As letter writers to newspapers know, as soon as you make your point, and satisfied that it is the only salient point worth making, you can be brought back to reality smartly by a riposte! Sir Roger Casement’s letter in the Irish language newspaper An Claidheamh Soluis, in the late summer of 1904, was a hard hitting criticism of the attitude of those parents who favoured that their children learned to speak English, instead of Irish. “The general mass of the Irish speaking parents have kicked the language out of doors.” He fully supported the struggle of the people of Tawin, a small island on the east side of Galway Bay, who had withdrawn their children from the local national school because they wanted their children educated through Irish. As a result the authorities withdrew the schoolmistress, and the school, unused for years, fell into disrepair. They warned the islanders that if they wanted the school to re-open they had to pay for its repair.
Instead, the local people, headed by a young doctor Séamus Ó Beirn with the local parish priest An t-Athair Séamus O Cathain, and the local doctor, Dr Walsh, opted to build their own school. They appealed for funds. Support from Casement was to prove decisive. At the time of his visit in August he was the centre of international attention. As the British consul in the Congo he had written a damning report on the condition of the natives who were ruthlessly exploited by the Belgian rubber industry. The scandal went all the way up to King Leopold II himself. The support of such a public figure certainly focused attention on Tawin.
An ‘unsanitary island’
But not everyone was happy with Casement’s criticism. A Mr John F S Costello Sheppard wrote a letter to the Galway Observer on November 29 that same year, in a stoic defence of the poor schoolmistress (unnamed ), who was rejected by the islanders. He castigates Casement for such ‘praiseworthy terms of these ‘Tawnees’ that one would be convinced that Tawin is the real home of the Irish language, that the Tawin people are model patriots, and that the teacher is some imported traitorous wretch, bribed and paid to Anglicise these people, but she has failed, and she is now (DV ) cast ruthlessly aside by these brave few...’
‘In 1895, although teaching in a school-room unfit to shelter beasts in winter, she scored 95 at the Annual Results Examination, a record which has not hitherto been held by any island school in Connaught. As an Irish teacher I need not speak. Her seed, breed and generation are the real Irish blood. She has been born and reared with the Irish language, and in that district - Turloughmor where the true nationalists are to be found, not the spurious patriots, not of the Carey type. She has been teaching Irish for upwards of 30 years, and in her early teens when ‘Tawinees’ would scorn to speak Irish, this teacher was energetically teaching the native language in other district of Connaught. But in Tawin - that pestilential, corrupt and unsanitary island she spent 22 years where she exceeded her duty as a teacher with honesty, zeal and energy, she was good and kind, honourable and forgiving, well fitted to conserve the interests and further the desires of her pupils, she did her utmost to spread politeness, culture, urbanity, fraternal care, and Christian charity.’
Money came in
Despite this outcry, however, the money poured in for the new school*. The target was between £60 and £80, but the final total was £140. The Bishop of Galway, Dr MacCormack, gave £10; the Archbishop of Dublin, Dr Walsh, gave £20; and money came in small sums of £1 and £3, from people from all walks in life, including Lady Augusta Gregory, and a Miss Williams, of the Welsh language movement.. The Claidheamh Soluis apologised for not having the space to publish all the letters it received in support of the fund. Soon after, early in 1905, Dr Séamus Ó Beirn could proudly write: ‘Recently in Tawin I attended a meeting of village people - old and young were there , Irish the language. The people wish to convey to the many friends who subscribed towards the School Fund their heartiest thanks, and to make that thanks more acceptable, they wish it to be known that henceforth Irish is to be the language of Tawin. They wish to convey their special thanks to Mr Casement, Dr Hyde, and those friends who initiated the movement, and everyone who helped in the erecting of our Irish school.’
The little school was built with one door, and two windows situated high enough so the children could not look out while sitting at that desks. There was to be no distraction while at their lessons! There was sufficient money left over to establish a little library in the village, and in the summer months, when the school was closed, it became a Conradh na Gaeilge sponsored Colaiste Gaeilge**. This was one of a series of colleges for the training of teachers in the teaching of Irish.
There was one final blow from those who had ‘kicked the language out of doors,’ and that was the disappearance of one of the flagstones or plaques that was erected over the school door. Apparently, in a gesture of reconciliation, there were two plaques, one inscribed in Irish and one in English. Mysteriously, the night before the official opening, the Irish flagstone was hacked off its position. It couldn’t be found, despite a thorough search, and I assume questions were asked of any islander who might have shown some hesitation to be as enthusiastic about the Irishisation of their island.
But it was never found. After some discussion and delay, it was felt that to leave only the English plaque on its own would somehow diminish the whole effort of the project. The English flagstone was removed, and a bi-lingual one (see photo ) was put in its place. That is the one which is set over the door today.
The school still stands. It is the last building in the village, facing the bay. But, while retaining its original school building, it has been extended into an attractive home at the back. I had no idea who lived there so I was delighted when the door was opened by Tom Bartlett, the historian***, and his wife Rebecca. The perfect man to live in this historic place I thought. We sat in the school-room section and craned our necks to look out the high windows. Tom reminded me that during the years 1910 and 1912 Eamon de Valera was the director of the summer school at Tawin. Initially Dev wasn’t very enthusiastic about going to Tawin. In January 1910 he married his Conrad na Gaeilge Irish teacher Sinéad Flanagan. Apart from just being married he felt his oral Irish wasn’t good enough to run the school. However, he was persuaded to go. He did so for three successive summers. But understandably he missed his wife, and wrote her some loving letters, showing a side of his nature that people of my generation just cannot imagine.
Next week: Dev, love sick on Tawin
*I am still leaning heavily on Nollaig Mac Congáil’s recent article in the current issue of the Journal of the Galway Archaeological and Historical Society (Volume 62 ).
**I recently wrote about the centenary celebrations of Colaiste Chonnacht, An Spideal (November 25 2010 ), which was established five years after Tawin. In the early years of the last century the revival of the Irish language was part of the growing Nationalist movement which included sport, music, literature, and a desire for political autonomy. There were at least 14 Colaisti Gaeilge around Ireland accommodating an average of 1,500 adult students a year. Most of the students were teachers in both secondary and national schools.
*** Tom Bartlett taught history at NUIG between 1979 - 1995. He is at present Professor of Irish History at the University of Aberdeen, and the author of the acclaimed Concise History of Ireland, published last year by Cambridge University. Rebecca is an actress and playwright.