A sovereign people? Lessons from history

Opinion: Co-ops, Gaelic League and Literary Theatre led the way in ‘self-help’ movements

A few years ago, our leaders talked about a mysterious entity called “the sovereign”, denoting not a monarch but an idea of the supreme legal authority of an independent state. In more recent years, the buzzword is “receivership”.

But this is an old story. Students of Gaelic poetry may remember lyrics in which a young prince met a woman who promised him the sovereignty of Ireland, if he passed a few stress-tests. Like sleeping with her. She wasn’t pretty but if he did the necessary, she would walk again like a lovely young queen.

There was a linked story, sometimes called an aisling. A wan, debilitated Irish lass could be brought back to vivid life by means of a deliverer from overseas – Jacobite king or French forces or American money (it varied over time).

Seán Ó Mórdha's documentary A Sovereign People (to which I've contributed) shows that by the 1890s the debate had changed. The failure of Westminster to deliver a promised form of Home Rule in 1893 led many Irish people to conclude that sovereignty was not something to be given or withheld at the pleasure of overseas bureaucrats: it was something that people must take unto themselves as of right.


Hence the “self-help” movements of subsequent years. The Co-ops were designed to revitalise a moribund, under-capitalised agriculture; the Literary Theatre (later the Abbey) was created to tell the national story; and the Gaelic League was founded to revive Irish. The league also initiated the St Patrick’s Day parades, emphasising the link between industrial production and cultural self-belief. A little later came Sinn Féin (meaning “ourselves”).

Reforms to local government did no harm either, as communities were galvanised. Democracy seemed to blossom. In the Abbey Theatre or in the Gaelic League, aristocratic ladies (Augusta Gregory, Edith Somerville) often mixed on a basis of equality with working men (Edward Keegan, Sean O’Casey). A whole people sensed a renewed capacity to rewrite the script of its own life.

The authorities, at first, were smart enough to adjust – to investigate the causes of poverty in the west, to tackle the scourge of emigration, to recognise the Irish language in the educational curriculum.

Radical texts
Some of the Gaelic texts studied were unashamedly aristocratic, extolling ancient warrior elites and dissing such new-fangled institutions as "parliaments". But others were deeply radical. The Midnight Court (a poem by Brian Merriman from the late 18th century) suggested that a secret convocation of women might right the wrongs of society. Something of that idea would be recycled in the revolutionary edicts of the first Dáil of 1919, a virtual parliament set up within the shell of a still-existing imperial scheme.

Three decades before that date, the Anglo-Irish had begun to lose power as well as land. One of their leading intellectuals, Standish J O’Grady, predicted the future with piercing if troubling accuracy. He said that a literary movement (“not very important”) would be followed by a political movement (“not very important”) – “and then must come a military movement, that will be important indeed”.

This prophecy was fulfilled, as military force trumped not only civic democracy but also cultural revival.

Interned in a British jail after joining the war against the British, Colm O Gaora from Ros Muc offered to teach his fellow rebels some Irish. Many refused his offer and he realised sadly even then that the “cúpla focail” would suffice for most leaders of the emerging new state.

The militarists won out. By 1916 there were three private armies – UVF, Citizen Army, Volunteers – all contending for sovereignty. And there was the army of occupation. The British, distracted by a major war elsewhere, did so little to promote democratic politics that they lost dominion over most of the island.

Yet much of the preceding debate on the island had centred on a rather Protestant ethic: the notion of self-help. Loyalists, believing themselves more industrious than “priest-ridden” southerners, wanted no part of an independent republic.

On the other hand, as PJ Mathews has shown in his magisterial book Revival , many of the shapers of Gaelic League, Abbey Theatre and Co-ops were Protestant. Those who argued a separatist case (from Bulmer Hobson to WB Yeats) often linked ideals of self-election to those of self-government.

They were doing what the English themselves had done in their own revolution of 1688. Asked for the meaning of those dreaded words Sinn Féin, Bernard Shaw laughed and said “it’s simply the Irish for John Bull”.

Are there current analogies? Ó Mordha does not say and every person who watches his documentary will have a personal response ­ – so here’s a thought. A hundred years ago, the dreams of civic leaders across Europe – combining material comfort with cultural freedom – died in the trenches of the first World War, when a whole generation was condemned to death and trauma by unelected generals. Today, we find that what little sovereignty many nations enjoyed in the intervening century has been eroded by unelected bureaucrats, who have condemned the youth of peripheral Europe to mass unemployment.

The ideal of an alternative modernity – in which civil democracy and cultural values act as an ethical brake on piratical financial interests – has again been lost. Now, as in 1914, economics trumps politics and culture. Then, the blow was dealt by militarists; now, the pain is inflicted by ratings agencies and the bankers whom they serve. “Gallant allies in Europe” indeed.

Imperial subjugation
More than 100 years ago, young people all over the world decided that they did not wish to live any longer as imperial subjects. They wished instead for a democratic society in which culture, politics and economics served human needs. Now their great-grandchildren are having second thoughts about being forever subject to the hidden hand of markets. Some have turned to narrow nationalism for comfort; others to a more open exploration.

The question is still the same – how can people have the material benefits of modernity without any major cost to their cultural or political rights? A positive answer will call for the sort of originality once displayed by Yeats and Gregory, Griffith and Joyce, but it would be of supreme interest now, as then, to a suffering wider world.

Declan Kiberd is the author of Inventing Ireland and teaches at the University of Notre Dame. He is a contributor to Seán Ó Mórdha's documentary A Sovereign People: The Story of the Irish Revolution , RTÉ One, 10.15pm tonight