Those that set the stage
Douglas Hyde, Eoin MacNeill, and the Gaelic League
Douglas Hyde (1860-1949) was born at Castlerea, Co Roscommon, the son of a Church of Ireland clergyman. He was educated by his father and at Trinity College, Dublin, where he studied law. Later, he learned Irish at Ratra, Co. Roscommon, where the language was still spoken but was seemingly in irreversible decline. His life was largely devoted to the study and publication of traditional Irish literature and folklore, his publications including Amhráin Grádh Chúige Connacht (‘Love Songs of Connacht’, 1893) A Literary History of Ireland (1899), and his autobiography Mise agus an Connradh (‘Myself and the Gaelic League’, 1931). He also wrote a number of plays, the most notable being Casadh an tSugáin (The Turning of the Straw Rope), the first play in the Irish language to be professionally produced (1901). He adopted the pen-name An Craoibhín Aoibhinn (‘the delightful little branch’). In 1909 he became the first professor of modern Irish at University College, Dublin.
While Hyde’s literary contribution was considerable, his monumental achievement was as a cultural activist. In 1893 he chaired the foundation meeting of the Gaelic League which had been convened by Eoin MacNeill; Hyde became the first president, a position he held until 1915. The organisation was non-political and nonsectarian and aimed at involving people of different religious and political loyalties in a common cultural effort. Its objective was the revival of the Irish language and the preservation of Irish literature, music and traditional culture.
Under the direction of Hyde as president and Eoin MacNeill as secretary, the Gaelic League formulated and implemented an ambitious programme; by 1905 it had 550 branches throughout the country. The branches organised Irish classes conducted by timirí (travelling teachers) and also lectures, concerts and Irish dances. From 1899 onwards the Gaelic League published An Claidheamh Soluis, an Irish-language weekly newspaper. It staged an annual cultural festival, the Oireachtas, and had Saint Patrick’s Day designated a national holiday. It also succeeded in having Irish included in the curriculum for primary and secondary schools and in having it made compulsory for matriculation at the National University of Ireland.
While the Gaelic League was strictly non-political and the membership included some unionists, the majority of members were nationalists - in the decades leading up to 1916 most would have been moderates who regarded Home Rule as the only viable objective. The membership also included extreme nationalists, including a number of the signatories of the 1916 Proclamation of the Irish Republic, who were particularly influential within the organisation. While these eventually gained control in 1915, the main contribution of the Gaelic League to the 1916 Rising had already been made: over a generation the Gaelic League had accomplished significant cultural change in the nationalist population. The young men of the 1916 generation were proud to be Irish and heirs to one of the oldest civilisations in Europe; many of them spoke the Irish language; they cherished their cultural traditions; and, moreover, they were aware of their national history—a history in which Ireland had been unjustly dominated for centuries. While the majority would settle for Home Rule, some believed Ireland was entitled to full independence, an objective for which they were prepared to fight.