The Language Movement
From The Workers’ Republic, October 1, 1898 and The Harp, April, 1908, respectively.
Transcribed by The James Connolly Society in 1997.
Talking of Gaelic scholars brings me by an easy and natural transition to speak of the great Celtic renascence of late years.
I think it has its bad and its good points. Its bad points are, in my opinion, only accidental to the movement and were well got rid of.
They consist in the attempt to exclude all other methods of culture, to deny the value of all other literature and the worth of all other peoples and, in general, to make our Irish youths and maidens too self-centered.
I believe the Gaelic movement has great promise of life in it, but that promise will only be properly fulfilled when it naturally works its way into the life of the nation, side by side with every other agency making for a regenerated people.
The chief enemy of a Celtic revival today is the crushing force of capitalism which irresistibly destroys all national or racial characteristics, and by sheer stress of its economic preponderance reduces a Galway or a Dublin, a Lithuania or a Warsaw to the level of a mere second-hand imitation of Manchester or Glasgow.
In the words of Karl Marx, “Capitalism creates a world after its own image,” and the image of Capitalism is to be found in the industrial centres of Great Britain.
A very filthy image indeed.
You cannot teach starving men Gaelic; and the treasury of our national literature will and must remain lost forever to the poor wage-slaves who are contented by our system of society to toil from early morning to late at night for a mere starvation wage.
Therefore, I say to our friends of the Gaelic movement - your proper place is in the ranks of the Socialist Republican Party, fighting for the abolition of this accursed social system which grinds us down in such a manner; which debases the character and lowers the ideals of our people to such a fearful degree, that to the majority of our workers the most priceless manuscript of ancient Celtic lore would hold but a secondary place in their esteem beside a rasher of bacon.
Help us to secure to all our fellow-countrymen, a free, full, and happy life; secure in possession of a rational, human existence, neither brutalised by toil nor debilitated by hunger, and then all the noble characteristics of our race will have full opportunity to expand and develop. And when all that is good in literature, art and science is recognised as the property of all – and not the heritage of the few – your ideals will receive the unquestioned adhesion of all true Irishmen.
I do not ask you to cease for a moment your endeavours on your present lines of education, but only to recognise in us your natural allies, as you should recognise that those who, under any pretext, however specious, would ask you to help them to perpetuate that British capitalism – which now thwarts you at every turn – is your enemy and the enemy of your cause.
The success of our cause is certain – sooner or later. But the welcome light of the sun of freedom may, at any moment, flash upon our eyes and with your help we would not fear the storm which may precede the dawn.
I do believe in the necessity, and indeed in the inevitability of an universal language; but I do not believe it will be brought about, or even hastened, by smaller races or nations consenting to the extinction of their language. Such a course of action, or rather of slavish inaction, would not hasten the day of a universal language, but would rather lead to the intensification of the struggle for mastery between the languages of the greater powers.
On the other hand, a large number of small communities, speaking different tongues, are more likely to agree upon a common language as a common means of communication than a small number of great empires, each jealous of its own power and seeking its own supremacy.
I have heard some doctrinaire Socialists arguing that Socialists should not sympathise with oppressed nationalities or with nationalities resisting conquest. They argue that the sooner these nationalities are suppressed the better, as it will be easier to conquer political power in a few big empires than in a number of small states. This is the language argument over again.
It is fallacious in both cases. It is even more fallacious in the case of nationalities than in the case of languages, because the emancipation of the working-class will function more through the economic power than through the political state. The first act of the workers will be through their economic organisations seizing the organised industries; the last act the conquest of political power.
In this the working class will, as they needs must follow in the lines traversed by the capitalist revolutions of Cromwellian England, of Colonial and Revolutionary America, of Republican France, in each of whom the capitalist class had developed their economic power before they raised the banner of political revolt.
The working class in their turn must perfect their organisations, land when such organisations are in a position to control, seize and operate the industries they will find their political power equal to the task.
But the preparatory work of the revolutionary campaign must lie in the daily and hourly struggles in the workshop, the daily and hourly perfectioning of the industrial organisation.
And these two factors for freedom take no heed to political frontiers, nor to the demarcations of political states. They march side by side with the capitalist; where capitalism brings its machinery it brings the rebels against itself, and all its governments and all its armies can establish no frontier the revolutionary idea cannot pass.
Let the great truth be firmly fixed in your mind that the struggle for the conquest of the political state of the capitalist is not the battle, it is only the echo of the battle. The real battle is being fought out, and will be fought out, on the industrial field.
Because of this and other reasons the doctrinaire Socialists are wrong in this as in the rest of their arguments. It is not necessary that Irish Socialists should hostilise those who are working for the Gaelic language, nor whoop it up for territorial aggrandisement of any nation. Therefore, in this, we can wish the Sinn Feiners, good luck.
Besides, it is well to remember that nations which submit to conquest or races which abandon their language in favour of that of an oppressor do so, not because of the altruistic motives, or because of a love of brotherhood of man, but from a slavish and cringing spirit.
From a spirit which cannot exist side by side with the revolutionary idea.
This was amply evidenced in Ireland by the attitude of the Irish people towards their language.
For six hundred years the English strove to suppress that mark of the distinct character of the Gael – their language, and failed. But in one generation the politicians did what England had failed to do.
The great Daniel O’Connell, the so-called liberator, conducted his meetings entirely in English. When addressing meetings in Connaught where, in his time, everybody spoke Gaelic and over 75 per cent of the people nothing else but Gaelic, O’Connell spoke exclusively in English. He thus conveyed to the simple people the impression that Gaelic was something to be ashamed of – something fit for only ignorant people. He pursued the same course all over Ireland.
As a result of this and similar actions the simple people turned their backs upon their own language and began to ape ‘the gentry.’ It was the beginning of the reign of the toady and the crawler, the seoinín and the slave.
The agitator for revenue came into power in the land.
It is not ancient history, but the history of yesterday that old Irish men and women would speak Irish to each other in the presence of their children, but if they caught son or daughter using the language the unfortunate child would receive a cuff on the ear accompanied with the adjuration:
“Speak English, you rascal; speak English like a gintleman!”
It is freely stated in Ireland that when the Protestant evangelisers, soupers they call them at home, issued tracts and Bibles in Irish in order to help the work of proselytising, the Catholic priesthood took advantage of the incident to warn their flocks against reading all literature in Gaelic. Thus still further discrediting the language.
I cannot conceive of a Socialist hesitating in his choice between a policy resulting in such self-abasement and a policy of defiant self-reliance and confident trust in a people's own power of self-emanciaption by a people.
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Last updated on 7.8.2003