‘The Legacy of Douglas Hyde’ - The Inaugural Douglas Hyde Lecture
University College Dublin, 24 September 2018
A dhaoine uaisle,
Gabhaim buíochas leat i dtosach, a Uachtaráin, as an bhfáilte chroíúil a chur tú rómham. Is mór an onóir dom an deis seo a bheith agam an chéad Léacht Dhubhghlas de hÍde a thabhairt, agus déanaim comhghairdeas freisin le hOllscoil na hÉireann as an tionscnaíocht a léirigh siad agus gabhaim buíochas leo as an onóir a thabhairt dom an chéad léacht sa tsraith a thabhairt.
It is so fitting that University College Dublin and the National University have chosen to honour Douglas Hyde by inaugurating a lecture series, for he was not only the first Professor of Modern Irish in UCD but also one of the leading members of the Fry Commission which recommended the establishment of a national university. The majority of members on the Commission – it is worth mentioning that the Fry Commission advocated the inclusion of Trinity as a constituent college within the new university. For good or ill – and I am sure that there are many divergent opinions on this - that recommendation has yet to be given effect, despite the best efforts of Donagh O’Malley, who proposed merging the Trinity and UCD in April 1967.
It is with some trepidation that I offer my own thoughts this evening on the legacy of Douglas Hyde for the influence of his thoughts and actions on our national culture have been so vast as to still profoundly permeate our society to this day. Not only that, in my own political career, I have had the honour to hold two offices upon which Douglas Hyde has had a decisive and lasting influence.
Mar Aire Ealaíon, Cultúir agus Gaeltachta, bhí sé dodhéanta beartas cultúrtha a chur le chéile dár bpoblacht gan fís de chultúr ár náisiúin a chuir de hÍde chun cinn san óráid cháiliúil sin dá chuid a thug sé os comhair an Chumainn Náisiúnta Litríochta i Halla Laighean i mBaile Átha Cliath ar an 25 Samhain 1892 dar teideal.
Then too and so much later, as our first President, it fell to Douglas Hyde to provide a frame for the new office, not only in establishing its precedents, but to explore its potential within the ambit of the Constitution of 1937, a period explored in Dr Brian Murphy’s recent biography, Forgotten Patriot: Douglas Hyde and the Foundation of the Irish Presidency. It was Éamon de Valera, as Taoiseach – itself a new title, if not a quite new office, created by the Constitution – who at the inauguration of President Hyde in St. Patrick’s Hall in Dublin Castle, addressed the new President, first in Irish, then in English:
‘In you we greet the successor of our rightful princes, and, in your accession to office, we hail the closing of the breach that has existed since the undoing of our nation at Kinsale.’
This might have been, as the historian Dr Patrick Maume has observed, a complex statement, pregnant with symbolism - visual, historical and political. I find it difficult not to wonder at its excision of any republican tendency as might have been described as the ‘French’ ideas that had informed the Young Irelanders.
The ceremony was taking place in Dublin Castle. The magnificent painted ceiling of St. Patrick’s Hall portrays three vistas, one of which is titled ‘Henry II receiving the submission of the Irish chieftains’.
At the time it was conceived, it may have been a convenient visual metaphor, albeit one with dubious historical content, ignoring the many centuries of resistance by Irish, Norman-Irish, and Anglo-Irish people to the authority of the Crown. Thus at that first inauguration it provided a fitting backdrop for Éamon de Valera to echo the lamentations of the Irish poets in the centuries that followed the disaster at Kinsale, a period of uncertainty that the poet and scholar Dáibhí Ó Bruadair would refer as ‘briseadh an tseanghnáthaimh’ – the breaking of the old customs.
Is léir go raibh obair Dhubhghlas de hÍde ina inspioráid freisin do Dhónal Ó Corcaire agus é ag iarraidh traidisiún mór filí Gaelach na Mumhan a shábháil, a d’fhoilsigh ‘The Hidden Ireland’ i 1924. Go deimhin, rinne Ó Corcaire cur síor ar féin ag faire ar léiriú ar cheann de dhrámaí Ghaeilge de hÍde mar 'my first glimpse of the Gaeltacht'.
