Extracts from a longform essay “Gaelicism in Practice” by William Rooney, The United Irishman, January 12, 1901.
“Those Penal Days,” of which Davis sung, though the acme of all that fiendish cruelty and bigoted injustice could devise, as far as Acts of Parliament are concerned, were in actual fact not worse than any of the other days which our people have enjoyed since English law gained anything like a hold here. True, the Irish Catholic was a serf by law, denied education, position, and influence, but he exercised a far greater influence abroad than he does today.
Though there was a price on the head of every priest, still the people managed to hear Mass; though education was denied, still they produced scholars whose fame still survives, and poets whose songs live yet on the lips of the people, and are daily winning a wider audience. The population of the country increased, Arthur Young in his “Tour in Ireland, 1776-1778,” notes the visible encroachment of the Catholic tillage population on the grazing tracts, and Gervase Parker Bushe, writing in 1789, gives the population then as 4,000,000 Catholics and 1,500,000 Protestants, and this was after almost a hundred years of Penal Law.
In spite of enactments, Catholic merchants had grown to power in the towns and cities, and in some cases, notably that of the Sweetman family, stood at the head of their trades and callings. Nor were these townsmen less National in their dress than the peasantry. Factories had grown in the towns, where a superior kind of cloth was made, mainly from Spanish wool, and for all that could be produced of this article a ready market was found among the professional men and merchants of the town. Not till the advent of the Volunteers were the restrictions on those one trade removed, and then only through fear. Then, for a brief spell, something like a National spirit dominated all Ireland. “The Press, the pulpit, and the ballroom,” says MacNevin,
“…were enlisted in the cause of Irish industry. The scientific institutions circulated gratuitously tracts on the improvement of manufacture, on the modes adopted in the Continental manufacturing districts, and on the economy of production. Trade revived; the manufacturers who had thronged the city of Dublin, the ghastly apparitions of decayed industry, found employment provided for them by the patriotism and spirit of the country: the proscribed goods of England remained unsold, or only sold under false colours by knavish and profligate retailers; the country enjoyed some of the fruits of freedom before she obtained freedom itself.”
I have traced the Irish woollen trade at some length, because for centuries it was the one staple trade round which centred much of the life of Ireland. It was not the only Irish industrial occupation, nor the sole one which earned the jealousy of British traders and the British Parliament. Froude, as has been pointed out earlier, is under the impression that the linen trade was the direct result of the plantation of Ulster, but this is a mistake so easily disposed of that one wonders why even Froude should have made it. One reads of the great plaited linen garments of the Gael in all the old books, and in the poem on the battle of Down, fought in the 14th century, and in which Brian O’Neill, King of all Ireland, was killed, the combatants are described as attired –
Fine linen shirts on the race of Conn,
And the foreigners one mass of iron.
Linen was sold at the markets and fairs in the preceding century; Irish linen was imported into and sold at Chester in the 15th century, and sold likewise at Brabant and other Continental marts. In 1539 an Act of the Anglo-Irish Parliament limited the quantity of linen to be used for the making of a shirt to seven yards, and Spenser, in his “View of Ireland,” already quoted, refers to the thick-folded linen shirts of the Irish. This trade does not make anything like the figure in our history which the woollen does, but that it was practised, and widely, throughout the century is beyond all doubt. Strafford gets credit for having introduced it, but what he did was to induced French and Flemish linen weavers to settle in Ireland and devote their abilities to the production of superior linen, but English jealousy manifested itself here, too, for in 1698 an import duty was put on all Irish linens going into England, though those of Holland were admitted almost duty free. The fishing industry was attacked; the towns of Folkstone and Aldborough in Suffolk representing that the Irish herring fishery at Waterford was ruining their trade with the Mediterranean. The Irish glass manufacture was interfered with, duties were imposed on the hemp manufacture, Irish fishermen were not permitted to appear off Newfoundland, and petitions were even presented to the British Parliament praying that the Irish might be interdicted from fishing off Wexford and Waterford. The provision trade alone was the only one not interfered with, and in that for a time Ireland maintained a great business with the British colonies and with France. But in 1776 an embargo was laid on this trade, which resulted in dire poverty to many, Dublin alone having to meet the necessity of feeding daily 20,000 poor citizens who had been ruined by these exactions of the British Government.
