly efforts as the Monumenta Germaniae Historica, the Rolls Series, or the publications of the Early English Text Society were, at least in part, aspects of this project. That political nationalism – that is, the idea that every nation deserves its own sovereign state – led to a great deal of self-righteousness, xenophobia, and violence goes without saying, although I don’t believe that our entire discipline is thereby morally tainted – I take it for granted that illuminating the past is a good thing regardless of the uses to which it is then put. That cultural nationalism – that is, the standardization and promotion of allegedly national customs – involved a great deal of invention and of effacement of minority or local traditions also goes without saying, although as Anthony Smith pointed out, nationalists were not free to make things up out of whole cloth; they had to promote things that were already familiar in one way or another with a large subsection of their respective nations.

One of the more successful nationalist movements in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was that of Ireland. The Irish Parliamentary Party, founded in 1871, and dedicated to achieving Home Rule for Ireland, eventually succeeded in getting a Home Rule Bill passed in 1914 right as the United Kingdom entered the First World War. Suspended for the duration of the hostilities, the Bill was obviated by the Easter Rising of 1916, which eventually led to the formation of the Dail Eireann and its successful prosecution of a war of independence against the British – although at first the Irish had to settle for Dominion status within the British Empire, and for the partition of their island for the sake of a concentration of unionists in the northeast, an issue that is still with us.

Adjacent to this political movement was a cultural one known as the Gaelic revival. By the late nineteenth century the British Empire was an economic and political juggernaut, and British culture, at least to the British and to a substantial number of Irish, was self-evidently superior to any local customs. Speaking English would open doors, and allow a kid from rural Ireland opportunities that other people would never enjoy. But as everyone knows, British rule of Ireland, dating back to the twelfth century, was unjust and at times terribly oppressive, and the deliberate effacement of Irish culture for the sake of the British empire could be seen an example of “gaining the world but losing one’s soul.” Throughout the nineteenth century, therefore, numerous Irish people attempted to revive aspects of the Irish medieval past as an antidote to British influence. Chief among these was the Irish language, a form of Insular Celtic designated Goidelic that was a powerful symbol of Irishness, given that no one else spoke it. British administrations and even the Catholic Church had promoted the use of English over Irish, which itself had taken a major hit when the Irish potato famine had killed hundreds of thousands of native speakers and forced the emigration of hundreds of thousands more. Even many Irish people felt that the language was an embarrassment, a non-literate peasant’s language and a relic of the past. Nonetheless, it is a shame when a language dies out entirely, and a series of organizations throughout the nineteenth century sought to reverse this trend, starting with the Ulster Gaelic Society in 1830, followed by the Society for the Preservation of the Irish Language in 1876, the Gaelic Union in 1880, and finally the Gaelic League in 1893. Each successive organization was a little less learned and a little more activist – that is, the Ulster Gaelic Society might have been interested in publishing editions of medieval Irish texts, but the Gaelic League wanted to promote the actual use of the language on a daily basis by ordinary Irish people. Douglas Hyde, founder of the Gaelic League and a future president of Ireland, spoke of the “Necessity for De-Anglicising Ireland” for the sake of self-respect. To this end the League published the Gaelic Journal, but more importantly a weekly newspaper An Claidheamh Soluis, rendered in English as The Sword of Light, and numerous books in Irish. Its national organization and numerous branches throughout the country promoted the daily use of the language, through classes and conversation groups, and lobbied for its inclusion as a compulsory school subject and requirement for admission to the National University of Ireland. This activism bore fruit under the Irish Free State, when knowledge of Irish was made compulsory for schoolteachers and civil servants. The Irish Constitution of 1937 names Irish as the first official language of the country, and it is currently protected and promoted in various ways by the Department of Education and the Department of Culture, Heritage, and the Gaeltacht.

