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The Gaelic League and the spatial logics of Irish nationalism

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 June 2019

Aidan Beatty
University of Pittsburgh
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The Gaelic League was founded in 1893 with the aim of reviving the Irish language, as well as promoting home-grown industries and social reform. By the turn of the century, it had become one of the most important cultural organisations in Ireland. This article studies a central element of the league's ideology and praxis, albeit one that has thus far received little attention: its promotion of a specifically nationalist understanding of Irish space. ‘Space’ was a key trope for the Gaelic League and was linked to a number of other dominant nationalist concerns: state sovereignty, race, gender and modernity. Moreover, this article argues that a focus on ‘space’ allows for a better comparative understanding of Irish nationalism, since similar spatial logics were at play in other late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century national movements both in Europe and in the (post)colonial world.

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Copyright © Irish Historical Studies Publications Ltd 2019 

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9 The league's aims were outlined in: ‘Why you should join the Gaelic League’, undated handbill (James Hardiman Library, N.U.I.G. (hereafter J.H.L.), Stephen Barrett papers, G3/1476); letter from the general secretary of the Gaelic League, on behalf of the Executive Committee, to the General Synod of the Church of Ireland, 1910 (N.L.I., Douglas Hyde papers, MS 18254, folder 6). See also, ‘Gaelic League annual report’ (1894) in Kiberd, Declan and Mathews, P. J. (eds), Handbook of the Irish revival: an anthology of Irish cultural and political writings, 1891–1922 (Dublin, 2015), pp 88–9Google Scholar.

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12 This idea of ‘museum exhibits’ draws on Harshav, Benjamin, Language in time of revolution (London, 1994), p. 4Google Scholar.

13 na Gaedilge, Connradh, Turas go Gaillimh, Bealtaine 31 (Dublin, [1903])Google Scholar. This section draws on the discussion of this pamphlet in Beatty, Masculinity and power, pp 96–7. See also ‘Turas an Oireachtais: Teamhair na Ríogh’, 1909 (J.H.L., Stephen Barrett papers, G3/1152). For background information on Gaelic League-organised trips to the Gaeltacht, their ideological content and how they were received by Gaeltacht residents, see: McMahon, Timothy G., ‘“To mould an important body of shepherds”: the Gaelic summer colleges and the teaching of Irish history’ in McBride, Lawrence W. (ed.), Reading Irish histories: texts, contexts, and memory in modern Ireland (Dublin, 2003), pp 118–39Google Scholar.

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16 This article expands on the points made in Beatty, Masculinity and power, (London, 2016), chapter 4. See also: Anwen Tormey, ‘“Everyone with eyes can see the problem”: moral citizens and the space of Irish nationhood’ in International Migration, xlv, no. 3 (Aug. 2007), pp 69–100; Hession, Peter, ‘“New Jerusalem”: constructing Jewish space in Ireland, 1880–1914’ in Beatty, Aidan and O'Brien, Dan (eds), Irish questions and Jewish questions: crossovers in culture (Syracuse NY, 2018), pp 4760CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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19 The idea that these kinds of changes in modern transport lead to an amelioration of space through time is a central idea in David Harvey's investigations of the spatial geography of capitalism, as already mentioned. I would argue that a very basic version of this time-space compression was underway in Ireland in the second half of the nineteenth century, and that capitalism and a new sense of national identity went hand-in-hand.

20 Goswami, Producing India, pp 48, 61.

21 ‘The inspiration and aim of the Gaeltacht construct was to entice the Irish people into an esteem for the hereditary language and for those who spoke it, something that would foster national identity … It is clear from the talk of revivalists that they themselves imagined the Gaeltacht as a well of Irish heritage, as a receptacle of virtue.’ Caitríona Ó Torna, Cruthú na Gaeltachta, 1893–1922: samhlú agus buanú chonstráid na Gaeltachta i rith na hAthbheochana (Dublin, 2005), pp 13–14.

22 ‘not polluted by the impact of English and Anglicisation’. Ríona Nic Congáil, Úna Ní Fhaircheallaigh agus an fhís útóipeach Ghaelach (Dublin, 2010), pp 74–5.

23 Ibid., p. 71.


24 ‘Smaointe ar Árainn’, trans. Ríona Nic Congáil in Kiberd & Mathews (eds), Handbook, pp 190–1.

25 ‘mirror image, Galltacht’. Ó Torna, Cruthú na Gaeltachta, 1893–1922, pp 16, 31–44.

26 Ibid., p. 145; emphases added.


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28 ‘Glimpses of the Gaeltacht: July to September 1915’ (U.C.D.A., Desmond Ryan papers, LA10/331).

