Leabharlann na Meán


Speech at the Official Opening of the Conradh na Gaeilge Ard-Fheis, 2016

Dublin Castle, 26th February 2016

Ladies and gentlemen,

I am delighted to be here at the Conradh na Gaeilge Ard-Fheis tonight to officially launch Seachtain na Gaeilge, 2016. I warmly welcome everyone present here tonight and I am sure that you will all enjoy this historic occasion and the related events which will take place throughout the year ahead. 

While looking back on the past century, we should take a moment to remember that much has happened in that time. Perhaps it would be a source of some satisfaction to those men and women who undertook the planning of the rising one hundred years ago that the President of Ireland is speaking today, in Irish, in Dublin Castle on a day on which the people of this country are set to elect our thirty-second Dáil.  

I would like to thank the President of Conradh na Gaeilge, Cóilín Ó Cearbhaill, and its General Secretary, Julian de Spáinn, for kindly inviting me to be present at this event.  I was very happy to accept the invitation to recognise and respect the important work that has been carried out by Conradh na Gaeilge since 1893.

As I have said, the fact that this event is being held in the ancient building of Dublin Castle is something that adds greatly to it. This is a building that has been intertwined with the history and culture of Ireland for more than eight hundred years. It has seen many historic periods, from the Vikings, the Normans, the Saxons, the Easter Rising of 1916 and the establishment of the Irish state. In the present day, among other State events, it is here in the Castle that the country’s Presidents are inaugurated and I must say that I have many happy memories of the day on which I myself was inaugurated as President in November 2011.

It is timely that, while the people of Ireland are commemorating the historic year of 1916, ‘Intellectual Freedom’ has been chosen as the theme for the Ard-Fheis this year.  The commemoration of 1916 is a central part of the life of Gaels throughout Ireland and the entire world.  To recognise the central place of Irish in the ideals of the revolutionary generation and to take the opportunity to celebrate our native language, a diverse programme of events will be held this year and, of course, Conradh na Gaeilge has been actively involved in this work. 

One of the interesting events being progressed by the League is the initiation of a series of seminars entitled Plé 2016 to commemorate the legacy of the Irish Language revival.  Twelve public seminars in total will be organised. Not only will they be held throughout the island of Ireland, events will also be held abroad to encourage conversation among the diaspora. 

These seminars have a number of goals: the importance of Irish in Ireland and abroad in 1916 will be remembered; the role of the League and the cultural revival as a source of inspiration and reimagination for the organisers of the Rising will be celebrated; and widespread conversion will be incited regarding the role of Irish in the society of today.

The Irish Language revival was a main aim of the generation known as the Revolutionary Generation. Much of the thinking of the leaders in 1916 was based on the vision of an independent Ireland that had its own spoken and written language as the foundation of its unique culture. 

However, the vision of Douglas Hyde and his peers were based on the basic radical principle that the Irish personality could not properly blossom and achieve its true potential because of the barriers placed by the society of the time. This was a society created and guided for the most part to benefit the British Empire and not the Irish people. Although the language revival was a central part of Hyde's philosophy, it was only one part of it. The ideal of Hyde and his colleagues was to recreate a Gaelic society that would be suitable for the Irish people and have a direct link to its Gaelic heritage. The aim of this new vision was to take the place of the bogus colonial society.

It must be acknowledged that Conradh na Gaeilge made a great effort in tackling the language challenge.  In March 1893, Eoin Mac Néill set out his opinion in Irisleabhar na Gaeilge. He wrote:

          "…gan amhras is féidir linn an Ghaeilge a choinneáil beo.  Mura

          gcoinnítear beo í, is sinne a bheas ciontach lena bás. Cuirimis

          romhainn feasta í a choinneáil beo.”

 [...we undoubtedly have to keep Irish alive. If it is not kept alive, we will be responsible for its death. We have to decide from now on to keep it alive.”]


Essentially, Mr. Mac Néill was demanding that an organisation be established to show leadership and Conradh na Gaeilge eagerly accepted this challenge.  When the League was established on July 31st 1893 in Dublin, the people of Ireland were in despair and under the rule of the British Empire. The English Language had the upper hand and our native language was suppressed, without status and gradually dying.

We must remember that there was a specific strategy to eliminate the language from the country. This was carried out on purpose through the education system, for example, where children were forced to learn English and turn their back on Irish. As English speakers had all the power to implement their policies, the belief held by the community that Irish was just an obstruction to taking full part in society grew.  On top of that, due to the economic destruction that occurred in the 19th century in areas in which Irish was still alive, of which the majority were poor areas, it was from these areas that millions of people emigrated to Britain and to America. Although efforts were made to keep Irish alive among migrants, in America especially, it was accepted that English would be more useful to those who had to leave the country.

It is a great challenge to suppress a language, and it is an even greater challenge still to revive a language.  Although it is difficult to imagine, there were four million Irish speakers in Ireland two hundred years ago. After the Famine, the population fell from eight and a half million in 1845 to five million in 1851 and the number of Irish speakers fell to one and a half million.  By 1911, due to migration and other factors, the population had fallen to 3.1 million, of which only half a million stated that they were proficient in Irish.  In those circumstances, it is good news that the population of the country, north and south, has risen to 6.5 million one hundred years later, of which 2 million state that they are proficient in Irish.

As Seán Ó Tuama noted, it took three hundred years and the disaster of the Famine to impress English culture on Ireland, and it is a great challenge for us to save our culture. Irish speakers have been working on the revival for almost 125 years now. However, in the lifespan of a language, this is only an extremely short period of time and we should not be disappointed about our lack of success until now.