Unfortunately for Irish nationalists, their language project was not nearly as successful as, say, the revival of Hebrew was among Jewish immigrants to Palestine. My personal feeling is that there is something structural about the English language that impedes its speakers from easily learning other languages, which means that once English takes hold of a population it is difficult to root out – and Irish is not the most easy language to learn anyway, if you are approaching it as non-native speaker. Furthermore, Irish is complicated by the fact that it is subdivided into three major dialects, giving lots of opportunity for mutual incomprehension. Thus, of necessity, a large body of Irish medievalism took place through the medium of English. This movement went by a number of names, including the Irish Literary Revival, the Irish Literary Renaissance, or the Celtic Twilight. Medieval Irish myths were translated into English and published, such as by the Ossianic Society, founded in Dublin in 1853, whose members sought to translate Irish literature from the “Fenian period of Irish history,” “Fenians” being the “fianna,” small, semi-independent warrior bands of Irish mythology, particularly as depicted in the Fenian Cycle, where some of them are led by the legendary Finn Mac Cool. Modern authors took this material as a source for their own works, including Lady Augusta Gregory’s rendering of the myth of the hero Cuchulain, or several works of William Butler Yeats which referenced the myth, such as his poem Cuchulain’s Fight with the Sea (1892), or the play On Baile’s Strand (1904). Yeats had founded the Irish National Literary Society in 1892, to publish such works, and he, Gregory, and others founded the Irish Literary Theatre in 1899 and then the Abbey Theatre in 1904 as a vehicle for staging Irish plays by Irish writers, many of them medieval in their theme. Some Gaelic League members were suspicious of this effort for taking place through the medium of English, but there can no doubt about the national sentiment of its members.

In the medieval Ulster Cycle, the hero Cuchulain, as a boy, “went forth with his hurley and his ball.” He encountered a group of boys who “threw their three fifties of balls at him, but he caught them all against his chest. They threw their three fifties of hurleys at him, but he warded them off and took an armful on his back.” Whatever this describes, it is apparent that by the time of the Statutes of Kilkenny, imposed by the English crown in 1362 in an attempt at preventing English settlers from going native, the Irish played “horlings, with great sticks and a ball upon the ground, from which great evils and maims have arisen.” (The statutes enjoined that settlers draw bows, and throw lances, and participate in other gentlemanlike games instead.) The antiquity of hurling, and the fact that the English had tried to ban it, was irresistible to Irish nationalists, and it became the main focus of the Gaelic Athletic Association, founded in 1884 in Thurles, Co. Tipperary, by Michael Cusack and six others. Hurling was still a rural pastime in nineteenth century Ireland, played with sticks and a ball in many local variants. The GAA’s task was to standardize a set of rules for the game, so that any team anywhere could play any other team, and to organize those teams into leagues. In this way the GAA was no different from similar contemporary organizations in Britain and America, such as the National Association of Base Ball Players, the Football Association, or the Rugby Football Union. The hurling game that the GAA formalized eventually featured a fifteen-man side, a 90 by 150-meter field, two methods of scoring (in the net for three points, over the net for one), and various permissible ways of handling and passing the ball. In order to counter the popularity of the two British codes of football (that is, soccer and rugby), the GAA devised its own code, which it christened Gaelic football. It deliberately used the same size of field, number of players, and methods of scoring as hurling, and seemed to be a compromise between soccer and rugby, solving certain problems of both – it allows handling the ball by hand, forward passing, and physical contact between players, but not tackling or rucking. Most importantly, both hurling and Gaelic football were cast as ineffably Irish and would transform the young men playing them into healthy, tough, and self-respecting members of the Irish nation. These sports were certainly cast as more manly than the effete, non-contact, and very British sports of soccer and cricket.

The GAA set itself to promoting not only these putatively Irish sports, but the Irish language and Irish music and dance as well. If the Irish are known for anything, it is for their distinctive style of music, and for their bardic tradition dating back to the Middle Ages. To the twelfth-century Gerald of Wales, the Irish were “incomparably more skilled in playing musical instruments than any other people.” Their movements were quick and lively, and their melodies sweet and pleasant. “They glide so subtly from one mode to another, and the grace notes so freely sport with such abandon and bewitching charm around the steady tone of the heavier sound, that the perfection of their art seems to lie in their concealing it.” Gerald mentions the tympanum and the harp as being the two instruments of Ireland; Henry VIII chose the harp as the heraldic symbol of Ireland when he elevated the country to the status of a kingdom in 1543, in order to impose his Reformation on it. The Statutes of Kilkenny alluded to the Irish bardic tradition when it forbade “Irish agents” like “pipers, story-tellers, bablers, [and] rimers” from coming among the English settlers, on the principle that they were acting as spies. This rich and anti-English tradition was, like hurling, an important aspect of nineteenth century Irish cultural nationalism, and the Gaelic League sponsored an Irish arts festival called the Oireachtas na Gaeilge from 1897. Based on the Welsh Eisteddfod, the festival featured readings of original poetry and the performance of traditional Irish music.

