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24 September 2014
Wars and Conflict - 1916 Rising

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Image of a Gaelic League poster promoting independence from Britain

Gaelic League poster contrasting a proud independent Ireland with a dejected Ireland under British control ©

The term ‘new nationalism’ came to describe the rise from the 1890’s of a more uncompromising nationalist spirit in Ireland. Among the manifestations of this changing attitude were the growth of new forms of cultural nationalism – the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA), Gaelic League (GL) and literary revival, and also the occurrence of a number of important political initiatives – the birth of Sinn Féin, the rejuvenation of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) and emergence of a stronger labour movement.

The growth of cultural nationalism reflected a growing national interest in Ireland’s past – its sport, language, mythology and folklore. The GAA was formed in 1884 by a teacher, Michael Cusack. He believed that the spread of English games was undermining Ireland’s national identity. The timing of his initiative was related to the intense political excitement in rural areas then caused by the ‘land war’ - the conflict between small, native tenant farmers and their mainly English landlords. Its popular appeal reflected also the sudden growth in spectator sport seen in Britain at this time as well. Initially, the Association concentrated on the promotion of athletics and later Gaelic football in particular, and also hurling. From the outset, the GAA attracted substantial support from the IRB whose members saw the movement as a potential recruiting ground and who by 1886 dominated its executive. The GAA developed as an openly nationalist organisation, excluding from membership those who watched or played ‘imported’ games and all members of British police or armed forces.

Subsequently, in 1893, the Gaelic League was formed. Its founders, including Eoin MacNeill and Douglas Hyde, aimed through this movement to restore Irish as a spoken and a literary language. They regarded Irish as a vital repository of Ireland’s culture and of the country’s contribution to world civilisation. Its revival was also seen as a means of preserving Ireland’s national identity and of ‘de-Anglicising’ the Irish people. Due to rapid social change the usage of Irish had declined sharply; before the famine it was spoken by, perhaps, half of Ireland’s population but by the late 19th century it seemed in danger of becoming merely an academic subject.

The logo of the Abbey Theatre, Dublin

The logo of the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, which was at the centre of the literary revival ©

By 1908, the League had 600 branches nationwide. Its activities included the provision of Irish classes, organising of Irish speaking social gatherings, publication of a newspaper, sponsoring of Irish verse and prose and the mounting of campaigns to have the language integrated into the national educational system. Hyde especially insisted that the GL should remain non-political. But it tended to attract those who were politically minded. In highlighting Ireland’s distinct linguistic and cultural tradition, it provided powerful arguments for its right to full independence and nationhood. Also the IRB once more used the movement as a recruiting ground and by 1914 had effectively taken over the League, prompting Hyde’s resignation as President.

The contemporary ‘literary revival’ was a further expression of cultural nationalism. The term refers to a group of poets, prose-writers and playwrights who for inspiration looked to Irish myths, folklore and popular culture. The main focus of the movement was to use Gaelic material as the basis for a revitalised Irish literature in English. It was dominated by writers from middle-upper class Protestant backgrounds who broadly sympathised with Ireland’s claim to independence and hoped their writings would help bring together all of the nation’s religions and classes. Apart from the exceptional quality of their output, an enduring legacy of the movement was the establishment of the Abbey Theatre in 1904 – its purpose, to produce Irish national drama. Overall, the 'literary revival' also heightened a sense of national feeling and identity in Ireland. Thus, after the Rising, one of its members, WB Yeats queried: 'Did that play of mine [Cathleen Ni Houlihan] send out certain men the English shot?'

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Image of Professor Declan Kiberd Declan Kiberd, Professor of Anglo-Irish Literature, University College, Dublin
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Image of Dr. Eamon Phoenix Dr. Eamon Phoenix, Political Historian, Stranmillis University College, Belfast
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Image of Professor Alvin Jackson Alvin Jackson, Professor of Modern History, Queen's University of Belfast
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Image of Dr. Brian Barton Dr. Brian Barton, Historian Open University
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