29 ‘a taste of the anthropologist, even’. Ó Torna, Cruthú na Gaeltachta, 1893–1922, p. 144. Though An Claidheamh Soluis does here talk about ‘strong men and women’, it is worth noticing that again ‘the Gael’ is described with a male pronoun.

30 ‘Back in time, back, westward to the Gaeltacht’. Caitríona Ó Torna, ‘An Piarsach agus an Ghaeltacht: coincheapú agus bearta praiticiúla’ in Gearóid Ó Tuathaigh (ed.), An Piarsach agus 1916: briathar, beart agus oidhreacht (Indreabhán, 2016), p. 176.

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36 ‘Intermediate Education Board for Ireland: examinations, 1905, senior grade, Irish, honours’, 17 June 1905 (N.L.I., Pearse papers, P 7643).

37 This is further discussed in Beatty, Masculinity and power, pp 97–8, which also comments on the anglocentric sense of time and imperial understanding of space that occurred in other contemporary British state exams.

38 Helsinger, Elizabeth K., Rural scenes and national representation: Britain, 1815–1850 (Woodstock, 1997), p. 13Google Scholar. See also, Williams, Raymond, The country and the city (Oxford, 1973), pp 912Google Scholar.

39 See also Ellen Meiksin-Woods's discussion of the ideological work that rural nostalgia does for industrial capitalism, The pristine culture of capitalism (2nd ed., London, 2015), pp 110–11.

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41 Joep Leerssen, Remembrance and imagination: patterns in the historical and literary representation of Ireland in the nineteenth century (Cork, 1997), pp 7, 10, 35.

42 Williams, Tourism, landscape, and the Irish character, p. 196.

43 Ibid., pp 193–4.


44 Leerssen, Remembrance and imagination, p. 67. Leerssen goes on to point out that the idealisation of rural Celtic spaces and the sense that they exist outside of historical time has a broader history, from Brigadoon – a ‘Shangri-La-style’ Scottish valley, ‘where time has literally stood still’ – to Powell and Pressburger's I know where I'm going (ibid., p. 190).

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56 Bruna, J.M. Synge and travel writing, p. 20.

57 Eoin MacNeill, Inishmaan, to ‘Charlie’, 17 July 1891 (U.C.D.A., Eoin MacNeill papers, LA1/G/283); An Claidheamh Soluis, 29 Nov. 1902, quoted in McMahon, Grand opportunity, p. 136. ‘Treating’ refers to the social ritual of men buying alcoholic drinks for each other. MacNeill also felt that the Gaelic League should work to prevent late-night dancing: Eoin MacNeill to O'Daly, 12 Jan. 1904 (U.C.D.A., Eoin MacNeill papers, LA1/J/10).

58 McMahon, Grand opportunity, p. 132.

59 O'Conor-Eccles, Charlotte, Simple advice: to be followed by all who desire the good of Ireland, and especially by Gaelic Leaguers (2nd ed., Dublin, 1905)Google Scholar (copy in J.H.L., Stephen Barrett papers, G3/1189). Charlotte O'Conor-Eccles was also involved in Horace Plunkett's co-operative movement and in the teaching of home economics (McMahon, Grand opportunity, p. 153). Interestingly, the one piece of advice noticeable by its absence in this pamphlet is that Irish people should learn and speak Irish!

60 Timothy Mitchell's definition of colonialism (‘Colonising refers not simply to the establishing of a European presence but also to the spread of a political order that inscribes in the social world a new conception of space, new forms of personhood, and a new means of manufacturing the experience of the real.’) would certainly be an accurate description here. See Colonising Egypt (London, 1988), p. ix.

61 Weber, Eugen, Peasants into Frenchmen: the modernization of rural France, 1870–1914 (Stanford CA, 1976), pp 485–9Google Scholar.

62 Leerssen, Remembrance and imagination, p. 160.

63 As in India, so also in Ireland: ‘Although bourgeois nationalists, from Gandhi onward, found it necessary to mobilize the largest popular element of the colonized – the peasants – against the colonial state, they did so without handing over effective sovereignty to those in whose name they spoke.’ (Goswami, Producing India, p. 22.)

64 Piterberg, Gabriel, The returns of Zionism: myths, politics and scholarship in Israel (London, 2008), p. 37Google Scholar.

