Tuesday, 9 February 2016

The Gaelic League and Irish republicanism

Sometimes the mask of the Irish language movements slips and we see how much it is political as well as cultural.

There was a letter in the Irish News (8 February 2016) from Fionntan McCarry in Ballycastle and it was a reminder of some of the history of the oldest and foremost Irish language organisation in Ireland, the Gaelic League, otherwise known as Conradh na Gaeilge.
This is the text of the letter:
I'm requesting some assistance in putting together an exhibition on the Gaelic League commemorations of Roger Casement held in Murlough, Co Antrim, throughout the 1950s and 1960s.  Casement's requested grave site  was deciated by Eamon de Valera on his first visit north as taoiseach at the inaugural Casement Sunday on August 2 1953, as part of the campaign for repatriation that led to the state funeral in Dublin in 1965.  I have a lot of the official photographs that were left with us, as well as the advertising materials, a programme signed by Sergeant Kavanagh and The Irish News reports.  What is missing though are photographs taken by those in attendance, as around two dozen cameras can be seen in the press photographs.  Any photographs or memories of subsequent years would be most welcome.

Fionntan McCarry, Ballycastle
I look forward to this exhibition, which will confirm what many of us have been saying about the Irish language movement for some time, and I hope that those behind the project get plenty of photographs and plenty of information.
Today it is often said that Sinn Fein politicised the Irish language but it was politicised long before Sinn Fein took it up as the main weapon in their cultural war.  Yes it was Sinn Fein that coined the slogan 'every word spoken in Irish is another bullet in the freedom struggle' but the association of the Irish language with Irish nationalism and republicanism goes back long before that.
If we go to the start of the Gaelic revival and the formation of the Gaelic League in 1893, it was clear even then that the Gaelic League was an organisation dedicated to the advancement of 'cultural nationalism' and not just culture.
It is not really surprising therefore that the annual Casement Sunday event at Mulough Bay in north Antrim was a 'Gaelic League commemoration'.
Roger Casement is one of the heroes of Irish republicanism and Irish nationalism and he was executed in 1916 in Pentonville prison for 'high treason'.  His body was then buried within the prison walls.

The campaign to repatriate his remains to Ireland was one the issues on which Irish republicans campaigned and the annual commemoration at Murlough was an opportunity for participating organisations, including the Gaelic League and the GAA, to assert their nationalism.  Participants also included the Old IRA and later these organisations were joined by the Wolfe Tone Society, which was a front organisation for the contemporary IRA.
They hoped that Casement could be buried in Northern Ireland, at Murlough, but in 1965 the Labour government of Harold Wilson sent his remains back to the Irish Republic.  After a state funeral organised by the government of the Irish Republic the remains of Roger Casement were reburied at Glasnevin.

The forthcoming exhibition will tell the story of the annual Casement Commemorations at Murlough Bay and will serve to expose the true nature of the Gaelic League in those years after 1953.  This was not simply an Irish language organisation, it was an Irish nationalist organisation as well.

The letter-writer in the Irish News states that on 2 August 1953 the gathering was addressed by Eamon de Valera.  However he omitted to say that it was also addressed by Sean MacBride and Frank Aiken, two men who had something in common - they were both former chiefs-of-staff of the IRA.

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