The Union found the country, in spite of all the enactments of the King and Parliament of Britain and their generally willing tools in Dublin, possessed of a population of almost 7,000,000. She had direct commercial relations with France, Holland, Belgium, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Russia, Spain, Portugal, the Baltics, with Britain and with all the British colonies. She was equipped with manufactures of all kinds, and not alone supplied herself, but ran the British manufacturer close in his foreign markets. She was then Irish-speaking practically, except in the larger towns and cities, and even there a great proportion understood and utilised her tongue. I make the assertion from a careful study of the hundred years preceding the Union that the one thing that preserved her, the one thing that consolidated her people and caused them to outlive all that the ingenuity of their enemies could devise for their destruction, was the Irish language. It was a barrier that no amount of English legislation could break down. Behind it, as behind a rampart, again and again they rallied, building up afresh whatever breaches the onset of the enemy had made in their institutions, maintaining, clothing, and developing themselves on their own lines and out of their own resources. The fall of Limerick, and the constant rush of the young men to the Continent to join the Brigade, deprived them in a great measure of leaders, but yet they held on their way, and not only retained their own views, but impregnated the children and grandchildren of the Williamites and Cromwellians with them. Settlements, established for the direct purpose of Anglicising the Irish districts, collapsed after a generation, their populations intermarrying and merging with the Gaelic population, to become, in a later generation, more implacable and irreconcilable “rebels” than the clansmen whom their fathers had come to subjugate. Froude’s statement before quoted shows us how far the settlement of utter disregard of English law had grown in all circles during the century succeeding the Jacobite struggle. Nor was it merely in circumventing the enactments of the Castle that the Gaelic genius showed its power. Although English was nominally the official language, every landowner, merchant, and professional man found himself compelled to know Irish in order to transact his business. It was merely for convenience sake, of course, with most of them; but that self-same power which had enabled it to change the descendants of Strongbow’s knights and men-at-arms into bard-reverencing and glibbe-wearing Irishmen would also have made real Irishmen of the seed of Cromwell’s Puritans and William’s troopers. During all that century of transition, the century which witnessed the first evidence of the general breakdown of the old Irish codes of land tenure, &c., the only portions of Ireland which suffered distress were the English-speaking portions – that is to say, the towns and cities the majority of whose inhabitants were, at the best, but natives of the third or fourth generation. In the Gaelic districts, from which were recruited the men who have given to Irish military annals Cremona and Fontenoy, distress of various kinds there was often, but never so keen as in the other parts. Partial failures of harvest there were often, but never actual famine. The people were not dependent merely on one crop for their sustenance: if wheat failed, they fell back on oats, and one never hears of a failure of the potato causing the widespread misery which characterised 1847.
The fact is that Ireland then – thought without any of the outward semblances of a nation: laws, legislature, flag, or armaments – was, in sober and real earnest, more certainly one than she has ever been since. In half the University towns of Europe Irish presses turned out books in Gaelic; Irish scholars thronged the schools of Louvain, Paris, Rome, and Salamanca; Irish soldiers and Irish officers were high in the esteem of Governments as widely divergent otherwise in their views as France and Russia; Irish merchants, as we have seen, utilised and supplied the marts of the Continent, and Irish ships sailed the seas in spite of the cruisers of His Britannic Majesty. At home here, though the Penal Laws prevented a Catholic from owning property above five pounds in value, made the seeking of education a capital crime, outlawed the schoolmaster and penalised the priest, there were schools and scholars in defiance of all that could be devised to tempt the cupidity of the people, and, to their credit be it spoken, not of the Catholic Celts alone, but of many sterling broad-minded Protestants, whom birth or residence amongst the Gaelic-speaking population had made sympathetic with the ideas and practises of the great bulk of the nation. The Gaelic population is generally set down as illiterate, but we know from actual fact now that there was scarcely a farmer’s house without its manuscripts copied by the hands of some one of the family, and that even the humblest peasant was the repository of quite a literature of songs, sagas, stories, and traditions, bearing on the history, manners, customs and characteristics of the nation, and embracing no mean knowledge either of men and places very far away from Ireland, and very widely removed in point of time from those days. We know that poets and musicians abounded, and that classical learning was quite common, that in fact many of the poets wrote equally well in Latin and Gaelic, and had Greek on their finger ends. They imported no foodstuffs, all the grain necessary for their consumption was either ground in the houses by the quern or in the little mills which rose upon the bank of almost every stream and river. The linen wheel, worked by the deft hands of the women, supplied them with the materials for all their household wants, and left them such surplus than in 1783 they exported more linen to England than the entire of all the imports from that country. Practically the only things imported, to use the words of the Anti-Union pamphleteers, were “salt and hops, which she could not grow; coals, which she could raise; tin, which she had not; bark, which she could not get elsewhere,” all which, says he, “she got in exchange for her manufactured goods.”
The partial relaxation of the Penal Laws in the middle of the century, the Act of 1794, and the establishment of Maynooth College, by severing to an extent the Irish connection with the Continent, more especially with France, had a great effect on the tenor of the times. The French Revolution, too, by wholly breaking the connection, had its effect; but still, as I have said already, the Union found Ireland as Gaelic and as self-supporting as the day when the wail of the women followed Sarsfield’s soldiers from the quays of Cork. From the days when those who undertook to lead her turned her eyes across the waters of the Irish Sea, and taught her to look for redemption to the foreigner, whose policy for six hundred years had been to rob and pauperise her, to exterminate her very name, she began to fail.
I do not believe that the assembly which met in College Green was a National Parliament. I do not believe that it was an Irish Parliament, but I do believe that that self-same spirit, or power, or influence, or whatever it was, that aided the Irish Catholic Celt to preserve himself, ever growing stronger in numbers, and ever increasing in hope through years of the most malignant tyranny that man has ever conceived would have eventually resulted in the assimilation of that Parliament, and the development from it of such an assembly as would have satisfied our highest ideals.
