The ‘Gaelicising’ of Galway city

Ernest Blythe, hat in hand pictured at Micheal Collins funeral, believed an all-Irish Galway University would lead the way for the revival of a Gaelic speaking Ireland.

Ernest Blythe, hat in hand pictured at Micheal Collins funeral, believed an all-Irish Galway University would lead the way for the revival of a Gaelic speaking Ireland.

Week II

After 1922, and the establishment of the Irish Free State, the new government took the opportunity to consider the funding and the general structure of the National University of Ireland, of which University College Galway (UCG ) was now a constituent college.

It was an opportunity for each of the universities to reflect a distinctive role in serving the needs of the nation. As it controlled funding, the Government had some clout in dictating what each university should have as its core faculty. The Minister for Education, Eoin Mac Néill, while suggesting that Dairy Science and Agricultural Science would be suitable for Dublin and Cork colleges, confessed that Galway ‘was a problem’ for him.

But not to the Minister for Finance Ernest Blythe. An Irish language romantic, an Ulster protestant, and the most committed of the cabinet to the declared government policy to revive the Irish language as the main language of the people. He fervently believed that Galway university should be the model for that challenging role.

‘Capital city of Irish’

It would appear that on the surface at least the west of Ireland was ripe for such a lead. Gearóid Ó

Tuathaigh, in his essay ‘Verdun or Heidelberg? * tells us that according to the 1891 Census 58.5 per cent of the population of county Galway, were Irish speakers, while in Galway town 47.5 per cent of the citizens spoke Irish.

Galway was one of the first centres outside Dublin to establish a branch of the Gaelic League in January 1894, during which the Bishop Dr McCormack gave a rousing oration at its opening, saying that because of the apparent strength of the Irish language community in its immediate hinterland, it was not altogether fanciful for some early revivalists to claim that Galway was ideally placed to be the ‘capital city of Irish Ireland’.

Yet despite being surrounded by Irish speaking communities, and the relatively high proportion of Irish speakers in Galway town, Galway had thrived as an English-speaking stronghold, which made its fortune in early medieval times through overseas trade. Through the centuries the civic authorities had shown little interest or sympathy towards the Gaelic culture with which it was surrounded.

More a nuisance

Some visitors, however, saw Galway as the most Irish of Irish towns, and rhapsodised accordingly. In 1912, the Ulster essayist and Sinn Féiner, Robert Lynd, wrote that ‘Galway is Irish in a sense in which Dublin, Cork, Belfast or Derry is not. Its people, their speech their dress, their swarthy complexions, their black hair, their eyes like blue flames, excite the imagination with curious surmises. Galway city-technically its only Galway town, is to discover an Ireland something like what Chapman’s Homer was to Keats…’

It is hard to tell what would be the reaction in Galway if the Rising, led by Liam Mellows, in April 1916, had received the weapons they were promised had been successful. In the few years leading up to the event, Sinn Féin were more a nuisance in the town rather than a threat. They disrupted recruitment meetings and conducted public parades.

But had the weapons arrived the Volunteers had plans to take over shops in the centre of the town, attack the RIC barracks in Eglinton Street, attack the Renmore barracks, and take-over the university. Certain businessmen were to be held as hostages, and the railway line into Galway to be destroyed.

Even when it was clear that no weapons would arrive some 500 men ‘came out’ but their actions were confined to the east of the county, far away from the town.

Galway citizens reacted swiftly. Local volunteers patrolled with the British army and RIC and some of these volunteers were present at the ambush at Carnmore Cross where RIC constable Patrick Whelan was shot dead, the only casualty of the Galway Rising. Had the Volunteers access to the weapons they were promised there would have been mayhem and slaughter on the streets of Galway.

Dramatic changes

In the roundup that followed Galway prisoners were brought through the town on their way to Frongoch prison camp in Wales. They were booed by the people watching.

Galway was a strong garrison town. There were three army barracks in Galway for several generations, and the relationships between the army and its citizens were excellent. Many of the soldiers had intermarried, and merchants had enjoyed keeping the barracks well stocked with food, and other services. As a result of these long years of trade, family-ties, and friendships, Galway was known as the most ‘Shoneen town in Ireland’.

Galway was not immune, however, to the dramatic change in attitudes to the Rising, resulting from the prolonged execution of its leaders, the dramatic Roger Casement trial, and the release of all the Irish prisoners at Christmas 1916.

Although Galway did not welcome the returning ‘heroes’ it did support the Sinn Féin landslide in 1918, and favoured pro-Treaty candidates in the June 1922 General Election.

A compromise agreed

In its efforts to contribute to the Gaelicisation of Galway, General Risteárd Ó Maolcatha, Minister for Defence, with Ernest Blythe and General Piaras Béaslaí, created An Chéad Cathlán Cois, First Battalion Infantry; and in May 1925 it was moved from the Curragh to An Rinn Mhór, Galway, the old barracks of the Connaught Rangers. It found its early recruits in the Atlantic Gaeltacht areas.

In addition Blythe provided funds for the provision of an Irish language theatre, An Taibhdhearc, which still flourishes today.

But Blythe’s plan to have an Irish speaking university in Galway, through which its subjects would be taught through Irish, was running into difficulties. Support for such a venture was strongly articulated by Professor Liam Ó Briain and Dr Tomás Breathnach, but other members of staff were implacably opposed to a state language policy in general. They might have been satisfied to have the college assigned a special responsibility in agriculture, lands and fisheries, with responsibility for the development of the Irish language.

There the matter rested for some years to the increasing impatience of Ernest Blythe until a major row erupted over the threatened removal from the college of its medical faculty with additional concern for it engineering and commerce faculties. These were important reputational subjects for the college producing world class standards.

The great and the good citizens of the town now became involved. A public meeting was called. The political representatives were left in no doubt that such a move would have serious consequences for the college and Galway. The college was under-funded and it was being treated as a lesser entity to that of Cork or Dublin.

A compromise was agreed. Galway would get extra funding. It would retain its medical and engineering departments, and ‘would accept a special role in providing university education through Irish’.

A bilingual character

So did Galway become the Irish speaking capital the romantics dreamed of in the 1920s? In many ways it has. Scoil Fhursa (founded 1933 ) continues to thrive not as a solitary Irish-language national school, but as the ‘senior’ member of a recent expansion of the popular Gaelscoileanna; while at second level Coláiste na Coiribe continues the trend.

Opportunities to learn Irish are available (on-line or in person ) from Áras na nGael, Gaillimh le Gaeilge or Acadamh na hOllscolaíochta Gaeilge, while along the Connemara Gaeltacht coast the sky bristles with aerials from all-Irish radio and TV stations. Many shops in the city proudly display Irish signage.

As for the university it has gradually built up a cohort of staff to provide courses through Irish to degree level in a broad range of disciplines and faculties. It may not be ‘a Gaelic university’ as envisaged in the 1920s but it has a marked bilingual character not found in any other university on the island.

Next week: The second history of Galway.

NOTES: * Verdun or Heidelberg? Cultural Visions for Early Free State Galway by Gearóid Ó Tuathaigh, Professor Emeritus in History, and formally Vice-President of UCG, from Hardiman and Beyond - The Arts and Culture of Galway since 1820, published by Arden, edited by John Cunningham and Ciaran McDonough, on sale €45.


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