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Irish Cultural Nationalism Was a Process of "De-Anglicisation"

Paul Barrett is a current fourth-year student at the University of Limerick, Ireland, majoring in English and History.

The GAA was pivotal in promoting an Irish identity.

The GAA was pivotal in promoting an Irish identity.

Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA)

This article will argue that the organisations of the cultural nationalism movement; the GAA, the Gaelic League and the National Literary both in their alumni and their work, were largely aimed at the revival of Irish culture and to a considerable extent were intent on de-Anglicising Ireland. The ideas behind nationalism and the term’s connotations are pivotal in developing a clear understanding of the relationship between Ireland’s cultural nationalism and the act of ‘de-Anglicisation’. A brief insight into why a cultural nationalism movement was needed in Ireland in the nineteenth and early twentieth century will also be examined. These movements cultivated the idea of a need for preservation and promotion of everything deemed Irish. All organisations were key in the processes by which the language, sport and literature were altered in Ireland during the period.


Firstly, the idea of a sense of nationalism, and cultural nationalism especially, was first coined in contemporary thought by The Irish Nationalist Party in the nineteenth century as they attempted to distance themselves from Britain. This concept was an entirely new trail of thought that from Ireland began to spread outwards to the rest of Western Europe. The need for this cultural nationalist movement in Ireland was twofold; to redefine the structure of Irish society in the late twentieth century, and also to promote the idea of Irish self-sufficiency from England, be that in language, sport or literature. Decades of political stagnation on Independence, Home Rule and the Land Question had made the Irish public weary, and this vacuum in Irish society was taken up by the promotion, in particular, of sport, language and literature. This cultural movement was also used by political parties to lay their own foundations and keep a stronghold in the country, as is the case with Sinn Fein, involved in all three main movements.


The foundation of the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) in 1882, was a pivotal factor in a clear shift in cultural policy towards a less Anglicised Ireland. The GAA played a significant cultural role in Irish society from the latter half of the century onwards. Being designed on a county and parish level, the GAA fostered a special kind of local pride among the Irish population. A sense of community was created among its rank, particularly as no political affiliations were required for joining the organisation. As the GAA was set up at a parish level, from the start it was connected directly to the Catholic Church. While not restricted to Roman Catholics, the GAA made all attempts to emphasise its connection to the Catholic Church, especially with its emphasis on creating a crowd and a community atmosphere in all parishes every Sunday. In fact, in the British parliament, the need for a day of rest on Sunday was stressed, as unlike in England the Sunday in Ireland was particularly treasured, as it was linked to the people’s faith, as well as the GAA. The inseparable link that the GAA established with the Roman Catholic Church and the pivotal role the organisation played in the cultural nationalist movement gives a clear indication of how the movement was distinctly Irish and Roman Catholic, and an attempt at a separation between Irish and English culture.

The organisation’s purpose was seen to be just as much a nationalist movement as a sporting endeavour. The GAA had far-reaching effects spreading nationalist movements abroad, particularly in the USA, similar to the national literary society. Another aspect of the GAA’s policies was a crucial part in the de-Anglicisation of the cultural nationalist movement. This was the banning of the police and armed forces from participating. This, in turn, goes hand in hand with the banning of ‘foreign games’ being played or attended by members, particularly Rugby and Soccer, known as rule 42. It was this rule that the GAA constituted as protecting the integrity of Irish culture, and a means by which a barrier could be placed to curb any attempt to Anglicise the nation. The role the GAA played in the cultural nationalist movement, therefore, was clearly more than a purely sporting role, but it was one of the many ways in which the cultural movement attempted to de-Anglicise Ireland.

The Gaelic League always emphasised the difference between Ireland and England

The Gaelic League always emphasised the difference between Ireland and England

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National Literary Society

Concurrently, the process by which the National Literary Society was set up and their emphasis on separating English works and Anglo-Irish works, lent itself to the larger process of de-Anglicisation occurring in Ireland. A key element of the National Literary Society was the promotion of literature that encapsulated and promoted Ireland and the people’s connection to the landscape, be it Lady Gregory’s descriptions of the landscape of Galway, or John Millington Synge’s writing describing the Aran Islands. While much of the literature promoted by the society was in English, there was an emphasis on differentiating it from England, and making the literature Anglo-Irish both in its form and subject matter. The organisation wished for Irish literature to be defined as staunchly in opposition to any English identity that was seen in writing at the time. Through their literature, the society saw that it could romanticise Ireland and its people, after a lull in cultural unity through the political stagnation and the decline of Fenianism in the late nineteenth century. The main figure that embodied this idea was W.B. Yeats, who pioneered the literary movement’s aim and its ideals.