The success of the policy of the United Irishmen most certainly would have given us an Irish nation; for, though few of the leaders were Gaelic speakers, most of them were students of the tongue, and recognised its potency.
But even after the failure of their hopes, after the Union, and on down to Catholic Emancipation, it would have been comparatively easy for a leader of the people to have maintained the old system in the country. I am not now arguing that the Union was not mainly responsible for the downfall of the remarkable prosperity which characterised the last twenty years of the 18th century, but I do assert that much of it was due to the wholesale desertion by our leaders of the Gaelic ideal.
The idea of O’Connell using English in his campaign at a time when five-sixths of the people had only the faintest glimmering of that tongue, and his slavish adulation of English sovereigns, did more to degrade, demoralise, and impoverish our people, than all the enactments of the British monarchs or their henchmen in the Anglo-Irish Parliament. By discarding the Irish tongue as a weapon to rouse them to action, he made them think it was a thing to be despised, and by perpetually beslavering whatever sovereign happened to be on the throne he weaned them to a respect for that power which their ancestors had contemned. By teaching them to look for the remedying of their grievances to England, he made them distrustful of their own strength. Catholic Emancipation, by opening up offices to Irishmen in the English service, carried off a host of that brain and talent which had previously worked against Britain.
I do not say that it was not a thing for which the Irish Catholics should have not risked their lives, but I do say that by throwing over their Gaeldom, and accepting the service of Britain under the terms of the Emancipation Act, they enslaved still further, instead of enfranchising, their co-religionists. No one pretends to believe there is today religious freedom in Ireland.
We may be told that a Catholic can gain, if his abilities entitle him to it, almost the highest offices in the Government of Ireland, but does he do so without sacrificing his political convictions? Is not every position of importance in the hands of the ascendancy party, with an occasional one held by some renegade from the popular side?
Is there a fair proportion of the important posts in commercial life in the hands of the Catholics, or even of Irishmen of any creed? Are our corporate bodies, nominally under popular control, owners of their own soul? And yet “Catholic Emancipation” is a matter of some seventy years’ existence.
I do not believe that if we had preserved the life of the Ireland of even a hundred years ago we should not only have maintained our numbers, but we should have forced by the sheer strength of an organised Irish-speaking nation a real Catholic Emancipation, and have solved longer since the question of higher education by the assimilation of Trinity College.
This looks Utopian, but let any one who doubts it study the matter in the light of the history of the 18th century, and the fact that the only portions of Ireland which were self-supporting during the century just closed were the Irish-speaking districts. It is a matter of common knowledge that only when English began to be spoken in the West. North, West, and South, did the people cease to clothe themselves out of the materials grown by themselves.
The whirr of the spinning-wheel ceased, and the music of the shuttle stopped when our people forsook the language of their fathers, for the fashionable accents of the stranger. Wherever the old tongue still has sway, there still the people dress after their own fashions and in their own materials; there still the stories and songs, some of them centuries old, still circle from generation to generation. There still is the old reverence for the past, the old respect for age and valour and piety, and purity of thought and living. There is a civilisation, though the garb of the people may be rough and their manners unpolished after the style of the 20th century.
They are merely men and women, mere flesh and blood, no cold idealistic beings, but men and women full of life and all the passions of life. Many of them have a little English, few of them can read it, fewer still write even the English of their names in it; but they have memories stored with such wealth of song and legend, such lore of many kinds, as the graduate of any university might be proud to possess, and this they have at their disposal without any preparation at all times.
We will be told that the progress of the times, and the unsuitability of our old systems to the requirements of life, have caused the breakdown of what once was common from end to end of Ireland; but surely what the Dane, the Hollander, the Belgian, not to speak of other peoples, have been able to overcome, surrounded as they are by “Progress,” ought not to prove insurmountable obstacles to the Irishman.
The truth is we are where we are through incompetent guidance and through sheer neglect of our resources – through loss of self-respect and national self-reverence, and a certain undefined belief in the eternity of existing circumstances.
We have all but lost our identity, and only since Catholic Emancipation came to bribe our talent, the national schools to stupefy our youth, and the policy of looking to our enemy for the remedying of our grievances to sap our trust in ourselves.
Since the Irish nation, in a word, ceased to depend upon herself for mental and physical sustenance she has drooped and dwindled in strength, in influence, and numbers. Only by going back to what she was, only by looking within her own borders for the life-giving power that makes a nation, can she recover. There are signs that she is seriously considering that step now – there are signs of mental and material activity. Naturally they are both apparent in the same circles, for nationality means the developing of more than one phase of national existence.
“Not by bread alone can man exist,” but only by the development of all the resources, only by the continuance and re-adoption of that life and civilisation which was stopped by the prophets of expediency a century since, shall Ireland go down – as Ireland – to the future.
We are circumstanced auspiciously today. A new era opens with us. We have had a hundred years of West Britain, with an odd space here and there of the spirit of earlier days. The fruits of the century are visible. West Britain has failed dismally. The old soul still stirs in the country, the old ideals are once more abroad. Let us therefore this year, with determination, earnestness, and sincerity resume – the History of Ireland.