CHAPTER VII. FORCES OF REGENERATION AND THEIR EFFECT
"George A. Birmingham" (who in private life is Canon Hannay), in his admirable book, An Irishman Looks at his World, tells us: "The most important educational work in Ireland during the last twenty years has been done independently of universities or schools," and in this statement I entirely agree with him. And I may add that in this work Canon Hannay himself bore no inconsiderable part. During a political campaign in Mayo in 1910 I had some delightful conversations with Canon Hannay in my hotel at Westport, and his views expressed in the volume from which I quote are only a development of those which he then outlined. Both as to the vexed questions then disturbing North and South Ireland and as to the lines along which national growth ought to take place we had much in common. We agreed that nationality means much more than mere political independence - that it is founded on the character and intellect of the people, that it lives and is expressed in its culture, customs and traditions, in its literature, its songs and its arts. We saw hope for Ireland because she was remaking and remoulding herself from within - the only sure way in which she could work out her eventual salvation, whatever political parties or combinations may come or go.
This process of regeneration took firm root when the parties were exhausting themselves in mournful internal strife. Through the whole of the nineteenth century it had been the malign purpose of England to destroy the spirit of nationality through its control of the schools. Just as in the previous century it sought to reduce Ireland to a state of servitude through the operations of the Penal Laws, so it now sought to continue its malefic purpose by a system of education "so bad that if England had wished to kill Ireland's soul when she imposed it on the Sister Isle she could not have discovered a better means of doing so" (M. Paul Dubois). And the same authority ascribes the fatalism, the lethargy, the moral inertia and intellectual passivity, the general absence of energy and character which prevailed in Ireland ten or twelve years ago to the fact that England struck at Ireland through her brain and sought to demoralise and ruin the national mind.
Thank God for it that the effort failed, but it failed mainly owing to the fact that a new generation of prophets had arisen in Ireland who saw that in the revival and reform of national education rested the best hope for the future. They recalled the gospel of Thomas Davis and the other noble minds of the Young Ireland era that we needs must educate in order that we may be free. They sought to give form and effect to the splendid ideals of the Young Irelanders. A new spirit was abroad, and not in matters educational alone. The doctrine of self-help and self-reliance was being preached and, what was better, practised.
The Gaelic League, founded in 1893 by a few enthusiastic Irish spirits, was formed to effect an Irish renascence in matters of the mind and spirit. It was non-sectarian and non-political. Its purpose was purely psychological and educational - it sought the preservation of the Irish language from a fast-threatening decay, it encouraged the study of ancient Irish literature and it promoted the cultivation of a modern literature in the Irish language. Its beginnings were modest, and its founders were practically three unknown young men whose only special equipment for leadership of a new movement were boundless enthusiasm and the possession of the scholastic temperament. Douglas Hyde, the son of a Protestant clergyman, dwelt far away in an unimportant parish in Connaught, and, while still a boy, became devoted to the study of the Irish language. Father O'Growney was a product of Maynooth culture, whose love of the Irish tongue became the best part of his nature, and John MacNeill (now so well known as a Sinn Fein leader) was born in Antrim, educated in a Belfast school and acquired his love for Irish in the Aran islands. It is marvellous to consider how the programme of the new League "caught on." Some movements make their appeal to a class or a cult - to the young, the middle-aged or the old. But the Gaelic League, perhaps because of the very simplicity and directness of its objects, made an appeal to all. It numbered its adherents in every walk of life; it drew its membership from all political parties; it gathered the sects within its folds, and the greatest tribute that can be paid it is that it taught all its disciples a new way of looking at Ireland and gave them a new pride in their country. Ireland became national and independent in a sense it had not learnt before - it realised that "the essential mark of nationhood is the intellectual, social and moral patrimony which the past bequeaths to the present, which, amplified, or at least preserved, the present must bequeath to the future, and that it is this which makes the strength and individuality of a people."