With regard to statistics, we should be a beacon of hope for the Irish Language community in that we are moving in the right direction. Even though the approaches to the language taken by our governments from the establishment of the State onwards had inherent weaknesses, it is clear that the proficiency of the population in Irish and their goodwill towards Irish is a strong foundation for us to build on in strengthening and widening the use of the language in future.  The revival is in progress and it is succeeding. Moreover, it will be in progress until we achieve our goal.

It gives me particular satisfaction to see the progress made by the Irish Language community in the North in recent years, as well as the spirit that is clear to see in efforts to establish schools and cultural centres and organise Irish classes.  At this time last year, I was in Belfast launching Seachtain na Gaeilge and speaking about the interest being shown by a number of Unionists in Irish courses and in the Irish classes being organised in the East Belfast Mission. This is an interesting aspect in the history of the language and we must remember that the language does not belong to any particular political philosophy or religion. Everyone is welcome in the Irish Language community and every kind of “intellectual freedom” can be practised, regardless of one’s heritage.

That said, we must admit that there was a close link between freedom and the language one hundred years ago and, accordingly, many of the leaders of the freedom movement were members of Conradh na Gaeilge.  Douglas Hyde, the first President of the country and a prominent proponent of the language, was one of the founders of Conradh na Gaeilge and President of the organisation from its establishment until 1915.  Three of the seven signatories of the Proclamation of the Republic spent periods of time on the Conradh na Gaeilge Business Committee, namely, Patrick Pearse, Éamonn Ceannt and Seán Mac Diarmada.  Another two of the signatories, Thomas MacDonagh and Joseph Plunkett, were also active in the League. Thomas Clarke was also a member of the League after returning to Ireland from the United States in 1907.  It is no surprise, therefore, that this generation is known as the Revolutionary Generation and that their vision for the country was of a strong Ireland, an independent Ireland and a Gaelic Ireland.

Due to the achievements of these leaders and others, a response has been given to the challenge set by Eoin Mac Néill, I mentioned earlier.  Although there are many challenges to be overcome by the Irish Language as a minority language surrounded by the global language of English, our own native language is still surviving. It is a language with constitutional protection and recognition as an official language of Ireland and of the European Union. With regard to Europe, it is worth recognising that bilingualism or multilingualism is more common than monolingualism and there is logic to the argument made by Peadar Kirby, from whom we will be hearing later, that we had and still have a challenge to overcome. Not only does it mean de-Anglicising Ireland, as the Pleasant Little Branch (Hyde) suggested, we must re-Europeanise it so that we survive the influence of colonisation.

In that way, perhaps we can move away from the shadow of history and the different obstacles it has placed before us, not only in relation to Irish but in relation to other characteristics that are common among post-colonial countries. 

It is no surprise that our mindset in relation to Irish is still largely embedded in colonialism and in our attempts to use the language to separate our identity from Great Britain.  Perhaps a trace of that thinking still survives, that Irish, and the use of Irish, is anti-English, and that this hampers its wider use among the community. Travelling throughout the country, however, I see that young people are self-confident in using their native language in the Gaeltacht areas, in Irish-medium schools and in various organisations. When I see the creativity, the thinking and the enjoyment through the medium of Irish that can be seen and heard every evening in the various programmes on TG4 and other radio and television stations, I believe that there is a new energy and confidence regarding the language and this gives me hope. 

In the present day, there is an exceptional interest in Irish and Irish studies throughout the world. It is being taught in more than 40 universities in the United States, in Canada, in Europe and even in Beijing University in China. This is no small achievement in giving us hope for the future and in keeping alive the legacy of the leaders of 1916.  

I am very happy that Irish is intertwined in the 1916 commemorative programme and that there is a particular programme in relation to it - namely, The Living Language.  I hope that enjoyment and benefit is taken from the diverse programme of events and initiatives that has been prepared to celebrate the Irish Language throughout this special year.  This is a remarkable opportunity that enables us to reflect on all that has been achieved in the last one hundred years and to plan to ensure that the Irish Language’s place as a living language in our modern, prosperous society will always continue to grow.

It is my own intention for this historic year to take part in as many events as possible in which Irish and the future of Irish are discussed.  I am undertaking an Initiative for the Irish Language in order to focus the population’s attention on language issues throughout the year of 2016.  I am here among you tonight and I hope that I can take part in many of the interesting events set out for us this year. I will be in attendance at the International Association of Language Commissioners in Galway next month, where I will have the opportunity to discuss the international experience and best-practice in relation to minority languages; I will be visiting the Irish Language communities within and outwith the Gaeltacht areas in Ireland and abroad throughout the year and I will be organising events to welcome them to Áras an Uachtaráin. 

I hope I can take part in events in which various themes related to Irish are discussed and examined, including obstacles and reasons why the State’s policy in relation to bilingualism has been unsuccessful in the main and the best way to increase the positive outlook the people of this country have in relation to the language and how to persuade them to use it.  We should not be afraid of attempting new ways of teaching, learning and using the language, both within and outwith the education system.

I would be interested in discussing the role of senior officers in the state system in showing leadership with regard to the use of Irish and how to inspire its wider use among its organisations and the general public.  Of course, I am greatly looking forward to attending some of the music and arts events run through the medium of Irish, especially the “Ravelóid” being run by Conradh na Gaeilge, Glór na nGael and other Irish Language organisations in Balbriggan this summer.

Finally, I congratulate Conradh na Gaeilge for firmly sticking to its task from the time of its establishment to the present day and I wish them every success in their work, especially in this special year.  Without further delay, I declare the Conradh na Gaeilge Ard-Fheis and Seachtain na Gaeilge 2016 to be officially open.   Enjoy the evening, Seachtain na Gaeilge and the important year of commemoration ahead.

Thank you all very much.