D’ár ndóigh, chuir scoláirí, Seán Ó Faoláin a bhí ina protégé ag Ó Corcaire tráth ina measc, in aghaidh an phríomh-smaoineamh lárnach a bhí thaobh thiar de The Hidden Ireland ón am a foilsíodh é – gur teanga frithbheartach ab ea í an Ghaeilge síos trí na céadta fhada idir Cionn tSáile agus 1798.
It certainly had a profound influence on the ideas of Éamon de Valera, strengthening his resolve to complete what he saw as the great work commenced by Douglas Hyde and others, in terms of the revival of the Irish language. It also displaced a rich source in the traditional genealogy of Irish republicanism, that of an unbroken chain of liberty forged by the United Irishmen, Young Ireland, the Fenians through to the men and women of 1916.
When the Taoiseach hailed the new President as ‘inheriting the authority… and the respect which the Gaels ever gave to those whom they recognised to be their rightful chiefs’ it was more than an invocation of an ancient lineage of rightful authority, it was a declaration of an expansive, if specific, vision of nationality.
The ancestors of Douglas Hyde, after all, were not imagined ancient Gaels – Douglas Hyde tells us that his ancestor, Arthur Hyde, 'was a friend of the Queen's favourite, that rascal Dudley’. Perhaps as a consequence, Arthur Hyde, received a grant of 12,000 acres as part of the plantation of Munster, the very enterprise that had provoked the Hugh O’Neill to rebel against the Crown and launch his people on the path that led directly to the defeat at Kinsale.
The political symbolism of greeting the descendent of the Elizabethan planter as the heir to the Gaelic princes that his ancestor had displaced was not lost to those assembled in St. Patrick’s Hall, 80 years ago, on the 25th of June 1938.
Ireland was not to be a community of blood – an absurd proposition, but one that ruled sway in Europe – but rather a nation bound together by its spiritual, scholarly and cultural aspirations. It is perhaps easy to dismiss this rhetoric today in its entirety – for its fictional idealism obscured not only the complex reality the 16th and 17th century but, those more than conservative tendencies that had emerged in the newly independent state, an authoritarian and carceral state, one that was not only censorious of intellectual dissent, but tendances that privaleged the status of property and its associated respectability, contained exclusions on the basis of gender and class. Yet, if any single individual represented those idealised qualities of mind and spirit suggested by the Taoiseach, it was Douglas Hyde – Éamon de Valera addressed the new President as ‘a scholar, a Chraoibhín dhílis, you symbolise for us the things by which our people set most store’.
Douglas Hyde was not born to the grandeur of Carraig an Éide, Castle Hyde – the seat of his ancestors on the River Blackwater – but at Frenchpark in Co. Roscommon, where his father, Arthur, was the local Church of Ireland rector. His mother, Elizabeth, was the daughter of the John Orson Oldfield, the Archdeacon of Elphin. It is important, as the late Vivien Mercer suggested, to remember that our Irish and literary revival owes a great deal to the children and grandchildren of Church of Ireland clergymen, from the Yeats and Synges to Standish O'Grady, all of whom found a literary and scholarly vocation rather than a religious one.
Táimid fíorbhuíoch do Dhoiminic Ó Dálaigh as dialanna Dhubhghlas de hÍde ina fhear óg a aimsiú agus anailís a dhéanamh orthu, ina dtugtar léargas iontach ar a óige i Ros Comáin. Le déanaí a tháinig mé ar scoláireacht sárluachmhar Liam Mhic Mhathúna agus Mháire Nic a Bháird, mar shampla san imleabhar le gairid Éire-Ireland.
Tosaíonn na dialanna in 1874, go gairid tar éis ceathrú breithlá déag an údair. Tá an chéad imleabhar go príomha i mBéarla, agus feictear a chéad chéimeanna sa Ghaeilge, tá an dara ceann roinnte go cothrom idir an dá theanga, agus na himleabhair eile ina dhiaidh sin i nGaeilge agus, in amanna, sa Ghearmáinis. Nochtann na himleabhair is túisce an saol a chaith boicíní nó leath-uaisle Chonnacht, ag fiach éanlaithe agus ag iascaireacht ar thailte a gcomharsan, ag baint taitneamh as pléisiúr agus cuideachta teaghlaigh agus na ndaoine áitiúla.
