That strange English passion for Ireland

In the early years of the 20th century the Irish language increasingly was associated with poverty and backwardness. In the national school system, which was established in 1831, children had been beaten with what became known as a ‘tally stick’ if they were caught speaking Irish. Apparently every time a child was heard speaking Irish, a notch was cut on the stick, and the poor child received the same number of blows.

Far from being upset by this, many parents enthusiastically endorsed it. They felt that the future of their children depended on their ability to speak English. Understandably, Ireland experienced a steady decline in native Irish speakers*.

The beginning of a reversal of that decline was the establishment of Irish colleges throughout Ireland by the Gaelic League**. The first one in the west was at Tourmakedy, Co Mayo (Coláiste Chonnacht Thuar Mhic Éadaigh ), and was such a success that applications far outnumbered the places available. Archbishop Seán Healy of Tuam was its patron, a position he coveted with pride. However, a row broke out over the appointment of a new principal. The archbishop favoured Oughterard man Pat O’Donnellan, while a majority on the board of management wanted Galway university professor Seán Pádraig Mac ÉnrÍ. In true Irish fashion there was a split, leading to the League renting ‘Arandale’ from the Coleman-Lynch family on the Galway side of Spiddal. It opened as Coláiste Chonnacht in 1910. One hundred years later, with additional buildings and playing pitches, it still thrives as a popular Irish college for summer students***.

A busy life

A curiosity in Ireland’s bid to regain its literary, sporting, linguistic, and sovereign pride at the beginning of the last century, was the role played by some Irish loving Anglo Saxon men and women, or people who were inheritors of the landlord class. There is probably a book in the many names that come to mind, but one of the more interesting women of the time was Eibhlín Bean Mhic Coistealbha. Born plain Edith Drury in England, she was a bright, intelligent young teacher, a member of the Church of England. She was soon promoted head teacher. But just when her family thought her life was settled, she passionately embraced Irish culture, and joined the Gaelic League in London. She became a fluent Irish speaker. Her family hoped that that would be the end of her Irish infatuation. Instead, and she admitted that it was on the spur of the moment, she saw an advertisement for a teacher with the Presentation nuns in Tuam, and applied. To the credit of the nuns, they accepted this enthusiastic young woman with curiosity and friendship.

Eibhlín’s life now changed dramatically. One of the Presentation sisters, Sr Fursa, was an enthusiast for Irish ballads and music, and the two women struck up a warm and lasting friendship. Edith changed her name to Eibhlín, embraced the Catholic religion, and married a renowned medical doctor and antiquarian Dr Tom Bodkin Costello of Kicloony. Dr Tom, a descendant from one of the tribes of Galway, was a brilliant obstetrician, and enormously popular in Connemara and Cois Fharraighe where he served for a period, before taking up full time medical practice in Tuam.

Eibhlín threw herself into a busy life of local politics, music and language studies. She was Galway county councillor, a member of the Tuam town commissioners, a judge of the Sinn Fein Arbitration Courts 1921 - 22, a member of the first Seanad Éireann, a member of the governing body of UCG, and, never afraid of unpopular causes, vigorously defended unmarried mothers from the hypocrisy of the time. She published a collection of ancient songs of Galway and Mayo in 1923, which is still highly regarded for its scholarship****. She was the first chairman of Coláiste Chonnacht. She lived in the family home in Bishop’s Street, Tuam with her only child, Nuala, and died as recently as 1962.

The English visitor

Pádraig Mac Piarais, the son of a Birmingham stonemason, and the enigmatic leader of the 1916 Rising, was a frequent visitor to Spiddal during the summer months when he lived at his Connemara home at Rosmuck, near Carna. On occasions he drilled the local team where they used their hurleys as pretend rifles. He was in fact an examiner for the League, and regularly visited Coláiste Chonnacht; but he was happy living among, what he described as, the ‘virgin soil’ of Irish culture which he passionately loved.

I have taken today’s stories from Coláiste Chonnacht 1910-2010 which includes to following description of a visit by Fr Fitzgerald OFM to a house céilí. Although it sounds a bit naive today, it does capture the romance of the time. This is an extract: ... ‘ You step into a spacious kitchen across the threshold, and, as it is late in the evening, you cannot see everyone in the house by the fitful gleams of the turf fire. You see fine big boots, and nails in them, sticking out from dark corners, as their owners are tired and shy. The colleens are over by themselves near the fire, and the girl of the house nurses her best girl friend on her knees.

‘If the room door be ajar you will see on the walls of the bedroom St Joseph and Michael Davitt, and Tim Kean’s (the grocer’s ) picture-advertisent, with Erin hanging out of a cross in Lipton’s tea garden’s Ceylon; St Patrick putting the come hither on the snakes, and over the bed the Mother of Sorrows. By sympathy and sorrow this picture is dear to the suffering Irish heart, especially in the West. As the visitors come in, the woman of the house comes forward to each, and says: “ Maise, céad míle fáilte”, and her daughter shows you a place, except you are an old friend, and then you can find a place for yourself. The woman of the house is in her bare feet and the floor is earthen but as hard as granite. There are no airs and graces at a céilí, as everybody is natural and friendly, and everybody is Kathleen or Séamas or Cathal or Máire.’

And just when everyone was settled, and the music was about to start, in comes the English visitor. ‘Everyone called him Cathal (Charles ). He is an Oxford man and speaks Irish well, and wears a tweed coat and a tweed belt around it, and tan boots and has a pince nez which gives him a professional air. He is serious and not to say stolid, like the typical Saxon, and enters into all the fun, and is the most popular man in Spiddal.’


* It is estimated that there were five million people living in Ireland at the end of the 18th century. Of these, two million were exclusively Irish speakers, one and a half million spoke Irish and English, and about the same number spoke English exclusively. A hundred years later, there were only about 600,000 Irish speakers left, with only 3.5 per cent under the age of 10 years able to speak the language.

** The Gaelic League, the Irish language organisation, was established in 1893 by Eoin MacNeill and others, with Douglas Hyde as its first president.

***Colaiste Chonnacht 1910 - 2010, Céad bliain faoi bhláth, a magnificent record of this historic college, was published on Saturday. Edited by Seán ÓNerachtain. It is a treasure trove of photographs and articles from 1910 to the present day. On sale at only €15. Inquiries

****Amhran Mhuighe Seola was Eibhlín’s collection of songs from Galway and Mayo in 1932. Galway composer Carl Hession said that it was one of the first collections of Irish songs which included the text and music as well as translations and notes. Carl included several songs in his album: Ceol Inné Ceol Inniu.


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