WB Yeats

W.B. Yeats's work throughout the period lends itself to a real sense of an attempt to place a barrier between what was Irish culture and what were influences from England. Yeats wished that through his work, he could describe the beauty of the Irish landscape, and by doing so could evoke a sense of cultural unity that could be found throughout Ireland, along with a sense of nationhood. In his work Yeats attempted to promote the Celtic Revival, placing an emphasis on Irish culture, and did not conform to standard English poetics. Poems like ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’, originally published in the British National Observer, describes a place of tranquillity cut off from the world of modernity. ‘And a small cabin built there, of clay and wattles made’, Yeats rejects the advent of modernity and urban life, where English influence was so prevalent, explaining the benefits of living a simpler life, in a place untainted, a place that has remained the same for centuries. Throughout his work, Yeats advocated certain values, doing so to sustain national culture, which includes links to the lower classes. This, in turn, was to be linked to Gaelic literature, and to create a clear break from Ireland’s previous Anglo-influenced culture, both in the literature’s form and its content.

Gaelic League

Finally, the work done by Douglas Hyde with help from Eoin MacNeil and the influence of the Gaelic League that he established, was a major stimulus on cultural nationalism at the time. Hyde argued for the need for an Irish Cultural Renewal during his time with the National Literary Society. From the beginning, the Gaelic League was set up to be a support and advocate for Irish patriotism and was critical of any dependence Ireland had on Britain. The setting up of a weekly publication in Irish by the league enabled the movement’s penetration at the grassroots level of Irish society. Similar to the GAA, the Irish language revival was brought to America to spread a sense of cultural nationalism abroad. Like organisations discussed previously, the movement was also infiltrated by politics and militant groups, especially with the backing of Eoin MacNeil, who was the leader of the Irish Volunteers and later a member of Sinn Fein. An Irish Ireland is what the organisation envisaged. MacNeil viewed the Irish language as a banner under which Irish culture and Irish people could unite, as a way of asserting their independence from Britain.

The intent behind the promotion of the Gaelic language was to facilitate Irish self-sufficiency. Hyde wished to place the Gaelic League in a purely cultural nationalist role, seeing no hope in the political stagnation occurring at the time. But similar to other movements the league was also influenced by political institutions. This was in particular with Sinn Fein, as the league’s intention’s mirrored that of the party; Ireland was its own nation wholly and culturally distinct from England. Hyde’s movement was linked inextricably to other movements mentioned previously, as Hyde viewed the revival of Irish culture as a mode of Irish Nationalism. The GAA emphasised the Gaelic language as did the Irish Literary revival, although to a lesser extent. While Hyde’s aim of an Irish-speaking nation was not achieved, it was the message behind the League that assured its legacy; through the promotion and use of the native language, Ireland could carve out its own identity, and become recognisable as a cultural hub in its own right separate from its Anglican neighbours.


Ultimately, the process of ‘de-Anglicisation’ was a major factor in the emergence of Irish cultural nationalism before 1922. The idea of nationalism bore out by the Irish Nationalist Party, was a clear attempt to distance themselves from their British counterparts and create their own separate Irish identity. The influence of the National Literary Society on making literature Irish while still being written in English has clear connotations of a de-Anglicisation style of policy. Yeats’ influence impressed the need to celebrate Irish culture. Similarly, the emergence of the GAA in the late nineteenth century, fostered an atmosphere of ‘us vs. them’ in the country, especially with the banning of foreign games such as Rugby and Soccer. The GAA made sure they created a parish unity among its players, especially with the heavy influence and backing of the Roman Catholic Church, which classified this national pastime as distinctly Catholic and Irish, and not Anglican and English. Concurrently, Douglas Hyde's advocacy for the Irish Language through the Gaelic League, while only partially successful, at least in theory suggested a clear break from England as a country's main defining characteristic is the language that it speaks. A truly de-Anglicised Ireland, while not fully achieved in this period, if ever, certainly to a major extent was a factor in the process of cultural nationalism before 1922.

Yeats evoked a strong Irish Identity in his poetry

Yeats evoked a strong Irish Identity in his poetry

© 2018 Paul Barrett 96

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