Douglas Hyde learned his Irish from the gamekeeper, Seamus Hart, a local woman, Mrs. Connolly, and from his friend John Lavin and his wife. One very intriguing consequence is that he adopted different modes of address for his parents in English and in Irish. In English, he refers to his father as ‘Pa’ or, alternatively, ‘the Governor’, and his mother as ‘Ma’. Learning Irish from the perspective of the people, he referred to his parents as ‘An Mháistir’ and ‘An Mháistreás’, ‘The Master’ and ‘The Mistress’. This pattern is repeated with the use of Latin, as any use of it in the diaries appears in relation to the activities of the domestic staff - Doiminic Ó Dálaigh has suggested that the Hydes would have used Latin in the presence of servants if they wished to discuss a matter not for the ears of the servants, a strategy that would not be successful, particularly for older servants.
Ar an 20 Nollaig 1875, cailleadh fear a raibh an-mheas air, is é sin Seamus Hart. Thaifead Dubhghlas de hÍde a bhás ina dhialann i sliocht a léiríonn ní hamháin an meas agus an cion a bhí aige ar Sheamus Hart, ach chomh tapa is a d’éirigh le de hÍde an teanga a fhoghlaim:
Fuair Séamus bás inné. Fear comh geanúil sin, comh fírinneach sin, comh muíntireach sin ní fhace mé riamh. Bhí sé tinn timpeall seachtain agus ina dhiaidh sin fuair sé bás. A Shéamuis bhoicht, rinne mé foghlaim na Gaeilge uait. Fear le Gaeilge comh maith sin ní bheas déis seo. Ní thig liom daoine ar bith d’fheiceál feasta in a mbeidh dúil agam mar a bhí agam ionat-sa. Seacht soirbhí leat agus go raibh d’anam beannaithe ar neamh anois.
The young Douglas Hyde was not dissuaded by his parents in his linguistic pursuits – indeed, far from it. He was educated at home by his father after falling ill with measles only weeks into his education at a boarding school in Dublin. Though his formal language lessons were those required for a life of theological thought – Hebrew, the language of the Old Testament; Greek, the tongue of the New; and Latin, that of the Church Fathers – he was encouraged in his learning of Irish.
The diary entry for the Christmas after Seamus Hart died records the gift of An Bíobla Naomhtha, the Irish Bible translated in the seventeenth century by William Bedel, the Church of Ireland Bishop of Kilmore. This supplemented the Irish copy of the New Testament left in the house by a clergyman friend of his fathers, enabling Douglas Hyde to read the language he was learning viva voce, as he put it, from the people.
Indeed, there are very strong hints that Revered Hyde, ‘An Mháistir’, himself spoke Irish. The entry for August 1875 includes this wonderful anecdote:
‘Nuair a bhí muid ag teacht ón teampaill thainig fear chuig an mháistir. Tabhair déarca dom a dhuirt sé. Táim i mo Phrotastúnach. Cé mhéid sacraimint atá ann sa teampaill seo agam a d’iarr an Mháistir air. Seacht a dúirt an an fear. Muise, a duirt an Mháistir tá tú ag ligint ort, ach seo cúpla phingin duit.’
That a Church of Ireland clergyman of Arthur Hyde’s age and education should speak both English and Irish, in addition to those languages necessary to his vocation, should not surprise us, even if the Anglican church only formally approved the use of Irish in worship in 1871.
For Arthur Hyde was born in the third decade of the nineteenth century, as a time when up to four million people on our island spoke our native language, some as monoglots but many as bilingual, more than at any time in our history, before or since. It was used in courtrooms, in churches – Catholic, Anglican and Dissenting – in the trades, and in political life by people of all faiths and backgrounds, as a remarkable and invaluable recent book, An Irish-Speaking Island, by a young scholar at New York University, Nicholas Wolf, has comprehensively demonstrated.
Though the governmentality of the Irish state based in Dublin Castle may have been that of the garrison – one that sought to extirpate the Irish language – in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries it was forced to come to terms with Irish speakers, even to the point of providing translators when required, though of course many judges and barristers were bilingual.