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66 As mentioned earlier, Timothy Mitchell's definition of colonialism is very useful for the present discussion. See also David Spurr's delineation of the defining elements of colonial travel-writing: surveillance; appropriation; aestheticisation; classification; debasement; negation; affirmation (the idea of a white man's burden); idealisation; insubstantialisation (the notion that a colonial space is dream-like); naturalisation (depicting native peoples as wild or animalistic or more natural); eroticisation. The accounts of Gaeltacht tourists certainly follow these patterns. See: Spurr, David, The rhetoric of empire: colonial discourse in journalism, travel writing, and imperial administration (London, 1993)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

67 Anderson, Perry, The Indian ideology (London, 2013), p. 115Google Scholar.

68 Havrelock, Rachel. River Jordan: the mythology of a dividing line (London, 2011), pp 218CrossRefGoogle Scholar, 233.

69 Chatterjee, Partha, The nation and its fragments: colonial and postcolonial histories (Woodstock, 1993), p. 6Google Scholar. This is also discussed in Beatty, Masculinity and power, p. 95.

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71 Goswami, Producing India, pp 22–5.

72 Ibid., pp 3–4, 26.


73 Ibid., p. 67.


74 Beatty, Masculinity and power, chapter 4; idem, ‘Zionism and Irish nationalism: ideology and identity on the borders of Europe’ in Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, xlv, no. 2 (Mar. 2017) pp 315–38.

75 Piterberg, The returns of Zionism, pp 128–9. This focus on absolute space is one of the elements that gave Zionism a distinct advantage over bi-nationalism and Diaspora Jewish nationalisms, which remained rooted in notions of relative space and thus were rooted in notions of Jewish difference, rather than the normalisation and rehabilitation which mainstream Zionism promised.

76 This is discussed further in Beatty, Masculinity and power, p. 96.

77 For the emergence of Palestinian nationalism, and the role played therein by the clash with Zionism, see: Khalidi, Rashid, Palestinian identity: the construction of modern national consciousness (New York, 1997), pp 89144CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

78 Divine, Donna Robinson, Exiled in the homeland: Zionism and the return to Mandate Palestine (Austin TX, 2009), p. 7Google Scholar.

79 Peleg, Yaron, Orientalism and the Hebrew imagination (London, 2005), p. 9Google Scholar.

80 To explain Zionist spatiality only through recourse to settler-colonialism elides this fuller understanding of Zionism, in favour of a politically useful (if polemical) explanatory framework. The Zionist desire to ‘know’ the spaces of Palestine was not just settler-colonialism in action, it was also part of the political epistemology of western modernity; or, to put it differently, colonialist impulses regularly lurk in the background of modernity. Colonialism and the controlled freedom of liberal modernity are often of a piece with each other. See also: Penslar, Derek, ‘Zionism, colonialism and postcolonialism’ in Journal of Israeli History, xx, nos 2–3 (2001), pp 8498CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

81 Knirck, Jason, Afterimage of the revolution: Cumann na nGaedheal and Irish politics, 1922–1932 (London, 2013), pp 105–7Google Scholar.

82 O'Leary, Philip. Gaelic prose in the Irish Free State, 1922–1939 (University Park PA, 2004), p. 90Google Scholar. The author Séamus Ó Grianna harshly criticised the state for not respecting ‘the primacy of the native speaker, particularly the native speaker from Donegal’, thus exposing a paradox at the heart of urban nationalists idealising rural Gaeltacht dwellers. Similarly, his brother Seosamh Mac Grianna suggested that anglophone Irish people could only be second class citizens in a Gaelic state (ibid., p. 72).

83 Ibid., p. 93.


84 Coimisiún na Gaeltachta: report (Dublin, 1925), pp 42, 53.

85 Ibid., p. 67.


86 Johnson, Nuala C., ‘Building a nation: an examination of the Irish Gaeltacht Commission report of 1926’ in Journal of Historical Geography, xix, no. 2 (Apr. 1993) pp 158Google Scholar, 163, 166.

87 Note from Craobh na gCúig Cúigi (N.A.I., TSCH/S 7439). This note was in Irish, with a translation by a government official. See also, in the same file, the resolutions passed at a public meeting in Ballybofey on 6 January 1927 which stated ‘is i an Ghaedhealtacht an oighridheacht is fearr agus is luchmhaire ata ag muinntir na h-Eireann agus i t-ainm Thirchonnaill, taimid ag iarraidh indiu go gcaithfear gach uile rud a dheanamh, agus a dheanamh i n-aithghiorracht, leis an oighridheacht sin a shabhail [sic]’ (‘the Gaeltacht is the best and most heroic heritage of Ireland and in the name of Donegal, we are seeking today that every thing will be done, and done with haste, to save that heritage’).

88 McMahon, Grand opportunity, p. 12.

89 Beatty, Masculinity and power, chapter 4.

90 Maher, John, Slouching towards Jerusalem: reactive nationalism in the Irish, Israeli and Palestinian novel, 1985–2005 (Dublin, 2012), p. 13Google Scholar.

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