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Articles: 19th Century Ireland
VI. Celtic Twilight

by Dr. Sam Couch, Ph. D.
Owner, Rising Road Tours

The Gaelic language was a casualty of the Famine plagues and of the migrations of Irish to England, Scotland and America. English was the language of success in these émigré homelands; Gaelic, the language of the homeland was a barrier. Irish trying to raise themselves from poverty or attempting to escape the famine and plague abandoned Gaelic, adopted English and anglicized their names. This happened in a number of ways. As an example the O or Mac which once preceded almost all Irish names was dropped. Names were translated with literal meanings so that Mac an Ghabhann, meaning son of the smith, was changed to MacGown, Gown, or more frequently simply anglicized to Smith. Gaelic spellings were smoothed and the nearest approximation to the Gaelic sound was used. O Liathain became Lehane (pronounced Lehaan).

Daniel O'Connell, the Great Liberator, had neither need nor wish to preserve Irish, although he was a native speaker. Swift, champion of the Irish, proposed the abolition of the language, in order to "civilise the most barbarous among them." Not since Tudor times did Gaelic culture have pre-eminence. During these times, a proud O'Neill chieftain proclaimed that it did not stand with his honor "to writhe his mouth in clattering English." By the time of the famine, the Irish language was in its death throes.

It was this death of the language that gave birth to a number of movements with Irishness at their core. Home rule was a near certainty by the end of the 19th century; but English had ousted Irish as the lingua franca of the island. Differing visions arose in the minds of the Irish and the Anglo-Irish. A new set of ideals for the New Ireland were fashioned during this time. The Anglo-Irish still saw Ireland as a place of romance where reality seldom invaded their dressing-box existences. Although estates were reduced during the century and the government gave in to demands of more militant Irish politicians, the patrician Anglo-Irish learned to live with reduced rents and incomes. They still found ways to keep servants, horses, to hunt and entertain, to send children to England for schooling. Irish were expected to play a subservient part in a very stereotypical sense, doffing caps to the lord, being picturesquely inebriated, late, muddle-headed, grooming horses, telling colorful tales, dancing jigs, and jovially doing work around the house and in the stables.

These "stage Anglo-Irish" were very conspicuous around the turn of the century. These were the people who succumbed to climate, drink and often ended up selling the estates to servant's heirs. Another group of Anglo-Irish, those engaged in the visual and literary arts began a more deliberate movement studying the ancient culture that they had for so long lived among and ignored. From the 1840s societies were established to resurrect old Gaelic lore, to study Celtic design, and to print texts and tales from ancient manuscripts. The discovery in 1850 of the Tara Brooch, an 8th-century ornament of silver gilt set with glass and amber and decorated with delicate filigree birds, snakes, other animals, scrolls and braid, let to commercial exploitation of Celtic themes. Silverwork and book illustration revived these detailed designs; these symbols later were added to furniture, buildings, carpets and wallpaper. At the same time, literary researchers discovered a body of myth that could not be compared to any other European mythic canon, save the Greek.

In 1880 Standish O'Grady completed publication of the History of Ireland: Heroic Period. Much of the scholarly work of the previous 40 years now was available to the public in a free retelling of ancient tales. These tales included the stories of Queen Maeve, Cuchulainn, Finn McCool, Dermot and Grania, the Red Branch knights and the Children of Lir. The stories had the desired effect of creating wonder, delight and pride in Celtic culture. O'Grady was a person of the Ascendancy whose father was a titled Protestant clergyman. His dreams for Ireland filled these tales. He saw Ireland through a mist of romantic courtliness. It was his intention to rouse the sense of responsibility of his class so they would take the lead in a Celtic renaissance that would unite the country. He met with limited success. Most of the Anglo-Irish found that daily life left little time for cultural pursuits, least of all a Celtic restoration. Their vision of the future was a continuation of the present, their own kind holding the reins of government without the violence and threats of violence which were part of their lives, and at least retaining the decreased estates the Land Acts had left them.

Among one small group, the spark of O'Grady's narration was fanned into flames and the great Anglo-Irish dream for the future of the country came into being. As a vision it turned out to be short-lived an ineffectual. But the literary revival of the 1890s and the associated ripples of literary distinction that floated out from Ireland during the first quarter of the present century were among the most extraordinary phenomena ever to have emanated from this puzzling and unpredictable country. It had nothing to do with Oscar Wilde, whose plays were filling London theatres, or with George Bernard Shaw, whose prolific output of wit and comedy kept audiences delighted for the next half century. The one was entertaining England in the tradition of Sheridan, with wit and epigram and very little to stir deep feelings; the other, Shaw, was entertaining but also preaching the gospel of Fabian socialism, as he would continue to do for half of the 20th century. The champions of the revival had less commercial success than these two, and much less interest in it. Their movement was more of a crusade. Almost all were Protestant and Anglo-Irish, although there were Catholics in their number. It does not seem to have worried them that those of less privileged, Catholic-Irish backgrounds might resent their appropriation of the native culture.


This series of articles is based on lectures given by Dr. Samuel Couch to Irish Studies courses at Georgia Southern University and Young Harris College between 1997 and 2004. Documented sources come from Couch's research and studies in American universities and with scholars in Ireland. The articles are in no way intended to be comprehensive.

Background materials come from, but are not limited to, readings in the following books:

Duffy, Sean, ed., Atlas of Irish History. Gill & Macmillan: Dublin. 1997.
Joyce, P.W., Outlines of the History of Ireland from the Earliest Times to 1905. M.H. Gill & Son: Dublin. 1909.
Killeen, Richard, A Short History of Ireland. Gill & Macmillan: Dublin. 1994.
Smyth, Daragh, A Guide to Irish Mythology. 2nd ed. Irish Academic Press: Dublin. 1996.

Any lack of attribution to primary sources is unintentional and the sole responsibility of Dr. Couch.

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