Irish Ireland

Irish Revival
"Irish Revival", Weekly Freeman, 1903
Gaelic League
Punch, 1881

Irish Ireland — a generic term for the forms of cultural nationalism that took shape during the late 19th and early 20th centuries in Ireland. In part this was a turning away from politics after the heightened drama of the Parnell period. In part it was a reaching for deeper cultural roots after a half-century of extraordinary social change – famine, evictions, emigration on a massive scale.

The Victorian English attitude to Ireland also played its part. The magazine Punch, for instance, regularly portrayed Irish people as ape-like creatures, both physically and mentally inferior. Irish-Ireland was an attempt to "create a more positive image" and "enhance self-esteem in the Irish themselves".

Gaelic League badge
Badge of the Gaelic League

The period 1890-1910 saw a revival of interest in all things "Gaelic" – language, sports, music, dancing. Sometimes this tended to the dreamy side, as in the early "Celtic" poetry of Yeats. Sometimes it was plain absurd, as in the invention of "Irish" kilts. Irish-Irelanders argued that political separation was meaningless unless underscored by cultural distinction. The movement was an attempt to de-anglicize Irish society, to "enable" Irish men and women to "grow up Irish".

Weekly Freeman, Irish language
Weekly Freeman, 1883 – an early and "anglicized" invitation to Irish

It was in this spirit that the lower middle classes, predominantly urban, attended their Gaelic League branch, earnestly mouthing Father O'Growney's Simple Lessons in Irish. The Kellys and Murphys amongst them rediscovered the "O" in their surnames, re-becoming the O'Kellys and O'Murphys. Sometimes they went so far as to spell their names in Irish (Ó Ceallaigh, Ó Murchadha) – to the bewilderment of the police and courts who refused to recognize such novelties. They wore Irish poplin and Irish tweed, and ate Irish-manufactured biscuits with their cocoa. They read Arthur Griffith's Sinn Féin newspaper. On Saturday afternoons the men played hurling at the local Gaelic Athletic Association field. On Sundays they marched in a pipe or a flute band, swishing down the thoroughfares in saffron kilts. The girls amongst them yearned for a crossroads at which to try out their slip-jig steps.

Synge, Abbey, 1911
J.M. Synge, "The Playboy of the Western World", Abbey Theatre's US tour, 1911
The peasants of the western seaboard, who alone retained a native Gaelic language, were exalted as the only "true Irish" remaining. It was partly on this account there were such riots after Synge's Playboy of the Western World (1907): he had not exalted these people, nor patronized them as in the plays of the past, but he had made them real. Much of Irish Ireland was not real. It abhorred emigration but disdained industrialization, which alone would halt the emigrant ships. Anti-semitic Irish cartoon
Poster 1913 promoting the Gaelic League's "Gaelic Language Week": the choice presented is between a proud Gael or a begging "West Briton"
Its notion of a future Ireland was at heart atavistic: a contented rural cottage-nation, self-sufficient in creameries and lace – and lauded by the urban lower middle class, safe in their clerkships and post office jobs.

Anti-semitic Irish cartoon
Irish Ireland anti-Jewish cartoon
Rural idylls are commonplace in nationalisms. Irish Ireland was a local expression of a European trend: the desire to belong and the desire to be clean. Nationalisms of their nature must create exclusions: along with the praise of Gaelic peasants came the excoriation of Protestants, Jews, "shoneens", "Castle Catholics", "West Britons" – those Irish people who found themselves undiscontented with their "anglicized" lives.
Sheppard, statue, Cuchulainn
Oliver Sheppard, statue "Death of Cuchulainn", 1911
now in the GPO, Dublin

Initially Irish Ireland turned away from politics, from the jobbery and dealery of the Irish Parliamentary Party. But gradually, in the legends and myths of the Gaelic past, it found a new paradigm of politics, one that seemed noble and clean. The beardless hero Cú Chulainn and the warrior band of Fionn mac Cumhaill pointed to deeds that were bold and direct. They were selfless to the point of sacrifice.

The Gaelic Athletic Association annual of 1907 sums up this ideal of the Gael:

"a matchless athlete, sober, pure in mind, speech, deed, self-possessed, self-reliant, self-respecting, loving his religion and his country with a deep and resistless love, earnest in thought and effective in action."

In 1911 the GAA President proclaimed,

"We want our men to train and to be physically strong so that when the time comes the hurlers will cast away the caman for the steel that will drive the Saxon from our land."

Amongst those who fought in the Easter Rising were hard-headed Fenians and hard-headed socialists. But the great many, in their hearts, were Irish-Irelanders.