In the field of electoral politics, the Catholic Relief Act of 1793 had the effect of enfranchising all landholders with a valuation of more than 40 shilling. This legislation attempted to reverse the growth of the Society of United Irishmen, who, inspired by Tom Paine’s The Rights of Man and the Fall of the Bastille, aimed to unite Catholics, Dissenter and Anglicans behind the cause of a non-sectarian republic modelled upon French lines. The newly enfranchised Catholic electorate included many monoglot Irish speakers, requiring translators at the polling booths – this was in a time before the secrecy of the ballot had been won.
Yet, despite the presence of an Irish-speaking and bilingual culture the Irish language suffered a massive decline in the space of but three generations, a phenomenon that scholars have termed the ‘language shift’. The 1851 census records only 1.5 million Irish speakers – a consequence, above all, of the death and emigration of the principal body of Irish speakers during the Great Hunger, An Gorta Mór. For it was the cottiers and those who farmed the most marginal land and the in the most precarious economic situation, upon whom the greatest burden of the famine fell. In the 1850s, there were more Irish speakers on the streets of New York than at any time in the history of the United States, before or since.
The Great Famine was the single most important event in forming our distinctive form of Irish modernity, a modernity defined by that catastrophe and its aftermath. Born in 1860, Douglas Hyde was thus raised in a society still in the throes of the terrible changes wrought by the Famine, at a time when the language shift was so deep that the use of the Irish language was imperilled.
Indeed, when Douglas Hyde began to practice with Mrs. Connolly, who milked the cows for the Hyde family, he noted in his diary, in English, that, ‘Mrs. Connolly's Irish is improving; she is better able to get her tongue around it, and it is coming back to her memory’, indicating that the language of her youth was not now the familiar language of usuage on a daily basis.
Like so many of the sons of Anglican clergy, Douglas Hyde went on to Trinity College, which not only provided a challanging but an alienating experience. Diarmuid Ó Cobhthaigh, author of the first biography of Hyde, recounted a now famous story about a fellow student insisting that Hyde must have learned his Latin at a continental academy, so alien was his pronunciation to the ears of his peers:
“No,” answered Hyde; “but I have modelled my pronunciation on it on that of Irish.”
“You do know a lot of languages, Hyde,” a fellow-student remarked to him: “How many do you know? English, German, Hebrew, Latin, Greek, and French, I suppose?”
“Yes,” answered Hyde, “and I can read Italian. But the language I know best is Irish.”
“Irish!”, exclaimed the fellow-student in astonishment; “do you know Irish?”
“Yes,” said Hyde quietly; “I dream in Irish.”
Trinity was not then a friendly house for the Irish language. Indeed, Janet and Gareth Dunleavy have suggested that it was at Trinity that Hyde adopted his now famous pen-name, An Craoibhín Aoibhinn, in an effort to disguise his identity while writing Irish-language poetry for The Shamrock and The Irishman, two magazines that flirted with separatism.
Critics would often note that his mode of expression grew more exuberant, and certainly more nationalist, when he wrote in Irish, as his Irish language poems attest. Hyde himself was greatly amused at frequent references by critics to Dr. Jeykll and Mr. Hyde.
Coming of age in the turbulent 1880s, the decade of Parnell and the Land League – the great alliance of parliamentary party, the land movement and the Fenian movement - schooled by his neighbours in the traditions of nationalist struggle it is not surprising that Hyde evinced, as a young man, separatist nationalist feelings.
Nationalist sentiments were not wholly unusual sentiments for a young Irish Protestant – we need only recall the example of Thomas Davis or indeed, John Kells Ingram, the author, in 1843, of the ballad ‘The Memory of the Dead’, later translated into Irish by Hyde. Kells Ingram, another son of an Anglican clergyman and a very fine sociologist and economist – indeed, someone who pioneered using the historical, inductive method in economics – was perhaps more typical than Davis. He drifted towards advocacy for a form of independence heavily influenced by his own reading of the works of Auguste Comte, a rarefied and unique view of independence, one that required a moral transformation rather than a political one.
Yet, Douglas Hyde, for all the force of his poetry, was always suspicious of the capacity of physical force to achieve independence. He certainly admired the veteran Fenians, John O’Mahony, a distinguished Irish scholar in his own right, writing a moving encomium titled ‘O’Mahony’s lament’, and O’Donovan Rossa, a native speaker and man of great courage and vitality.