Nationalists promoted other aspects of medieval Irishness, such as the distinctive Celtic interlacing patterns found in medieval manuscripts, distinctive Irish typefaces, and medieval symbols like the Irish wolfhound and the Irish round tower (which contrasts with the square Norman tower). But it is important to note that, like Renaissance humanists, Irish nationalists admired a certain period in the past, but cherry-picked what they wanted from it, and even then changed it quite a bit to suit their own situation. The sports and the language were going to rescue the Irish from the shame of “West Britainism.” Nationalists, though, did not see that it was necessary to revive medieval dress, styles of housing, or modes of production – the conveniences of the modern world allowing them the leisure to revive the Irish Middle Ages in other ways. The distinctive Irish style of horseback riding (that is, no saddle or stirrups), mentioned both by Gerald of Wales and in the Statutes of Kilkenny, also went unnoticed. Religion was off the table. Whether Catholic or Protestant, Irish nationalists saw no need to attempt to revive the Celtic Christianity that had caused so much trouble at the Synod of Whitby, or which “saved civilization” in the words of Thomas Cahill. The distinctive role of monasteries, the unique penitential system, and the novel calculation of the date of Easter were not seen as fit for revival. The Roman Catholic Church had ended these things, but here was an international body that most Irish nationalists could get behind, especially as it was not a Church that many British people belonged to. Finally, no one sought to revive any medieval Irish forms of law or government. The organization of the country into tuatha (basic geographical units containing about 5000 people), ruled by petty kings, then provincial kings, and then a high king, all governed by the Brehon Laws, was not an issue in the way that language was. The organization of the country into counties under Common Law was too useful or entrenched to be seriously challenged.

But what about political nationalism? What was the relationship between the medievalist cultural revival and the desire for independence, procured either constitutionally or violently, and ending up in the very modern forms of either Home Rule, or complete republican independence? Most cultural organizations eschewed politics, at least openly. The Gaelic League made no formal statement on how Ireland was to be governed. But the Gaelic League was also the school of revolution. Many future political leaders first met through the League, and the majority of the signatories of the declaration of the Irish Republic in 1916 were members of the League, including Patrick Pearse, who had been very active and had served as the editor of its newspaper An Claidheamh Soluis. The GAA, as well, was not ostensibly political, and yet it was infiltrated by the Irish Republican Brotherhood, a secret society dedicated to overthrowing British rule in Ireland, who recruited through it, largely on the principle that strenuous physical activity was ideal preparation for armed rebellion. During the war of independence, some GAA teams were simply undercover units of the Irish Republican Army. In both of these cases, therefore, we see an illustration of the principle that “politics is downstream from culture.”

Anyone studying Irish history will find it difficult not to sympathize with the Irish. But their oppressors were also the bringers of modernity. The question that every Irish nationalist had to grapple with was: how can we retain our self-respect while still living in the twentieth century? How can we be unmistakably Irish while maintaining some manner of relevance? The answer was the selective medievalism of the language, the literature, the sports, and the music, all of which admittedly involved a certain amount of invention, but which were otherwise compatible with modern life. The English language may have opened doors, but one’s own language is a most powerful symbol, a sentiment with which other colonized peoples of Europe, such as the Finns, Hungarians, Czechs, or Poles, would certainly agree. A language goes to the very core of one’s being, but it’s flexible enough that one can still live in the present while speaking it. Organized sporting leagues, as well, are very modern, but why not organize them around something putatively Irish, instead of British? Katherine Sims wrote that the “neo-medieval fantasies indulged in by enthusiasts are easy to caricature” but “if the return to an imagined Gaelic world represented for some an escape from the pressures of modernization, for others language revival was the means by which Ireland could enter the modern world, without losing its identity.” (Others have noticed this effect as well: Jackson Lears pointed out how turn-of-the-century American medievalism served to reinvigorate American capitalism.)

Of course, as with all other forms of nationalism, Irish nationalism, whether cultural or political, was exclusive. Nationalism excludes those who aren’t members, or at least rearranges social values so that some people who aren’t judged to be Irish enough lose out. Even if the Irish were the subaltern in their relationship to the English, plenty of Irish people did not mind speaking English, and having to learn Irish in middle age in order to keep one’s job as a civil servant could not have been fun. Furthermore, citizenship in the United Kingdom and British Empire did open doors, and to many people Irish independence must have seemed like the Brexit of its day, although trade and emigration were not drastically impaired with independence. And yet, it’s not as if no injustice existed before independence, and the pride and self-respect of self-government, and the state promotion of putatively Irish customs, were welcomed by a healthy majority of Irish people. The fact is that many academics are too willing to see only the bad side of nationalism, when in fact, like religion, it has positive as well as negative qualities. The revived Middle Ages that underlay the Irish national project may have been selective and reconstituted, but they were not in and of themselves harmful – and the publication of Irish medieval texts or works of literature based on them a great service to scholarship and humanity.