It may sound like a contradiction of terms, but teaching the Irish language in the opening decades of the last century could also be a method of teaching English. Irish was the spoken language in most homes of the west of Ireland, but it was recognised that knowledge of English was essential when emigration was usually the only way a young man or girl could better themselves. It is to the great credit of the Gaelic League, established in 1893 to promote the teaching of Irish in all national schools, that it recognised that fact. The Gaelic League, like its near contemporary the GAA, idealised the culture and way of life of the surviving Gaeltacht areas; and its success was largely due to its understanding that a bilingual approach would best serve everyone’s purposes.
We get an interesting glimpse of Irish in the classroom and the community in September 1907, when the Galway MP, Stephen L Gwynn, with his fishing rods and knapsack, took a holiday in Connemara. He travelled by car, bicycle and train. He was a popular and very sociable man, who clearly enjoyed listening and talking with the people he met along the way (he wrote about his experience A Holiday in Connemara, published by Methuen and Co in 1909 )*. He took the coast road from Galway into Connemara, looking back on the hills of Clare and the white-washed thatched cottages of Tawin island as he moved along into Cois Fharraige. He knew the teacher, Dan Deeney, at Spiddal’s school and called in to see him. He watched a geography class in action. He enjoyed listening to the children answering the questions quickly and correctly. “ It was a lesson really in English, as well as in geography,” he writes, “ for the question was often put a second time in English.”
A day or two later Stephen was fishing at Inver. He told his boatman about the Spiddal school, and the man replied that the new way of teaching English through Irish was better than the English only. “Now,” he said, “ a boy at school would be able to read out every word that was on a letter coming from America. Now any that could read English could put Irish on what they read.”
Stephen writes that reading and writing ‘ is for Connemara mainly a means of communicating with America’.
As if to emphasise the point further he buys stamps in a local post office. ‘ I asked for a dozen stamps. The girl gave me them, and they were all twopence-halfpenny. I asked for penny ones (for local destinations ). “ We have none,” she answered.
“ Do you never have them?”
“ Oh yes,’ she said, “sometimes; but we are seldom asked for them.”
The whole correspondence of that mountainside was with the States.
The Irish language was used in an imaginative way to educate people of the necessity of home hygiene to prevent the spread of TB and typhus, still common at the time. Stephen wanted to try his luck at fishing on the Mask and Lough na Fooey. He enjoyed a lift from a friend, and sped through the valleys. When they came upon the little schoolhouse at Kilmilcin, Maam, he cried ‘ stop the car’.
It was here that a remarkable experiment in educating a community began. I have written before about Sir Roger Casement’s friend Dr Seamus O’Beirn of Tawin. Even as a medical student at Galway university O’Beirn was aware of the ludicrous situation of appointing doctors to Irish speaking dispensary districts, who had no knowledge of the native language. He cleverly wrote a play An Dochtúir which ridiculed a young doctor trying to communicate with his patients. The play was a great success, and acclaimed nationally as a brilliant piece of propaganda for the intelligent use of Irish. It was influential in assuring that knowledge of Irish was a prerequisite qualification for medical appointments in Irish speaking areas.
Now a qualified doctor, O’Beirn was stationed at the Leenane clinic working hard to stem the spread of TB which appeared to be endemic in some communities. He advocated that the true work of medicine is to prevent diseases, and that had to begin with education. He wasn’t allowed to use the Leenane clinic for his purposes, so instead he cycled seven hilly miles to Kilmilcin one evening every week, to present a series of lectures on the human body, and the origins of TB, which he illustrated with lantern slides. The lectures were presented, of course, in the home-language of the people.
‘A fiery seed’
At first the attendance was sparse. Then when people, only too aware of the blight, and hidden terror of the white pestilence which hung over some families like a dark cloud, understood what was on offer, they came in their hundreds. Following this success the authorities recognised the value of what O’Beirn was doing. He was asked to repeat the lectures all over Connemara. To liven things up he introduced an examination after each course. The successful candidates were encouraged to spread the word for home hygiene in their community. St Vincent’s Hospital in Dublin took note at what was happening. Its surgeons realised that they too had a responsibility in educating the poor of Dublin, where many of the slums were riddled with TB. One surgeon noted that O’Beirn had succeeded in explaining the necessity of burning down a house where he was convinced the deadly bacilli had ingrained itself. Three families had been affected by the disease. It was agreed to destroy the house. The Dublin surgeon described that event as “ remarkable!”
The Gaelic League became involved. It was already training teachers in the best methods of teaching Irish. The language’s use in adult education added a new urgency to the matter. Stephen laments that for generations, while scientific knowledge was accumulating with astonishing speed, the poor have grown up in ignorance. “ Instructed only as parrots might be through the medium of English which they did not understand, a language they did not know, by a teacher who in many cases did not know a word of their own Irish, how were they to assimilate the ideas of the modern world?
“These things being so I think any man realising the circumstances of Irish life here in the extreme west of Ireland will feel inclined, if he passes Kilmilcin schoolhouse, to stop and take off his hat to the spot where a fiery seed of knowledge, quick from the brain of an enthusiast, was flung down, took root, and bore fruit.”
Next week: Stephen L Gwynn continues his tour.
NOTES: *Stephen Lucius Gwynn (1864 - 1950 ), politician, soldier, and a man of letters, merits an extensive entry in the Dictionary of Irish Biography, published by the RIA two years ago. Stephen’s father was an Anglican minister, and the family was brought up among the landed society of the time. However, witnessing the wretched condition of emigrants waiting in Cobh for boats to England and America, inspired him to work to improve the welfare of the Irish peasant. He joined the Gaelic League, and learned Irish, but later severed his connection because he opposed the imposition of Irish as a compulsory matriculation subject in the National University of Ireland. He felt this was unnecessarily divisive, and preferred that Irish was taught by persuasion.
In 1906 he won a by-election in Galway (defeating John Shawe Taylor ), and held his seat till 1918. At the outbreak of World War I, aged 51 years, he joined the Connaught Rangers. He fought in the battles of Ginchy-Guillemont during the Somme offensive, and at Messines.
He married his cousin Mary Louisa Gwynn. Their youngest son Denis became a star pupil at PH Pearses’ school St Enda’s.