Yet, when Hyde came to revise one of his youthful poems celebrating the exploits of Craoibhín’s grandfather – a fictional character – in the 1798 rising he implicitly criticised O’Donovan Rossa for provoking the people to a rebellion which could only lead to inevitable defeat. His youthful suspicion of violence as a political method would abide with him throughout his life. Again I am alerted to any generalisation by the recent work of Timothy G. McMahon together with that of Liam Mac Mathúna and Máire Nic a Bháird.
As a teenager, Hyde had become a member of the Society for the Preservation of the Irish Language, established in 1877, but it was antiquarian in emphasis rather than being dedicated to the living language still spoken by the people of the West. Hyde would join the more active Gaelic Union – while a member he contributed an essay to an 1886 edition of Dublin University Review entitled ‘A plea for the Irish language’, a precursor to the many of ideas developed in ‘The necessity for de-Anglicising Ireland’.
It was somewhat less strident in its tone, calling only for the establishment of, ‘for all time a bi-lingual population in those parts of Ireland where Irish now spoken’, yet it was an early indication of the great work to which Douglas Hyde would devote his life. He was not truly convinced of the struggle until, six years later, he saw his friend Eóin MacNeill in the Royal Irish Academy Library on Dame Street, reading the great medieval manuscript, Lebor Laignech, the Book of Leinster, as if it were but a novel.
As important as contemporaries such as Eóin MacNeill and Thomas O’Neill Russell were as formative influences, it was perhaps Thomas Davis, more than any other, who was the antecedent to Douglas Hyde’s efforts. In his short life, Davis drew together many strands – the egalitarian republicanism of the United Irishmen and the linguistic and cultural nationalism of Johann Herder, the universalist emancipatory ideals of revolutionary France and the danger-filled romantic nationalism of the German lands of the 1830s. The great inclusive project of Young Ireland – and its civic republicaism was programmatic in its intent – extending from the public provision of libraries in every town and village in Ireland to, during the Famine and after Davis’ death, offering a cogent critique of the then dominant liberal political economy.
It is not difficult to discern the influence of Davis on ‘The necessity for de-Anglicising Ireland’. When Hyde gave that address, he was responding to a speech given by Dr. George Sigerson, scientist, self-taught Irish speaker, and a liberal critic of Fenianism and physical force nationalism – a friend then, and sympathetic one at that, not dissimilar by inclination or upbringing than Hyde.
Indeed, as Hyde himself commented in a preface to the third edition of the Bards of the Gael and the Gall – a title indicative of Sigerson’s adherence and advocacy to a form of syncretism – the only translated books of Irish poetry between 1860 and 1895 were Sigerson’s Poets and Poetry of Munster and Hyde’s Love Songs of Connaught. Sigerson had delivered a lecture on ‘Irish Literature: Its Origin, Environment and Influence’ in which he lauded the Irish contribution to European literature and thought from earliest times.
As learned as the lecture was, and as generous in its sentiments, it is Hyde’s reply which has survived for posterity. This interest in the reply came as a surprise to his contemporires. The next evening at the Contemporary Club Hyde’s reply came up for discussion, only to be causally dismissed by the brilliant lawyer W.F. Bailey, who said, ‘let us turn to something of importance and reality’.
Ba é an achainí a rinne de hÍde an lá sin ná go mbeadh cultúr náisiúnta ann – sa litríocht, san amhránaíocht, san éadach fiú – ceann a chreid sé a d’fhéadfadh muintir na hÉireann a thabhairt le chéile, bíodh siad ina n-aontachtóirí nó ina náisiúnaithe. Mar a deir Declan Kiberd, bhí críonnacht leis an gcaoi a ndearna sé an achainí. D’iarr de hÍde, nuair a bhí sé ag aimsiú an chontrárthacht a bhí i gceist, conas a bhféadfadh na gluaiseachtaí móra náisiúnacha, Parnellachas agus Éire Óg, an comhbhá sin a spreagadh, i measc daoine fiú, agus ag an am céanna cultúr Éireannach níos sine á chaitheamh i dtraipisí acu – an teanga thar aon ní eile.
