Section 2: Cultural Identity: The Gaelic Revival

The Gaelic League

The Gaelic League was established in 1893. Its aims were to restore the Irish language which was no longer widely spoken in most areas of Ireland and to promote Irish music, dance, literature and culture. It was set up by Dr Douglas Hyde, the son of a Church of Ireland minister from County Roscommon and Eoin Mac Neill a Professor of history from County Antrim. The organisation grew rapidly. Within a few years there were 600 branches throughout Ireland. The first Gaelic League branch in County Down was set up in 1897 in Newry. By 1902 there were branches in Kilcoo, Leitrim, Drumaroad, Newcastle, Bryansford, Castlewellan, Glassdrummond, Clanvaraghan and Dechomet. By 1905 there were branches in Downpatrick, Mayobridge, Portaferry, Kilkeel and Moneyreagh. Although in some areas the  Gaelic League attracted members from across all religious denominations and many of its leaders were Protestants, in practice, most members were Catholics from the middle class, lower middle class or skilled working class.

By 1914 it had ceased to be a purely cultural organisation and was dominated by members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), a political organisation that wanted complete independence for Ireland rather than Home Rule. In 1915 Douglas Hyde resigned as President of the movement in protest at the increasingly political nature of the Gaelic League.

Image A is a bill from the Convent of Mercy, Downpatrick to the Misses Hutton dated 1905. 

Nuns from the Convent of Mercy ran schools in Downpatrick for girls and boys and raised money to educate poor children by giving private lessons to middle class girls who wanted to learn fashionable accomplishments such as playing the piano and speaking French. The bill, from 1905, shows that the nuns were also giving lessons in speaking Irish (Gaelic).

Is this a good source for showing how the Gaelic League had succeeded in promoting its aims to the middle classes ?
Image  B shows a photograph of the wedding of Michael Davitt McGuigan a Gaelic League organiser from Ballynahinch and Annabella Fitzsimons in 1912. Annabella is wearing an outfit designed by Michael in an ‘Irish style’.

What parts of the outfit do you think create the impression of ‘Irish dress’ ?

Why would members of the Gaelic League think it important to dress in this way ?
Images C and D are extracts from the programme of the Ardglass Feis held in July 1912. The Ardglass Feis was organised by the Gaelic League. Committee members included Michael Davitt McGuigan and the Belfast historian FJ Biggar. Download pdf version of Image D

Is there anything in the programme to show you that the Gaelic League was trying to show itself as an economic as well as a cultural organisation ?

Is there any evidence in the programme that the Gaelic League was trying to reach members from outside of the middle classes ?

Are images B, C and D good sources for stating that the Gaelic League was not just a cultural organisation ?

The Gaelic Athletic Association was set up in 1884 by Michael Cusack to promote Irish games and pastimes. Cusack and other founding members of the GAA were concerned at the growing popularity of what they saw as ‘English’ games, especially soccer and rugby and they wanted to organise Irish alternatives to these. In the late nineteenth century ordinary people had more free time benefiting from the reduction in their working hours.  They now had more time to spend in leisure pursuits and sport was increasingly popular. One of the first GAA clubs in County Down was St Patrick’s, Mayobridge.. In County Down the GAA experienced difficulties in the 1890s because many local Catholic clergy opposed playing games on Sunday but by the 1900s the organisation was thriving in the County and many new clubs were established.

Image F is a photograph of Leitrim Fontenoys, a GAA club formed near Castlewellan in  1888

Image G is a photograph of a hurling match in Loughinisland in about 1913.
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