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1 December 2005 Edition

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An inspiration still to the Irish Language Movement - By Máirtín Mac Eoin

Ó Cadhain's Vision - The trinity of hope, courage and action

The issue of the Irish language in current politics, North and South, has been accentuated in recent months by renewed debate about the status of the language and its place in the revolutionary re-conquest of Ireland by its people.

And it's hard now to remember that barely a generation ago or so, the official Irish Language Movement was steeped in toadyism and subservience to the status quo, while the Gaeltacht was regarded as a rather embarrassing ancestor whose day had thankfully run.

That is all changed now, with the Gaeltacht finding renewed strength and vigour, and the Irish Language Movement itself becoming more assertive of its rights and less thankful for the cúpla focal of the respectable world.

That change has been brought about, of course, by struggle — particularly the Conamara Gaeltacht Civil Rights Movement, Gluaiseacht Chearta Sibhialta na Gaeltachta, from whose efforts has ultimately sprung Údarás na Gaeltachta and the nationwide Irish language radio and television services.

But if the change was brought about by the young activists of the '60s and '70s, their inspiration was largely that of one man — the celebrated writer, teacher, scholar and revolutionary, Máirtín Ó Cadhain.

Ó Cadhain died 35 years ago, but he still remains an inspiration for the new generation of Gaeltacht activists, and next year's 100th anniversary of his birth near An Spidéal in Conamara will be the occasion of major celebration and reflection.

For Ó Cadhain was a native Irish speaker who was thoroughly immersed in the revolutionary republican tradition, but who brought to it a modernising vigour that remained nonetheless rooted in the best of the traditional values.

I had the privilege of knowing Ó Cadhain as a young student in Trinity College, and not only did I learn a richness of Irish from him, but also a deeper understanding of how Irish republicanism was really just the application of basic democratic principles to our particular country.

For Ó Cadhain, the key task was that which James Connolly set out, the Re-conquest of Ireland. That meant undoing the conquest, not just in physically re-occupying the land and taking back the wealth stolen from the people, but re-asserting the principles of common ownership and the primacy of the common good above sectional and individual interest.

As a man of no property, Ó Cadhain well understood that this did not mean subordinating the needs of those who owned no wealth to those who did, but rather the other way around. And his instinctive democracy was one that made all people equal as citizens, all leaders answerable to the people they represented.

He was not unique, of course, in holding those views. The idea of uniting Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter in equality and mutual respect and harmony was always fundamental to the republican creed, but Ó Cadhain's exhaustive knowledge of the Irish language, its culture and traditions meant that his insights into the crucial role of the language in the liberation of the people was expressed by him with a clarity which few others matched.

Ó Cadhain, of course, recognised that the Irish language issue was a class question, like all others. He boasted that the small élite Gaeltacht middle class of hoteliers, lawyers, gaimbín shopkeepers and priest-followers hated him and his radicalism, because they instinctively knew that the revival of the language meant, as he expressed it, the revival of the people who spoke the language. And the revival of that people was a most serious threat to power and privilege.

The other side of the equation was equally true. The Irish Language Movement had to rid itself of "respectability", the measúlacht which saw petitions and pleadings fall on the deaf ears of those from whom support for the language was only a pretence.

So, in his last political pamphlet, Gluaiseacht na Gaeilge: Gluaiseacht ar Strae (The Irish Language Movement, a movement astray) he argued that the Irish Language Movement had to be a part of the movement for socialist change. Not to be so, to divorce the language from social change, meant to make the language an academic and sterile exercise. And if the revival of Irish meant the revival of those who spoke it (primarily in the Gaeltacht) then that meant that the re-conquest of Ireland was the context of any real struggle on the Irish language question.

The instinctive democracy of the language movement, which Connolly praised from the outside, was the natural reality of Ó Cadhain's world outlook and his perspective on struggle.

He was no academic theorist, of course. As an IRA activist, member of the Army Council and republican leader (it was he who gave the oration at the grave of the dead Hunger Striker Tony D'Arcy, a victim of de Valera's principle of compromise), Ó Cadhain brought back to the language movement in the '60s a willingness to struggle and to risk all to advance the language as an integral part of a wider cause.

His willingness to get involved in agitations and ructions caused many to think him cantankerous, but nothing could be further from the truth. His creative writing showed that he had a deep human empathy with ordinary people. A few of these stories have been translated and published in English, under the title Road to Brightcity; and in this collection, as throughout his work, can be seen his understanding of the harshness of struggle for the man and, especially, woman of Irish Ireland, but the indomitable spirit of working people which rises up again and again to confront any challenge.

As he said in his pamphlet Aisling (The Vision): "My hope is the chain detonation which I see throughout the country's history. Hope generating courage and courage generating action."

Like Marx, Ó Cadhain believed that merely understanding the world wasn't enough, that the point was to change it, but what he gave that was unique was the rooting of that change in a truly Irish world, and understanding that world with a truly human feeling.

Perhaps now is the time for republicans to consider how we too will celebrate the life of this our greatest Irish language son, on the centenary of his birth.

An Phoblacht Magazine


  • The first edition of this new magazine will feature a 10 page special on the life and legacy of our leader Martin McGuinness to mark the first anniversary of his untimely passing.
  • It will include a personal reminiscence by Gerry Adams and contributions from the McGuinness family.
  • There will also be an exclusive interview with our new Uachtarán Mary Lou McDonald.

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