‘It has been very curious to me’, Hyde said, ‘how Irish sentiment sticks in this half-way house – how it continues to apparently hate the English, and at the same time continues to imitate them; how it continues to clamour for recognition as a distinct nationalist, and at the same time throws away with both hands what would make it so.’
The historical narrative that Hyde presented, of the maintenance of a vigorous Irish literary culture in post-Williamite Ireland, of eighteenth-century townlands which could still boast of storied poets, of Roscommon peasants reciting the poems of ‘Donnchadh Mór Ó Dálaigh’ – born sixty years before Chaucer - came to shape the weltanschauung of the men and women whose writings, books, pamphlets,plays and poems would come to make ground for a distinctly Irish independence.
There is much in the address that betrays its nineteenth-century origins. Frequent references to the ‘Celtic’ race, for example, not only indicate the influence of Victorians such as Matthew Arnold, who created various racial categories and applied characteristics to them – unsurprisingly, perhaps, the Celts had drawn a short straw in Arnold’s view.
Despite loose invocations of the racial concept, Hyde’s locus of Irishness was not racial but linguistic, echoing the Romantic identification of language and nationality. Indeed, he could not imagine the possibility of national freedom without cultural distinctiveness:
‘As long as the Irish nation goes on as it is doing I cannot have much hope of its ultimately taking its place amongst the nations of the earth, for if it does, it will have proceeded upon different lines from every other nationality that God ever created’.
Instead, as Declan Kiberd has so pithily summarised, ‘[Hyde] wanted to found Irish pride on something more positive and lasting than mere hatred of England’.
He proposed nothing less than the restoration of the language, a reversion to Irish place and surnames, a re-cultivation of Irish music and a return to what was then viewed as traditional national dress in lieu of ‘the cast-off clothes of the English bourgeois’, which he later himself said was a ‘quixotic plea’.
His model for this programme was, and here perhaps we can hear Craoibhín speaking, the Fenians:
‘In order to keep the Irish language alive where it is still spoken – which is the utmost we can at present aspire to – nothing less than a house-to-house visitation and exhortation of the people themselves will do, something – though with a very different purpose – analogous to the procedure that James Stephens adopted throughout Ireland when he found her like a corpse on the dissecting table’.
Bunaíodh an eagraíocht a threoródh an tionscadal mór a raibh de hÍde ag labhairt air, Conradh na Gaeilge, ar an 31 Iúil 1893 i seomraí Mháirtín Uí Cheallaigh ag uimhir a 9 Sráid Uí Chonaill. Dearbhaíodh ag an gcéad chruinniú gurb é an aidhm a bhí acu an Ghaeilge a chaomhnú mar theanga labhartha in Éirinn, ‘le haghaidh Teanga na Gaedhilge do choinneáil dá labhairt in Éirinn’. Toghadh Dubhghlas de hÍde mar an chéad Uachtarán.
Shortly thereafter, he married Lucy Kurtz and settled at Ratra in Frenchpark to live the life of a country gentlemen – his friends would describe him as a duine uasal thiar i Ros Comáin. It was nonetheless a most fruitful time for his scholarship, marked by the publication of ten books including his magnum opus, the Literary History of Ireland, a bold scholarly attempt at recovery of the Irish literature since the earliest times, by which Hyde meant, of course, Irish literature in Irish.
D’éirigh níos fearr leis an gConradh ná mar a bhí a bhunaitheoirí ag súil leis, ní hamháin, mar a cheap siad, san Iarthar agus sna Gaeltachtaí, áit a raibh daoine á múineadh chun an teanga a léamh, ach go príomha i mbailte na hÉireann inar labhraíodh Béarla, áit ar múineadh do dhaoine í a léamh agus a labhairt.
Roghnaigh Patrick Maume an teideal The Long Gestation chun cur síos a dhéanamh ar a chuntas ar an saol náisiúnach idir titim Parnell agus toghadh na chéad Dála. Is trí gníomhaíochtaí cultúrtha a cuireadh go leor de dhíograis fin de siècle na hÉireann i lathair, agus iad ag tabhairt droim láimhe den chogaíocht idir bhaill de Pháirtí Parlaiminteach na hÉireann, a rinne dochar don dá thaobh, agus mar thoradh a chuir cuma díbheo agus coimeádach air, in ainneoin a cheannasachta.
