The first organised effort made to arrest this decay of the language was that of the ” Society for the Preservation of the Irish Language,” which still exists. In 1876 when the last of the ” literary ” societies—the ” Ossianic ” and the ” Irish Archaeological”—had ceased -to operate, this society was founded. It produced a useful series of primers, published a few texts, and, in 1878, succeeded in obtaining a place for the language on the programme of the ” national ” schools. But creditable as were it* either its methods were ineffective or the conditions of the time , it was the period of the fierce Land League agitation), were adverse and its direct influence was slight.
The ”Gaelic Union”: The ”Gaelic Journal.”—The more active the members of the ” Preservation” society became dissatisfied with its methods, and determined to establish a more active organisation. This they did by creating the ”Gaelic Union” in 1880. Its most useful work was the establishment of the ”Gaelic Journal” in 1882, a periodical which was at once scholarly and propagandist, and it also instituted a system of prizes in the ”national” schools for the teaching of Irish. But even this society failed to attract public attention; it soon practically ceased to operate, and eventually became merged in the ”Gaelic League.”
The Gaelic League Founded.—In 1891 the Rev. Eugene O’Growney, who was appointed in the same year as Professor of Irish in Maynooth College, became editor of the ”Gaelic Journal.” Active and enthusiastic, he got into close touch with all who took an interest in the language. Prominent amongst these were two new men who had not been identified with any society—Dr. Douglas Hyde, the son of a Roscommon clergyman and a graduate of Trinity College, and John (or Eoin) MacNeill, a civil servant from County Antrim, and a graduate of the Royal University. These three were the moving spirits in the foundation of a new society. This was the ”Gaelic League,” which was formed on 31st July, 1893, at a meeting attended by only nine persons, possessed of no public influence. The object of the League, it was declared, was ”to keep the Irish language spoken in Ireland.” Dr. Hyde was the first President, a position which he held for twenty-two years.
The State of the Language.—There was, in truth, desperate need for some effort if the Irish language were not to disappear. The census of 1891 returned less than 700,000 speakers of Irish as compared with 1,500,000 thirty years before. These were crowded into congested districts, so that the area they occupied was comparatively small. It was not a compact area, but stretched in a narrow belt around the western coast from Waterford to Derry, with some isolated districts in the north This belt was interrupted by towns and villages which were centres of ”Anglicising” influence in which the professional, official, and business classes ignored the language of the people. The people themselves had no active interest in the language, but, on the contrary, were too often ashamed of it, or even hostile to it because of its use by proselytising societies.
In the rest of the country—five-sixths of the island—the Irish language did not exist: spoken Irish was never heard; printed Irish was never seen; its literary use was almost unknown. In the Universities it was ignored; in the Intermediate schools a few students studied it as a dead language; in the ”national” schools it was taught-in only fifty schools, nearly all of which were situated in four counties.