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  • Print publication year: 2006
  • Online publication date: March 2008

5 - The Irish Renaissance, 1880–1940: literature in Irish



Just three years after its foundation, the Society for the Preservation of the Irish Language (SPIL) proclaimed in its annual report for 1879 that its object was ‘the Preservation and Extension of the Irish as a Spoken Language’, and that in order to achieve this end it would, among other things, encourage ‘the production of a Modern Irish Literature – original or translated’. By 1882, the Gaelic Union, a dissenting offshoot of SPIL, had taken a significant initial step in this ambitious direction by founding the bilingual journal Irisleabhar na Gaedhilge (The Gaelic Journal), a periodical that would appear, somewhat sporadically, until 1909, after 1893 under the management of the Gaelic League. The audacity of SPIL’s commitment to fostering a modern literature in Irish – as opposed to the safer and more obvious goal of collecting and preserving manuscript materials from the distant and recent past – was underscored in 1909 by the poet and scholar Tadhg Ó Donnchadha (‘Torna’) (1874–1949), who, looking back on the Gaelic literary landscape of 1882, wondered whether there had then been more than fifty people in the whole country who could read, much less write, Irish in the native script. While it should be evident from the chapter by Gearóid Denvir in volume 1 of this history that Ó Donnchadha was exaggerating for effect to pay tribute to the courage of those who founded Irisleabhar na Gaedhilge in such inauspicious circumstances, there can be no doubt that the focus on original literature so early in the Revival was an act of faith and hope as much as it was a rational decision based on an objective assessment of the contemporary linguistic and cultural climate.

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