Trí chomhaltacht a bhí ag méadú agus a bhí níos gníomhaí de shíor, bhí an Conradh in ann leabhair agus leabhráin, scéalta béaloidis, filíocht, amhránaíocht a fhoilsiú agus lámhscríbhinní a aisghabháil, agus a thionchar a chur i bhfeidhm ar Pháirtí Parlaiminteach na hÉireann agus ar údaráis eile in Éirinn.
As President of the Gaelic League, and as a scholar of great learning, Hyde was more than capable of out-mastering his opponents, particularly when they emerged from Trinity College. When the Commission on Intermediate Education heard evidence from, among others, Professors Mahaffy, against the teaching of Irish, Hyde not only assembled evidence from the leading Celticists of his day, such as his friend Kuno Meyer, who later took up a position as Professor in the Celtic Languages at the Royal Irish Academy and intiated the Dictionary of the Irish Language, but delivered a veritable coup-de-grace against one of his old Trinity interlocutors by observing that his opponent was a brilliant scholar who could speak the languages of every country save his own. In such a reply there are echoes of Thomas Davis famous plea for the teaching of Irish history in Trinity sixty years earlier: ‘Gentlemen, you have a country!’.
During a fundraising tour of the United States in 1905-6, recorded in his ‘Mo Thuras go Meiriceá', he was recognised as an accomplished public orator by Irish-American audiences and upon his return, he was hailed as a hero, with O’Connell Street packed with people, from the Rotunda to the GPO. As I have mentioned earlier, Hyde played a foundational role in the National University of Ireland.
When the University was established, it was immediately subject to controversy as to whether Irish was to be compulsory for matriculation. It split the country, and thus split the United Irish League, the mass movement that sustained the Irish Parliamentary Party. The League was able to summon tens of thousands onto the streets in support and it was Hyde’s oration to the Ardfheis of the United Irish League in 1909 that won the support of the League, which in turn secured a majority for ‘essential Irish’ on the University Senate.
In this Decade of Centenaries, it was important to recall the account of the resignation of the Douglas Hyde following the Oireachtas of 1915. The Oireachtas passed, by a very large majority, a resolution to amend the constitution of the League to include amongst its objectives the necessity to make Ireland ‘free of foreign domination’. A Coiste Gnótha of the League dominated by members of the Irish Revolutionary Brotherhood was elected, leaving Hyde, as he saw it, but little choice but to step down as President in protest at what he felt was an unwarranted politicisation of the League.
Of course, it was in this institution, UCD, that he practised his vocation as the first Professor of Modern Irish. By the accounts of his students his was a much-loved teacher, closer and more informal than those colleagues wearing the rather stern mien cultivated by so many lecturers of his generation as felt by them as appropriate to their status.
Above all, he was capable of eliciting a passion for the language from his students, reflecting perhaps the passion that had been awakened in the teenage Hyde in Frenchpark.
In Mise agus an Conradh, Hyde records a letter from the great scholar of Old Irish, Osborn Bergin:
‘Is maith is cuimhin liom roinnt bliadhanta ó shin tuarasgbháil ar leabhar ded leabhraibh-se d’fheicsin dam, agus gan focal Gaedhilge fán am sin agam. Sin é, is dócha, an chéad ní do bhrostaigh mé chun na Gaedhilge d’fhoglaim agus do ghrádhughadh thar aon teangaidh eile dá labharthar nó dár labhradh riamh san domhan mór. Dá bhrígh sin, is tusa fé ndeara dham bheith mar atáim anois, tré chúis dhírigh agus tré chúis imchéin’.
It was said that Hyde was also generous in his attitude towards encouraging the use of the language – one of his students, Gerard Murphy, later the Professor of History of Celtic Literature here in UCD, records that Hyde frequently chided those who would correct his students over some grammatical error, ‘we must not be purists’.
For all the nineteenth-century peculiarities of the address that Douglas Hyde gave at Leinster Hall one hundred and twenty-six years ago – the Arnoldian references to race, or, as Bruce Stewart has highlighted, the unfortunate description of the Ulster plantation – it still remains a profoundly important legacy for us today, not only because of the great movement of thought and action which it launched.
I refer not to what might be construed as any a simple linear association between language and nationhood. Despite the apparent power of such a construction, the claims of Young Ireland to national self-determination owed through its idealism when experienced, so much more to republican ideals of civic nationalism and democracy, while Patrick Pearse, as evidenced by his writings, whether in Ghosts or The Sovereign People, ultimately vested his claim to national freedom on the idea of popular sovereignty.
The strangely unrepublican language used by Éamon de Valera at the inauguration of our first President, which so clearly drew on the tradition and language of resistance of seventeenth and eighteenth century Irish poets is not near the fulness of President Dubhglas de Híde’s vision. It would be an inadequate encapsulation.
No, Douglas Hyde’s vision still stands today as both statement and enduring invitation for a cultural democracy. As an alternative vision of Irish modernity – it can be best considered an appeal to collectively construct a national culture. For as complex as debates on the language shift are, we should recall that it occurred in the context of a very particular political economy – both in its pre-Famine and post-Famine contexts. In post-Famine Ireland our native language carried, in the words of Gearóid Ó Tuathaigh, ‘little transactional value’. Brought up in the aftermath of catastrophe, Hyde implicitly recognised this – how could he not, learning Irish from people who had lived through the Great Hunger.
While a failure of political leadership and clerical influence are often suggested as proximate causes for the decline of the language, Douglas Hyde spoke of a past in which the ‘the Irish peasantry… were all to some extent cultured men, and many of the better off ones were scholars and poets’. This is the description of a form of cultural democracy, in which every man and woman can participate in creating and shaping their own culture. It is not merely a description of the past, but also a prospectus for a more hopeful future.
‘We find ourselves despoiled of the bricks of nationality,’ Hyde said, ‘The old bricks that lasted eighteen hundred years are destroyed; we must now set to, to bake new ones, if we can, on other ground and of other clay’.
Inár n-ám féín, is minic a bhíonn an talamh agus an chré lom maidir leis an timpeallacht ina bhfuil na hacmhainní ríthábhachtacha sin. Tá na h-úirlisí agus na modhanna cur chun cinn cumarsáide chultúrtha agus eolais i lámha an mhargadh meán monaplach, agus tá siamsaíocht tráchtearraithe agus homaiginithe le haireachtáil mar thoradh. Éilíonn ár ndaonlathas cultúrtha talamh torthúil agus cré somhúnlaithe, agus ní féidir na coinníollacha sin a chothabháil ach nuair a bhíonn acmhainní cuí acu ag na daoine ar fad, úirlísí na léinn agus na teicneolíochta.
In this regard I recall the insightful report prepared for UNESCO in 1981 by the International Commission for the Study of Communication Problems, chaired by that great Irish citizen and champion of human rights, Seán MacBride. His report, whose remit was nothing less than ‘to study the totality of communications problems in modern societies’ in order to address the many inequalities in information between the Global North and the Global South. After centuries of struggle against the imperial powers, the newly free nations of the Global South sought a space in which to cultivate their own national cultures.
The wisdom that is contained in the conclusions of that Report remain valid for us today. It recognised that the vindication of the right to information and of the right to communicate, required a right to participate in the production of information, the guarantee of diversity of voices and opinion, a strong public service media, the restriction of private media monopolies, the guarantee of the freedom of the press, and reciprocity in the flow of information between the North and South. Since the publication of the MacBride Report certain trends have accelerated – above all, the growth of a commercial media which, when it exists in a market whose bounds have widened to subsume all human activity.
Eighty years ago, at the inauguration of our first President, Éamon de Valera addressed An Craoibhín directly:
‘Your foresight in saving from death our own sweet language, which your work and that of our colleagues of half a century ago have made it possible for us now to restore, merits the gratitude of all generations of the Irish that are to come.’
The legacy of Hyde can be found, above all, I believe, in his expansive vision of cultural democracy – for it was from the people he learned the Irish language, collected our folklore and manuscripts. It was to the people he looked for the regeneration of Irish culture, a culture sustained by an ancient inheritance, but also alive to new forms and innovations, and to all the possibilities and potentials of the future. Let us, in our time, seek to equip not only our citizens, but the people of other countries, with the resources - material and intellectual - to shape their own culture, to become poets, singers, authors and dreamers.